On Sunday July 10, Miami reliever Dustin McGowan retired Ramon Cabrera on a routine groundout, closing out a ho-hum 7-3 win and a series sweep for the Marlins. The Reds record stood at 32-57, a dismal 25 games below .500. The All-Star break provided a merciful interruption to their dreary slide into baseball’s cellar. Joey Votto was hitting .250 and Billy Hamilton’s on-base percentage stood at .283. Homer Bailey was still rehabbing.
As the players and coaches took refuge across the country, it’s hard to imagine any of them expected what was to come. Their fans certainly didn’t.
The following Friday it started with a 5-4 win over Milwaukee. Two days later, they won the series with a 1-0 walk-off victory. Billy Hamilton scored the game’s only run on a passed ball. The Reds followed with series wins against Atlanta and Arizona. The club took their talents on the road and beat the first-place San Francisco Giants at AT&T and the San Diego Padres at Petco Field. They returned home and took 2-out-of-3 from the St. Louis Cardinals. After two narrow series losses in Pittsburgh and St. Louis, the Reds again beat the Brewers and put together a 5-game winning streak against Miami and the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Six weeks after the discouraging end to the season’s first half , the Reds had won eight of ten series and 21 of 33 games. Their overall record stood at 53-69. And it wasn’t all against the Atlantas of the league. The Reds were 9-6 against teams competing for NL postseason slots. That’s a winning record.
Votto had raised his batting average to .307. Hamilton had jumped his OBP to .326. Four starts into Bailey’s season, his SIERA stood at 2.96.
It was a glorious run of much better baseball.
But what, if anything, does the surprising Reds performance those six weeks mean about the future? To make sense of those 33 games, we need to sort out the real from ephemeral. Then we can look to see if anything that went right matters long-term.
Prior to the All-Star break, the Reds had scored 4.22 runs/game. For the six weeks after the break, the club hit better, drew more walks, swung at fewer pitches outside the strike zone and struck out less. They did not hit with more power. We know these things because of the beautiful numbers in the EBO (Era of Bridled Optimism) column of this chart:
Prior to the All-Star break, the Reds offense produced runs at a rate 20 percent below league average. During the recent surge, they were 5 percent above.
Did you hear that? The Reds offense was better than average!
Run scoring during the six weeks was 5.21 r/g, an increase of one run per game. Remember that, one run more per game.
Run prevention is based on a combination of pitching and defense. Prior to the All-Star break, the Reds gave up 5.96 runs/game. During the next six weeks, they struck out more batters, walked fewer, induced more ground balls, had better luck wth home runs, gave up fewer hard-hit balls and caused more swings-and-misses. Here’s another sexy chart, try not to faint:
National League second-half SIERA is 4.20. (Remember, SIERA is on the same scale as ERA, just less prone to a bunch of factors extraneous to what the pitcher actually does. SIERA is the smart cousin of ERA.)
For those six weeks, Reds pitchers were a full quarter-run better than NL average. That’s actually a lot.
Better than average in pitching, too!
The pitching BABIP (batting average on balls in play) dropped from .291 to .281. League average is .297. One reason the Reds BABIP is below league average is their defense. They convert more hit balls into outs than all but seven other teams. That stat is called Defensive Efficiency and it simply measures the percent of balls put into play that the team converts into outs. The Reds rank #8 in MLB in Defensive Efficiency. Other things equal, defensive efficiency lowers team BABIP.
Note: It’s hard to disentangle pitching from defense, especially if you believe good pitching produces weaker contact. Soft-hit baseballs are easier to field.
During the good run, the Reds pitcher BABIP was just .281. That lower number may be due to the team playing better defense or to good luck. Monthly splits for defensive data are scarce. What does exist indicates the Reds defense may be have been a little sharper the past six weeks. Either way, lower BABIP meant more runners stranded on base and fewer runs given up.
The Reds gave up 3.67 runs/game during the six weeks of fun baseball, more than two runs lower than the period before the All-Star Game. Two runs lower.
To summarize, the offense scored one more run per game and the team gave up two fewer runs per game. With runs being a common metric, we can conclude that roughly two-thirds of the difference between the first half the season and the next six weeks can be attributed to run prevention.
Starting vs. Relieving
We can break the pitching down further, identifying the relative contributions of the starting rotation compared to the bullpen. First, here’s the data for the starting pitchers:
The starters during those six weeks had more strikeouts and many fewer walks. More swinging strikes. Even with a higher BABIP, their SIERA (which neutralizes BABIP variance) fell by almost a run.
Here’s the same data for the relievers:
The relievers had more strikeouts, fewer walks, a great ground ball rate and induced more swings-and-misses. The BABIP indicates they’ve been lucky, but FIP, xFIP and SIERA correct for that and a sizable improvement remains after that adjustment.
So how do the relative contributions of the starters and relievers compare during the six-weeks of good times?
The starters improved their SIERA by .85 runs. The relievers subtracted 1.06 runs over the same period. If you multiply those increments by the collective innings pitched (180 for starters, 113 for relievers) the starters end up with a slightly larger impact.
At a team-unit levels, the hitters, starters and relievers all deserve roughly a third of the credit for the nice six-week run. Throw in a smidgen for defense.
Within those parameters, let’s look to see which players in each unit contributed the most. To do that for the hitters, we’ll use two meta-metrics – runs created, adjusted for ballpark (wRC+) and wins above replacement (WAR). Here is the chart for wRC+:
wRC+ is a rate stat that factors in the offensive contribution for all hitting outcomes. It weights each event (single, home run, walk) based on the runs those outcomes have contributed across baseball in 2016. A wRC+ of 100 is average. This metric does not include base running or defense. It measures what the hitter does in the batter’s box.
During the six weeks after the All-Star break, Joey Votto produced an astronomical 226 wRC+. To give you context for that, Bryce Harper had one of the highest single-season wRC+ numbers when he led MLB with 198 last year. Andrew McCutchen had the highest wRC+ in 2014 at 169. Barry Bonds averaged 225 from 2001-04. Votto’s number is cartoonish. In a good way.
Brandon Phillips had the second largest gain in wRC+ from the first half to the second. Before the All-Star Game he produced at 26 percent below league average. For the six weeks, he was 40 percent above. Billy Hamilton and Eugenio Suarez were the other major contributors.
The measure of WAR used here (from FanGraphs) includes offense, base running and defense. Another chart!
Important (really important): WAR is a counting stat, like home runs. There were 14 weeks before the ASG compared to just six in the period of warm feelings. You would expect higher counting stats for the first period. That makes certain Reds numbers during the last six weeks all the more remarkable.
Joey Votto produced more than twice as much in the last six weeks as the first 3.5 months. Brandon Phillips’ increase in WAR was almost equal to Votto’s. Billy Hamilton had the second-highest absolute WAR in the EBO column. His jump from the first half was impressive, but not quite as big as Phillips or Votto. Suarez also showed improvement, although at a lower tier than the other three.
Comparing the pitchers from the first half to the six weeks after the break is more complicated because there were significant changes in the pitching staff between the two periods and during the first half itself. We’ll focus our attention on the major contributors, but keep in mind the prevalence of minor contributors is an important factor because their (horrible) starts add up.
The Reds used twelve (!) starting pitchers before the All-Star Game. The four who received double-digit starts were Dan Straily (16), John Lamb (13), Brandon Finnegan (18) and Alfredo Simon (11). Raisel Iglesias, Anthony DeSclafani, Cody Reed and Jon Moscot had 5-6 starts.
During the six weeks after the break, five pitchers got almost all the starts: DeSclafani (7), Straily (7), Finnegan (7), Cody Reed (5) and Homer Bailey (5).
DeSclafani basically replaced Alfredo Simon in mid-June. Homer Bailey took the place of John Lamb in late July. Finnegan, Reed and Straily pitched throughout.
It’s pretty easy to identify where the improved starting pitching came from during the recent winning period:
Anthony Desclafani was an enormous improvement over Alfredo Simon. Almost as big was the difference between Homer Bailey and John Lamb. Dan Straily improved his own SIERA by a run. Brandon Finnegan was a little more than half a run better. Cody Reed was a run worse.
The analysis of what improved in the bullpen is unchanged from a month ago (Fun with Bullpen Narratives) except for one thing, which we’ll get to in a second. The bullpen got dramatically better when Raisel Iglesias and Michael Lorenzen replaced J.J. Hoover and the collection of other failed relievers (Steve Delebar, Caleb Cotham, Dayan Diaz, etc.) in mid-to-late June.
Iglesias and Lorenzen continued to sparkle. During the six-week stretch, their SIERAs were 2.99 and 2.44 respectively. Those are fabulous. It’s really hard to lower SIERA that far.
Here’s the one new thing we can say. Add Blake Wood to the list of major contributors. His SIERA fell from 4.48 in the first half to 2.54 the past six weeks.
Ross Ohlendorf and Tony Cingrani performed about the same.
About this exercise: It’s backward looking. 33 games of data isn’t enough to draw conclusions about the future. All we’ve done is dissect the six wonderful weeks of winning baseball by the Reds. The factors we’ve isolated and identified that explain why they were better after the ASG may not continue. For example, the Reds could turn around and, oh, I don’t know, lose 18-9 to the Dodgers while you’re writing a post saying how good things have been.
Warning: Extrapolate good feelings at your own risk.
On the hitting side, four Reds position players – Votto, Phillips, Hamilton and Suarez – hit much better than they had before the ASG. They, plus a few weeks of Jay Bruuuuuuuce, fueled the offense.
Four Reds pitchers – Lorenzen, Bailey, DeSclafani and Iglesias – got healthy and were given large roles. They replaced vastly worse players. This, plus better pitching by Wood, Finnegan and Straily, created an above average pitching staff.
Does that mean anything for the future?
If you’re asking what this means for the Reds record the rest of the season, you’re asking the wrong question.
What matters is what the six weeks say about 2017 and beyond. Collective team production from 2016 like win-loss record, team ERA and team batting average while fun to follow, is useless in predicting the future. Because, by “future” we mean 2017 and beyond, not next month. The team’s roster will change considerably by Opening Day 2017. Keep your eye on individual performances, not team numbers. (The one person who is most concerned about team performance is Bryan Price, but that’s a post for another time.)
Thoughts about individual performances during the six-weeks of winning:
• Joey Votto is still pretty good at hitting the baseball. Yes, he’s about to turn 33. The laws of aging apply to him as well. But the past couple months provide evidence that he’s a long way from decline. Last year, his age 31 season, may have been the best of his career. Joey Votto will be the team’s best hitter in 2018. He might still be a 4-WAR player.
• Billy Hamilton’s last month has been a positive outlier for him, but there’s reason to hope it’s the new Hamilnorm. His approach to the plate seems more mature. More walks, fewer soft-hit balls. Hamilton is about to turn 26 (his birthday is the day before Votto’s) and enter arbitration. The front office loves speedy base runners, so Billy will stick around even after his stolen bases and centerfield defense become more expensive. Keep your eye on his walk-rate.
• Brandon Phillips won’t be around in 2018 and maybe not in 2017. If his resurgence continues for a while longer, his offense might make him trade-worthy again. Moving Phillips (and Zack Cozart) in the off-season would send the Rebuild into hyperspace.
• Eugenio Suarez has been streaky at the plate during his two seasons with the Reds. If Suarez can produce wRC+ months of 125 to offset the ones below 100, he might yet turn into an above average hitter for a 3B. He’s 10 percent short of that now. Suarez just turned 25. Your guess is as good as mine where he plays in a post-Senzel world. He’d be a heckuva utility IF and bat off the bench.
• Anthony DeSclafani, Homer Bailey, Raisel Iglesias and Michael Lorenzen will be around for many years. High degree of confidence they’ll be four important names in 2018. Elbow and shoulder health willing. More than any other component of the six-week window of success, they represent real hope.
• Dan Straily, Blake Wood and Brandon Finnegan are three more names that could make a 2018 pitching staff and beyond. Each comes with question marks, though.
The great thing about baseball is we may have an entirely different list of breakthrough players to talk about after the next six weeks.