Homer Bailey and Johnny Cueto are undoubtedly two of the most successful pitchers in recent Reds history.

The former has tossed two no-hitters — one of only 26 pitchers in baseball history to do so — and the latter is one of the Reds’ all-time greats.

Neither of their careers started out very well, though.

From the time he was selected with the seventh overall pick in the 2004 draft, Bailey was the Reds’ top prospect and was ranked as high as No. 5 in the game by Baseball America. The club put him on the fast track to the major leagues and he debuted three years later at age 21. Rushing him to the big leagues proved to be a poor decision and the right-hander suffered because of it initially. Through the first 78 starts of his career, which took him through the 2011 season, he posted a 4.79 ERA, 4.35 FIP, and a 4.25 xFIP.

But everything came together for him in 2012. Bailey posted his first season with an ERA, FIP, and xFIP below 4.00 and did the same the next two seasons, becoming a key figure in the Reds’ dominant starting rotations in those years. After missing most of 2015 and half of 2016, he’s back and looks to be regaining old form.

Unlike Bailey, Cueto wasn’t a top prospect from the moment he signed with the Reds. But he did start to gain some attention when he dominated three levels of minor-league baseball in 2007. After that season, he was ranked the Reds’ fourth-best prospect and No. 34 in all of baseball. He made the Opening Day roster in 2008, but struggled through his first two seasons, posting a combined 4.61 ERA, 4.79 FIP, and 4.41 xFIP.

Cueto took a step forward in 2010 and really broke out in 2011, posting a 2.51 ERA, 3.34 FIP, and 3.52 xFIP from that point until he was traded away in 2015, becoming one of the top aces in the game.

Like Cueto, Bailey, and many, many, many other young pitchers before him, highly touted prospect Cody Reed has gotten off to a rocky start in his major-league career.

Coming off of a breakout 2015 season, Baseball America named him the Reds’ second-best prospect behind Robert Stephenson and the No. 34 prospect in their top-100 list. The southpaw debuted in June, but was demoted last week after making just 10 starts, only two of which were designated as “quality.”

The team did not win a single game in which he started, as he struggled his way to a 7.36 ERA, 6.06 FIP, and 4.31 xFIP. He also allowed an eye-popping 12 home runs in 47 1/3 innings, over two per nine innings. More than one-fourth of the fly balls he allowed ended up in the seats, with a ridiculous (and unsustainably high) 27.9 percent home run-to-fly ball ratio. This, of course, is the reason we see such a large discrepancy between his FIP and xFIP, as the latter factors in league average HR/FB rate, which is currently 12.9 percent.

As with pretty much all pitchers who struggle, Reed’s problem has been with command. Although his walk rate was right around league average (8.3 percent), he walked at least one batter in nine of his 10 starts and issued multiple free passes in seven outings. Part of his problem is that he was pitching from behind in the count quite a bit, only throwing a first-pitch strike 59.1 percent of the time, more than one percent lower than the league average (60.2%). As the high home-run rates indicate, the rookie missed in the zone a whole lot, too.

Here’s a look at the heat maps for his two primary pitches, the four-seam fastball and the slider:

newplot (13)newplot (12)

On the left is Reed’s fastball, which has been his least effective pitch. The velocity on his four-seamer is solid, averaging 92.8 mph in his 10 starts, per PITCHf/x. Among left-handed starters with 40 or more innings this season, Reed’s average fastball speed is 11th, just 0.1 mph slower than Clayton Kershaw and David Price. The rookie hasn’t had anywhere close to the same success as those two all-stars, however.

A look at the heat map paints a pretty clear picture: Reed simply missed down the heart of the plate far too much, and he paid for it. When putting the pitch into play, opposing batters hit .374 with a .713 slugging percentage, along with an average exit velocity of 91.9 mph. For context, the league average for pitchers is 90.5 mph. Unsurprisingly, of the 12 homers he allowed, 10 came on the heater.

For further illustration of this, the chart below breaks down opposing hitters’ isolated power (slugging percentage – batting average) by zone against Reed’s four-seamer. The results aren’t all that surprising:

Cody Reed FA ISO

Reed didn’t fare much better with the slider, which has been a devastating pitch throughout his professional career. Opponents batted .333 and slugged .508 against it. His control was much more erratic with the slider, missing both too far inside and in the middle of the inner part of the strike zone — a sweet spot for right-handed hitters, in particular.

Here are the ISO charts against Reed’s slider, broken down by batter handedness since the pitch is used differently against the two groups. Unsurprisingly, when the pitch was kept down in the zone, he had success. When he didn’t, well…

Cody Reed SL ISO (LHH)Cody Reed SL ISO

It wasn’t all bad news for Reed, however.

The best pitch for the rookie in his first big-league stint was actually the one that scouts said needed the most work. Although it was his least-used pitch, the change-up proved to be the lefty’s most effective offering, with hitters managing just three singles in the 27 at-bats they put it into play. Even more impressive, his change-up is the only pitch with an above-average swing-and-miss rate:

Reed Whiff Rate League Whiff Rate
4-seam 5.5% 7.6%
Slider 13.1% 15.9%
Change-up 15.8% 15.2%

Another aspect of Reed’s performance to be encouraged about is his ground-ball rate, which was 55.2 percent, according to Statcast data. That number would play very well in the long run, particularly in Great American Ball Park.

While Reed’s first taste of the majors didn’t go the way he, the Reds, or the fans wanted it to go, it’s important to keep things in perspective. He’s only 23 years old and has plenty more learning and developing to do. The talent is there; it’s just a matter of putting it all together against big-league competition. Will he ultimately go on to be the top-of-the-rotation pitcher many think he’s capable of being? Only time will tell. But there’s also no reason to give up on the kid after 10 or 20 or even 50 starts. Just ask Homer Bailey or Johnny Cueto.

20 Responses

  1. Nick Carrington

    Nice, Matt. We so easily forget that most good pitchers struggle early in the Major Leagues. That’s why Reed and Lorenzen are still good starting options for the Reds.

    • gaffer

      Bailey may not be the best example. He has been a league average starter, so hoping Cueto is a better comp.

      • lwblogger2

        Overall, he has actually been a bit below a league average starter. That is however why he is a very good example. In his first 5 seasons, he struggled and was well below a league average starter. These 5 seasons, a few of them compounded by injury issues, have driven down his career performance. He then ripped off 2 seasons of over 200 IP each with ERAs better than league average and adjusted ERAs (ERA+) significantly better than league average. He was on his way to a 3rd such year when injuries hit him again.

        So, in fact, just 2.5 strong years out of going on his 10th year have actually been so good that they’ve driven him to about league average production and slightly above league average production as a starting pitcher. I think that makes Homer a good comp, especially considering his first few years were so rough.

  2. StillRed

    It would be interesting to compare Bailey’s toil to the major leagues and Stephenson’s. They seem to be taking a little more time with Stephenson, but there seems some similarity in terms of learning.

  3. cfd3000

    Thanks for the sanity check, Matt. I still have high hopes for Reed. Confirmation bias, perhaps but this is pretty encouraging. Here’s hoping the Reds are as patient with Reed as they were with Bailey and Cueto.

  4. Scott Carter

    Absolutely True. Fans tend to be on the fickle side. All we heard before he came up was bring him up! Bring Him up! He can’t do any worse than what we have. Then after a few starts. Send him down! Send Him Down! He can’t pitch. I think the Reds did the right thing by Reed by sending him back to Louisville. Give him time he has great stuff, just needs to control it. He pitched 6 inning last night and only gave up two runs. How be it three walks.

  5. ohiojimw

    The chart that shows Reed’s 4 seam fastball pretty much says it all. You can’t regularly put the ball on a tee and not expect MLB hitters to hit it hard and far.

    xFIP replaces the individual pitcher’s HR/FlyBall data with league average HR/FB. I think it is a real stretch to believe that any pitcher with a 4 seam fastball heat chart like Reed’s is ever going to have a HR/FB rate approaching league average.

    What I’d like to see is Reed’s pitch charts for his minor league period from the time he came to the Reds until his promotion to MLB. Was his location better or were the hitters as a group just not as skilled? Knowing that answer might provide some valuable insight into how much work Reed has in front of him to become a passable MLB pitcher.

    • lwblogger2

      Truth is probably somewhere between his FIP and xFIP numbers. Good call.

      Are you going to try to make the RLN Gathering? Would be great to meet you.

      • ohiojimw

        Doesn’t look like I’ll be at the gathering. although I too would like to meet you and most of the other “regulars” here.
        Unfortunately my eyes and dark hours driving in unfamiliar areas don’t mix well at all. Several months ago, I ended up having to make an 80 mile or so run up the I15 freeway from near San Diego to the LA area after sundown. Decided that was it for tempting fate unless it was an emergency or totally unavoidable.

        Maybe somebody could set up Skype et al in the meeting???

  6. WVRedlegs

    I had high expectations for Reed when he was finally called up. Through his struggles he did show some promise.
    The thing I hope Reed doesn’t have in common with Cueto and Bailey is both of them dealt with injuries in their first few seasons. That 2011 season. Yuck. Arroyo had his desert flu and both Bailey and Cueto began the season on the DL.
    What Bailey did in the off-season between the 2011 and 2012 seasons was remarkable. He reported to spring training 15-20 pounds heavier and had noticeably bulked up some.
    This is one thing I hope Reed will have in common with Bailey. I hope Reed does the same this off-season and bulks up a bit. Hopefully he gets his location down better and reports to spring training ready to be the Reds #4 or #5 starter.

    • IndyRedMan

      Yes…I’ve been harping on weight training for some time on here. Jake Arrieta has given much credit for his career turnaround to weights and sticking with fitness programs. Iggy has came back this year bigger and stronger! Lorenzen is almost too big but his results and groundball % is off the charts compared to last year! Its disappointing to see John Lamb so frail and skinny again because he really knows how to pitch if his stuff improved! Disco is another one that is in really good shape and deceptively strong!

      We have the arms to put together a nice pitching staff but have to find out who is willing to be coachable and work hard!

      • lwblogger2

        I don’t always buy what you’re selling when it comes to weight training, especially with Hamilton but I think it’s important with pitchers. Not their arms though. It’s that core strength and leg power that I think can really make the difference for them. Being able to get that leg drive is huge and actually reduces stress on the shoulder and elbow.

      • Steve Mancuso

        Leg strength was one of Homer’s big steps. Following in the path of his Texas idols, Roger Clemons and Nolan Ryan.

  7. ohiojimw

    I was just looking at Reed’s stats on BBRef and saw something interesting to me. In several measures such as ERA, WHIP, BB/9, H/9 his MLB stats look a lot more like his Class A stats than his A+/AA/AAA stats. Only his MLB K/9 rate compares favorably with his high minor league rate.

    What I find beyond interesting to disconcerting that his HR/9 rate went 0.5 at Class A to 0.8 at AAA to 2.3 at MLB.

    • Matt Wilkes

      Well, the good news is his MLB sample size is small and his HR/FB rate is ridiculously high and will come down over time toward the league average. Even the worst pitchers don’t maintain a 27% HR/FB. The bad news is we can’t dismiss his home run rate as entirely bad luck, either. He had trouble locating his pitches and got clobbered for it.

      • ohiojimw

        I agree his HR/FB has to drop some. A possible fallacy in believing it is going to drop to anywhere near the league average (sans major adjustments in pitch location) is that most of the guys who had these high rates weren’t around long enough to mitigate composite rates while Reed is a high profile prospect who will get several shots at the brass ring from the Reds and possibly other teams after them.

        At this point we just have to hope Price’s theory about Reed’s changed grip is on target; and, they get the issue resolved.

  8. IndyRedMan

    Lefty Derek Holland with Texas (pitched last night of course) came up in 2009 when he was 22 and had a 6.12 era w/26 HRs in 138 innings. He went on to be a pretty good #3 level starter from 2011-2013 until he got hurt.

    Plenty of good pitchers got rocked early in their career but its up to Reed to make the adjustments and learn how to pitch. Its obviously not an exact science. I’ve been sort of down on Finnegan all year but suddenly his change-up was awesome the other day! You just hope something clicks and they can put it all together!

  9. The_Next_Janish

    Off topic, but …

    Is there such thing as an ISO heat map based on pitch type and location (even better if a pitch speed slider is available)? I’m sure its possible to do with all the data available now but would be a very complex item to setup; sure redlegnation could do it 🙂

    Be interested to see what surprises we could find in it.

    • Matt Wilkes

      Ask and you shall receive! I’m going to add this to the article because this is a really great illustration of how hard he’s gotten hit when throwing to certain zones. Thanks for bringing that up!

      • The_Next_Janish

        “we’re not worthy” -Thanks! if I didn’t have to study all night I’d probably fall down the rabbit hole of Brooksbaseball. Bringing in what Steve said in another post tonight “home runs are pitched” Yeah you’re going to get whomped throwing a fastball down the center like that. But is he tipping the pitch? Or are all fastballs getting hit with an ISO>1200 … oh Brooksbaseball I want to dig all night.