A Minors Obsession

Spring battles: The rotation

By the time this article shows up next week, pitchers and catchers will have reported to spring training in Goodyear, Arizona. And how sweet it will be. Over the next few weeks I will look at a few spots where minor leaguers may be fighting for spots on the roster.

Today we will start out by looking at the fifth spot in the rotation. It would appear that the number one through four spots are locked up by Homer Bailey, Anthony DeSclafani, Brandon Finnegan and Scott Feldman. The Reds have recently agreed to a deal with Bronson Arroyo, though I’m sure that anyone in the organization would much rather one of the young kids win the spot as it would show that they were more ready to handle the job.

The Players

There are three guys who would seem to have a real shot. Right hander Robert Stephenson and left handers Cody Reed and Amir Garrett. For team control reasons, it would seem that Garrett would have to clearly outperform the rest of the field to win the job. Keeping him down for even two weeks would give the organization another full year of control. Keeping him down for two months would likely give the team the opportunity of keeping him from being a Super 2 eligible player. With both Reed and Stephenson having big league action last season, they would both have to remain in the minor leagues for nearly half of the season to keep those same kinds of benefits.

What do they need to show in the spring to get the job?

We will start out with the player that I believe is the favorite heading into spring, Cody Reed. When it comes to the three players, Cody Reed’s time in Triple-A is significantly better than the other two. He has, easily, the lowest walk rate, and his strikeout rate is also the best of the group. It was the time in the big leagues that was a struggle last year for Reed. His walk rate jumped up, but his strikeout rate was still good. What really did him in was keeping the baseball in the ballpark – he allowed 12 home runs in 47.2 innings pitched. For Reed, that’s the biggest thing he’s going to need to work on.

Among pitchers with at least 40.0 innings pitched last year, his HR/FB rate was the worst in baseball at 28%. The league average tends to be around 11% – so he was nearly three times as likely to see a fly ball go over the fence as an average pitcher. That’s highly unlikely to continue simply because it doesn’t make sense to remain that high, but he’s going to need to actually show improvement there. Getting his walk rate down to where it was in the minor leagues would also help, but that was far from his biggest problem.

Robert Stephenson has arguably the best arm of anyone in the organization. When he’s at his best, he’s showing three plus pitches. Not many guys have two of those, much less three. Much like Cody Reed, he had problems keeping the baseball in the ballpark. He allowed nine homers in 37.0 innings in the big leagues, but it’s been the walk rate that’s been a real problem for him over the last three seasons. If he’s going to get a real chance out of spring training he’s going to need to show that he can throw strikes and do so consistently.

Amir Garrett is in a similar position as Stephenson. His walk rate in Triple-A jumped up over 4.0 batters per 9-innings pitched and his strikeout rate dropped down to 7.2. You’d like to see better rates in both categories. Given that he’s got the least amount of experience in Triple-A and none in the Majors, he’s going to have to really dominate if he’s going to take the job from either of the other two guys (or another option).

If we were handicapping these three players, the favorite would have to be Cody Reed. He’s the only one who didn’t have problems with the strikezone while in Triple-A. Robert Stephenson would come next in line, but with significantly lesser odds. His struggles with control in the past put him behind Reed here. Garrett’s service time and lack of experience compared to the others make him a big time long shot here.

50 thoughts on “Spring battles: The rotation

  1. I guess you’re not too high on Adleman. Is he in the bullpen or pitching in Louisville? No scenario of 2 of Reed, Stephenson or Garrett making the starting 5 and Feldman to the bullpen? I’m hoping for Reed and Stephenson to pitch so well in ST that they both make the rotation. Garrett to begin the season in Louisville for control year purposes.

    • Strictly speculation on my part and no evidence but I get the feeling based on what Price and Williams said about Feldman, that he was promised a rotation job that was his to lose, as part of his contract negotiation. It probably isn’t in writing but there’s probably a gentleman’s agreement in place.

  2. Based on service time considerations, injuries and innings limits I suspect that we will see all 7 pitchers mentioned in the article make starts this season.

  3. One of the things that needs to be acknowledged with Garrett is that he tends to have periodic “blow out” starts that drag down his numbers. LOTS of his walks come in these starts. But he’ll often have a month (or close to it) of excellent starts between them. The bad starts happen when he gets mechanically out of whack and it has been clearly expressed to me that he is VERY coachable and quick to correct his problems.

    Stephenson, on the other hand, has the exact same control issues every start.

    This is why I continue to rank Garrett on a level above Stephenson and his ceiling above Reed.

  4. I would love to know what Cody Reed (and to a lesser extent, Bob Steve) has been doing in the offseason to get better.

    You can say that Reed was unlucky, but you can also say that Reed left too many balls up in the zone.

    Bob Steve? It’s the control issues. When your AAA manager basically calls you out because you can’t (won’t?) keep the ball in the zone, that’s a big red flag.

    I hope both of these players have been working hard, and not assuming that they have a spot.

    • Reed was really, really, really unlucky. Like, the average player that hit against him last year was the most efficient home run hitter in history, by math and stuff. That makes no sense, therefore, it is unsustainable! 😉

      • Been a lot of “bad luck” around here lately. (Injuries, outlying stats) Would love to see players create their own luck.

        If Reed improves his swing and miss rate, his home runs allowed would almost certainly have to go down. That’s what I’m talking about.

        • “Luck” means “variance.”

          If you threw 10 pitches down the middle to prime Barry Bonds, he would hit how many homers? 5? What if he hit 4? What if he hit 6?

          The pitcher isn’t a worse pitcher if Bonds hits 5 or if Bonds hits 6.

          Variance.

        • Bonds? Probably more like 9. He did not miss hitting strikes and his zone was so small with his stardom and the armor that he wore.

          There would not be much statistical variance in the scenario with Bonds

          Chose another player and your point will be made

        • I think you are way, way over-romanticizing what you saw in Bonds.

          Guys don’t even hit 9 of 10 pitches out in Home Run Derby, and they know what is coming.

        • A meatball is what is coming in the HR Derby. Not a competitive situation.

          Variance kept Hoover in the bullpen. Reed is a better pitcher than Hoover, and I’m buying Doug’s contention that the HR rate is a small sample size anomaly. His minor league stats don’t show a proclivity for giving up the long ball.

          • We’ll see. Reed sure looked like a BP thrower last year. He needs to step it up, variance be damned.

      • Reed looked very very very hitable last year.

        I agree with Jesse above; would love to know what these guys have been doing in the offseason to make a difference in 2017.

        If you were Dan Stailey in 2016 you saw your career hanging by a thread and headed out to Seattle to improve your offerings.

        If you were Tony Cingrani in 2017 you saw your career hanging by a thread and headed out to Seattle to improve your offerings.

        I see 3 guys listed in this article that probably should have booked some time in the Emerald City as well

  5. Doug, the homeruns allowed in MLB innings pitched by Reed and Stevenson really scare my, considering the small ballpark factor. I realize that these are small sample size, but still alarming. And the BB rates are equally disturbing. I wonder if these two pitchers might be better off relieving at the MLB level, too force them to throw strikes (hopefully) and utilizing their best two pitches. I’m not suggesting that they stay in relief forever, just until they can throw a couple of pitches for strikes consistently. I think, a la Jason, that Garrett looks to be the best of the three, but they will probably keep him in triple a until he passes super two status. As mentioned above, I hope that they give Adleman a look at making the team.

    • The small sample really, really matters. Really a lot. With Reed,e specially because his ML numbers are completely divergent from his MiLB numbers. As Patrick points out, a home run rate like that is literally impossible over the long term. It’d be like a player with an OBP of .600. Sure, it can happen in short bursts, but not over the long haul.

      Reed had some issues, sure. But he also had a lot of bad luck. It happens.

      Stephenson’s issues have a long track record. He needs to walk fewer people. This has been a known issues since he was drafted and it hasn’t improved.

      • If it hasn’t improved, will it ever improve? Are there examples of top prospect pitchers who had the switch turn on and figured out their control issues?

        Because Bob Steve would have been a nice trade chip back when the Reds were “all-in,” or even in 2014-15.

        I dislike pitchers who can’t throw strikes, and am happy to cut bait on Bob Steve, seeing as how there are other capable options.

        • Jesse, I have 20/20 hindsight too. But did you really think the reds would trade Stevenson 3 or 4 years ago when he was the top prospect in their system?

          • Top prospect with significant control issues.

            I (Me) would have traded him to get that one extra bat in 2013 and 2014. Because he was a prospect, and not all prospects pan out. See Howard, Nick.

            But I understand why the FO of Jocketty et al wouldn’t trade Bob Steve because he was “a top prospect”

            And now he’s a very ordinary pitcher with some high upside, IF he fixes his control problems, which he hasn’t been able to do yet – given significant time.

            I think control issues, like low OBP/High K for batters, are a big red flag. And if a prospect consistently displays these, with little improvement, then all the talent in the would wouldn’t make me want to keep him.

        • Realistically, how much could the Reds have expected for Stephenson? He was (is) a prospect, not a proven MLB starter, and his control issues were no secret.

        • Pretty much every pitching prospect who turned into a good major leaguer improved their command. So, take the top 1-2 pitchers on every roster and this applies to probably one or the other.

          I agree on Bob Steve. I don’t think he’ll ever get better, and the best we can hope for is a bullpen arm that can throw hard (maybe).

    • Or, put more simply, xFIP is a much, much better predictor of future ERA than ERA is (I know, it’s counter-intuitive, but the studies are pretty solid here), this is especially true in pitchers with relatively little MLB time. Reed’s xFIP was 4.20 last year. Not great, but certainly not a disaster.

  6. Good article Doug. I think the three pitchers discussed will really tell the story of the rebuild in a lot of ways. Yes the Reds need a lot of pieces, but you cannot compete for a Division, let alone a World Series, with zero elite pitching, and right now that’s where the Reds are.

    If two of those guys can become top of the rotation starters (or someone else in the system, they seem the most likely but I still wouldn’t rule out Iglesias) the Reds will be in business. If not, this rebuild/reboot probably will stall out at some point short of real contention.

    Put another way, the difference between a rotation like this:

    #1
    #2
    Disco
    Finnegan
    Bailey

    and a rotation like this:

    Disco
    Finnegan
    Bailey
    Addelman
    Arroyo

    is probably at least 15 wins, if not more.

  7. I understand what statistics mean. I also actually watched a lot of games that Cody Reed pitched in.
    His location in the strike zone is not good. He throws a lot of pitches in the upper part of the zone, He gets a lot of swings and misses, and he also gives up some hard contact when hitters put the bat on the ball on those pitches up in the zone.
    He has a good slider…at times. Other times, his slider just spins up there and gets hammered. It wasn’t just the home runs. He gave up a LOT of hard hit balls for outs in his starts.

    He worked fast, which may be good. But I think he wanted to maintain a rhythm in pitching, and was not concentrating hard enough on actual execution of his pitches. Hence fast balls in the good hitting area, and sliders that did not always move well. What was successful with a majority of hitters in AAA was getting hammered in the Majors.

    I really don’t know what the prognosis for Reed is. Will his control and location be better? If his pitch location does not improve, I would expect a lot of the same that occurred last summer. This was not just a case of bad luck and small sample size.

    • The good thing about stats is that they don’t lie like your eyes do.

      I give this example above…

      If Reed throws 10 pitches down the middle to prime Barry Bonds, how many homers does he hit? 4? 5? 6? The answer to that question does not inform the skill of the pitcher. If Bonds hits 4 or he hits 6, Reed is the same pitcher.

      There is variance in all batted ball types. Reed gave up more like 6 homers in those 10 pitches. But, next time he faces Bonds, he could give up 4 homers.

      • 4 home runs out of ten pitches is still very bad for a pitcher to give up, variance be damned.

        • True, but that’s not the point. The point is Reed giving up a ton of homers (or very few) does not change the pitcher he is.

          • ??? If he gives up a ton of homers, he’s a bad pitcher. I must be missing something.

            If Reed pitches this season the way he did last season? I don’t think that would be a good thing. He threw too many balls up in the zone. The point isn’t that an unlikely amount of those fat pitches were tattooed, but rather that there were too many of those fat pitches.

      • Stats don’t lie directly, but when they measure an insignificant factor, they lie by misdirection. We see this in politics all of the time. I understand and agree with your point about whether Bonds hits 4 or 6 homers, but an additional issue is why is the hypothetical Reed throwing 10 pitches down the middle to Bonds, unless he knows that Bonds stopped taking his PEDs a long time ago and is just another 39 year-old has-been? This question speaks to command, without which no pitcher is going to be very good. It doesn’t bode well for Stephenson that he hasn’t developed it, but he’s young, as is Reed.

  8. R. Stephenson’s stock has fallen precipitously for over a year. I’ve been sounding the drum hard to trade him before his value plummets further. His velocity is down as well. I was amazed that he is still ranked in the top-100 prospects in baseball. Barely though. It may be too late to trade Stephenson now, unless it is in a package deal with other top prospects. Stephenson started a trend of first round flame outs that started in 2011. Winker (2012) and Lorenzen (2013) are the only two 1st round picks since the 2011 draft, not counting the 2016 draft, to amount to anything. And both were 1st round /supplemental picks at that.
    Travieso is behind schedule on his development. Ervin can’t hit above .240. Howard is the very definition of a bust. Blandino hit the wall like a NASCAR race car in his development before he even got hurt last year. And T. Stephenson should have the nickname of DL.
    Reed is the only hope to win a rotation spot out of spring training. We won’t see Garrett until sometime after June 1. If an injury were to pop up before June 1, then Adelman is there to fill in.
    To rely or count on R. Stephenson for a rotation spot is fool’s gold.

    • WV, you are talking about 5 drafts. I don’t know the stats, but I’d be a little surprised if many teams were more than 40% successful (and I’m confident that somebody will correct me if I’m wrong). Also, not all of the guys you identify as busts are necessarily done learning/developing. C’mon, pitchers and catchers report soon. A little optimism please.

      • I am not saying all are busts yet, they are just not advancing the way you would like for a rebuilding team with multiple opportunities. Those drafts aren’t necessarily contributing to the next contending team. Other than Winker and Lorenzen as mentioned.
        Lets run through the diamond. At 1B is Votto drafted in 2002, 2B-BP/Herrera, both obtained in trades a decade apart, SS-Cozart (2007) and Peraza obtained by trade, 3B-Suarez, obtained by trade, C-Mez (2007) and Barnhart (2009), LF-Duvall, obtained by trade, CF-BHam (2009), RF-Schebler, obtained by trade. In the rotation, Bailey (2004), DeSclafani, obtained by trade, Finnegan, obtained by trade, Feldman, free agent, and Reed, obtained by trade. In the bullpen Cingrani and Stephenson (both 2011), Lorenzen (2013), Iglesias free agent, Wood free agent, Storen free agent, and Brice, obtained by trade.
        While many MLB teams are reaping the benefits of their 2011-2014 drafts, the Reds are not. These bad drafts made the Re-build necessary. They developed very little from these drafts. 2015 shouldn’t really be considered a bad draft and 2016 might have been their best draft ever. After the 2014 draft, other than draft positioning, something else changed in the Reds drafting.

        • Thank Uncle Walt for those drafts. He had the same luck with the Cardinals!

        • Point taken, WV, but I’m still curious about whether the Reds experience is much different from most teams. Nobody fields a team composed entirely of their own draft choices, and, Dewey, it’s worth remembering that , for a number of years, the Cardinals have been very good, including some of the years of WJ’s tenure.

    • Reds could’ve drafted a guy with higher upside (Giolito), albeit with TJ concerns, but didn’t. The Nats snagged Giolito 1 pick after Reds took Travieso.

  9. It is reasonable to assume that Reed’s HR/FB rate should start regressing to the mean but there is one thing that I’m not sure that gets factored into that. It has been shown that pitchers generally can’t control their HR/FB ratios although a few seem to be able to do a little better or seem to do a little worse than what’s considered normal. The thing I’m wondering about though is this. Does the fact that bad pitchers who have maintained a much higher HR/FB rate than what’s expected, wind up not pitching in MLB very long? Their small samples, even added together wouldn’t skew the overall HR/FB mean or average much.

    That being said, there is almost no way that Reed’s HR/FB rate will stay as high as it is. He would be about the worst all time if he were to continue with such a bad ratio for another 15-20 starts.

    • Brain got ahead of my hands… Does the fact that bad pitchers who have maintained a much higher HR/FB rate than what is to be expected, tend to not pitch in MLB too long; and therefore, might their poor performances not skew the numbers too much considering they represent a small sample?

  10. If for some reason that the 3 mentioned above falter or are not available early on this season, there is Big Sal Romano waiting in the wings at #4. I hope we get to see Big Sal pitch for the Reds later on in 2017.
    In August a rotation that has Reed, Garrett and Big Sal might be a spring board for 2018.

  11. I read somewhere last year that from a scout’s point of view, Reed had an arm slot and delivery that made it very easy for a right-handed hitter to see and time. (He yielded a .782 OPS v. LH and a 1.022 v. RH.)

    After seeing that, I watched Madison Bumgarner in the playoffs. He is also 6’5″ and has an almost identical arm slot as Reed. But Bumgarner reaches far with his glove hand to obscure his left hand. Reed, from video, doesn’t use his glove hand very consistently at all, sometimes keeping it pretty close to his body, and keeping it low out of the stretch. Now, I will concede that I am no pitching coach, and that Reed is unlikely to be Bumgarner, but it does point out that Reed probably just has some mechanical things that got away from him in the majors last year. It probably wouldn’t hurt him to study Bumgarner’s mechanics, even if I’m way off base.

    I can see Garrett being held back 2-3 weeks for years-of-control purposes, but if he is ready, I’d forget the Super-2 issue. First, we don’t even know if that will still be the rule in 6 years. Second, though, if he’s real good, he’s going to get his money, anyway. If he’s league-average, it doesn’t matter. If he’s ready, stick him out there on the bump and don’t play arbitration games with him.

    • Interesting. I saw the same similarities btwn Reed and Bumgarner also this season; and, wondered why Bumgarner got away with pitches up in the zone, whereas Reed looked like he was throwing BP.

  12. Great article…I would argue Reed is the last of the 3… While he pitched great in the minors…He ascended very rapidly… Came from a junior college background with the high profile pedigree and is still young… He clearly wasn’t ready last year…Poise..Maturity…Seasoning..The stuff and mechanics are there. I think the Reds saw that and will give him more time at AAA.

    Stephenson- I have no idea other than the Reds are just as impatient as we are….So if it finally sinks in for him ….He will be on the club. He is overdue.

    Garret is my pick as the #5 starter….Or #4 depending on Homer’s…Mack Jenkins on FSO said he will be given every opportunity and he was the one pitche r who pitched above his level… He is mature,has the physical tools and stuff. He also was quoted as saying he wants that #5 spot…He played big time college basketball and pitched twice in the Futures All star game….I get the service time argument…But I think he will dominate in ST and it’s his time. Rookie of the year in the NL.

  13. I’d rather the reds give stephenson and absolute crack at it this season and see if he figures it out. He has so much potential, they should see if he can put it together in the big leagues. They wont be contending anyway. If he cant get it together over 2-3 months, then Reed and Garret next men up.

  14. The 3 of Reed, Garrett and Stephenson are 24 or 25. This is the age when they should start putting it together. Although there are some pitchers that advance quicker than others, I’ve always used a rule of 1,000 professional innings to gauge whether a starter has shown that they can pitch in the Show.

    • Reed – 380 IP
      Garrett – 496 IP
      Stephenson – 623 IP

      Garrett is the oldest and won’t turn 25 until May. That said, he may be the least experienced due to his splitting time between baseball and basketball.

      Many pitchers struggle at this stage of their careers, only to become quality pitchers. I haven’t soured on any of these guys yet. Give them the innings and provide an opportunity for growth in a season for sorting.

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