2017 Reds

Thunder road

After every World Series, we case the promised land looking for a winning formula. We discover that each champion used a unique combination of pitching, hitting and defense; of run prevention and run production.

The bottom line: To hoist pennants, score more runs than you give up.

Teams have to figure out which players they want and which qualities to emphasize and reward. To that end, player skills are studied in minute detail. What is the relative value of speed, contact, plate discipline, power and overall athleticism? Are these measurables even the right place to be looking? What about intangibles such as leadership and resilience?

The good news for Cincinnati Reds fans is our 2017 team has made ginormous progress in producing runs. The Reds have scored 4.80 runs per game (R/G) this year compared to 4.42 R/G last year. That’s the team’s best offense since 2010.

What’s behind all the Reds runs?

Those of you who evaluate hitters by batting average will be left without an answer. The Reds average this year (.255) is essentially the same as the team’s 2016 average (.256).

Are stolen bases and team speed responsible?

Nope. The club is stealing fewer bases this year (.77 SB/G) compared to last season (.86 SB/G). Other measures of base running for the two years are about the same. Player speed and athleticism might help with defense, but we’re looking at offense right now.

If not batting average and speed, maybe walks are a factor in the Reds scoring more runs.

Why, yes!

The Reds have already walked more times this season (481) than last (452). The lineup has increased its walk-rate from 7.4% in 2016 to 9.3% in 2017. That’s moving from a percent below league average to a percent above. The effect has been to raise the club’s on-base percentage (OBP) from .316 to .332. League OBP has increased from .322 to .325. On-base percentage is highly correlated with run scoring.

We’ve looked at batting average, team speed and walks. How about power?

Bingo.

The Reds have already hit 27 more home runs this year than all of 2016, with a month of the season remaining. At this rate, they’ll exceed 2016 by 60 home runs. Five players – Joey Votto, Eugenio Suarez, Adam Duvall, Scott Schebler and Scooter Gennett – have hit 20-plus. Zack Cozart (17) may join that group. Votto and Duvall have already hit 30-plus. Schebler and Suarez could reach 30.

But isn’t every team hitting better?

Just three years ago, run scoring had been in a sustained and sharp decline. We wrote a seven-part series at Redleg Nation in the spring of 2015 on the new, lower run environment, analyzing its causes. In 2014, only eleven players hit 30-plus home runs. Remember this?

But exit velocity and home runs spiked in 2015 across the league. That trend continues today. Power is up this year across MLB. Major league hitters are on course to hit more home runs than ever before, surpassing the 5,693 smacked in 2000.

By 400.

Home runs are almost entirely responsible for the steep increase in runs scored.

  • 2014: 4.07 R/G

  • 2015: 4.25 R/G

  • 2016: 4.48 R/G

  • 2017: 4.66 R/G

The three-year burst of home runs is the largest in the history of baseball. That includes the three years following the end of the Dead Ball Era and the three years at the start of the the Selig Steroid Era.

Why are MLB power numbers way up?

Theories: Players, who are better athletes, are swinging harder and on a steeper plane. Smaller ball parks. Warmer temperatures. Diluted pitching. Organizations through scouting and statistics are prioritizing the type of young players who hit home runs. Evidence is piling up that the baseball itself is a big factor.

Whether you buy into just one of those explanations, a few of them, or all of the above, home runs and isolated power (ISO) are soaring. [Isolated power (ISO) measures a hitter’s extra bases per at bat.] League ISO was .135 in 2014, rose to .162 last season and continues skyward in 2017 at .172.

The big question

The league-wide wave in runs scored raises an important question: Have the Reds made real gains in offense relative to the competition? Or are they just an Ohio River paddle steamer lifted like other boats by baseball’s rising tide of power?

The answer is unambiguous and positive. Two simple stats show it:

• Last season the Reds were #23 in home runs out of 30 teams. This year, they are #8.

• Last season the Reds were #22 in isolated power. This year they are #9. While league ISO has increased from .162 to .172, the Reds have improved from .152 to .185.

The Reds have made genuine gains in power hitting relative to the rest of the league.

The next big question

That bit of good news on a Friday leads to the next question: Who is responsible for the Reds power surge?

Another happy headline. No one or two players stand out. Reds home runs are already above last year at every position other than shortstop. SS has the same number as last year (remember, there’s a month of this season left). The Reds didn’t have a pinch hit home run last year. In 2017 they already have six (Duvall, Suarez, Jesse Winker, Scooter Gennett, Patrick Kivlehan and Michael Lorenzen).

Returning players — Votto, Cozart, Suarez and Schebler — are hitting for more power. They may be benefiting from livelier baseballs, improved plate discipline and/or  tweaked swing planes. Votto, Cozart and Suarez already have more home runs than last year. Adam Duvall is on pace to surpass his 2016. Scott Schebler (26) has replaced Jay Bruce (25) in home runs.

In isolated power, Schebler (+.091), Cozart (+.074), Suarez (+.061) and Votto (+.055) have all experienced significant gains relative to the league-wide increase (.010).

But the Reds power escalation isn’t due solely to returning players.

New additions to the lineup – Gennett, Kivlehan and Devin Mesoraco – have made important contributions. Gennett has 23 home runs (16 at 2B) compared to eleven that Brandon Phillips hit in 200 more at bats. Gennett’s ISO (.249) is more than double that of Phillips (.122). Kivlehan has eight home runs and an ISO of .192 in 164 plate appearances. In 165 times at the plate, Mesoraco has hit six homers with an ISO of .177, large improvements over Ramon Cabrera’s 2016 bat.

Sit tight, take hold

The Reds master plan for rebuilding has been confusing at times. Are they emphasizing hitting or pitching, speed or power, contact or on-base skills? All of the above? The lack of clarity is partly the product of a tremendous changeover in the front office. The timing of that sea change in methods and personnel in the middle of the rebuild was less than ideal.

Yet, by design, happenstance or a vision dancing across the porch, run production has been markedly better for the Cincinnati Reds this year. A genuine bright spot. So far, the formula has been keener eyes and thundering bats.

24 thoughts on “Thunder road

  1. Not one mention of Don Long. A slight for this article as Schebler, Suarez and Cozart have all improved their plate approaches. I’ll be a conversation was had with a waiver wire player named Scooter to help the lights go off, because the Brewers would not have waived the guy we got. I would suggest that Tucker has been helped as well but the improvement keeps happening there. 2 years of massive improvement in Duvall… lets face it someone did something there as the Giants have a massive need in LF.

    And then there is the improvement in Billy Hamilton….TBD

    • “I’ll bet a conversation”

      TBD=not even Don Long can help Billy Hamilton

      I am bashing Billy this year as I did Suarez last year. I am going to shame him into improving into an all star

    • If the conversation with Scooter was about hitting home runs, it worked in a huge way. If the conversation was about being more selective and taking some walks, his walk rate (lower than last season with the Brewers; 6.7% vs. 7.0%) says he hasn’t been able to implement it. He has reduced his O-swing % from 34.3 to 32.4, so that’s something, but as a Scooter fan, my fear is that he is not much different than the player that got waived and will regress to (or close to) his numbers from his last 1,000 PA’s with the Brewers.

      Note: Eugenio decreased his O-swing by 2.6% (26.6 to 24.0), not much more than Scooter, and even increased his Z-swing % a little bit, yet has dramatically raised his walk rate from 8.1 to 14.0%. Maybe someone with a better grasp of these stats and more insight into their practical translation into performance can help me out here.

  2. Good stuff, Steve. I guess I had kinda assumed that the Reds were experiencing a similar power surge as everyone else. Nice to see that they’ve surged even further than most!

  3. Good reading. Interesting topic for sure.
    And not one mention of hitting coach Don Long in all this. Some credit has to go his way for the increased run production. Just a little.
    The warmer temperature theory is a no-go I think. Granted the ball seems to travel better in higher temps. But here, last summer we had 50+ days of 90 degrees or higher. This year we’ve had but a dozen. Probably consistent throughout the Ohio Valley. But HR’s have increased in 2017 over 2016, so that isn’t it.
    MLB has adamantly denied any involvement in “juicing” the baseball. I think what MLB has really said is that the baseball is within the required specifications. I would guess their specifications are a range of numbers. They’ve never really said that they haven’t changed any of the specs within that required specification range, though. I think that will be the key to solving the mystery.
    Whatever it is, it has benefited the Reds significantly. The Reds have exploited the issue and good for them.

  4. Offensively, barring injury and unforeseen regression there’s really only one hole you have to plug in the offseason to duplicate this production in 2018—-replace Cozart’s bat. He’s having a career year, so it won’t be easy. I think you can approach it one of two ways. First, you could deploy Schebler in CF to take Hamilton’s bat out of the lineup more frequently. Second, you could slide Suarez to SS and play Senzel at 3B.

    In both cases you defense would take a hit. I’m inclined to think it wouldn’t be earth shattering. My first choice would be to slide Suarez over and keep a slick fielding SS on the bench for late game defense. In either case, I’m shopping a package of Hamilton plus prospects for an upgrade in CF. RF/LF would be a 3 man rotation, with Schebs my backup CF.

    • Move Billy and Suarez as you suggested and your defense up the middle takes a hit period. Suarez might make the change better than what we all thought, but Schebler in CF will be a major downgrade. Billy can bat 8th, but his glove saves runs that we don’t have to overcome … period.

      • However if you are replacing Cozart and Billy with Senzel and Winker, your defense takes a hit but your offense improves dramatically

        I think Suarez can handle short and there are many pieces for CF in the pipeline close

  5. Scooter Gennett’s power in 2017 is one of the great mysteries of our time. I’m not questioning it.
    Duvall and schebler have always been minor league Mashers….nothing new there.

    Cozart and Suarez? Sure Don Long might deserve credit….but how bout #19?

  6. Thanks, Steve, for such an insightful article. The pivotal stat is OBP. You have shown that that stat is a direct contributor to run production Speed itself doesn’t kill. It is high OBP. It is ideal to have a player at the top of the batting order that has both (Ricky H, T. Raines, Suzuki), but not necessary. Some of the all-time best leadoff hitters have not been speed demons (Charlie Hustle).

    https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/baseballs-new-leadoff-hitters-dont-need-to-be-speed-demons/

    The team needs to be putting the highest OBP guys at the top of the lineup. That means pulling out Hamilton and inserting that has a much better OBP (fill in the blank) I would even advocate having Votto batting second if we can have a consistent hitter behind him (See the Marlins; Stanton’s success when moved up to the #2 spot with Yelich hitting behind him.)

    On the pitching side, have we not seen that the team’s poor pitching performances come when our pitchers are walking batters. Steve, would you say then that a pitcher’s opponent’s OBP is a far better measurement (along with other advanced stats) than opponents batting average?

    • One of the things I look at is OPS against and OBP is part of that. I don’t think you can just look at one or two stats for anyone, especially pitchers. OPS against is a nice place to start though.

  7. Nice write-up, Steve.

    I vote for “happenstance”. Will be interesting to see if some stuff (Votto is aging, Gennett’s career year, Duvall’s 2nd half fade trend (?), is Cozart here) dampens the surge next year.

    Reds might always need a strong HR component because of park factors, but that isn’t true for everyone. 7 of the top 10, and 3 of the top 5 HR hitting teams aren’t playoff teams today.

    http://www.fangraphs.com/leaders.aspx?pos=all&stats=bat&lg=all&qual=0&type=8&season=2017&month=0&season1=2017&ind=0&team=0,ts&rost=0&age=0&filter=&players=0&sort=4,d

    Diamondbacks 14th, Indians 15th, Red Sox 26th in HRs

    but

    in xFIP …. Indians 1st, DBacks 4th, Red Sox 6th.

    Reds xFIP…20th.

    Let the sorting (of pitching) continue.

  8. I am sure that Don Long has had some impact on better hitting on Reds offense, but I also that Joey Votto has had a big influence on many of these hitters, (particularly Cozart and Suarez. But regardless I don’t think the purpose of Steve’s article was to give credit to a coach for doing his job or to a player for being a good influence but rather to show the impact that OBP and Home Runs have on run Production. Good article by the way.

  9. I’ve always thought sitting around and waiting on HRs is kind of boring. Not to mention…its not exactly the optimal strategy for playoff baseball in October versus good pitching and cooler weather. Its good that the Reds atleast have some speed on the roster! It wouldn’t work or be affordable long-term but I’d love to see Billy as a pinch-runner/defensive specialist for 2018.

    Jesse Winker just got a taste so far w/74 atbats but that kid looks far better then I expected! He looks so comfortable against righties (.980 ops) and had more pop then expected. He’s only had 12 atbats vs lefties, so the new manager might have to platoon him, but they can’t afford to play Billy over the offense that Winker could possibly provide!
    Schebler….same thing. Billy is exciting but give me a break? In theory…if the Reds pitching improved greatly and played in more close/lower scoring games then Billy could really help spark a key run or a key defensive play to save runs.

    Reality….Billy leads off and gets 600+ mediocre atbats again…or bats 8th and has the pitcher try to bunt him over instead of just stealing it. That’s it….that’s as far as they think ahead.

  10. Without crunching the numbers, I believe there is an intuitive causal relationship between an increased OBP and increased ISO. Both OBP and ISO are highly correlated with run production. The fact that the Reds increased OBP is now pervasive throughout most of the lineup intuitively means that opposing pitchers must pitch to the hitter’s zone more frequently in order to get strikes. With pitches being presented where the hitter wants them, rather than where the pitcher wants them, the hitters are able to barrel up the bat more frequently and drive the ball. This is the lesson Votto has been preaching by example for years. When the pitcher does not comply and walks more batters, then those base runners become more run opportunities.

  11. I have two MLB baseballs from 2013 and 2014 that were autographed by two Reds minor leaguers no longer in the organization. Bud Selig as Commissioner balls.
    I would very gladly donate them for research to see if the balls are indeed wound differently today or if the seams are somehow different.
    Would RLN like to do any independent research on this? Independent from MLB that is. Just have to buy a couple of new Rob Manfred Commissioner MLB baseballs. I don’t know if there is a lab in Cincinnati that could do this. The results would be interesting to see, though.

    • The age of the balls from 2013 and 2014 versus new balls would make any real comparisons impossible. Leather ages and dries. The seams absorb moisture over time. Things like that.

  12. The Reds are hitting much better this season. This is good news if it is sustainable into next season. The record will not improve unless the pitching is improved. There are signs of hope with Castillo, Romano, Stephenson, and an improving Homer Bailey. Igleisas, Pera;ta, and Shakleford look good. The speed of the rebuild hinges on how fast the pitching develops. Worrying about the manager, coaches, the lineup is a waste of time. Worrying about the pitching is focusing on the heart of the problem. A team never has too much pitching. Disaster is when it has none. The front office is responsible for the 25 man and 40 man rosters plus the players in the deep minors. Future success depends on the quality of the players that make up the rosters in the Reds system. Right now they need pitching. A few years down the road they will need position players.

  13. Senzel is entering the equation for the starting lineup, but he’s not there yet. He may be promoted to AAA to begin the 2018 season or begin the 2018 season in AA due to missing the tail end of the 2017 season. Will Senzel replace Cozart’s 4+ WAR once he make the transition to the Show? Maybe, but it’s probably a wash and Senzel’s defense will not replace Cozart’s defense at SS or Suarez’ defense at 3B. Replacing 4+ WAR is a LOT of replacing. We also know that Peraza is not going to replace 4+ WAR or Cozart’s defense at SS. Losing Cozart’s production on offense and defense from 2017 is going to hurt…a lot! Will Scooter repeat his offensive explosion from 2017? That would be a lot to expect, but he’s not showing signs of regression to his career norms. Will Hamilton make a significant offensive turn around and develop his ability to get on base to make an adequate offensive contribution? Almost certainly not. Can Schebs play an adequate CF defense to allow his offensive contributions to make up for the loss of Hamilton’s defensive contributions in CF? We don’t know, but we do know that Schebs offensive contributions when healthy were significant during 2017. Can Winker’s offensive contributions be sufficient to allow Schebs to move to CF so Winker can start in RF? The limited early playing time says definitely YES!, but since Winker has not had any extended, regular playing time at the major league level, we don’t know for sure.

    Does the bullpen have a solid core established for the 2018 season. Yes with Wojo & Adel man in long relief and Iggy, Lorenzen & Peralta in high-leverage relief, the Reds have plaenty of options available to fill middle relief. Lorenzen may (should) receive serious consideration for a starting role, but that would have a positive impact for both the starters and relievers in 2018. Do the Reds have a solid starting 5 to roll out in 2018? Well solid may not be accurate, but promising is certainly accurate. Bailey, Castillo, Romano, Stephenson & Mahle have certainly stepped up at the end of the 2017 season and have a month left to move that needle from promising to likely. That does not even include the possibilities for Lorenzen, Finnegan or Disco competing for the starting rotation.

    I believe the Reds are close enough to a competitive lineup that ALL options (offense, defense, starting pitching. relief pitching and bench) should be considered for improvement heading into the 2018 season.

    • With the viewpoint that the Reds might very well have all the pieces in place for a competitive run in 2018, the single biggest hole to fill will be the loss of Cozart, defensively and offensively. The easiest and simplest way to fill that hole is … Cozart.

      A QO is out of the question since $18MM is beyond reasonable for a single season for Cozart. A contract extention before the season ends is also out of the question since Cozart is probably looking/hoping for something along the lines of 3 years/$40 MM with an option for the 4th season. For a 4+ WAR SS, those figures are not beyond ereasonable expectations before the market forces are factored into the equation. Cozart has a long injury history with a severe reconstructed knee injury leading the list. Cozart is also on the wrong side of his aging curve. Cozart’s remarkable 2017 season represents an outlier until proven otherwise. The FA market may not materialize for Cozart and he may not even find a guaranteed 3 year / $30MM offer. We won’t know that until the off season progresses and Cozart has a chance to test the FA waters. If Cozart becomes available for less than 3 years / $30MM, then he becomes available to the Reds and the Reds can use him, maybe even need him. That’s plan A if everything works out. Plan A does not preclude significant playing time for Peraza or even Herrera (if healthy, which probably doesn’t happen).

      If plan A doesn’t work out, then the Reds move on to plan B with Peraza starting at SS for league minimum.

  14. The reason that Peraza isn’t playing is the Reds are recruiting Cozart to come back.
    After all, who knows better the market for Cozart than the team who has been trying to trade him for 2 years an can’t?
    Every team prioritizes internal development of shortstops. They don’t sit around and wait to spend 50 million on a 32 year old. I think the market for Cozart could be very thin.

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