2018 Reds

New Angles on The Rotation Competition

During Spring Training, we tend to do two things without fail: give in to unbridled optimism and overanalyzed individual performances. We gravitate toward players who play well and convince ourselves they have “figured it out” or “taken the next step”. On some occasions, they really have.

However, as Steve has pointed out on multiple game threads, Spring Training stats are often misleading. Two obvious reasons are sample size and varying levels of competition. As we look at the race for two (and possibly three) starting rotation spots, we need to account for these factors.

In small samples, one really bad performance can wreck a pitcher’s numbers because they will not pitch enough innings in Spring Training to bring a ghastly ERA back down to earth or lower their walk rate to an acceptable level.

And yet, we can gather some useful insights from a pitcher’s performance in Spring Training. Instead of looking at numbers that take a while to become useful, such as ERA or FIP, we should consider the number of quality outings each starter has had because that information will give us a trend that tells us more than ERA over 8-12 innings.

Defining what “quality” means is somewhat subjective. A player may pitch poorly and give up zero runs, as Cody Reed did on March 5th when he let up four hits and walked one in two innings. Because no starter has pitched more than four innings so far, I’ve judged quality appearances by whether the pitcher gave up no more than one earned run and had more strikeouts than walks.

So far, the starting pitching candidates have mostly turned in strong performances. Here’s a breakdown of each appearance by the starters with a star by their quality outings.

Sal Romano

  • *First Appearance: 2 IP, 1 ER, 1 K, 0 BB
  • *Second Appearance: 2 IP, 1 ER, 4 Ks, 1 BB
  • Third Appearance: 3.1 IP, 2 ER, 3 Ks, 0 BB
  • *Fourth Appearance: 4 IP, 0 ER, 7 Ks, 1 BB

Romano has consistently pitched well. Even the game when he gave up two runs in three plus innings, he did not walk a batter and had some spotty defense. In fairness, Billy Hamilton also saved him at least a run with an unbelievable grab. Romano’s Spring Training performance has thus far mirrored his minor league career: he gives up a decent number of hits (12 in 12 innings) but doesn’t walk anybody.

Michael Lorenzen

  • *First Appearance: 2 IP, 1 ER, 3 Ks, 0 BB
  • Second Appearance: 1.2 IP, 5 ER, 3 Ks, 2 BB
  • *Third Appearance (B game): 2 IP, 0 ER, 2 Ks, 0 BB
  • *Fourth Appearance: 3 IP, 1 ER, 3 Ks, 0 BB

Lorenzen has three quality appearances while struggling mightily in the other. The earned run in his first start came (strangely) on a strikeout. As I note above, Lorenzen started a B game in his third outing, so his stats were not added to his cactus league totals. While we do not have much information on who participated in that game for the Rangers, it’s likely that he faced mostly minor leaguers.

Amir Garrett

  • *First Appearance: 2 IP, 0 ER, 4 Ks, 0 BB
  • *Second Appearance: 3 IP, 0 ER, 6 Ks, 0 BB
  • Third Appearance: 2 IP, 2 ER, 1 K, 2 BB

Garrett put up video game numbers in his first two appearances. He struck out 2/3s of the batters he faced and threw significantly harder than he did last year. Garrett has always struggled a bit with command, and that shortcoming plagued him in his lone poor outing. He also faced more MLB talent in his third appearance than the other two.

Robert Stephenson

  • First Appearance: 1.2 IP, 3 ER, 4 Ks, 1 BB
  • Second Appearance: 1.1 IP, 2 ER, 1 K, 3 BB
  • *Third Appearance: 3 IP, 0 ER, 3 Ks, 0 BB

Stephenson is known for one virtue and one glaring vice: he has tremendous stuff but never knows where it’s going to go. This Spring, he has again flashed tremendous potential while failing to consistently command the strike zone. He is the only pitcher on this list to have more “poor” performances than quality ones. Because he came in as a front runner, we can assume he has some rope to rebound, and he impressed last time out.

Tyler Mahle

  • *First Appearance: 2 IP, 0 ER, 2 Ks, 1 BB
  • *Second Appearance: 2 IP, 0 ER, 3 K, 0 BB
  • Third Appearance: 2.2 IP, 3 ER, 2 Ks, 1 BB
  • *Fourth Appearance: 3 IP, 1 ER, 2 Ks, 0 BB

Mahle just gets guys out. He was the first of these pitchers to get a third quality outing, and while it seems like the Reds want to play the service-time game with him, Mahle has certainly looked the part of Major-leagued starter so far. He always seems in control, even when falling behind hitters. The stuff may not give you as many good feelies as the other guys on this list, but the command and poise are top notch.

Based on the quality appearance marker, these pitchers have performed pretty similarly. Garrett and Mahle have dominated a little more in individual outings than the others, with Romano just a step behind. Outside of one disastrous outing, Lorenzen has pitched well. Stephenson looked excellent in his last audition, though he has struggled more than the others overall.


But another factor plays just as big a role in our calculations: players face different levels of competition in Spring Training. Early on, teams will take out their starting position players after one or two plate appearances. A pitcher may face an MLB lineup or mostly double AA talent depending on when they enter the game.

Baseball Reference (BR) has a neat stat called OppoQual that tries to quantify the quality of hitter pitchers have faced in Spring Training. Essentially, BR looks at the level (A, AA, AAA, MLB) a position player played at in the previous year and assigns them a number:

  • 10: MLB
  • 8: AAA
  • 7: AA
  • 5: High A
  • 4: Low A
  • 5-3: Rookie and short season
  • 1: Opposing pitchers

Then, BR take the numbers of the players a pitcher has faced and averages them together to get a quality score. For example, if a pitcher faces three players with ratings of 10, 7, and 8, he will face an average of just above a AAA hitter (8.33).

Right now, the Reds starting pitching candidates have the following OppoQual scores:

  • Romano: 8.2
  • Lorenzen: 7.9
  • Stephenson 7.7
  • Garrett: 7.1
  • Mahle: 7.0

Thus far, only Romano has faced an average batter with the quality of AAA or higher. While Garrett and Mahle have overwhelmed hitters, they have also faced inferior competition. Before Mahle’s last outing, he had a 6.5 OppoQual, meaning the average player he faced was below AA.

What should we take from this? The biggest thing is that Romano has arguably had the best Spring of any of these pitchers. Even if he’s been less sexy than Mahle or Garrett, Romano has pitched well against better hitters. If he really had an edge coming into Spring Training, he hasn’t allowed anyone to close the gap. With the injury to Anthony Desclafani and Brandon Finnegan remaining an unknown, Romano seems to have a spot all but wrapped up.

If the injuries leave two more spots available in the rotation, then the Reds have quite a competition on their hands. To get the best assessment, they should consider pitching all of these guys against another team’s starters. Stephenson, Garrett, Mahle, and Lorenzen should all be starting games down the stretch of Spring Training. If the Reds are insistent on Mahle beginning the season in AAA to save service time, then they need to get a good read on the other three, who all came into Spring Training with lots of question marks.

Taken together, the Reds young pitchers have pitched well. However, as we compare them and look forward to the season, we can’t forget the context: some of them have faced better players than others. Regardless, these pitchers have given fans hope that a solid rotation will arrive sooner than later.

22 thoughts on “New Angles on The Rotation Competition

  1. That is a neat little stat by B-R to try to give some kind of quantitative measurement to spring training batters.
    DeSclafani’s injury is devastating news. I hope he is able to come back sooner than he did in 2016 from that oblique injury.
    Finnegan says he is fine. I have my doubts.
    Nice to have several options available. This may be Stephenson’s and Lorenzen’s final shot to win a rotation spot. If they cannot get it done, then there are a few behind them that have their turns coming.

  2. Joe Nuxhall used to talk about pitchers in Spring Training having a “dead arm” at some point, as they built their arm strength up. Sometimes guys have a bad singular outing because their arms are just tired from the work. The last 2-3 outings are the important ones, unless somebody is just terribly bad and can’t throw strikes or has really poor velocity. (Oliver Perez, I am looking at you)

    Desclafani: Who is really surprised? The guy is injury prone. Expect nothing and you won’t be disappointed.
    Finnegan: Will likely start the year in the bullpen. Maybe he gets back in the rotation. Don’t count on a lot of innings from him

    Starters (beside the obvious, Bailey and Castillo):
    Amir Garrett
    Sal Romano
    Robert Stevenson

    The first to be called up if someone falters or is hurt: Tyler Mahle
    He is probably ready for the ML, but he is the youngest and has the least ML experience.

    Stevenson should be given 10 starts in Cincy, at least. Give him a chance to show what he can do. He looked good at the end of 2017. Ditto Sal. He could give them 200 innings this year if he is able to start 32 games.
    Garrett looks ok, after pitching hurt last year. See what he can do.

    Again, Mahle is the first call up in case of injuries or just bad pitching.

    Just another fan spouting off.

  3. So Disco has an oblique injury. Can he be optioned to AAA now or do the Reds have to place him on the DL in order to get him off the 25-man roster to start the season? I’m pretty sure that Disco has an option available, but I’m not sure if the Reds can exercise that option after he’s been injured in ST. I’m reasonably certain they can’t during the regular season.

  4. The A’s DFA’d Jairo Labourt after claiming him when the Reds DFA’d him earlier this spring after claiming him off waivers from the Tigers. Since Jairo fell all the way to the A’s before being claimed, the Reds could try again to claim and DFA Labourt again with a pretty good chance of him clearing waivers.

  5. Romano may be the best pitcher you mentioned here but the fact that he gives up a “decent” amount of hits scares me. That means he’s gonna be pitching out of trouble, a lot! There’s only so many times a pitcher can do that before the bridge gives way and crumbles. You guys know as well as I do that hits come in bunches. It almost feels like he’s “living” on borrowed time if he continues to give up a decent amount of hits.

  6. Clearly, it will be months before disco could start and throw 6 innings at the mlb level.

    Finnegan is being reported a biceps strain. For a guy who was held back already and 4 weeks into ST who has thrown only 2 innings and he’s being shut down for at least a few days….it will be at least a month before he could start and build his way up to throwing 80 pitches in a reg season game.


    I would build Lorenzen as a starter but put him in the bullpen in April as a long relief ..high leverage pitcher.. If stephenson or Bailey labors with 66 pitches in 3 1/3 innings…plug Lorenzen in the game and let him go 4 more. He can certainly hit 9 spot on his own without the need for a pinch hitter if you are trailing 4-1 in the 5th.

    Mahle goes to Louisville but is ready.

    • I think that would be an interesting way to use Lorenzen (or another young pitcher that doesn’t make the rotation), but I don’t think Bryan Price is comfortable using a pitcher like that. I could be wrong.

  7. I’m still not over the Disco injury. I was really looking forward to having him, Castillo, and Bailey 3 out of 5 turns. I can’t handle the thought of another season where guys barely get out of the 4th inning most turns.

    • Looks like a previous comment got eaten… I was just saying thanks for the info in this post, I love the idea of that quality rating of batters faced.

  8. What a great stat. Perhaps it can be used in Aug/Sep as well for call-ups to better evaluate pitchers, like Homer/Bob Steve last Sept, who have notable performances — perhaps there was more AAA+ talent in the mix.

  9. Using your “quality” start for 6 IP, almost everyone on there would be giving us a real quality start 2/3 to 3/4 of the time. That would make for a pretty nice rotation that looks nothing like last year! I know it doesn’t necessarily extrapolate out well, especially considering the drop 2nd and 3rd time through a lineup, but it’s hard not to like the young guns.

    • You’re right. My “quality” appearance stat doesn’t tell us a lot about their regular season performance besides they are getting through the lineup once. It does seem more helpful than something like ERA when comparing performances during Spring Training. In that regard, it’s encouraging that all of them besides Stephenson have pitched well most times out. And Stephenson hasn’t been so bad that he can’t turn his Spring around.

      • Hey, the secret to baseball is consistency, the day-in, day-out grind of “The Big 162.” Everyone gets lit up or takes a two-K O-fer day on occasion. If you go out and put up decent numbers regularly, you’re giving yourself a chance.

        I’m sure we’ll take our lumps this year, but I think when you consider a longer-term rotation of Castillo, Romano, Garrett, Stephenson, and Mahle (the healthy young guys now), it’s hard not to be excited. Lorenzen or Reed may not be done yet as starters and, hey, Rookie Davis and a few others would be prospects on most teams. If Finnegan and Disco can go, even better, and I’ve heard we also got some high school kid in the draft with a decent arm, haha. The future is bright in Cincinnati.

  10. My hope for a successful 2018 Reds season centers on the continuing maturity of the young pitchers. The inability to throw a complete game, which is true throughout baseball, will put continued stress on the relief corps which is one area the front office improved in the offseason. This is in contrast to years ago when complete games were not so unusual with pitchers like Robin Roberts, Bob Gibson, Juan Marichal, Jim Maloney, Don Drysdale, and others. Often, in those days, pitchers and players would have offseason jobs to augment their incomes or just rest up. In today’s more affluent sports world, is the offseason regimen and training a cause of the lack of complete pitched games?

  11. Well, I saw these injuries happening. Not as much who but definitely how many. I believe I predicted there will be at least 2 of our “predicted” starters seeing “significant” DL time (i.e. minimum of half the season). We will saw how long these are out, as well as if there will be any others joining them. I still say 2 more of our “predicted” starting rotation will see “some” time on the DL this season (i.e. missing a minimum of a quarter of their starts, about 7-8 starts).

  12. Really nice analysis here. Really, we won’t know much until the season starts and these guys start pitching MLB games against MLB hitters.

  13. Stephenson 3 ball counts to first 5 hitters. He’s not fixing anything and has no command. Send him to AAA . Mahle and Garrett are better and have earned opportunities.

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