We are two days away from Opening Day of the 2018 season and I am excited to be back with you this season. Every two weeks I will be taking a deep dive into a topic related to the Reds offense. Matt Wilkes kicked off On the Mound with Matt last week and today is the debut of At-Bat with Matt. Enjoy!
2018 will most likely be another (and hopefully final) year of rebuilding before the team is ready to contend. There have been ups and downs and sorting and warm bodies and finally we are coming to a semblance of a competitive team. The offense in particular has seen almost all former fan favorites and lineup cornerstones replaced with fresh faces. While there have been some growing pains and will undoubtedly be more to come, there has been steady progress taking place for the Reds offense.
The primary principle of a rebuild is to swap old, expensive players for young, cheap players. As it turns out, the Reds offense has gotten much, much younger.
There are both good and bad conclusions to draw here. The bad, as many already know, is that it took the front office too long to jump start the youth movement. In 2015, a full season removed from the 2013 wild-card debacle, the Reds fielded the oldest group of position players in the National League on their way to 98 losses. The good news is that they are finally on the right track as the team’s non-pitchers were the third youngest in the NL in 2017. Eugenio Suarez, Scott Schebler, Tucker Barnhart and Jose Peraza (all age-27 or younger) had significant roles in 2016 or 2017. That trend should continue with Jesse Winker and Nick Senzel primed to get significant playing time this season. Younger players are not guaranteed to make a team a contender, but they are essential for small-market clubs to build teams around. The Reds front office has done just that and have even locked up two of those players to team-friendly contract extensions, which are great for the health of the future payroll.
2013 was the last winning season for the Reds and while the offense was not a juggernaut by any means, they ranked second in the National League in OBP and were above average in OPS. 2014 does not bring back fond memories as it was an aging team (average age of 29 ranked third in the NL) that was missing a healthy Joey Votto and was one of the worst in the league offensively, and overall for that matter. It was no doubt a setback year for the Reds and there appeared to be more grit than hope on the horizon.
Since then, however, there has been steady improvement by acquiring and developing younger talent and 2017 represented continued progress. Although on-base skills were not quite up to par with 2013 (Shin-Soo Choo may have been a better leadoff hitter than Billy Hamilton), the group had more power than any Reds team of the last seven years. They even improved relative to the rest of the league as home-runs were up across the board. Schebler and Duvall are notable additions that brought tons of power with them to Cincinnati, while Cozart and Votto’s adjustments helped provide them with career slugging performances. The team was also more balanced this past season, ranking 7th in both OBP and SLG compared to 2013 when they ranked 2nd and 9th, respectively. There may have been no place else to go but up after the 2014 season but the fact that improvement has occurred three years in a row is encouraging.
While improvement in results is nice, it is also important that the players are actually performing better. Three metrics that help identify that are BB%, K% and ISO. The improvement here is not as linear as in the slash line but it still shows an above average offense in terms of hitting skill and power.
Walk rate is the one metric the Reds have both excelled at and struggled with during the last five years. That should be an area the Reds are able to maintain as a strength in 2018 with Winker getting regular time and Hamilton playing less or not leading off. However, Jose Peraza will have to continue his plate approach from the second half of 2017 to even somewhat makeup for the loss of Cozart.
Strikeouts have not been a huge issue in recent years and I do not see that changing. Power could be a bit scarcer this year due to losing Cozart’s insane .251 ISO and probable regression from Scooter Gennett’s .236 ISO. The team will be leaning on a healthy and well-rested outfield of Duvall, Schebler and Winker to provide consistent power, but will also get contributions from Suarez, Senzel and obviously Votto. If Mesoraco can regain form and provide good pop off the bench, this team could feasibly be just as powerful as last year, if not more so.
It is no secret that the Reds value speed, as shown by Billy Hamilton leading off, Jose Peraza being acquired via trade, and even Ben Revere being invited to spring training. Since Billy Hamilton has been a full-time player the Reds have ranked either 1st or 2nd in the NL in stolen bases. The flip side to that, despite Hamilton’s SB% improvement, is a lot of times caught stealing. Not only do the Reds get caught stealing a lot, but according to FanGraphs BsR metric, the team has been a bottom five base-running team the past two years. So while it is nice to have a premier speedster headlining the group, there is much more value to be found on the base paths. The problem is that Votto, easily the biggest culprit in 2017 (-9.6 BsR), is not getting any younger and continues to clog up the bases. Hopefully he can apply his incredible ability to improve, as he has done with hitting and defense, to his base running ability.
Putting it all together we have our last three metrics, which essentially tell us the same thing; how good has the Reds offense been? The past three seasons have been an improvement over 2014, which is not that hard to do. 2015 was better but still had too many older players. 2016 was not good but there was not much continuity due to trades and injuries. 2017 was the first year that felt like pieces were falling into place and the numbers really bear that out. In a year when the young pitching ultimately failed the team, the offense was not all that far off from the 2013 wild-card squad.
The offensive projections for 2018 are not super favorable but projections in general can have a lot of noise in them and are not perfect. For example, ZiPS 2017 wOBA for Zack Cozart was .297, which Cozart decided to outperform by almost 100 points. Projections at the team level are even harder because they include variance from so many individuals. The bottom line is that while this offense does have challenges to overcome and some regression to fight off, this is a well-rounded lineup that has shown the ability to improve their performance and ability, not just the results. It will also be featuring two of the organization’s top five prospects once Nick Senzel joins Jesse Winker and company in Cincinnati. This unit will have to prove themselves in 2018 to show they are for real and can in fact live up to the potential of becoming the post-season caliber offense that the front office hopes they have assembled.