It is no secret that the Reds season has not gone well so far. It is also not a secret that the offense is mostly to blame for this. The team’s current wRC+ is 66, well below the 73 that the 2016 team posted in March/April. It would be the team’s worst first month production since at least 2002 (as far back as FanGraphs splits page goes), and probably much longer than that.

Teams go through offensive lulls all the time. But when they take place to start the season they get over analyzed since that is all the information available to react to. In the Reds case, things will probably get better, but for now, we are forced to look at why the offense is struggling. One reason is undoubtedly poor plate discipline.

Swinging at strikes and not swinging at balls is a simple way to improve offensively. From 2014 to 2018, the Reds team offensive output improved substantially, from a wRC+ of 83 to 95. Plate discipline played a part in that increase. The Reds cut down on swings on balls outside the strike zone from 31.9% to 29.5% and increased their walk rate from 6.9% to 9.0%, though they did strike out a bit more too. While those aren’t the only factors that went into better offensive production (power, power, power), it certainly helped.

With that in mind, it is somewhat surprising that the start of 2019 has seen a different trend. Shout out to Matt Wilkes for doing some research for me.

As you can see, really poor performance across the board. Walk rate is down, strikeout rate is up, swing rate is way up and currently highest in the league. They are swinging at more pitches in and out of the zone, making less contact on both. The contact rate on strikes should improve, but swinging at more balls is a poor approach and is an adjustment each player will need to make, some more than others (see Peraza, Jose).

Another interesting stat that the Reds currently lead the league in is first pitch swings, currently at 36.5% (Note: This is different from F-Strike% referenced in Matt’s tweet, which is percent of first pitch strikes). Swinging at the first pitch is a bit different because it does not correlate to better production like O-Swing% does. Some players and/or teams like to be aggressive while others choose to wait and see more pitches. Neither guarantees better overall offense.

The Reds averaged a 31.5% first pitch swing rate in the five seasons prior, so to jump up to 36.5% indicates a substantial change and could be an intentional strategy they are trying to execute. At this point, some of you may be wondering if this is Turner Ward’s doing. Maybe we can blame him for all of our problems!

Not so fast. The Dodgers, who had a lot of success during Ward’s tenure as hitting coach, were very disciplined at the plate. Another assist from Matt “John Stockton” Wilkes.

In addition to these stats, the 2016 – 2018 Dodgers had an average first pitch swing rate of 26.8%, going as low as 24% last year. So it does not appear that Turner Ward came to Cincinnati and told everyone to start swinging early and often.

My best guess is that with the new prioritization to communicate more advanced metrics to the players, there was some analysis that showed an opportunity for incremental improvements by swinging at the first pitch. With the new coaching staff wanting to make an impact, there could have been a bigger focus on that message reaching the players. While it seems like that has happened, the obvious problem is that the results have not been positive.

Another explanation could be as simple as individual players making changes to their approach. A player like Yasiel Puig who is in the first year with a new team and in a contract year, might have a sense of urgency to produce right away and may be trying “too hard”. Puig’s first pitch swing rate is a whopping 49.1%, 3rd highest in all of baseball. Similarly, Puig’s O-Swing% is currently 39.2%, well above his career rate of 31.7%. There was clearly a change in mentality that Puig will have to manage and adjust to as the season progresses.

The numbers get more concerning when looking at some other Reds players. Jesse Winker is swinging at more balls and whiffing more as a result. Joey Votto has followed a similar trend and has also seen his O-Contact rate plummet from 78% to 57%, meaning he may be striking out on a pitch he would normally foul off. Jose Peraza, who teased Reds fans with improvements at the plate last year, is currently swinging at 52%(!) of balls outside the strike zone. That is an insane number and should be very concerning for anyone who expected Peraza to be a consistent offensive contributor (myself included).

Only time will tell if the aggressive approach will pay off in the long run. But no matter the first pitch philosophy, if the Reds continue swinging at bad pitches, the offensive woes will remain an issue.

19 Responses

  1. Roger Garrett

    The Reds are doing just as they did the last 6 weeks of 2018 and that is just not hitting.Don’t know if the stats were then as they are now but something has changed.Most thought it was the Ward influence so thanks for providing data to say it ain’t so but Winker and Joey(both known for taking lots of pitches)have also joined in the hack attack.I don’t know why but with the starters pitching lights out so far its paramount for this team to be more patient then ever before.To me some of these guys based on their swings are still in spring training mode and should take more pitches but when the lights go on they just start hacking.Closer games are the new Reds and they better be more patient cause they will get pitched too differently when its a one run game vs being down by 3 or 4 all the time as has been the case for what seems like forever.

  2. Still a Red

    I don’t know if the stats would bear this out, but it seems to me that the umps have expanded the strike zone. If so, it could flummox the likes of Votto and Winker and exasperate Puig, Peraza, and Schebler.

    • CFD3000

      I do feel like the low strike has been called more often this year. And with umps setting up on the inside corner there is often huge variation between umps and within any one game as to where the outside edge might be. I feel like Votto in particular has been surprised several times by called strike three on what looked like ball four. If you flip just two or three of those his average starts to look fairly good and his OBP starts to look more Votto-esque. I’m hoping he adjusts and we see his walk rate and his average climb as a result.

  3. Bred

    Did Votto stand more erect last night for all his at bats? I don’t recall seeing him as upright as he was in the first AB in a long time.

    • Matthew Habel

      I think he mentioned that he did in his post game interview with Jim Day

  4. Scott C

    Good research and analysis from the the two Matts

  5. Steve Schoenbaechler

    Two things. . .

    First, it doesn’t seem like this Turner Ward is worth his weight. I was wondering why we were turning over so much of the coaching staff. I mean, there was nothing wrong with the offense, I felt.

    Second, obviously, it’s the offense this time that’s struggling. To put a specific on it, in 1-run games this year, we are 1-6. If we could have just gotten 3 of those games on the other side, we are playing 500 ball right now.

    • Matthew Habel

      Sure the offense was good last year but so was the Dodgers. And yes they had better players but still, it never hurts to get a new set of eyes and new perspective. Especially from a coach who was just in the World Series.

      It was also necessary for David Bell to pull his coaching staff together the way he wanted it so that he can execute his vision as best as he can.

      • Steve Schoenbaechler

        They also had one of the highest payroll and, thus, could get All-Star caliber players most whenever they wanted. Where, then, you could have a monkey do the coaching and the team could still have a great offense. But, that doesn’t mean the monkey was a good coach.

    • greenmtred

      It’s hard for me to think that Ward is the reason veteran players like Votto, Puig and Suarez are hitting so poorly.

  6. WVRedlegs

    Compare the Dodgers 2019 stats to their prior stats and you see a dramatic positive increase with Turner Ward gone. Compare the Reds offensive stats from prior years to their 2019 offensive stats with Turner Ward and you see a dramatic negative decrease with Turner Ward. This is no accident, nor is it a coincidence. The Reds offensive woes in 2019 should rightfully so be laid at the feet of one Turner Ward.
    Oh, where is Don Long?? Joey, Jesse, and Geno need you back.

    • Matthew Habel

      The Dodgers offense was 3rd best in all of MLB from 2016 – 2018

    • Old-school

      No opinion either way. But Winker interviewed last night on FSO after game and credited Turner Ward helping him hit the ball hard and getting it elevated on being questioned about opposite field power.

  7. Sliotar

    Matthew… first, kudos on some really great work this year. You are approaching Steve Mancuso-level in terms of explaining analytical concepts concisely, which I mean as high praise.

    Because I watch the Reds more than any other team, it’s easy to develop a bias that “it’s not so bad, they will come around.”

    I had Mike Zunino in a fantasy lineup, so I watched Rays-Orioles yesterday (sad, I know). It is a running joke that the slow-moving catcher has a triple but zero home runs this season.

    Zunino is pressing, and last night, he swung mightily every time he got ahead in count. As a result, Baltimore’s pitchers refused to throw “middle-middle”, even when behind.

    Reading this piece makes me think the Reds opponents have them as pressing, especially guys like Peraza and Puig. Until collectively they show discipline and raise the BB%, no reason for other teams to give in to them at the plate.

  8. jreis

    interesting piece. yes Jose Peraza has been the biggest disappointment so far this year. especially after homering the first game. So much of his struggles are mental. He doesn’t seem to do well when he is in and out of the lineup.
    We know what we have in Iglesias and he may indeed be our future everyday shortstop but I want to give Peraza at least one more look at short. If I am Bell I Give Perazza a one month trial as everyday starter at shortstop to see if he cannot right the ship.

  9. Bill J

    I wonder if the talk of Ward teaching the launch angle has changed the way the hitters swing?

  10. Steven Ross

    Half a month a season doesn’t make my eyes have seen enough of Schebler.

  11. TR

    In spite of the inconsistent starting pitching the last few years, the hitting was respectable with Don Long as hitting coach. I understood the acquisition of the pitching coach along with Gray, but letting Long go and bringing in Turner Ward, despite acquiring Puig and Kemp, was puzzling.

    • Reaganspad

      I agree that Don Long was one coach I would have kept. Ward may end up being better, but our hitters last year were all responding to Long, many going the other way

      2019 has everyone slumping so this sure seems like something systemic as opposed to 100% of your players being in a slump due to bad momentum.

      And if it was momentum, the Miami series should have done something, but back to good pitching in LA, we struggled mightily

      That tells me they are all working on new theory. What is weird is Kemp and Puig. There is no change in phil’s osify for them, but they are nowhere near their baseball card numbers.

      I was at the Tuesday game and the Thursday SD game. Kemp hit the hardest ball I saw, a towering warning track job in SD. Hoping that is coming around