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.
Reds lack of plate discipline is surely playing a role in the slow start. Their MLB ranks:
7.8% BB% (25th)
25.1% K% (8th)
31.5% O-Swing% (8th)
49.2% Swing% (1st)
63.2% F-Strike% (5th)
12.1% SwStr% (8th)
— Matt Wilkes (@_MattWilkes) April 17, 2019
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.
From 2016-2018, here are the Dodgers MLB ranks:
9.7% BB% (2nd highest)
22.1% K% (10th highest)
27.2% O-Swing% (lowest in MLB)
44.4% Swing% (lowest)
59.6% F-Swing (6th lowest)
10.0% SwStr% (10th lowest)
Don't think this is a Turner Ward problem. https://t.co/L884Y3nUBy
— Matt Wilkes (@_MattWilkes) April 17, 2019
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.