Remember #GetThePitching ???

We’re nearing the season’s halfway point. Let’s look at the state of the Reds starting rotation. First, we’ll see where it ranks as a whole compared to other National League rotations, then we’ll examine data for individual pitchers.

[If you want to dig into this topic even more, I’ve got a companion piece (free to the public today) at Reds Content Plus that takes this analysis further with Statcast data.]

The Rotation

Before we tackle 2019, let us take up the horrific but necessary task of remembering the recent past. From 2016-2018, the Reds had the worst starting pitching in the NL. The team averaged 20% worse than league average in ERA and FIP. They were 10% below average in xFIP, strikeouts and ground ball percentage.

The litany of names provides another grim reminder: Alfredo Simon, Scott Feldman, John Lamb, Rookie Davis, Asher Wojciechowski, Lisalverto Bonilla, Bronson Arroyo’s Farewell Tour, Tim Adelman, Deck McGuire and on and on and no more.

Now the good news: In 2019, the Reds rotation has shown astonishing gains.

  • Second in ERA, 19% better than NL average
  • Third in FIP, 13% better than NL average
  • Second in xFIP, 9% better than NL average
  • Third in Strikeout-Rate (K%), 11% above NL average
  • Sixth in Ground Balls (GB%), 4% better than average

Roughly speaking, the Reds have gone from 20% worse than league average to 15% better than league average in one season. Coming up with the causes will be left for another post. But they certainly include: (1) acquiring better pitchers, (2) better pitching coaching, (3) more information from the analytics department, and (4) better handling by the manager.

Individual Starters

Every 2019 Reds game has been started by one of five pitchers, with the exception of a spot start for Lucas Sims because of a scheduled double-header. Let’s begin by looking at the age and contract status for the primary starters.

Luis Castillo (26) and Tyler Mahle (24) are in their second year of team control. They are pitching for league minimum salary of $570.000. Barring a negotiated deal, they will do the same next year, with their three years of arbitration starting in 2021. They could become free agents in 2024.

Anthony DeSclafani (29) is in his second year of arbitration, earning $2.125 million. Again, barring an extension or negotiated deal, his salary will be subject to arbitration again in 2020 and he could become a free agent in 2021.

Tanner Roark (32) is earning $10 million. He’s the second highest paid Reds player in 2019, following only Joey Votto. Roark can become a free agent next season.

Sonny Gray (29) is pitching for $7.5 million this year. That amount was negotiated by Gray and the Yankees and covered his third arbitration season. Gray and the Reds subsequently worked out a 3-year extension covering 2020-2022 for about $10.1 million a year. The Reds have a $12 million option for 2023.

Strikeouts and Walks

Next, let’s analyze the starting rotation’s strikeouts and walks, the two outcomes most under control of pitchers, along with the NL average. Statistics are through Saturday, June 22.

Luis Castillo induces the most swings and misses and has the highest strikeout rate, well above league average. Sonny Gray’s K% is 4.3% above average. The other three starters are also slightly above average.

Castillo’s walk rate is the highest of the five and well above league average. Tyler Mahle has the lowest BB%, less than half of Castillo’s rate. Gray’s rate is a little high. Roark and DeSclafani are right around average.

The K-BB% metric is interesting. All five Reds pitchers are better than average. Tyler Mahle rates the highest and Tanner Roark the lowest. All five are bunched relatively close together.

Batted Ball Profile

Next, let’s look at a few batting outcomes on balls in play.

There is a huge variance on ground ball percentage (GB%). Luis Castillo and Sonny Gray are far above average, both in the top five among NL starters. In contrast, Tanner Roark and Anthony DeSclafani perform well below league average. Tyler Mahle is right at average.

The chart includes two categories that measure power of contact – FanGraphs’ Hard-Hit% and Statcast’s percent of Exit Velocity above 95 mph. In both cases, the average is about 38%. The two metrics agree that Luis Castillo is well below 38%, so better than average. Sonny Gray, Tyler Mahle and Tanner Roark are right around average. Anthony DeSclafani is above average, but not a lot.

Weighted on-base average (wOBA) allowed factors in batting average, isolated power, walks and strikeouts. League average is .321. 85 National League pitchers have faced at least 100 batters.

Luis Castillo ranks #4. Sonny Gray has been the second-best Reds pitcher ranking #23. He’s followed by Roark #32, Mahle #42 and DeSclafani #57.

ERA and ERA-Projectors

Finally, we’ll look at ERA and similar, but better, stats than ERA. [See: The Problems With ERA and Isolating the Pitching]

BABIP (batting average on balls in play) is a function of defense, luck and quality of contact. League average BABIP is .294 and the vast majority of pitchers end up near that by the end of the season. That’s because they all face the same mix of batters over a sufficiently long amount of time. Odds are that pitchers far below or far above .294 can expect movement to the average.

FIP is a statistic that normalizes defense and luck. xFIP goes further and normalizes home run rate as a function of how many fly balls a pitcher gives up. SIERA is a more complicated statistic with more factors taken into account. All three stats have been shown to be better predictors of future pitcher performance than ERA, especially in relatively small sample sizes like 15 starts.

A good example for that is Luis Castillo. Prior to Saturday’s start in Milwaukee, his ERA was 2.26 but his FIP (3.54), xFIP (3.65) and SIERA (4.15) all pointed higher. The non-ERA stats reflected Castillo’s elevated walk-rate. As a result of Saturday, when Castillo walked five batters, three of whom scored, his ERA jumped from 2.26 to 2.56. At his current walk-rate, expect that ERA to continue to climb.

Sonny Gray also has a high walk-rate, though not as high as Castillo’s. Tyler Mahle’s performance looks much better with xFIP and SIERA than his ERA indicates. Tanner Roark looks worse. Anthony Desclafani’s ERA-estimators are about the same, but a little worse, than his ERA.

Conclusion

Overall, Reds starters have been terrific collectively and individually.

Even better, when you take it all together, there’s little in the underlying data to indicate the rotation’s fast start is unsustainable.

Luis Castillo can’t keep up his low ERA without fixing his walk-rate. Tanner Roark has been lucky with home runs per fly ball so far. On the other hand, Tyler Mahle has pitched better than commonly perceived. Sonny Gray’s stuff has been better than his outcomes, too.

Reds fans can be hopeful the rotation miracle won’t walk out the Reds clubhouse door anytime soon.

15 Responses

  1. doofus

    What data indicates that the rotation’s “fast start” is sustainable?

    • Steve Schoenbaechler

      Ah, that’s the trick with stats. Statistics are everything that “has already happened”. Probability, what you are asking for, is a bit but definitely different. That calls or everything that is about to happen, telling the future.

      And, for the answer, you can look at pretty much any and all of the same data. For, no one can tell the future. They can predict was is “likely” to happen, but not what “will happen”. And, that’s where betters and bookies make their money.

      The biggest thing for me is going to be “health”, mental and physical. For, in the dog days of July, as well as into August, the season starts to get really long. And, players start to get really worn down, mentally and physically. Can they keep it up?

      As an example, right now, there is a realistic (not necessarily good but realistics) chance that all 5 of our starters can get 160+ innings for the season. The last time we’ve had that? 2012.

    • Steve Mancuso

      The tell-tale signs of luck aren’t there. The underlying pitching quality, as measured by strikeouts, walks and ground ball percentages are there. I expect a little backsliding from Castillo and Roark. But Mahle and Gray have pitched better than their run outcomes.

  2. Steve Schoenbaechler

    I will add something here, something that others haven’t mentioned yet.

    Besides Wood, from what I can tell, the pitching has been relatively injury-free, as in no one has experienced a great deal (i.e. something like 1/2 – 2/3 of the season) of time on the DL (yet?) this year. Why mention this? Two reasons. One, in previous seasons, our staff more often than not resembled a MASH unit than a pitching staff. And, it was just the pitching staff. You really didn’t see a great amount of injuries from the rest of the players, even though they are playing everyday.

    Second, I still believe, the rash of injuries does, in fact, correspond with Price’s tenure here. I didn’t say Price was directly nor indirectly involved. But, it is fact, they corresponded with Price’s tenure. Before he got here, we didn’t see the rash of pitching injuries we had. And, after he left, we haven’t seen the rash of pitching injuries. So, something went on with the big club during that time, as far as I’m concerned.

    Now, for the haters, they will try to point out, “What about 2012?” Easy enough there, outlier, a typical statistical term meaning, “It was a fluke.” Then, they will point out, “What about 2010?” Easy enough there, it was Price’s first year. He probably wanted to see what he had to work with for a season before there were any grand changes, like the multiple MASH units that started in 2011. One year is a fluke. Multiple years within a range, you have to consider there is something going on. It’s called epidemiology.

    Bottom line, it helps an awful lot when pitchers are healthy. Could you imagine this team if we had another MASH unit on our hands? I could easily see us being 10 games lower than we are right now.

    • David

      Pitchers sometimes endure the season better if they start out being better athletes. They are not so young that taking the ball every fifth day for 30-plus starts is going to wear them down.
      2012 was a good year for the pitching staff (and the Reds) because we had five solid starters that were very good “pitching” athletes.
      Later, they all broke down at some point in their careers, but that year was a peak for Latos, Cueto, Bailey, Leake and Arroyo.

      This year, they do have some pretty good athletes. Desclafani is in my mind, the most likely to break down, because he has before. But then again, maybe he is dues to have a healthy year. Next most likely would be Mahle, because he is the youngest.
      Alex Wood already did “break down”, but may be back in 4 weeks.

    • Chris Miller

      Good to see you made excuses for the facts that disproved your theory of blaming Price. Price is and has been an excellent pitching coach, but not a manager. End of story.

      • Steve Schoenbaechler

        I just don’t see any proof of Price being a good pitching coach. I even looked back at his results prior to the Reds. I saw nothing outstanding in his team’s results, including the year he supposedly won a pitching coach of the year award. So, people seem to be reaching to say he’s a good pitching coach. End of story.

    • Steve Mancuso

      Your bottom line point about the health of the rotation is important. I’m not sure any particular coaching staff is good or bad for pitcher health. The 2019 Reds have been lucky with health – Wood being the exception, but Mahle has done a good job replacing him. 2012 was lucky, too. Some of the other years, like the ones under Price were unlucky. Pitchers get hurt a lot. I’m not sure 3 years is that much larger of a samples size than 1 to prove “something is going on.” I’m not trying to defend Price or his methods. I have no idea about that. But I doubt Price had anything to do with the various injuries Homer Bailey suffered, for example.

      • Reaganspad

        One of the worst pitching injuries every was Ryan Madson and what that meant for Chapman. Not sure Price had impact on the injury, and maybe did not have a say on how Chapman would be used with Dusty here.

      • Steve Schoenbaechler

        It was more than 3 seasons.

  3. Klugo

    It’d be nice to get some LH help. Outside of Amir Garrett it’s been non-existent to bad. LH starter or two would be a welcomed addition.

  4. Old-school

    Discos stats took a hit yesterday. He’s given up 15 home runs and Tanner Roarck 6. Both have similar FB %.

    There’s got to be more than just luck explaining the difference? Roarck has been pretty consistent.

  5. Ryan Singer

    did anyone float the idea of Mahle headlining a package for the Yankees Frazier yet? Or is Mahle’s upside not worth unloading? I just can’t figure him out. Word is that Yankees will only trade him for SP who is controllable for more than 1.5 years. What would it take to get Frazier with Mahle headining the package? I think the idea is to strike gold with a SP or two on contract years in offseason again heading into next year possibly.

  6. Grand Salami

    Just noticed the Seinfeld reference Steve. Very nice.

    The Reds finally have some rotational depth and it feels great. It feels like the name of the game for a small/mid market club. The Pirates have been capitalizing on good rotation/bullpen arms for a few years with a pedestrian offense and have some playoff appearances to show for it after a lot of losing. I think the Indians fit this model as well.

    It’s great to see the Reds with some staying power in the SP but I hope they don’t immdiately leverage it for something less valuable.