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Evolution or Revolution: Cincinnati Reds

 

Evolution or Revolution is a series that examines whether a team needs a few tweaks or a fundamental reboot. In this edition, we focus on what went right and what went wrong for the Reds, and what moves could help them take another step forward.  

By: Craig Haley

The Cincinnati Reds are ready for an appearance on “To Tell the Truth” in 2021.

With wide-ranging results this year, baseball’s oldest franchise was among the more puzzling over the shortened season, creating uncertainty as to which side of the team will stand up over a full campaign.

Often regarded in the preseason as a chic pick to win the NL Central, the Reds more resembled their recent predecessors by starting the 60-game campaign with a 20-26 record, only to go on an 11-3 tear to both finish above .500 (31-29) and reach the playoffs for the first time in seven years. There, they failed to score a run over 22 innings in the wild-card round – a record scoreless streak for the postseason – and were quickly eliminated by the Atlanta Braves.

The Reds had the top-ranked pitching staff in the regular season yet their team batting average was the majors’ lowest in more than a century.

“We made the playoffs, but that’s not your ultimate goal,” general manager and head of baseball operations Nick Krall said. “Your goal in this role is to build a sustainable championship-caliber organization that can win the World Series for years to come. It’s always going to be your goal. We were excited to make the postseason, not excited how it ended.”

After the Reds opened the offseason by saying all the right things about possibly re-signing free agent pitcher Trevor Bauer, Krall has come to admit publicly the small-market franchise will likely lose their first Cy Young Award winner on the open market. Either way, manager David Bell needs more consistency out of his team for it to take the next step in 2021.

Let’s take a deeper dive into the issues the Reds need to address this offseason.

POST-BAUER ROTATION STILL A POSITIVE

Even without Bauer, key arms return in 2021 with Luis Castillo and Sonny Gray atop the starting rotation and closer Raisel Iglesias and lefty setup Amir Garrett at the back end of the bullpen.

Our Raw Value formulas examine how a batter (RV+) or pitcher (RV-) performs throughout each pitch of an at-bat rather than just the end result, with a score of 100 considered average.

Cincinnati Reds, 2020OffenseRotationBullpenOverall
Adjusted Team Rankings13173

According to our Adjusted Team Rankings, which are calculated using a model that combines each club’s Raw Value data into a single ranking system, Reds pitchers combined for an MLB-best RV- of 76.

Trevor Bauer’s departure via free agency would leave a big hole in the Reds’ rotation.

Bauer led the majors with an RV- of 41 while ranking first in the NL in ERA (1.73) and batting average against (1.59), and second in strikeouts (100). Overall, Cincinnati ranked eighth in the majors in ERA (4.18), fourth in batting average against (.235) and second in strikeouts (615). But to emphasize the Reds’ pitching depth during a strong two-year run, they also finished among the top 10 in those categories in 2019 even though Bauer struggled (2-5, 6.39 ERA) following his late-July acquisition.

In 2020, Gray matched Bauer through August, going 5-1 with a 1.94 ERA, but he began September with two poor starts and landed on the IL with a back injury. Castillo had the September (4-1, 2.20) lacked by Gray, and his overall RV- of 57 was sixth in the majors among those who faced at least 150 batters. Tyler Mahle (8th, 59 RV-) is also expected to return, and the Reds plan to keep Wade Miley (0-3, 5.65) in the rotation as their lone left-hander.

The bullpen sizzled over the final 23 games, going 8-2 with five saves and a 2.86 ERA, and was the seventh-best unit in MLB by our metrics. It will remain a strength with Iglesias (4-3, eight saves) and Garrett (.161 BAA, seven holds), and trade-deadline pickup Archie Bradley, who provided a 1.17 ERA and 0.52 WHIP in September.

WAKING A SLUMBERING OFFENSE

The Reds didn’t act like a small-market team last offseason by spending $166 million on free agents. Infielder Mike Moustakas (.230, 8 HRs, 27 RBIs) and outfielders Nick Castellanos (.225, 14, 34) and Shogo Akiyama (.245, 0, 9) were the key additions, but Cincinnati finished with a .212 team batting average – the worst mark since the 1910 Chicago White Sox (.211).

The offense defined feast-or-famine, cranking 90 home runs to rank seventh in the majors yet ranking 28th at 4.1 runs per game. The Reds produced 145 of their 243 runs on home runs, a rate of 59.7% that was easily the highest in the majors and 16% above the 30-team average.

After a horrendous start, Eugenio Suarez hit .246 over his last 37 games.

Eugenio Suarez led the way in home runs (15) and RBIs (38), but his .202 batting average was down from .271 in 2019 – when he hit 49 homers – and .283 in 2018. An improved September helped the third baseman rise to an RV+ of 124, which was second-best in the lineup to designated hitter Jesse Winker’s RV+ of 153, based on a .255-12-23 line.

Former NL MVP Joey Votto is mired in a three-year regression, his .226-11-22 line in 2020 resulting from a wicked home (.333-10-18)/road (.118-1-4) split. He’s the longest-tenured Red, followed by catcher Tucker Barnhart, who’s also below-average offensively, but won a second Gold Glove after his errorless season helped the team finish fifth in fielding percentage (.986).

Krall’s offseason priority list includes the addition of a shortstop because Freddy Galvis won’t be re-signed and rookie Jose Garcia is still developing at the plate. Didi Gregorius, Marcus Semien and Andrelton Simmons are free-agent options and Cleveland Indians star Francisco Lindor continues to be a trade possibility.

The Reds are waiting on Garcia just as they are with some of the organization’s other young hitters who have flashed potential, including outfielders Nick Senzel and Aristides Aquino and catcher Tyler Stephenson.

STATS PERFORM’S VERDICT: EVOLUTION

Though there could be regression on the mound if Bauer departs, the pitching staff is experienced and pitching coach Derek Johnson has gotten the best out of it, so a drop-off appears manageable.

Fixing the offense, however, is a bit more complicated. Despite their dubious team batting average, they ranked second in the majors in pitches per plate appearance (4.13) and their power numbers lifted their Adjusted Team Ranking up to 13th in the majors. They also had their share of bad luck with the lowest BABIP in MLB by a little more than 20 points. That easily could change in 2021.

The Reds’ 2020 schedule that featured only NL and AL Central clubs didn’t help matters as it meant that two-thirds of their games – 41 of 60 – were against teams that made the expanded playoffs.

It’s certainly conceivable that with a winter acquisition or two, Cincinnati rises as a more well-rounded and formidable NL Central contender next season.

 

Data modeling provided by Lucas Haupt.

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