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In 2014, the Cincinnati Reds were a tale of two seasons. After a victory over the Pirates on July 13 the Reds were 51-44, and firmly in the playoff race — half of a game out of a wildcard spot, and only 1.5 games out of first place in the NL Central. Well, then the wheels fell off. After that day they were 25-42, finishing with a 76-86 record. I covered the reasons I believe this happened on my personal blog here, and here.

 

Now that Baseball Prospectus has issued their PECOTA projections for 2015, projecting the Reds to finish with 79 wins, it’s time to dig into this position by position, and give my projections.

Starting with the catcher position, Devin Mesoraco had a bit of a breakout in 2014, posting a line of .273/.359/.534 with 25 home runs in only 440 plate appearances due to 2 early season injuries. His PECOTA projection is for .245/.317/.422 with 17 home runs. I actually think that average and OBP projections are probably right on target, but I would bump the slugging up to maybe .475ish. Jeff Sullivan touched a little bit more, and way better than I could, on Mesoraco’s breakout season and what it means, here. As far as the backup catcher goes, if Brayan Pena gets 372 plate appearances again there’s trouble on the horizon. Starting 45 games at first base is mostly what led to his career high in plate appearances, and if Votto misses that much time again all this is probably moot. I know a lot of Reds fans who love Pena, but I just don’t get it. I’m sure he’s a nice guy and all, and you could do worse for your backup catcher, but the facts are he’s never been an above average hitter, not once, and only once has he even been league average. He’s replacement level or just over. That’s all.

PECOTA still loves Joey Votto to a tune of .287/.408/.483 with a TAv of .328, which matches his TAv of 2011 and is right there with his .329 from 2013. It is also projecting a WARP of 5.4. Other projection systems aren’t as kind due to the injury from last year. ZIPS only projects 462 PA and a 3.4 WAR and Steamer only has a WAR of 4.0 and 124 games played. Obviously, predicting health or no health is a sucker’s bet, so I’m not going to try, but I’m fairly confident that given health Votto is still one of the top 10-15 players in the game.

Brandon Phillips continued the decline phase of his career, posting a line of .266/.306./.372. I believe that most of that decline is due to his loss of power. Since 2011 his ISO has dropped from .157, to .148, to .135, before finally cratering at .106 in 2014. Since his contact rates and BABIP are pretty much at career levels, the loss of power production is something that may just be gone from his skills, but his other skills don’t appear to be gone just yet. PECOTA projects more of the same for Phillips, with a line of .258/.305/.381. I can’t argue with that, but he may have a dead-cat bounce still left in him.

PECOTA’s projection for Zack Cozart is .241/.280/.360. That’s closer to his 2013 line and, given his plus defense, it’s an acceptable line for him. If he repeats his horrible 2014 line of .221/.268/.300 he probably won’t be playing much. This is a crossroads year for Cozart after the acquisition of Eugenio Suarez, who PECOTA has for .230/.296/.347.

Todd Frazier had a bit of a breakout year in 2014, hitting .273/.336/.459 with 29 home runs and a very surprising 20 stolen bases. PECOTA is projecting .246/.315/.426, and I think the truth lies somewhere in the middle there. Something like a .760 OPS instead of the .741 projection seems about right to me. Mix that in with his plus defense (at least according to 2 of the 3 major metrics, FRAA being the lone denigrate), and that’s a very valuable piece to have. I think 2014 might wind up being the best year he has in his career, but that he will continue to be a solid player, if not a star, going forward.

PECOTA doesn’t think much of Marlon Byrd. .253/.300/.396 is the projection, and, although I didn’t love the move, I think he can slug at least in the .420 range, making it palatable. Given the production from Reds left fielders (really since Adam Dunn was there), and half of a good season from Ryan Ludwick, I think they’ll take that. A sub .700 OPS will have people screaming from the rooftops for Jesse Winker to be promoted, even if it would likely be a little early. Speaking of Winker, his projection is .221/.305/.362. I believe that when he makes his major league debut he will be ready to produce better than that, but that speaks volumes of what PECOTA thinks of Byrd that there’s only a .029 difference in their projected OPS numbers.

PECOTA projects Billy Hamilton to be right about where he was last year, and given his position on the aging curve, that’s a sound projection. The projection is .247/.298/.345 with 70 steals, and only 20 caught stealings. Seems like the system is reading too much into those minor league steal numbers. I don’t doubt the ability is there to steal at that success rate in his career eventually, but stealing bases is not just about speed, as Todd Frazier’s 20 steals can attest to. He’s basically stealing bases on raw speed at this point, as he fails to read pitchers well at this point in his career. Happily, that’s a learn-able skill, and I can see an 80% success rate at some later date. Just not this season. I think he is what he is bat-wise at this point, although I wouldn’t rule out him adding some power as he gets up into his late 20s. The good thing is, with his elite defense at a premium position, and his baserunning runs added to that, even a very mediocre season with the bat probably gets him into 3 WAR territory fairly easily. That’s the tantalizing thing about Hamilton, and why he’s so fun to discuss and write about — at his position, with everything else he brings to the table, becoming a league average hitter probably makes him a down ballot MVP candidate and perennial All-Star. I am a little scared of the fact that PECOTA has Willy Taveras as a comp for Hamilton though, but the Jacoby Ellsbury comp makes me feel a lot better.

When it comes to Jay Bruce, I’m going to plagiarize myself a little here. This is from my year in review piece at my personal blog that I wrote back in October. You can find that piece here if you are so inclined.

The Reds need Jay Bruce to bounce back next season. No sugar-coating it. Dude was bad. I’m usually biased towards Bruce because I’m a bit of a Bruce fanboy, so I’ve always been a bit of a Bruce apologist, but there’s no defending this season. It was bad. I have no idea how a guy who had put up wRC+ numbers of 124, 119, 120, and 117 could completely crater down to 79. I hope it was the knee, and not just a natural decline of skills, because the knee will be better, but if it’s a natural decline there’s nowhere else to go but further down, which would not be good. The 2015 Reds need production from that spot.  Digging deeper into the numbers, and you will find that his ground ball rate went up from 37% to 45%, and his fly ball rate decreased from 39% to 34%. That’s quite a drastic change from one season to the next, and likely a big part of his struggles. Jay Bruce rolling ground balls to the second baseman over and over is not a recipe for success. The line drive rate was actually slightly higher than his career average, so that’s a little comforting that he’s still making solid contact at around the same rate, but that groundball/flyball profile is slightly alarming. I think he just got a bit lost at the plate when he came back from the knee injury and it shows in other ways as well, His rate of swinging at pitches out of the strikezone went up from 30 to 33%, which is a career high. (30 is right at his career rate) His rate of swinging at strikes dropped from 76 to 69%, which shows that there was likely a pitch recognition problem. His contact rate actually went up, so that wasn’t part of the issue. It was swinging at the wrong stuff. When he swung he actually hit the ball more often than he did in 2013, but swinging at bad pitches probably also leads to hitting more grounders, so we’ve gone full circle. I think he will likely bounce back next year, but if he doesn’t, his career will be basically over as a full-time major leaguer. He’ll be a bench guy going forward if he doesn’t turn it around.

 

.243/.318/.442 with 26 home runs is the projected triple-slash for Bruce in 2015. The problem, and I’m not sure it’s actually a “problem” with these projection systems, is that they know if a player has been injured and not playing, and adjust accordingly, but they don’t know when the player has been playing through an injury. If you assume that Bruce’s 2014 struggles were due to getting off track right off the bat with the knee injury, likely coming back too soon, and getting out of sync, then that projection is low. If you think that he just sucks now, then it’s probably high. I’ll go with .250/.320/.475. He’s only going to be 28 years old this season, so I just can’t say he’s done after one horrible year after a track record of being above average.

 

The bench currently looks like this: the aforementioned Brayan Pena, the not-very-good-since 2009 Skip Schumaker, and Kris Negron — who was very good in limited action last year but doesn’t have any sort of track record showing that it was his true talent level. Those three players will likely be on the team, although Negron could play his way off with a horrible spring. Also in the mix are Jason Bourgeois, Brennan Boesch, the aforementioned Suarez (who I think will make it, even if Roster Resource doesn’t), and Donald Lutz, who doesn’t look to have even a bench caliber bat at the major league level. Of those players, Boesch probably has the most upside for this season as far as being a pinch hitter type, as he’s had flashes in his career where he’s been an above average hitter, but he hasn’t been able to sustain it. That’s probably the best you can expect from your bench guys, because you know, if they were good, they’d be starting somewhere.

 

So, as far as scoring runs goes, this team probably has the biggest variation between their ceiling and their floor. They could score in the 600 runs or below range, and be putrid again, or, Votto could be healthy, Bruce could bounce back, and Hamilton could improve, and they could score 700 runs. I’m going to split the difference and go with 650 runs scored in 2015. One thing that could help is lineup optimization, but unfortunately, the Reds don’t really have a leadoff hitter. The best candidate would probably be Votto, and they aren’t going to do that, and he should probably be 2 or 3 anyway. So it looks like it’s sink or swim with a likely .300 OBP guy at the top of the lineup, that guy being Hamilton, of course. Another way that could possibly maximize production would be to attempt to neutralize the effects of the shift on Bruce by batting him directly behind Votto in the order, but Bryan Price hasn’t shown that he would be likely to hit Bruce that high up, and it’s completely unclear if that would even be an effective strategy.

 

As far as run prevention goes, I wrote this a few months ago, and will excerpt it here:

The party line of Reds fans is that they have really good pitching. I’m not sure they have really good pitching. I think they may have ok pitching that looks better than it would on an average fielding team. The Reds defense has been consistently among the best in the game for several years now.

Here’s the past few seasons, rated among both NL and AL teams, for Park Adjusted Defensive Efficiency. (or PADE for short)

2014-3rd
2013-2nd
2012-11th
2011-6th
2010-10th

So, as you can see, they get more help from their defense than most teams.

By FIP the Reds were actually 4th worst in all of baseball with a FIP of 4.01 as a team pitching staff. One might say that you would attribute that to the shoddy bullpen, but that’s not really the case. The FIP of the combined relief corps was 3.94, and the FIP for the starters was 4.03. Now, using ERA they were dead in the middle of the pack. 15th out of 30 teams, with a team ERA of 3.59. That’s a pretty big difference in FIP and ERA, especially over 1400+ innings of data. The Reds weren’t the only team with that large of a split, Seattle and Oakland also had a sizeable split, and coincidentally, (not) those are the 1st and 3rd place teams in PADE.

 

The starting rotation will feature at least two new names this season, with the trades of Mat Latos and Alfredo Simon. Currently it looks as if Tony Cingrani, if his shoulder is ready to go, will have the inside track on one spot and Anthony DeSclafani looking to have the inside track on the other spot. Also, although he was likely signed to be a bullpen guy, Paul Malholm could have an outside shot at a spot, and Jason Marquis was signed to a minor league deal as the proverbial “just in case” arm, replacing Jeff Francis who had been filling that role on and off for a couple of seasons.

Starting at the top, PECOTA is projecting Johnny Cueto for a 3.01 ERA, 7.7 K/9, and 2.3 BB/9. Cueto is almost always under-rated by these projections, as he consistently out-performs his FIP. I buy the K rate, and the walk rate, but a 3.01 ERA seems a bit high seeing as he hasn’t been over 3 since 2010. Usually when people point out guys who out-perform their FIP, you are waiting for the other shoe to drop, but Cueto has been doing this for over 1200 innings, so I think the sample is big enough to think he can continue to do this until the skills start to erode. His career ERA is 3.27 but his career FIP is 3.87, so that’s a 0.60 difference over 1208 career innings. That’s actually very impressive in the grand scheme of things. Over a minimum of 1000 innings, there have only been 24 pitchers in the history of baseball (or at least as far back as the Play Index goes) to have an ERA be less than 85% of their FIP over that span. Cueto is one of them. So, with all that said, I’ll go ahead and take the under on that 3.01 and we’ll say 2.80.

Reds fans have been waiting for Homer Bailey to have a big breakout year and be a Cy Young contender and all that jazz, but other than the two tantalizing no-hitters, he just hasn’t gotten to that level, and I don’t think he’s ever going to be consistent enough to get there. He always seems to have runs of 5 or 6 starts where he can’t get anybody out which makes his overall numbers worse. Please note: I have no statistical proof for this, it’s just a gut thing, and I may be completely wrong. PECOTA has Bailey for a 3.55/7.8/2.3. Bailey’s career-best ERA is 3.49 so that’s a pretty optimistic projection for him. I’d be very happy with that, but I’m going to have to go slightly over and say 3.60. That will probably wind up around league average or very slightly above depending on the coming season’s run environment. FWIW, Steamer has Bailey at 3.70 and ZIPS has 3.54, so my projection is at the lower end of the range there.

Mike Leake doesn’t really do anything great, but he does a lot of things good. Last season his K/9 spiked to a career high 6.9, leading to an also career-best 3.88 FIP. Two of the previous three seasons Leake had outperformed his FIP, so even though his peripherals were at their highest level thus far, his overall numbers were down a bit. PECOTA is projecting a 4.07 ERA, with that K rate dropping down to 6.4. I think that’s probably pretty close, actually. He’s also been a decent hitter for a pitcher in his career, with a .234 career average and 4 home runs. He eats up innings and he’s about league average, so basically the perfect # 3 or 4 starter.

Tony Cingrani burst onto the scene in 2013 with a 2.92 ERA and 10.3 K/9, but ran into some problems in 2014, falling down to a 4.55 ERA and an ugly 5.37 FIP, as too many walks and too many home runs were his bugaboo. That being said, PECOTA is quite optimistic, projecting a 3.47 ERA and a K/9 of 9.8. The walk rate projection is 3.7, which is what it was in that 2013 season. Steamer is projecting a 3.61 ERA, and I think that’s a little more in line with where I’d go with it.

I do not really know much about Anthony DeSclafani, but PECOTA is projecting a 4.28 ERA (actually the spreadsheet says 4.28, but the site says 4.42, so that must have been revised since the sheet came out), and I think most teams would take that from their fifth starter, even in this depressed offensive era. In 33 innings in the majors last season with Miami, he only had a 35% ground ball rate, and you don’t want to allow that many fly balls in Great American Ballpark. But his track record in the minors is better than that, and 33 innings really isn’t large enough to really make anything of anyway. FWIW, PECOTA projects a 48% ground ball rate.

 

Moving on to the bullpen, you have to start with Aroldis Chapman. Many Reds fans, myself included, still wish he would have been given the opportunity to see what he could have done as a starting pitcher, but at this point in his career, that ship has pretty much sailed. 17.7 K/9 is just not fair. Even if the team isn’t very good it will be fun to watch Chapman blow people away. PECOTA is actually projecting his K rate to drop to 14.2. I’m obviously taking the over on that one.

Jumbo Diaz came out of nowhere as a 30-year-old rookie, showing off his 100 mph fastball, and his “not quite as Jumbo as before but still pretty Jumbo” size. He’s listed as 315 lbs. but apparently he used to tip the scales at 350, which might be why he was a 30-year-old rookie. He had a 3.38 ERA in 34 innings, and with the trade of Jonathan Broxton, is probably going to be used in that righty setup role. PECOTA is projecting a 3.67 ERA. I think it’ll be somewhere between that 2014 number and the projection, and given the tire fire the Reds bullpen was in 2014 they’ll probably take that.

The Reds signed Burke Badenhop on February 7. Badenhop is a ground ball machine, but he won’t blow you away. With a career ground ball rate of 56% you don’t need to blow anybody away. PECOTA is projecting a 3.71 ERA, but that would be his highest since 2011, so I’ll take the under on that one.

Sam LeCure, Manny Parra, Kevin Gregg, Sean Marshall, if he’s healthy, JJ Hoover, Carlos Contreras, rotation candidates who don’t make it, like Maholm, or DeSclafani, or the Cuban signee Raisel Iglesias are going to be in the mix for the rest of the bullpen. Marshall hasn’t been healthy since 2012, but he’s an interesting guy to watch if he’s able to pitch. He’s always been good when he’s been able to pitch, but at this point I’d imagine the Reds would consider a healthy Marshall a pleasant surprise, and are likely preparing to not have him just in case.

 

In 2014 the Reds allowed 612 runs, and with the loss of Latos and Simon, I think that will probably go up a little. I’m going to go with 630 runs allowed. That means I’m projecting around 83 wins in 2015. So, with a little bit of luck, the Reds can contend for that second wild card spot.

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