In 2016 the Cincinnati Reds scored 716 runs. That isn’t so bad. In fact, that’s more runs than some of the playoff teams in 2016, namely the Giants and Mets. That’s the good news. The bad news is they allowed a whopping 854 runs. To compare, the Rockies – yes, the Rockies of Coors Field – allowed 860. I know, I know, the party line is that the Reds play in a major hitter’s park, but that’s actually not true at all. According to the 3-year park factors at Baseball Prospectus (this is from the annual so I can’t link it, but buy the annual) the Reds home park has actually been quite neutral overall although still quite home run friendly. I guess when everyone is smashing home runs at historic rates all of a sudden a few cheap homers aren’t quite as much of a big deal as they once were. All of this is to say that, well, the Reds pitching in 2016 was absolutely abysmal. Embarrassing, in fact.
Much has been made about the historically bad bullpen that the team had, but most of the chaff from that group has moved on. Twenty-four pitchers pitched relief for Cincinnati in 2016 and out of those 24, 15 of them had ERAs over 5. Almost all of those players are gone, back to the nomad life of minor league free agency or out of baseball entirely. A neat thing happened at least partly because of this, and also partly due to a balky shoulder that hinders his ability to start, and that is in this era of single inning relief usage Raisel Iglesias became a bit of a throwback to the days of the multi-inning fireman. From his first relief outing on June 21 to the end of the season, Iglesias pitched 50 innings in 32 appearances to a tune of a 1.98 ERA (which was lower until the final day of the season when he got bombed for 4 runs by the Cubs.) Much the same result came from the conversion of Michael Lorenzen to the bullpen. Lorenzen started the year on the DL with an elbow injury when he was likely going to be a starting pitcher going into the season, although he struggled mightily in his first go-round in the majors in 2015, but the injury changed things. Lorenzen was a different guy pitching out of the bullpen. His K/9 went up by 2, and his BB/9 went down by 2. His ground ball rate jumped from 41% to 63%, good for 6th in the league among qualified relievers. They’ve got something here with these two guys.
As an aside, Lorenzen also provided me with my favorite moment of 2016 by a Red, in a year where there wasn’t much to cheer about. Iglesias, if you pro-rate his 2016 usage over 162 games, which admittedly isn’t the smartest thing to do, he’d have over 100 innings, which you don’t see from relief pitchers anymore. (No one has thrown for 100 innings in a season while having 95% or more of those innings be in relief since 2006.) Lorenzen’s usage wasn’t as extreme as Iglesias’s, but if you did the same for him you’d have 98 innings. It’s foolish to think that these two pitchers are going to combine for nearly 200 innings in 2017, but if you could get 150-160 innings combined out of those two pitchers, then you’d almost have to guarantee that the Reds won’t have a historically bad bullpen again.
Another major problem for the Reds in 2016 was catcher framing. Their catchers in 2016 were worth -22.7 framing runs, second-worst in baseball. The main culprit was Ramon Cabrera, who was worth -16.3 runs all by himself, and this is a guy who only played enough to get 185 plate appearances, so that is quite Doumit-ian. Tucker Barnhart is an average-ish framer and Devin Mesoraco, for whatever that matters since his health is going to be in question until he actually manages to play baseball games, is slightly below average, but Cabrera being gone means that almost certainly the Reds will improve in that category in 2017 as well.
Offensively, as mentioned above, the Reds scored 716 runs last season. PECOTA projects basically more of the same, projecting 726 runs (PECOTA hasn’t been updated to remove Brandon Phillips from the projections as of this writing, but since PECOTA is down on Phillips things probably won’t change much, if at all.) Steamer is more pessimistic, projecting 680 runs and that seems like a realistic range, PECOTA probably being high and Steamer conversely being too low. Joey Votto continues to do Joey Votto things, and that should continue, and the rest of the lineup is pretty much just a bunch of random dudes and a guy who runs really fast.
Billy Hamilton is never going to hit, and maybe he doesn’t need to. As long as he keeps defending and running the bases at an elite level, he’s going to have value. His fWAR/600 for his career is 3.6, and that’s with a career wRC+ of 72. Projecting Hamilton for 600 plate appearances is not wise, as his slight build combined with his aggressive style in the field leads to nagging injuries, but a full season of Hamilton is easily an above average regular, which is quite amazing for a guy who hits as well as Dale Berra. Eugenio Suarez is probably not ever going to be an above average regular, and last year’s first rounder Nick Senzel will hopefully be knocking that door down and taking that position soon anyway, but Suarez can and probably will have a nice career as a utility guy/bench bat or a lower division starter. If Suarez could stick at shortstop he’d become immensely more valuable, but that ship may have sailed at this point.
Offensively, Adam Duvall is a one trick pony. In an era where everyone is popping home runs it makes that skill less valuable, but he was still worth 2.8 fWAR in 2016. To reproduce that in 2017 he would have to be a +10 defender again, and that’s not something you project for a player unless there’s a track record of years and years of production, which there isn’t in this case. Scott Schebler looks like he can be an average regular, and being that he was basically an extra piece in the Todd Frazier trade that’s a bit of a coup for the Reds front office. Jose Peraza is quite an intriguing player, and Jeff Sullivan wrote a piece that’s worth reading about him. Zack Cozart is probably trade bait, because the front office wants to see what they have in Dilson Herrera, and the catching situation is shaky due to the questionable health of Devin Mesoraco. The last time Mesoraco actually played for an extended period of time he hit quite well, but that 147 wRC+ of 2014 feels like a decade ago at this point. If Mesoraco can’t go Tucker Barnhart is at least competent.
Defensively, for all the bad things about this team over the past few years, they’ve always managed to be pretty solid defensively, and the same was true in 2016. The Reds were 5th in the league in PADE (that’s park adjusted defensive efficiency), and were more down in the middle of the pack according to UZR coming in 12th. Fangraphs is projecting that the Reds will be worth 23.9 runs defensively according to UZR, which would put them in the top 5 again. Use caution with that because it’s harder to project defensive performance than it is offensive performance, but ultimately, it seems that the defense will be a strength once again.
The strength is up the middle, as it always seems to be with good defensive teams, and the linchpin of that effort is Billy Hamilton. Hamilton has been in double figures in UZR every season that he’s played and the eye test backs it up. If Zack Cozart is on the team, he should be his usual steady if not spectacular self at shortstop. It’s not clear if people realize it, because no one ever talks about him, but Zack Cozart, since his first full season in 2012, has been the 4th best shortstop in baseball by UZR/150. Adam Duvall warrants a mention; even though left field isn’t a premium defensive position, any season where you are a +11 defender deserves some kudos.
Now, things get a bit uglier. We’ve established that the bullpen should be better, because it can’t possibly get any worse and the personnel should be different enough for things to improve. We’ve established that the offense is likely a middle of the pack offense, and we’ve established that the team should be pretty good defensively. So, what in the world is the problem? The starting pitching, silly! This is still going to be a very young rotation, unless Scott Feldman makes it in, in which case it’ll be one old guy and four kids, at least until Homer Bailey is ready, and one shouldn’t count on Bailey until he’s actually on the mound in a major league game for an extended period. There’s upside here, but it’s a very big stretch to think this team can be competitive with this rotation.
Anthony DeSclafani is solid enough, but if he’s your best guy, then you might be in trouble. He’s a number 3 at best on a good team. Brandon Finnegan found a changeup and pitched very well down the stretch (small sample warning) to a tune of a 2.93 ERA in the second half and 9.2 K/9. He still walked too many guys in that half but it was lower than it was in the first half. If that transformation is real, then Finnegan suddenly becomes one of the guys to watch for a breakout 2017. Robert Stephenson and Cody Reed both struggled a bit in the first time through the league. Stephenson is a bit of an enigma. The stuff is there, but he won’t find sustained success until the command and control improve. Cody Reed is interesting. On the surface, he got bombed, what with his 7.36 ERA and 6.10 FIP, but, oddly enough, BP’s DRA (which they claim is more predictive than both ERA or FIP) had Reed at 4.41, which is just barely below league average. Does this pass the smell test? I’m not sure, but Reed is a guy to watch if it does.
Also, interestingly enough, if you dig deeper into DRA, you will find that the pitcher who lost the most runs in the league due to poor catcher framing in 2016 was none other than Brandon Finnegan. The major culprit on the framing front, as mentioned above, was Ramon Cabrera, and he did start 11 of Finnegan’s 31 starts, so maybe that’s something to also watch for. If you squint really hard, and if Finnegan carries over his second half into this year, and if Stephenson figures it out, and if Reed was just unlucky and it corrects back to the mean, and if Homer Bailey comes back in June and is good, then you’ve got the chance of having an average rotation. But, that’s way too many “ifs” that have to fall your way, so the odds are very, very long. And this team is only going to go as far as the starting rotation can take them.
The final verdict: 73-89
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