2014 Preview: Cincinnati Reds | Disciples of Uecker

Disciples of Uecker

We'd like to go to the Playoffs, that would be cool.

From June 21 through the end of the 2013 season, the Cincinnati Reds stood in third place in the NL Central for all but a handful of days. One can see their season as a failure, viewing only their last week, during which they lost six consecutive games to fall completely out of the NL Central race, as well as the Wild Card game at Pittsburgh. On the other hand, it’s ridiculous to think of any 90-win season as a failure, especially one in which the Reds climbed back into the NL Central race in early August, shifting from five or six games out to two or three off the Cardinals’ pace. While some believe that the Wild Card play-in game is not really a playoff game, the Reds at least had the reward of playing for a spot in the NLDS for their strong season. In other seasons, Cincinnati would have been the divisional favorite with 90 wins.

2013 Reds Preview
2012 Reds Preview

After a disappointing 2011 season, last season solidified the Reds’ place as one of the NL Central’s current elite. The Cincinnati Nine claim two of the last four division championships, as well as their 2013 Wild Card play-in. With several members of their core locked up longterm — most recently, hurler Homer Bailey — the Reds have a veteran model ready for success in the next three or four seasons. Still, despite their generally aging, expensive core (not that I’d complain about Brandon Phillips, Joey Votto, and Jay Bruce), the Reds have also graduated a number of organizational players to their big league squad. Last year, Tony Cingrani served as an able replacement to Johnny Cueto, and Devin Mesoraco served behind the plate; this year, speed phenom Billy Hamilton is poised to play his first full season if his bat holds in the big leagues.

The Reds boast a different competitive model than their rival Cardinals and Pirates, as they have more prominently used trades and free agency to build their contending clubs. Yet, they are still generally living the dream of building a solid core and signing that core longterm. Now that they’re beyond the terms of controllable contracts and hometown discounts, it is time for the Reds to continue their consecutive quests for playoff spots and division championships.

Lost Improvement
My own feelings about the 2013 Reds are conflicted, since they were so close to the Division title at the end of the season. I don’t want to call a 90-win season disappointing, but there are real questions to ask of the club’s performance. Specifically, although the Reds outplayed their run differential by six wins in 2012, they underplayed their expected W-L record in 2013.

Year Batting (vs. AVG) Pitching (vs. AVG) Expected W Actual W
2012 -42 RS -120 RA 90 97
2013 +31 RS -82 RA 93 90

In 2012, the Reds overcame a below average offense with their exceptional bullpen and solid starting pitching staff. By riding a 3.92 starters runs average, and a 2.98 bullpen runs average, the Reds’ pitchers were approximately 120 runs better than average; this easily made up for the offense that was 42 runs below average. On the other hand, the 2013 Reds were largely driven by a balance between offense and pitching; their pitching declined by nearly 40 runs (they were still 82 runs better than average), but their bats improved by more than 70 runs. With this improvement, the Reds went from approximately 90 expected wins in 2012 to 93 expected wins in 2013. Unfortunately, Dusty Baker was unable to earn the best possible record from his batters and pitchers.

Why is this important? While one might be inclined to think that the idea of judging a club against their Runs Scored / Runs Allowed is an abstract exercise, this type of judgment can become important in a pennant race. The Reds could not capitalize on their strong balance between offense and pitching, while their immediate competitor, the Pittsburgh Pirates, outplayed their run differential by six wins. While Cincinnati should have won 93 games based on their actual runs scored and allowed, the Pirates should have won 88; this directly impacts the home field advantage in the Wild Card game. One might scoff that it’s only one game, but if you’re going to rest your NLDS chances on one game, you’d like to bat last. There should be no question about that.

It is also worth noting that the Reds did not fail to match their run differential for any grand reason. While they did not win as many one-run games as they did in 2012, the Reds still were respectable at 27-22 in one-run contests. Ironically, although the Reds went 25-15 in blowouts, their win total did not match their run differential for that set of games. This suggests that the Reds’ run differential could simply have been impacted by a number of grand blowouts — 15-0, 13-4, 11-1, 11-2, 10-0, 12-2, 13-4, 11-0, 10-0, and 10-0 were their best victories (106 RS / 13 RA). Outside of those ten games, the Reds were a 592 RS / 576 RA team. While it’s ridiculous to suggest that 10 games alone can determine a ballclub’s season, it’s rather clear that the Reds’ blowouts did tilt the run differential scales. Subtracting those blowouts, one would expect the Reds to go 78-74 in their remaining games; that they went 80-72 completely inverts the previous judgment that Baker’s Reds did not capitalize on every single opportunity to win.

Month One-Run Games
April 7-5
May 4-2
June 3-5
July 2-6
August 4-1
September 7-3

Finally, the Reds’ losing streak to close the season looks extreme, but their one-run performance over the last two months of the season helped them climb back into the NL Central race. In fact, one might argue that the Reds were rather clutch down the stretch; they reversed a 5-11 June and July with an 11-4 performance in one-run games during August and September. It might be incredibly unsatisfactory, but Reds fans can simply hang their season on the fact that sometimes really good teams simply go on losing streaks. The timing for the last week’s streak was terrible, but had they opened the season 0-5, fans and analysts would have said, “there is no way this team makes the playoffs.” So, pick your poison, I guess — teams cannot always hide losing streaks in the dog days of summer.

Votto’s Intentional Walks
Poor Joey Votto.

One of my favorite narratives of the 2013 season — and, into the 2013-2014 offseason — is the issue of Joey Votto’s inability to produce RBI. The idea goes that Votto is too eager to take a walk, instead of slightly expanding his strike zone in order to knock a batted ball into play for sacrifice flies (and other excellent out-related plays). I love this narrative because, first and foremost, Votto has an exceptional plate approach. Seriously, one could not ask for a better approach at the plate; you’d teach your kid this approach, because it’s extremely simple. Drive the ball, and don’t swing at pitches that are not yours to hit. A lot of different analysts have written about this, so I’m not touching on anything new here, but there’s a sense that fans want the game to be active, that if only they had the hitting ability or swing of Votto, they’d be swinging aggressively and hitting every time (or, successfully producing sacrifice flies).

Secondly, I love this type of debate because of baseball fans’ extreme faith in the “sacrifice” plays. It’s impossible to argue with any baseball fan when they say, “Player X should have bunted over Runner Y,” or “Player Z should have hit a flyball to drive in Runner B.” Did you ever notice that, in such hypothetical situations, the bunt attempt never pops up? Or the pitcher never sniffs out a sacrifice and picks off the runner? Or the batter never whiffs while trying to hit the ball in the air? These types of suggestions for Votto are ridiculous because the fact is, if Votto expanded the strike zone more, and swung more at pitches that were not his to hit, he could probably miss the ball more, make poor contact, etc. No one upholds the batter that expands the strike zone, only to hit an easy ground ball that ends up with the defense throwing out the runner at home.

Plate discipline is such a difficult area of the game to analyze, because a player, essentially, can only truly be disciplined if he only swings at his pitch. Unfortunately, no matter how advanced our metrics become, we will never really be able to tell whether batters’ swings connect to the pitches they thought they saw. Sometimes it’s easy to see when a batter is fooled, but I gather that batters are fooled more often then we know; plate discipline remains a murky concept that we can only outline without truly knowing.

The final reason that I love this debate is the sheer extent to which Votto has the bat taken out of his hands. In the last five years, only Albert Pujols, Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder, Adrian Gonzalez, and David Ortiz received more intentional walks than Votto. Opposing pitchers intentionally walked Votto 70 times with 97 runners on base. In 2013, those walks were especially tough on Votto, as pitchers placed him on first base in 20% of his “sacrifice fly chances.” Despite being placed on base in 11 of 53 opportunities, Votto still produced six sacrifice flies. Out of 26 batted balls in play during plate appearances with a runner on third and less than two outs, Votto collected six hits, too; so, he either hit a sacrifice fly, collected a hit, or walked in 55% of his sacrifice fly opportunities.

Votto IBB 2 out 1 out No Outs
2nd 3rd 2nd and 3rd 2nd 3rd 2nd and 3rd 1st and 3rd 2nd and 3rd
TOTAL 30 5 6 7 7 11 1 3
2009 7 2 1
2010 1 2 2 1 1 1
2011 8 1 1 1 3 1
2012 9 2 2 1 3 1
2013 5 1 2 4 5 1 1

It’s difficult to calculate an actual number of “lost runs” for Votto’s bat during these 70 intentional walks. However, it is easy to see that these intentional walks greatly impacted Votto’s ability to produce runs; even if you think Votto only lost 10 runs in these situations, that’s still worth at least one full win to the Reds over five seasons (maybe more, if we take the specific situations into account). However, the impact may be even greater than 10 runs. At his 2013 rate of 19 RBI per 42 non-IBB-sacrifice-fly-situations, those intentional walks cost Votto at least five runs of production; at that rate, these intentional walks may have cost Votto as many as 25-30 runs of production between 2009 and 2013.

Of course, suggestions that Votto should change his approach are so ridiculous that not only sites like Hardball Times, but MLB.com itself, have debunked such ideas. Votto won’t change his plate approach, because his plate approach is excellent. He should teach his plate approach to the entire National League. If you’re ever inclined to doubt Votto’s clutch ability, the pitchers speak louder than anyone; if Votto was truly an easy case in sacrifice-fly situations, pitchers would not intentionally walk him at such a staggering rate.

Billy Hamilton’s Discipline
If one searches around the internet, there are all sorts of scouting reports to be found on phenom Billy Hamilton’s speed. According to some, scouts rave about “90″ speed on the 20-to-80 scale; however, Hamilton’s bat and power receive much less praise. In the most dramatic quotes, some question whether the “Hamilton experiment” will even work. There’s a great sense where the rest of us will have to hold our breath during 2013, and wait and see on this speedy youngster. Fortunately, there are also ways to determine whether Hamilton’s approach will work.

Hamilton’s plate discipline might be his most underrated skill. In fact, this attribute might be more important than his speed, for everyone knows that batters cannot steal first base. Throughout his upper-minors career, Hamilton’s walk and strike out rates suggest that the youngster has solid potential to manage the zone. While his 2013 walks declined, his strike outs also declined while his homers increased. Overall, even a 7% walk rate is not bad, especially when the consensus is that the Reds are rushing Hamilton to the big leagues. One must remember that Hamilton split 2012 between A-ball and AA; a conservative development approach might have had Hamilton start 2013 at AA, too. Given that Hamilton’s stolen base attempts and overall production dropped in AAA, one might be able to explain his discipline shift as an encounter with tough competition, rather than a decline in ability.

Discipline K% BB% HR BABIP SBAtt%
Hamilton AA 20.2 16.9 0.5 .374 31.5
Southern AA 19.5 9.9 1.7 .298 3.2
Hamilton AAA 18.6 6.9 1.1 .306 16.5
International AAA 20.1 8.9 2.0 .310 2.8

Perhaps Hamilton’s strike outs are most encouraging, since the speedster does not lend an air of being an aggressive, undisciplined swinger. Even if he won’t produce gigantic extra-base hit numbers, it seems that Hamilton also won’t end up as a light-hitting, strike-out prone speedtsre. In basic terms, here’s how his AA and AAA discipline numbers translate to the MLB, if one takes an aggressive and optimistic approach for the youngster:

ONE: 700 PA, 128 K, 42 BB, 10 HR, 6 HBP; 514 BIP, 152 BIPH to 170 BIPH;
170: 140 1B, 23 2B, 7 3B, 247 TB; 652 AB, 180 H, .276 / .326 / .379
152: 125 1B, 20 2B, 7 3B, 226 TB; 652 AB, 162 H, .248 / 300 / .347

TWO: 700 PA, 140 K, 68 BB, 10 HR, 6 HBP; 486 BIP, 144 BIPH to 162 BIPH;
162: 132 1B, 23 2B, 7 3B, 239 TB; 626 AB, 172 H, .275 / .351 / .382
144: 117 1B, 20 2B, 7 3B, 218 TB; 626 AB, 154 H, .246 / .326 / .348

THREE: 700 PA, 140 K, 42 BB, 10 HR, 6 HBP; 502 BIP, 149 BIPH to 167 BIPH;
167: 136 1B, 24 2B, 7 3B, 245 TB; 652 AB, 177 H, .271 / .321 / .376
149: 121 1B, 21 2B, 7 3B, 224 TB; 652 AB, 159 H, .244 / .296 / .344

There are obviously some cases where Hamilton could have a difficult first shot at the majors. If pitchers can exploit holes in his swing, or perhaps hammer him high in the zone where some scouts say he can’t handle fastballs as well), perhaps Hamilton’s overall discipline profile will not hold up. However, MLB.com is already reporting that the Reds like to see Hamilton’s fight at the plate in spring training, and their management is noting that Hamilton can foul off pitches and extend plate appearances. Hamilton’s minor league record suggests that if he can handle tough plate appearances, he knows how to draw a walk, and that he does not appear to be a sucker for aggressively swinging his way on base.

Hamilton’s discipline could be crucial for the Reds, for there are two clear reasons that his speed might not make as grand an impact as some dream (certainly, it’s difficult to translate 155 stolen bases in the mid-to-high minors into MLB environment).

(1) The Reds batting order in general is not necessarily built for power / speed or speed-based batting strategies.

NL Decade SB/G CS/G Success%
1980-1989 0.899 0.407 .687
1990-1999 0.781 0.347 .692
2000-2009 0.562 0.236 .704
2010-2013 0.600 0.230 .723

(2) The National League, in particular, prefers fewer steals (and higher accuracy) than previous decades.

SB Attempts League per 700 PA Hamilton per 700 PA
AA 22 221
AAA 20 116
NL 13 55

Hamilton’s attempts declined significantly as he moved to the advanced AAA level, which again might only reflect his age and development status versus more experienced minor leaguers. Still, as each level advances, the stolen base becomes less prevalent; if Hamilton’s speed translates at the big league level as it did in AAA, he might not attempt 60 steals over an entire season.

2011-2013 50+ SBAtt SBAtt OBP
2013 Ellsbury 56 .355
2013 E. Young 57 .310
2013 R. Davis 51 .312
2013 Segura 57 .329
2013 Andrus 50 .328
2013 S. Marte 46 .343
2012 Trout 54 .399
2012 R. Davis 59 .309
2012 Bourn 55 .348
2012 Reyes 51 .347
2011 Bourn 75 .349
2011 Crisp 53 .314
2011 Gardner 52 .345
2011 Bonifacio 51 .360
2011 Kemp 51 .399
2011 Stubbs 50 .364
2011 Ellsbury 54 .376

Of course, there are examples of players that attempt significantly more stolen bases than the league average. Interestingly enough, most of these players have solid OBP to correspond to their steal attempts. Rajai Davis is by far the most extreme case; despite a .306 OBP over the last four seasons, he boasts 216 stolen base attempts during 513 times on base. So, I could be completely wrong about Hamilton, in some sense; one might cite Davis as an example of a player that gets by without great batting attributes to dominate in terms of speed. Yet, I think some keys in Hamilton’s batting profile suggest that we ought to expect more than speed from the Reds’ centerfielder.

Tony Cingrani’s Fastball and Replacement Depth
One of Walt Jocketty‘s best decisions of the offseason was to let free agent Bronson Arroyo walk, in favor of his organization’s best young pitcher, Tony Cingrani. The Reds’ southpaw is notable for his fastball, which he favors extensively over any other offering. In fact, there is an argument to be made than Cingrani is a one pitch pitcher. MLB.com reports that Sean Marshall is coaching Cingrani on his slider, which the lefty intends to mask with a fastball delivery. If Cingrani can improve his slider, he is poised to join the ranks of great two-pitch starters. FanGraphs recently provided an excellent feature on several up-and-coming starters with “limited” repertoires, and they even cited past examples of two-pitch starters (Brewers fans will certainly recognize Ben Sheets in that article). While the Reds may miss Arroyo’s durability, they arguably have greater upside (and control years) in their current rotation.

One concerning area for the Reds is their rotational depth. While the organization signed minor league free agents Chien-Ming Wang and Jeff Francis, there is little emergency depth on the Reds’ roster besides Manny Parra and Marshall (who is now arguably too valuable as a short reliever to use as a replacement starter). However, even if the Reds do encounter another injury with Johnny Cueto, it is worth noting that his injuries have not impacted his effectiveness. Beteween 2011 and 2013, Cueto has 216.7 IP and 31 runs prevented for the Reds. Even if the Reds need to scramble for a replacement starter, their top five should be able to provide an excellent base — perhaps the best in the NL, as suggested by DoU‘s Jonathan Judge.

Breakout: Homer Bailey
Fresh off his six-year, $105 million extension, Homer Bailey has arguably completed his circuit from frustrating, potential top prospect to serviceable starter to potential top rotation arm. After a few years in which Bailey’s top prospect status was championed, the righty has delivered two shockingly similar seasons for Cincinnati. Between 2012 and 2013, Bailey shifted from 208 IP and 10 runs prevented to 209 IP at 11 runs better than average.

Why choose Bailey for a break-out season? First and foremost, the righty is returning his Groundball-to-Flyball rate to early career levels while also limiting the home run. Given the consistently of his line drive rate, this is a solid development. According to Brooks Baseball, Bailey has also laid off his riding fastball and slider combination, favoring his split and curve slightly more than in 2012. While it seems there are so many pitchers with declining velocity, Bailey is someone that can be cited for an increase on the radar gun; while this is not significant on its own, it certainly looks good in the context of Bailey’s other improvements. Finally, Bailey’s strike out rate also improved, which gives him a series of solid developments in several different peripheral areas.

If Bailey can keep these developments going into 2014, and mix his pitches while limiting the home run damage, there is reason to believe that he could cross the threshold to a 200+ IP, 15+ runs prevented pitcher. This would place Bailey well on his way to becoming a top rotation starter (and a relative bargain for the Reds).

Best Case Scenario.
The Reds are arguably the NL Central's most prominent "win now" club. They have graduated their best prospects into a veteran core that is ready to compete for an NL Central title each year. They arguably do not have the same "organizational silver lining" that the Cardinals, Cubs, or Pirates have in 2014. What the Reds see on the big league diamond will determine if their season is a success. To get to this point, there are two routes to take. Either the offense and pitching can continue their balanced dominance, as evident in 2013, or their pitching must improve to 2012 levels once again.

Their offense arguably has bigger gains to build off of than their pitching staff, but their pitching staff arguably has more established players (and a newcomer that may be easier to project than Hamilton in CF). But, one Hamilton does not make an offense, and the Reds simply need to find a way to continue to maximize their top veteran bats. If the 2012-to-2013 shift continues to materialize, the Reds could boast 100+ runs above average on offense, and a pitching staff that is 44 runs better than their league and park, giving the club an entirely different look than the previous two years. Certainly, a 94-win Reds team should pace the division, so their best case scenario is really only one of maximizing their elements and actualizing their half-decade dynasty.

2013 Reds Preview
2012 Reds Preview

Resources
BaseballAmerica. Grdinmedia, LLC., 2014.
BaseballProspectus. Prospectus Entertainment Ventures, LLC., 1996-2014.
Baseball-Reference. Sports reference, LLC., 2000-2013.
MLB Advanced Media, LP, 2014.
TexasLeaguers. Trip Somers, 2009-2014.

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