by Steve Mancuso,  Reds Top 10 of the Decade

The best seasons of Reds starting pitching this decade

Today’s Top-10 Reds of the Decade looks at starting pitching individual seasons. The formula I’m using is adding the WAR calculation from FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference. Their formulas for pitching WAR are quite different. While I prefer FanGraphs if forced to choose, the combination has added strength. I like using WAR here (instead of ERA, xFIP etc.) because it is adjusted for ballpark and run environment. The huge swing in offense over the decade makes such an adjustment appropriate to account for screwing around with the baseball. Also, WAR is a compiling stat, so it puts value on durability. I’m listing only eight here because of a clear-cut gap between #8 and #9. 

The eight best Starting Pitching individual seasons for the Reds for the decade 2010-19: 

8. Mat Latos (2012) – 6.2 combined WAR

The Reds acquired Mat Latos in December 2011 in a bolt-from-the-blue trade engineered by GM Walt Jocketty. Latos was a 24-year-old rising ace with the San Diego Padres. He had put together two superb seasons in 2010 and 2011, earning a few Cy Young votes in his rookie season. The trade was classic Jocketty, add a big major league piece to an already good club. The Reds had won the NL Central in 2010 but amid front office complacency the team dropped off in 2011. That would not be the case heading into 2012. In this blockbuster of a trade, the Reds gave up first baseman Yonder Alonso and catcher Yasmani Grandal — first-round picks who were seen as being blocked — along with an inconsistent starting major league pitcher in Edinson Volquez and a solid bullpen arm in Brad Boxberger.

Latos showed no negative effects moving to a smaller ballpark and paid immediate dividends for the Reds. He joined Johnny Cueto, Bronson Arroyo, Mike Leake and Homer Bailey in a historic starting rotation that missed only one start (in a double-header) all season. Latos made 33 starts and pitched 209.1 innings. He posted the second-best ERA (3.48) and xFIP (3.79) on the staff. Latos’ strikeout rate dropped a bit from his time with San Diego, but he still struck out 185 batters. 

After a season with no injuries to the starting pitchers, the Reds lost Johnny Cueto 8 pitches into the NLDS in San Francisco. Latos subbed for Cueto in Game One, pitching four innings and giving up just one run. Latos next pitched in the ill-fated Game Five of the NLCS. He had thrown four shut-out innings against the Giants before surrendering six runs in the 5th, including the grand slam by Buster Posey on a 2-2 count. Latos had already given up two runs when he faced Posey. Dusty Baker, of course, managed the game like it was the regular season instead of an elimination game. With a superb bullpen (Sam Lecure, Jonathan Broxton, Sean Marshall, Aroldis Chapman) at the ready, and Bronson Arroyo and Homer Bailey available, Baker let the game get out of hand.

7. Johnny Cueto (2011) – 6.6 combined WAR

The Reds signed Johnny Cueto as an 18-year-old out of the Dominican Republic in 2004. Four years later, he debuted on a sunlit afternoon at Great American Ball Park against the Arizona Diamondbacks. Cueto struck out 10 Diamondbacks in the first 5 innings. During the first two years of his major league career, Cueto was plagued by inconsistency and high pitch counts while making 30+ starts each season. Most people consider 2011 his breakout year, but a close look shows in many ways he was equally effective in 2010. Before the 2011 season, Cueto and the Reds agreed to a 4-year contract for $27 million through 2014 with a $10 million team option in 2015. This had the effect of buying out two years of Cueto’s free agency. 

Then in 2011, a season that was otherwise filled with Reds complacency, home town fans really started talking about Johnny Cueto. Cueto tossed three complete games. His ERA (2.31) was second in MLB but his xFIP (3.90) was just 6oth. Cueto’s strikeout rate (16.5%) was below league average and his walk rate (7.5%) was right at average. What Cueto did well was induce ground balls (53.7%) at which he was a top-5 starter. Despite all that success, doubts lingered whether the gap between his ERA and xFIP foretold a regression the following season.

6. Homer Bailey (2013) – 7.1 combined WAR

The Reds selected Homer Bailey out of La Grange High School with the #7 overall pick of the 2004 draft. After just 13 starts at AA and 12 starts at AAA, the Reds called up Bailey to debut in 2007. Bailey spent part of the next few seasons splitting time between AAA and the Reds, finally making the rotation for good in 2011. His first full major league season was 2012, with 33 starts and 208 IP. But 2013 was his best season. Bailey finished in the top-20 of MLB starting pitchers in xFIP (3.34), K% (23.4%), fastball velocity (94.1 mph) and innings pitched (209). In 17 of his 32 starts, he held opponents to 2 earned runs or fewer. Bailey threw the second of his no-hitters in 2013, this one in GABP on July 2 against the San Francisco Giants. He struck out 9 and walked 1.

After 2013, with one year of team control remaining, Bailey signed a 6-year contract for $105 million. At the time, he was 27 years old and coming off two outstanding seasons of not missing a start and throwing over 200 innings. But he was never to pitch an entirely healthy season again for the Reds. He was hurt through most of his 23 starts in 24 before undergoing flexor mass right elbow surgery. Bailey then made only two starts in 2015 before ending the season with Tommy John surgery. He had a half-dozen starts in mid-2016 before shutting down again and undergoing bone spur surgery. Bailey made 18 starts in 2017 and 20 starts in 2018.

The Reds traded Homer Bailey to the LA Dodgers last offseason, in the final year of his contract extension, as part of the deal that brought Yasiel Puig and Alex Wood to the Reds. The Dodgers released Bailey and he caught on with the Kansas City Royals where he pitched until traded at the deadline to the Oakland A’s who were in postseason contention. Bailey made 31 starts in 2019. He’s now a free agent.

5. Mat Latos (2013) – 8.6 combined WAR

Mat Latos followed up his outstanding 2012 season for the Reds with an even more dominant 2013. He once again made all his starts and pitched 210 innings. For the fourth year in a row, he struck out 180+ batters. Beside Johnny Cueto, Latos is the only Reds starter to appear more than once on this list. In 2013, his ERA (3.16) led the Reds pitching staff and xFIP (3.56) was second. In 19 of his starts, he held the opposing team to two runs or fewer. 

Latos, Bailey, Arroyo and Cueto all turned in strong seasons, repeating with 30+ starts, but Cueto dealt with injuries through the year. With the Reds fighting the Pirates for home field advantage in the Wild Card play-in game, Latos pitched a gem against the New York Mets in his final regular season start. He gave up one run over seven innings in a losing cause, as the Reds fell 1-0. Latos would have pitched in the play-in game but was suffering from elbow bone spurs and held out. The Reds had gone 93-69, then lost the play-in game. Dusty Baker was fired a few days later. 

Latos pitched one more season for the Reds, making 16 excellent starts in 2014. He began spring on the DL with knee surgery, then aggravated the injury in rehab, went back on the 60-day DL and didn’t pitch for the Reds until mid-June. With one year of team control remaining, the Reds traded Latos to the Miami Marlins for Anthony DeSclafani and catcher Chad Wallach. Latos never returned to the form he’d showed in San Diego and Cincinnati. He pitched for the Marlins, Dodgers, Angels, White Sox, Nationals and Blue Jays over the next three seasons, making a total of 36 starts.

4. Luis Castillo (2019) – 8.8 combined WAR

It wasn’t the 97-mph fastball banging the radar guns that made the young players ooh and aah at Reds spring training in March 2017. It was the cambio. The changeup. Luis Castillo’s changeup. And that pitch is still turning heads — now of major league hitters. The San Francisco Giants signed 19-year-old Luis Castillo out of the Dominican Republic. Because Castillo had only two pitches. The Giants assigned the right-hander to the bullpen. The Marlins acquired Castillo in 2015 and tried him as a starter. Even though he was the #1 or #2 player in their system, the Miami Marlins saw fit to trade Castillo (and two other players) to the Reds for Dan Straily. To be fair, scouts were split on Castillo. 

Castillo’s 2017 debut with the Reds straight out of AA was on an accelerated schedule due to his level of performance in the minor leagues and the unfolding catastrophe of the Reds rotation. Castillo made 15 starts in 2017 and 31 more in 2018. He flashed a one of the league’s fastest fastballs and that cambio. But Luis Castillo was at his best in 2019, especially once he got his walk-rate under control. Over 32 starts and 190 innings, Castillo put up a 3.48 xFIP (12th best in MLB), a career-high 28.9% strikeout rate (13th best in MLB) and a 55.2% ground ball rate (2nd best in MLB). Castillo’s fastball velocity was in the 92nd percentile. A stretch of 9 games with a 4.5% walk-rate in July and August brought his too-high numbers down. But it was back up to 12.6% in September.

Castillo has four more seasons of team control remaining. He’ll pitch again this year for league minimum salary. Castillo was the subject of trade fantasy this offseason and at the 2019 trade deadline. But there’s no evidence the Reds are even contemplating moving their valuable starter.

3. Johnny Cueto (2012) – 9.5 combined WAR

Johnny Ceuto didn’t wait long to put his stamp on the 2012 season. He took the ball on opening day and shutout the Miami Marlins for seven innings. Those were the Marlins with peak Jose Reyes, Hanley Ramirez and Giancarlo Stanton. Cueto led that outstanding 2012 Reds rotation in ERA (2.78) and xFIP (3.65). He threw two more complete games and was among league leaders with 33 starts. Cueto raised his K% from 16.5 to 19.1 and dropped his BB% from 7.5% to a then career-best 5.5%, good for 15th best for MLB starters. 2012 was the first time Cueto had passed the 200-IP mark, throwing 217. He had a streak of 11 games without giving up a home run. In 22 of his 33 starts, he gave up two runs or fewer.

In his final 2012 regular season start, Cueto threw 7 innings against the Pittsburgh Pirates, giving up 1 run and striking out six batters. Cueto led the Reds to a 97-win season and another NL Central championship. He finished fourth in the 2012 Cy Young voting. He started Game One for Dusty Baker in the 2012 NLDS, but sadly only made it through 8 pitches because of a strained back muscle.

2. Sonny Gray (2019) – 10.0 combined WAR

The numbers from Sonny Gray’s first season with the Reds told a success story in black and white. His reunion with college pitching coach Derek Johnson produced the second-best individual season for a Reds starting pitcher this decade. Last January, the Reds acquired Gray from the New York Yankees for second base prospect Shed Long and the Reds’ 2019 Competitive Balance Round A pick.

But many Reds fans had looked at Gray’s ERA (4.90) with the Yankees and thought the price of that draft pick and Shed Long was too high for a pitcher who would need a “rebound” season to make the trade worthwhile. But Gray’s xFIP (4.10) told a different story. During a formal 72-hour window, the Reds and Gray reached agreement on a 3-year, $30.5 million contract extension covering 2020-22. Gray was already due $7.5 million for 2019 under his final season before free agency. The extension covers Gray’s age 30-32 seasons. The Reds also have a $12 million option for 2023.

The 29-year-old posted his best season in 2019. With improvement in his fastball spin rate (92nd percentile) and curve spin rate (97th percentile) and a devastating slider, Gray led Reds starters with a 29% strikeout rate, good for #14 in the majors. His ERA (2.87) ranked 7th in the majors and was 36% better than league average. His xFIP (3.65) ranked #17 in MLB and was 18% better than average. Gray also induced a ground-ball rate of 50.8%. He finished 7th in the N.L. Cy Young vote.

1. Johnny Cueto (2o14) – 11.2 combined WAR

2014 was Johnny Cueto’s final full season pitching for the Reds. He made the best of it, posting the best individual season by a Reds pitcher in the 2010s decade. Cueto was looking to bounce back after an injury shortened 2013 season that ended with his start in the play-in loss at PNC Park. His 2014 season made everyone forget that game in Pittsburgh. 2014 was the season Johnny Cueto demanded national recognition.

Opening Day 2014 provided a microcosm of the Reds season. Cueto pitched 7 strong innings, allowing the St. Louis Cardinals just one run. Cueto struck out 8 and walked one, allowing just a solo home run to Yadier Molina. But the Cardinals’ Adam Wainwright was even better, shutting out the Reds for 7 innings. The Cardinals won 1-0. The Reds finished the season 76-86 and began their lost half-decade.

But Johnny Cueto was a bright spot. He led MLB with 34 starts, 243.2 innings pitched and 242 strikeouts. Cueto threw 4 complete games, two were shutouts. In 23 of his 34 games, Cueto pitched at least 7 innings, and in 15 of those, at least 8. He had a streak of six games pitching 8 or 9 innings. Cueto’s 2.25 ERA from 2014 remains the best of his career, as was his 3.21 xFIP. That ERA was 39% better than league average and third best in MLB, behind Clayton Kershaw, Felix Hernandez and Chris Sale. Cueto finished 2nd, behind Kershaw, in the N.L. Cy Young vote.

Bryan Price, who had been Cueto’s pitching coach and had become his manager in 2014, attributed Cueto cutting down on his waste pitches for high success and higher innings count. “I’ve talked to Johnny about empty pitches, pitches that are thrown that don’t really serve a purpose, that don’t mean anything the real high fastball or the slider that misses way outside. He has thrown so few of those empty pitches this year, the pitches that don’t serve a purpose. He is around the plate with everything and when he’s not, he is teasing the hitter with a pitch just off the plate or just below the zone or just above the zone.”

With just a couple months of team control left, the Reds traded Cueto at the 2015 mid-season deadline to the Kansas City Royals for Brandon Finnegan, Cody Reed and John Lamb. Cueto pitched in four post-season games for the Royals. Three of his starts weren’t so great. But Cueto threw a 9-inning two-hit gem in Game Two of the World Series against the Mets. Cueto became a free agent and the San Francisco Giants signed him to a 6-year, $130 million contract through 2021 with a 2022 team option for $22 million. Cueto had two outstanding seasons 2015 and 2016 for the Giants and was the N.L. starting pitcher in the 2016 All Star game. But his 2017-2019 seasons were filled with injury and Tommy John surgery. Cueto made four limited starts in September 2019. 

[Featured Image: Shawna Pairan, license]

Steve Mancuso is a lifelong Reds fan who grew up during the Big Red Machine era. He’s been writing about the Reds for more than ten years. Steve’s fondest memories about the Reds include attending a couple 1975 World Series games, being at Homer Bailey’s second no-hitter and going nuts for Jay Bruce at Clinchmas. Steve was also at all three games of the 2012 NLDS, but it’s too soon to talk about that.