by Matt Korte

Will the Reds pitchers miss bats?

Last offseason the Reds “got the pitching.” Nearly every metric show Cincinnati improved their pitching last year, but it’s not hard to get better than Reds pitching staffs of the past five years. One aspect of good pitching is missing bats. Today we will take a look at Whiff Rate and how the Redlegs pitchers stack up against one another and the league as a whole.

Whiff%

Whiff Rate, or Whiff%, is a stat used to measure the percentage of swings where a pitcher’s throw is swung on and missed. Now, before we get in too deep, there is an important distinction to make between Whiff Rate and Swinging Strike Rate. Whiff% is calculated by dividing the number of swing and misses by the total number of swings. Swinging Strike Rate (SwStr%) is the number of swing and misses divided by the total number of pitches thrown. So naturally, SwStr% will be lower than Whiff% because it takes into account all pitches thrown, not just those that are swung at.

Both rates have their merits, but I ultimately selected Whiff% for the purposes of this article as it focuses more on pitchers throwing pitches that are hittable enough to be swung at, but are ultimately missed. This is an invaluable skill for pitchers to possess and something that several Reds are already excelling at.

The idea that missing bats leads to better results for pitchers seems logical and there are stats to back it up. As shown above, the higher the Whiff% for a pitcher, the lower the Expected Weighted On-Base Average (xwOBA) is for the hitters they face. Now why is the correlation so strong?

Because swings and misses are correlated with strikeouts. The chart above shows an even stronger correlation between Whiff% and Strikeout Rate (K%). Seems pretty evident why this would be the case, right? The reason I bring this up is because xwOBA not only measures quality of contact, but includes strikeouts and walks as a factor as well. The more frequently a pitcher throws pitches that batters swing and miss at, the more likely the batter will strike out and the less likely he’ll get on base.

Now let’s see how often the Reds missed bats in 2019 and how they look heading into 2020.

(Note: Analysis is of the 13 pitchers projected to make the opening day lineup in Steve Mancuso’s article with the addition of Tyler Mahle as the probable sixth starter.) 

Bad (0-30th Percentile of MLB)

  • Matt Bowman – 19.7%
  • Cody Reed – 22.0%

Near the bottom of the league, Matt Bowman is right around the 10th percentile of the MLB with his 19.7 Whiff%. He is by far the worst Red in this stat, but is actually a bit of an anomaly in terms of Whiff%.

Bowman is one of the dots on the chart previously shown that sticks out from the rest. Despite having a very low Whiff%, Bowman has one of the smallest xwOBAs in the MLB. That raises the question how he is able to maintain a .261 xwOBA while not missing bats. One explanation could be that Bowman has a high ground ball rate (GB%) at 55.6%, which is nearly in the top 30 GB%’s in the league. Even more impressive is that Bowman allows hitters to barrel him up a measly 2.0% of the time. That puts him at third in the league ranks of Barrel% out of qualified pitchers. While Bowman is not able to miss batts, he is able to minimize the damage by forcing batters to hit ground balls and not make solid contact.

Cody Reed is the only player in the article that did not have over 100 batters faced. In fact, Cody Reed only went up against 25 batters before a sprained ligament in his left knee cut his season short in late May. The small sample size puts him in the 20th percentile of the majors, but we should be sure to look at his career rates to see the whole story. It turns out that Reed is typically around the low 20 range in Whiff%, so perhaps his 22.0% in 2019 isn’t that far off base. The southpaw has a below league average career K%, so if he wants to become one of David Bell’s go-to relievers he needs to work on missing more bats.

Below Average (30-50th Percentile of MLB)

  • Wade Miley – 22.9%
  • Tyler Mahle – 23.4%
  • Anthony DeSclafani – 23.6%

One of the first things we heard about Miley after the offseason acquisition was that his 2019 (especially September) was less than stellar, but not necessarily representative of what the veteran could bring to the club. There is still skepticism that Derek Johnson can help him repeat his 2018 numbers, but here we will observe him through the lens of Whiff%. Miley has traditionally been a ground ball pitcher, with his Whiff% in the 19% range early in his career. The leftie has more recently started to improve his Whiff rate, as it has gone up the past three seasons. But he still stands as the worst starting pitcher on the Reds staff in terms of Whiff%.

With his improvements in Whiff% in recent years, Miley is not too far behind 2019 starters Tyler Mahle and Anthony DeSclafani. Mahle posted a below average Whiff%, but was able to keep his walk rate (BB%) below the league average as well. Averaging out between the two rates, Mahle was able to limit his batters to a league average xwOBA of .318 on the year. One thing to note on Mahle is that he pitches in the strike zone more than any other Reds pitcher. Mahle puts the ball in the zone 48.4% of the time which certainly helps his walk rate stay low.

Anthony DeSclafani rounds out the Reds pitchers who are below average in Whiff%. DeSclafani has seen a healthy increase in Whiff% throughout his past four full seasons and his K% has gone up gradually as a result. A reason for this could be the emergence of his curve as a put-away pitch. DeSclafani’s curveball missed 38.6% of bats which led to an xwOBA of just .187 when using the curve. It might behoove DeSclafani to find a way to mix in his curveball more often in 2020.

Good (70-80th Percentile of MLB)

  • Sonny Gray – 28.4%
  • Trevor Bauer – 29.4%
  • Pedro Strop – 29.7%

The remainder of the Reds pitching staff is well above average when it comes to Whiff%, if not some of the best in the majors. A full five percentage points higher than the likes of Mahle and DeSclafani, Sonny Gray pitched a masterful comeback season in 2019 thanks in large part to an improved Whiff%. His K% skyrocketed to a career high 29.0% which resulted in a 3.65 expected fielding independent pitching (xFIP) which was a smidge below his 3.69 xFIP in his 2015 Cy Young candidate season.

While Gray has improved at making batters swing and miss, he still struggles with control at times. Batters facing Gray swing at his pitches less than any other Reds pitcher. A large factor for this is his tendency to throw outside of the strike zone as seen in the chart. As expected, this leads to an above average BB%. It’s alright to throw around the zone if batters are tempted to chase, but Gray has a below league average Chase% as well. This is something that Gray will need to keep in check moving forward.

Trevor Bauer’s 2019 was disappointing in comparison to his 2018 performance. The pitcher, known for going deep into games, saw his Whiff% dip down to 29.4% in 2019. Not only were batters making contact on his pitches, they were making quality contact with an 8.6 Barrel%. The high number of barrels connecting with Bauer’s pitches led to an above average Hard Hit % of 37.3 and a career high launch angle of 16.0. As is expected, Bauer’s Fly Ball Ratio (FB%) reached a four year high of 40.4% and ultimately a league average 15.3 HR/FB%. Even though Bauer was in the top quarter of the league in Whiff%, he could stand to miss a few more bats in the year to come, or at least force weaker contact from hitters.

Pedro Strop also had an underwhelming season in 2019, but his Whiff% was still one of the best on the Cubs. His 29.7 Whiff% was his worst in six years, but still put him as the third best Cub. What’s most impressive for the Reds is that he would have been seventh in their ranks for 2019, giving credit to how far the pitching staff has come around in just a year. Before 2019, the former Cub had been able to limit hard contact, having a Hard Hit % in the bottom 10th percentile of the league three out of the past four years. In 2019 his Hard Hit % jumped up to 35.9% which was well over the league average along with an extremely high Barrel% of 9.6. Regardless of whether Strop is hit hard or not, the Reds can count on him to miss a high percentage of bats.

Very Good (80-90th Percentile of MLB)

  • Michael Lorenzen – 31.0%

Michael Lorenzen is a Statcast darling. Not only is he missing bats more than 80% of major league pitchers, Lorenzen is one of the top pitchers in Barrel% and Average Exit Velocity (Avg EV). His excellence in these two metrics lead to one of the better Hard Hit Rates in the MLB at 28.9%. It comes as no surprise that Lorenzen’s ability to minimize quality contact led to an xFIP of 3.97 in 2019.

Elite (90-95th Percentile of MLB)

  • Raisel Iglesias – 34.0%
  • Lucas Sims – 34.1%

For as much grief as Reds fans gave Raisel Iglesias last year, he is still elite at missing bats. To make batters whiff on over a third of their swings is nothing to scoff at. It’s one of the reasons he posted a career high K% of 31.9. Iglesias saw a noticeable shift in the batted ball profiles of the batters he faced. Last season the Cuban closer gave up fewer ground balls (31.1%) than he ever has in his career and forced significantly more pop ups (13.2%) than his previous four seasons in the league. As one would suspect, this meant that batters were getting under Iglesias’ pitches nearly 8.0% more than the league average. The result of this was a staggering 20.2 launch angle. Strikeouts and pop ups can be a recipe for success, but Iglesias underperformed compared to his expected stats (.311 wOBA vs .280 xwOBA). The hope in 2020 is that he can return to his career averages and be the lights-out closer that the Reds need at the back of their bullpen.

Matt Wilkes wrote a fantastic piece on how Lucas Sims is transitioning to a full time bullpen role this season and could be due for a pitch mix switch. Matt hit the nail on the head with Sims here. Sims relies on his four seamer heavily, throwing it half of the time. The problem is batters’ Whiff% on his fastball is a pedestrian 26.5%. On the other hand, his slider has an astonishing Whiff% of 55.2%, yet he only throws it 19.0% of the time. Don’t get me wrong, Sims is in this elite category for a reason and his 32.2 K% proves that. Yet, if he could utilize his slider more often, Sims could easily be in top echelon of Whiff%.

Super-Elite (95-100th Percentile of MLB)

  • Luis Castillo – 36.0%
  • Amir Garrett – 38.7%
  • Robert Stephenson – 39.3%

Luis Castillo is an ace. Among starting pitchers, Castillo is third in the entire league in Whiff%, only trailing superstars Gerit Cole and Blake Snell. Castillo started to lean on his dynamic changeup more in 2019 and it paid off as batters whiffed on it 48.0% of the time. Another benefit of Castillo’s increased changeup usage was his high rate of players making weak contact at 6.4%. Castillo’s ability to sit batters down at a high rate with his changeup is truly spectacular. 2020 will show us if the rest of the league is able to adjust against him, or if he will be able to continue his dominance from the mound.

2019 could be considered a success for the Reds bullpen. Often the weakest part of the club, the Redlegs found two bona fide pitchers in these next two relievers. Amir Garrett proved he was more than just a lefty specialist. Garrett began to feature his slider and it paid dividends, with 54.3% of batters missing it when swinging. His success wasn’t limited to left handed batters though, with his impressive 46.7 Whiff%. If Garrett would have faced solely right handed hitters, he still would have a 32.9 Whiff%, keeping him in the “Elite” bracket as the top ten percent of the league. Even with new MLB rules forcing relievers to pitch a minimum of a full inning, David Bell should rest easy knowing he can count on Garrett to make batters on both sides of the plate miss.

The most pleasant surprise of 2019 was the development of Robert Stephenson. His Whiff% alone speaks volumes to just how far the starter turned reliever has come. Prior to last season, Stephenson was seen as yet another first round pick of the Reds that never amounted to anything. That all changed in 2019, his last chance to make it with the club as he was out of options. Similar to Garrett, he utilized his slider more and flipped the script in 2019, excelling in a myriad of metrics. So much so that it’s difficult for me to pick and choose which ones to discuss. In terms of Whiff%, Stephenson was fifth in the league with his 39.3%. His strikeout rate was towards the top of the MLB as well at 30.9%. When he did allow contact, it wasn’t hard as his Hard Hit % of 26.8 was in the top two percent of the majors. Finally, Stephenson’s xwOBA also registered in the top two percent of the league at .250. Stephenson righted the ship last season, and if he continues to make bats miss with the best in the league, he will stay on course.

What to expect from the 2020 Reds   

The 2019 Reds were one of the best teams in baseball in terms of Whiff%. When looking at the pitching staffs around them, it’s clear that the Reds “got the pitching” and that they belong in the discussion for the best staff not only in the National League, but in all of Major League Baseball. The best part is the Reds got better with the additions of Miley and Strop along with pitching guru Kyle Boddy. Expect the Reds to stay at the top of the league in Whiff% this upcoming season.

One more thing of note, five of the top six teams in Whiff% in 2019 were in the divisional round of last years’ postseason.

The only team not to make it? The Reds.

[Featured image: https://twitter.com/Reds/status/1026899197063294976/photo/1]

Matt Korte is a lifelong Reds fan despite living most of his life in Michigan. The first five years of his life were spent in Cincinnati, but Matt became a lifetime fan when revisiting Cincinnati and watching Brandon Phillips hit a grand slam to defeat a Barry Bonds led Giants team in 2007 with his father. He hopes to one day see a Cincinnati sports team advance in the playoffs for the first time in his lifespan. A recent BS and MBA graduate, Matt currently works at Concordia University Ann Arbor as the Assistant Sports Information Director. When not working, you can find him consuming as much Reds, Bengals, fantasy sports, Star Wars, and Survivor content as possible. You can catch Matt on Twitter at @MKorte7815 where he can be found discussing all of the above.

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Jonathan Detwiler
Jonathan Detwiler
7 months ago

Good work Korte. Keep it up!

Tyler Tweedale
Tyler Tweedale
7 months ago

Don’t love the Reds, but love the content Korte!