by Steffen Taudal

Who should be the Reds’ fifth starter?

The Reds are in a pretty enviable situation this season. Between Sonny GrayLuis CastilloWade Miley and Tyler Mahle, the Reds may lack a true ace, but have a well-rounded starting rotation that ranks 11th in the Majors in fWAR. Especially now that Gray is healthy and Castillo has rebounded from a rough couple of months to start the year, the Reds hope that the rotation can soar to new heights for the remainder of the season.

The fifth starter spot, though, has been a bit more tenuous.

At the moment the spot is manned by rookie Vladimir Gutiérrez who had a poor performance on Monday against the Mets. In the 15-11 loss he went 4 innings, giving up 6 runs on 9 hits, including 3 homers. In 10 starts this season, the Cuban-born right-hander has looked promising at times, and at others like a rookie. He now has a 4.97 ERA and 5.93 FIP while accumulating -0.1 fWAR. So is Gutiérrez the Reds’ best option, or should they consider a change to round out their rotation?

The Rookies

As mentioned, Gutiérrez hasn’t been a disaster for the Reds, but his percentile rankings on Baseball Savant leave a lot to be desired.

 

Gutiérrez primarily employs a mix of four-seam fastballs and sliders with the occasional curveball. Now, his breaking ball is doing okay. Out of 155 pitchers’ sliders used in at least 50 PAs, Gutiérrez’s slider ranks:

  • 47th in Whiff% (39.8%)
  • 101st in xSLG (.354)
  • 100th in xwOBA (.278)
  • 35th in Hard Hit% (25.6%)

That’s not great. Though Gutiérrez is somehow having less success with his primary pitch: the 4-seamer. Out of 109 pitchers who’ve used a four-seamer in at least 100 PAs, Gutiérrez’s four-seamer ranks:

  • 104th in Whiff% (12.6%)
  • 92ndth in xSLG (.536)
  • 89th in xwOBA (.384)
  • 66th in Hard Hit% (46.7%)

For a pitcher like Gutiérrez, who doesn’t strike out a lot of batters and walks more than his fair share, expected numbers like these don’t exactly inspire a ton of confidence.

I want to throw in another rookie, Tony Santillan, but he and Gutiérrez are not too dissimilar. Santillan is also a four-seamer/slider pitcher and, like Gutiérrez, his breaking ball is quite good, but the fastball is getting killed (.523 xSLG, .397 xwOBA). Also, while Santillan’s 4.34 ERA looks decent, his 5.80 FIP is probably the reason the Reds felt it best to move him to the bullpen.

Bullpen Arms

Another option could be pulling a reliever from the bullpen. The Reds’ two best relievers so far this season, Tejay Antone and Lucas Sims, both have started games in the past three seasons, with Antone starting four games last season and Sims starting four games back in 2019. Another name to throw in would be Michael Lorenzen, who recently returned to the bullpen after spending the first half of the season on the IL. Lorenzen started 2 games just last season.

First, Antone. Without question the Reds’ best reliever this season, Antone is sporting a great 1.87 ERA and 3.17 FIP. And his expected numbers are equally impressive:

With the exception of a couple of stats, these are very encouraging, and would certainly seem to make for a pretty great 5th starter. Furthermore, Antone has proven himself capable of getting out both lefties and righties. Among the 52 relievers with at least 16 IP against lefties, Antone ranks:

  • 20th in FIP (3.35)
  • 5th in xFIP (2.54)
  • 14th in BB% (7.7%)

Meanwhile, among the 173 relievers with at least 16 IP against righties, Antone ranks:

  • 46th in FIP (3.00)
  • 75th in xFIP (3.80)
  • 136th in BB% (11.3%)

How is he doing this? Looking at his pitch selection, his strategy is pretty clear. Against lefties, he uses a mix of his deadly curveball (53.6%) and his sinker (36.5%) to great effect. His curveball has a .190 xwOBA and a 42.9 Whiff% against lefties, while his sinker is a little high, but still within acceptable range for a secondary pitch at .354 xwOBA against lefties.

Meanwhile, against righties, Antone employs a slider/sinker mix to almost equally great effect. He uses his slider 57% of the time against righties and his sinker 28%. Against righties, Antone’s slider has an xwOBA of .255 and a Whiff% of 30.4 while his sinker has an xwOBA of .392.

Overall, there is some room for improvement on the sinker, but his splits are impressive enough to warrant at least a tryout as a starter.

Next up is Sims, who is a tougher nut to crack. His ERA of 5.02 is not pretty, but a .333 BABIP means that his FIP sits at a really good 3.45. Furthermore, his expected stats are actually better than Antone’s. Out of 452 pitchers with at least 50 balls in play, Sims’ xwOBA (.279) ranks 70th, while Antone’s ranks 92nd. Sims’ xSLG (.334) ranks 79th, while Antone’s ranks 112th.

So, is Sims in fact a better choice for a potential tryout as the Reds’ 5th starter? Maybe not. His splits are certainly concerning.

Against righties, Sims can easily call himself among the best relievers in the Majors. Out of the 156 relievers with at least 17 IP against righties, Sims ranks:

  • 14th in FIP (2.15)
  • 17th in xFIP (2.72)
  • 81st in BB% (8.3%)

Pretty darn good, but against lefties he falls apart. Among 168 relievers with at least 11 IP against lefties, Sims ranks:

  • 139th in FIP (5.54)
  • 143rd in xFIP (5.43)
  • 153rd in BB% (16.7%)

So Sims’ BB% doubles against lefties causing his FIP to skyrocket. This is concerning and certainly something that would need to be corrected, if Sims were to get a look as a starter. But before we bury Sims completely, let’s have a look at his pitch data.

Against righties:

As expected, these pitches are working extremely well, with his breaking balls being especially effective.

Against lefties:

Huh. I have to say, I was expecting these numbers to be pretty grim, but these are at worst slightly below average. While none of his pitches are truly dominant against lefties, they are also not bad by any means. For reference, the average xSLG this season is .399 and the average xwOBA is .315.

While I still think Antone would be first in line for a shot at a starting spot, it is encouraging to see that Sims perhaps isn’t as bad against lefties as the stats would have us believe. He still needs to cut down on the walks, though.

Finally, there’s Lorenzen who made his 2021 debut in Saturday’s loss to the Brewers. The Reds are no doubt hopeful that he will help bolster the back end of the bullpen, but could he also be looked at as a starter?

After a stellar 2019 season in which he pitched 83.1 innings with an ERA of 2.92 and a FIP of 3.66, Lorenzen had a rough 2020 season; at least as a reliever. In 24 inning in relief, Lorenzen had an ERA of 4.88 and 4.94 FIP with a K-BB% of just 5.5%. Lorenzen did have a pretty good August, but overall it was an up and down year. Despite this, the Reds felt comfortable giving him two extremely important starts in September, when the Reds were still chasing a playoff berth.

In those two starts, Lorenzen was nothing short of brilliant, pitching 9.2 innings allowing 7 hits and 3 earned runs while striking out 14 batters and walking only 2. And it wasn’t just his surface stats that were excellent. In those two starts, his FIP was a measly 1.23 and his K-BB% was an impressive 31.6%. Furthermore, he had great success against both lefties and righties, with a FIP of 1.96 against right-handers and just 0.19 against left-handers.

Compared to Antone’s four starts in 2020 (5.40 FIP) and Sims’ four starts in 2019 (4.41 FIP), Lorenzen could potentially have a leg up on the competition, but 9.2 innings is also a very small sample size. Furthermore, as a reliever, Lorenzen’s FIP against righties in 2020 was a preposterous 7.29, which ranked 177th out of 180 relievers with at least 10 innings of work against right-handers. But in the previous four seasons, Lorenzen never posted a FIP above 3.75 against righties.

Where I believe Lorenzen stands out, however, is with his amazing fastball. Out of 164 pitchers’ 4-seamers thrown in at least 50 PAs in 2020, Lorenzen’s ranked:

  • 8th in Whiff% (34.8%)
  • 1st in xSLG (.116)
  • 5th in xwOBA (.224)

A good fastball is crucial for the success of a pitcher, and with the exception of Sims no other potential starter can come even close to these numbers. Furthermore, when behind in the count Lorenzen and Sims both go primarily to the 4-seamer. When in this count, Sims’ 4-seamer produces a .642 xSLG and a .463 xwOBA with a Whiff% of 31%. When behind in the count, Lorenzen’s 4-seamer produced a .108 xSLG and a .370 xwOBA with a Whiff% of 37.9%.

Combined with his large arsenal of pitches which includes his 4-seamer, changeup, cutter, slider, sinker and a curveball, this could make Lorenzen a natural fit as a starter, should the Reds feel the need to make a change.

Minor League Options

As intriguing as a potential move from reliever to starter might be, there is little that beats the excitement of a young promising pitcher being called up from the minors. Problem is, no one is really standing out. Of the pitchers who have pitched at least 20 innings in Triple-A, most of the  have already been called up and placed in the bullpen. The rest are either underperforming or simply not prospects of the caliber needed for a starter in the Majors.

But let’s take a look at two in particular: right-hander Riley O’Brien, whom the Reds got from the Tampa Bay Rays in a trade for Cody Reed, and top prospect and flamethrower Hunter Greene.

O’Brien is the Reds’ 18th-ranked prospect according to FanGraphs and is currently on the Reds’ 40-man roster. Therefore, it could make sense for him to appear in the Majors this season. And the 26-year old looked primed to be on the fast track to the Majors. In his last minor league season in 2019, O’Brien posted an ERA of 3.93 and a FIP of 3.49 in 68.2 innings in Double-A. Meanwhile he was striking out more than a batter an inning, and his BB% had actually dropped from his numbers in High-A. Likewise, his HR/9 of just 0.52 was good for 55th out of 201 pitchers with at least 60 innings pitched in all of Double-A that season.

Playing this season in Louisville, O’Brien has looked like a completely different pitcher. In 58.1 innings the right-hander has and ERA of 4.78 and an even uglier 5.49 FIP. While his strikeout numbers are pretty much the same, his BB% is up to 13.2%, the highest of his career, and his HR/9 has ballooned to 1.54, which ranks 23rd out of 48 Triple-A pitchers with at least 50 innings pitched. A disappointing development, and one that could delay his Major League debut with another year.

Greene needs no introduction as the Reds’ 2nd-ranked prospect, and 39th overall, according to FanGraphs. The right-hander, whose fastball reached 103 mph in Spring Training, made a quick ascent through the minors this year, spending just a little over a month in Double-A before graduating to Triple-A in the middle of June. And much like O’Brien, Triple-A has been a rough transition for the 21-year old. In 27.1 innings, Greene has an ERA of 4.28 and a FIP of 4.90. He has found strikeouts much harder to come by in Triple-A as his K% has dropped to 28.6% from 37% in Double-A. Meanwhile his walks have gone up and so have his HR/9 with the latter being 0.44 in Double-A (good for 8th out of 114 pitchers with at least 40 innings pitched) all the way up to 1.65 which ranks 250th out of 366 Triple-A pitchers with at least 20 innings pitched.

There is little reason to panic over 27 Triple-A innings for a 21-year old, but giving Greene at least until September call-ups seems like a good idea so that he can continue to develop and hopefully be a contributor in 2022.

Conclusion

With Jeff Hoffman set to return this week, this may become a moot point rather quickly. But in his 10 starts, Hoffman has looked far from impressive. His 4.66 FIP and 5.21 xFIP certainly leave a lot to be desired, and if he can’t figure it out, the Reds could be looking to guys like Lorenzen, Antone or Sims for at the very least a tryout as a starter. One issue, though, and this goes for all the relievers I have mentioned in this post, is that they’re all injured. Lorenzen was placed back on the IL Monday with a hamstring injury, while Antone and Sims have both been out since late June, Antone with a right forearm strain and Sims with a right elbow sprain. Other than the immediate hurdle of getting them back to healthy, having three guys who have already dealt with injuries this year throwing 80-90 pitches in a game may be more risk than it’s worth, especially considering the guys that would have to take their places in high-leverage relief work. It will be an interesting situation to monitor, especially considering the fact that the Reds will probably need more than passable starts from their 5th spot if they want to catch the Brewers in the division.

[Featured Image: https://twitter.com/MLBPipeline/status/1397963583754051586/photo/1]

Steffen has been a huge Reds fan since watching his very first baseball game during the 2018 season. Despite the Reds finishing 5th in the NL Central for the fourth season in a row, he found himself drawn to the team's storied past and infinitely likable players such as Eugenio Suárez and Joey Votto. Since then, his love of baseball has led to a deep interest in the game's analytics and advanced statistics. Steffen is from Denmark and recently graduated from Aarhus University. You can follow him on twitter @TaudalSteffen

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Brian Goodman
2 months ago

Assuming Hoffman is DFA’d before 7/22, hopefully we turn to one of the above options. Lorenzen is the best on paper but with his health issues I’m not sure Bell and co. want to go that route.

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