One pressing question entering the season for the Reds was who would take the fifth rotation spot. The decision was complicated by Sonny Gray and Michael Lorenzen starting the season on the IL. The Reds began the season slotting in Jose De Leon and Jeff Hoffman. When Gray returned after missing two turns, the Reds moved De Leon to the bullpen and designated Cam Bedrosian for assignment.
Hoffman has remained in the fifth slot, with a W-L record of 2-2 and a 4.39 ERA — adequate for the last guy. However, these public-facing numbers mask concerning trends that surfaced in Hoffman’s start last week against the White Sox. The situation raises the question of what the Reds should do about their fifth rotation spot.
Hoffman’s Getting Barreled Up
We can begin by looking at the quality of contact off of Jeff Hoffman. This year, Hoffman’s average exit velocity is 92.5 mph, good for the seventh percentile in the league. 48.1% of batted ball events result in a hard hit (Statcast defines hard hit as anything 95 mph or higher). Neither of those numbers represents new trends for Hoffman. Last year, the average exit velocity of 92.3 mph and a hard-hit percentage of 53.4% were good for the bottom first percentile in the league. Below we can see the breakout of the hard contact in a spray chart.
This high percentage of hard contact is the baseline for ugly expected statistics. xBA, xSLG, and xwOBA use exit velocities and launch angles to assign expected batting averages as well as the probability of a single, double, triple, and home run based on other batted balls in the rest of the Statcast era. Expected statistics help remove some luck aspect of balls put in play – the slow roller that finds a hole vs. the scorched line drive snagged by the third baseman.
Hoffman’s xBA is.299 and is .042 over the actual batting average he’s allowed. That xBA is in the eighth percentile. That means 92 percent of the league’s pitchers are doing better. His xSLG of .527 is .089 above the SLG of .436 and puts him in the twelfth percentile. Finally, Hoffman’s composite xwOBA of .386 sits in the ninth percentile in the league and is .047 above his wOBA.
These expected stats are higher than the actual results point to worse things coming for Hoffman and the Reds unless something changes. Hoffman’s K% is in the 27th percentile and his whiff% is right around league average. Those two metrics point to many balls being put in play. The hard hits are going to find more holes. We’ll see more Hoffman starts similar to the 2.1 inning outing last week.
What are the options moving forward?
In fairness to the front office, I don’t think Hoffman was plan A and might not even have been plan B. The fifth rotation spot seemed set for either Michael Lorenzen or Tejay Antone, but without one or the other in the bullpen, there would be a huge hole in high-leverage situations. Nonetheless, there are two routes the Reds can take outside of sticking with Hoffman.
The first would be Tejay Antone. The Reds would have to find someone to add to the bullpen who would not make them shudder in important spots. Another lockdown arm in the bullpen would free up Antone into the starting role. The second solution would be someone else, keeping Antone anchoring the bullpen.
If the Reds are reluctant to take Antone out of his crucial bullpen role right now, who might be the alternative?
Michael Lorenzen could slot in the bullpen to replace Antone or take a starting assignment. However, following his second platelet-rich plasma injection, David Bell reported they are “hoping to have him back in the next couple of months.” Even at that point, no one knows what Lorenzen will look like coming off the shoulder strain. From here, short of trading for another starter or reliever, the Reds are left looking to their farm system for help.
With the Reds troubles out of the bullpen early on, and already bringing up two bullpen arms in Heath Hembree and Ryan Hendrix, I believe if they had another lockdown arm in the wings they were comfortable with, we would have seen him already. That leaves finding another starting pitching that can come up to make a few starts replacing Hoffman, at least until the Reds can get a look at Lorenzen and his progress.
Starting Pitching Options
The two names Reds fans might be most excited about are Nick Lodolo and Hunter Greene — the organization’s top two prospects. Greene and Lodolo each have a start under their belts for AA-Chattanooga this season, and both put on performances that did nothing to dampen fan’s anticipation for their promotions. Greene opened the season with a powerful performance, striking out eight over five innings, touching 102 mph on the radar. Not to be outdone, Lodolo followed with a dominant appearance to get his first professional win, notching two strikeouts per frame over five innings.
I think we will see Lodolo this year, but probably later in the season as he continues to develop. The Reds continue to bring Greene along slowly and will not rush him up until ready. If called up this year, expect it to be much later. However, if the two continue with similar performances, expect those timetables to be moved up.
MLB.com projects three prospects on the 40-man expanded roster to appear in the pros in 2021, not including Lodolo. Tony Santillan (#10 Reds prospect), Riley O’Brien (#15) and Vladimir Gutierrez (#13) pitch for AAA-Louisville. Santillan and O’Brien are playing at the AAA level for the first time.
Gutierrez started 27 games for Louisville in 2019, where he carried a K% of 19.2%, a low BB% of 7.9%, and a FIP of 5.72. In June of 2020, Gutierrez tested positive for Stanozolol, leading to an 80 game suspension. His fastball sits in the low 90s, topping out around 97 mph. In his first start for Louisville this year, he went six innings with six strikeouts and two walks. Of the three prospects, he seems likely to get the first nod at a start.
Another possibility is the reemergence of Jose De Leon. De Leon began the year battling with Hoffman for the fifth spot, and many thought he provided more upside in the rotation. Nonetheless, he moved to the bullpen before being sent down to AAA. While De Leon did not exactly impress, his xBA, xSLG, and xwOBA are more than 40 points lower than Hoffman’s. A gap of over 3.5 between his ERA and xERA displays the bad luck that has befallen De Leon. He also boasted a K% in the 93rd percentile in the league. De Leon’s biggest problem was his command and a high walk rate that needs improving.
Given the lack of obvious alternatives, I expect the Reds to continue rolling with Hoffman for now. At least until there are a few more starts like last week’s against Chicago. If Hoffman’s continues to allow hard contact, change could be needed when his luck runs out. While seeing prospects called up is always exciting, Jose De Leon might get a second chance when the Reds look to replace the fifth rotation spot. The potential upside, especially if he gets his walk rate under control, could even relieve pressure on Lorenzen’s rehab timeline.
Featured Image by PI/Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire