Red Monday: High and Hard, Left Impression, Figuring Friedl, Gray Matters, Who’s Herget and more!

Welcome to Red Monday, a place where Reds fans can start their week. Stop in and find clear-eyed analysis of how the Reds are doing and where they’re headed.

The Week That Was 

The Reds were 2-3 last week and now 4-4 overall. They’re tied with the Cubs for third in the division, behind Milwaukee and Pittsburgh and ahead of the last-place St. Louis Cardinals.

David Bell’s club split a rain-shortened, two-game home series with the Cubs. A split seemed about right between similar teams.

  • Monday The Reds squeaked out a 7-6 win by doing more damage to Cubs starter Drew Smyly than the Cubbies did to Connor Overton. Six relievers did a great job covering the final five innings.
  • Tuesday That same bullpen surrendered nine runs in three innings in a 12-5 loss.

After two off-days, the Reds resumed play in Philadelphia with three games over the weekend.

  • Friday They lost the Phillies’ home opener 5-2. Derek Law and Reiver Sanmartin gave up three runs on two homers in the final two innings. Reds bats were slowed down by Zach Wheeler and the Philadelphia bullpen.
  • Saturday A 3-2 loss was the product of a 9th-inning meltdown after Nick Lodolo had pitched brilliantly for seven innings. Alexis Diaz and Ian Gibaut were the relief culprits and the offense was held in check again.
  • Sunday The Reds took a turn producing late dramatics, scoring three in the 9th to win the series finale 6-4. The bullpen threw five shutout innings to keep the Phillies close and salvage the win. Jake Fraley had the big hit, a three-run double.
A Lotta High Hard Ones

That’s how Reds radio broadcaster Jeff Brantley described Hunter Greene’s pitch arsenal this week — a lotta high hard ones. Indeed, in his first two starts, Greene has thrown 175 pitches of which 115 were his four-seam fastball. To get a sense of the pitch’s dominance, check out his strikeouts in the first inning against the Phillies on Friday:

The average velocity of Greene’s four-seam fastball has been 99.9 mph. No pitch in MLB is coming in faster. The spin rate on Greene’s four-seamer (2385 rpm) is in the 79th percentile. Greene’s overall strikeout rate is up a bit from 31% to 32.5%.

An interesting side note: According to Statcast, Greene has thrown only one changeup so far. Last season he threw it 5% of the time, or one of 20 pitches.

Left Impression

Nick Lodolo followed up his 109-pitch season debut with a scintillating performance against the Phillies on Saturday. The lanky left-hander struck out 12 of the 27 batters he faced over seven shutout innings. Lodolo allowed just three hits (a couple singles and a double) and two walks. The Phillies lineup managed only an 83.9 mph average exit velocity off the Damien HS graduate. Lodolo’s pinpoint control with his full arsenal was evidenced by the location consistency for the 12 swinging strikes he induced.

Lodolo ranks fourth in MLB in strikeout rate (41.2%) and second in strikeouts-minus-walks (33.3%).

Figuring Out Friedl

Outfielder TJ Friedl is off to a great start this season. The 27-year-old is hitting .345/.387/.655 after 32 plate appearances. Not only has he posted a strong batting average, he’s hit for power as measured by a .310 isolated power (ISO). At this point — remember, we’re only a little more than a week into the 2023 season — Friedl is the starting center fielder and batting second against right-handed pitchers. Against lefties, he’s either been on the bench or batted toward the bottom of the order.

The sample size is still too small to project anything going forward. But as impatient fans, we’re looking for any sign his success will continue.

To address that question let’s divide Friedl’s major league career in half. In the 136 plate appearances after his September 2021 call-up, Friedl was batting an unimpressive .233/.279/.322 for a wRC+ of 59. He spent the early part of 2022 shuttling between Triple-A Louisville and the Reds. When Friedl was sent back to Louisville in June, he looked trapped in the purgatory of being a solid minor league player but a not-quite-good-enough big leaguer.

That was June 19. When TJ Friedl returned to the Reds two months later, something had changed. This first at bat was an omen of what was to come.

In the dog days of August, TJ Friedl began to hit like a major leaguer. A good one, in fact. In his 158 second-half plate appearances, Friedl batted .267/.354/.533 for a wRC+ of 139. That’s run production 39 percent better than the average MLB batter.

Friedl’s prowess laying down bunts might be a more eye-catching narrative, but the real value he’s provided has been in hitting for power. And lots of it. During those final months of 2022 he hit eight homers, compared to just one in his previous 136 PA. He’s already hit two in 2023. Friedl’s post-July ISO of .266 ranked ahead of hitters like Mookie Betts and Paul Goldschmidt. Over a full season it would have been the fourth-highest in the majors.

We’ve got to ask, what happened and is the improvement sustainable?

First, we can rule out a few things. His higher batting average the second-half of 2022 wasn’t due primarily to luck. His BABIP (batting average on balls in play) was only nine points higher and explains less than a third of his improved batting average. On the other hand, he hasn’t hit the ball harder, with comparable average exit velocities in the first and second halves.

One noticeable thing that did change was Friedl’s batting stance. When Friedl left the Reds last June, his stance was open-closed neutral and he was somewhat seated. When he returned in August, not only was he standing taller, his stance was quite open. He tightens up his stance as the ball arrives, providing a more pronounced leg kick for timing.

The picture on the left is from Friedl’s last at bat before being sent to Louisville on June 19. The picture on the right is from his first at bat after returning to the Reds. Choosing endpoints for player analysis can be arbitrary. But when a significant change like Friedl’s stance takes place and corresponds with a large performance upswing, selecting that date is not random or cherry-picked.

Whether the new stance caused Friedl’s big improvement at the plate last year is unknown. He cut the number of pop-ups in half while at the same time raised his average launch angle from 16º to 20º. That’s a large difference. Friedl also pulled the ball more. The average left-handed major league hitter pulled the ball 40% of the time in 2022. Friedl has always been a bit of a pull hitter, but after August, his 2022 pull-rate jumped from 44% to 50%.

Is TJ Friedl’s fast start in 2023 related to his improved second half of 2022? It’s hard to say. He’s using the same open stance. But other than that, the factors aren’t consistent. Friedl’s BABIP is 100 points higher in 2023 than his career average. His pull rate (40%) is down, below even his first half of last year. His launch angle is down below 18%.

It would be wonderful if the simple narrative — that Friedl changed his stance last summer and his new one has generated a long-lasting improvement in his hit and power skills — was right. The truth is, the data is inconsistent, confusing and still way too limited to assert that claim with any confidence.

How Gray Could’ve Mattered

Acquiring teenagers isn’t the only way to build the future of a Major League Baseball team.

The right veteran presence can enhance the development of key young players. The Reds starting rotation is an example. It’s ever more clear with each start that Hunter Greene, Nick Lodolo and Graham Ashcraft have boundless talent and sky-high ceilings. But each still has a ways to go before reaching the status of polished big-league starter. The ups-and-downs in their early starts provide vivid evidence they aren’t finished.

A byproduct of the extreme Reds rebuild has been the stripping of player leadership from the dugout. You can make a case that Jonathan India and Tyler Stephenson have been thrust (ready or not) into that role. But what about the pitching staff? Greene, Lodolo and Ashcraft have no — none, nada, zero — experienced pitchers who can serve as a role model, advisor or encourager.

The Reds had such a guy in Sonny Gray.

In January 2019, the Reds under Dick Williams acquired Gray and Reiver Sanmartin from the Yankees at the cost of Shed Long, a top-ten Reds prospect. Gray was already under contract for 2019. As part of the trade, Williams negotiated a team-friendly three-year extension with Gray plus an option for 2023.

Gray pitched three superlative seasons (2019-2021) for the Reds, posting a 3.49 ERA and similar xERA. He received Cy Young votes in 2019 and was a big part of the team’s winning records in 2020 and 2021. Beyond Gray’s performance on the mound was the well-reported leadership he provided in the clubhouse. For example, Amir Garrett said this about Gray: “He was there for me the whole year last year. He was like, ‘I’m not giving up on you. You’re not giving up on yourself.’ He wanted to uplift everybody.” (Nightengale)

With the 2022 season and 2023 option year remaining on his contract, the Reds traded Sonny Gray to the Minnesota Twins for 18-year-old pitching prospect Chase Petty. Gray made 25 starts for the Twins last season. Added with his appearance Friday night, he’s pitched 131.2 innings for Minnesota with a 2.67 ERA and 131 strikeouts. The Twins have recognized Gray’s off-field value as well, snapping up his $12 million option for 2023 and noting his “off the charts”  makeup and as someone “young players can look up to” who can “lead us.”

Meanwhile, Chase Petty progressed nicely in 2022. He inhabits a position on the Reds prospect list similar to Shed Long four seasons ago. Long has since played in about 100 major league games at below-replacement level. He spent 2022 in the Orioles’ minor league system and isn’t with any organization so far in 2023. Petty had a great year for High-A Dayton. He’s currently in Arizona rehabbing an elbow injury, eventually headed back to Dayton. Petty has a solid chance to become a major league pitcher, possibly even a starter. But, as with any prospect, that outcome is nowhere near a lock.

Some would no doubt claim that Chase Petty has more future value for the Reds than would Sonny Gray if he were still here. While it takes a leap of faith to state that with confidence about a 20-year-old who hasn’t pitched in Double-A yet, it’s possible Petty may produce more big league on-field value than Gray would going forward.

But that calculation is oversimplified because it ignores the long-lasting impact Sonny Gray could have on Greene, Lodolo and Ashcraft. Those three guys aren’t prospects in A-ball. They’re here now. Like anyone, they could benefit from a role model who helps them through inevitable bumps in the road. As of now, the Reds have given their young pitchers nowhere to look. It took until August, but much was made last year about the positive influence a veteran catcher had on the rookie pitchers. Imagine how much an upbeat, successful, hard-working, no-nonsense guy like Sonny Gray could help — the Reds’ future.

Meet Kevin Herget

You may have been wondering who Kevin Herget is, the reliever who covered the 7th and 8th inning for the Reds Sunday afternoon.

First off, he is not the same pitcher as Jimmy Herget, a reliever in the Reds organization from 2015-2019. Nor are they related. Jimmy (29) is from Tampa and now pitches for the LA Angels. Kevin (32) hails from New Jersey. What the two do have in common beside last names and stints with the Reds is that both pitchers are right-handed.

Kevin Herget was drafted back in 2013 by the Cardinals in the 39th (!) round of the draft. He spent ten full years in the minor leagues before reaching the majors last season to make three appearances (7 innings) for Tampa Bay. He’s been non-tendered twice and designated for assignment three times. The Reds signed him to a minor league contract last November.

The current Herget throws three pitches. In his 7 IP for the Rays last year he used each about a third of the time.

  • 92 mph fastball
  • 83.5 mph changeup
  • 83.7 mph cutter

Yesterday, Kevin H. threw mostly four-seam fastballs (93.3 mph) and changeups (84 mph). He tossed 30 pitches to cover his two innings. He gave up one hit, no walks and struck out one of the six batters he faced. He induced one swing-and-miss.

Kevin Herget’s two shutout innings against the Phillies were important in securing the win. But in setting your expectations, keep in mind he’s a 32-year-old a reclamation project who didn’t get to the majors much until now.

In Case You Missed It

Pitcher Andrew Abbott strikes out 11 in his first start for the Chattanooga Lookouts, including the first six batters he faced. The 23-year-old lefty faced 15 batters, allowing no hits and one walk in his 2023 Double-A debut. Abbott was a second-round pick by the Reds in the 2021 draft out of the University of Virginia.

  • Three-game series in Atlanta (7:20, 7:20, 7:20)
  • Four-game home series against the Phillies (6:40, 6:40, 4:10, 1:40)

[Featured image: Facebook]

Steve Mancuso

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.