Welcome to Red Monday, where Reds fans can start their week with clear-eyed analysis of how the team is doing and where it’s headed.
The Week That Was
The Reds were 1-6 last week and are now 7-15 overall.
David Bell’s team played three lopsided games against the MLB-best Tampa Bay Rays. They were on the short end of two.
- Monday The Reds jumped out to a 4-0 lead and never looked back. Hunter Greene left after being struck on the shin by by a batted ball in the fourth inning. Kevin Newman and TJ Friedl led the offense.
- Tuesday The Rays pounded Nick Lodolo for eight runs in the first four innings on way to a 10-0 romp.
- Wednesday The Rays jumped Levi Stoudt in his rookie debut for six first-inning runs. Reds bats were silent again in an 8-0 drubbing.
The Pirates swept four games in Pittsburgh.
- Thursday The Reds fell behind early again as the Pirates scored four times off Luke Weaver in his first 2023 start. Weaver steadied, going six full as the Reds scraped across three runs. But the comeback fell short 4-3 in another one-run loss.
- Friday A crucial fielding error by Jose Barrero and two runs given up by Derek Law and Ian Gibaut sealed the Reds fate in a 4-2 loss. The Reds failed to homer for a fourth consecutive game.
- Saturday The Reds offense sputtered again against junk-baller Rich Hill and the Pirate bullpen power arms. The Reds lost 2-1, wasting good-enough pitching from Luis Cessa, Alex Young, Lucas Sims and Alexis Diaz.
- Sunday Another game where the offense failed to show. Hunter Greene with six strong. 2-0 loss.
- Three-game home series vs. Texas (6:40, 6:40, 12:35)
- Three-game road series in Oakland (9:07, 4:07, 4;07)
The Hollow Lineup
Let’s dig into the details of the Reds offensive failure so far in 2023.
The statistic wOBA (weighted on-base average) is a powerful composite measure of batting. Unlike batting average and on-base percentage, it does not treat all hits the same. wOBA combines all aspects of hitting, including walks and strikeouts, and weights them in proportion to their actual run value. wOBA is the same thing as wRC+ except the latter is put on a scale where 100 is league average.
Here is FanGraph’s guide for what good/average/awful wOBA is:
The Reds team wOBA has been .302, which is a tick above Poor. It ranks 23rd out of 30 MLB teams. If you break that into components, the Reds rank 20th in batting average (6% below average) and 10th in walk-rate (8% above average). Where they lack is hitting for power, coming in at 28th for isolated power (23% below average). The Reds have struck out a lot, with the fifth-highest strikeout rate (11% above average).
Let’s look at individual Reds position players, ranked from best to worst wOBA [data through Sunday]:
Four Reds players have above average wOBA. None are in the Great or Excellent category. Stephenson is close to average. Fully half the list, from Jake Fraley on down has been Awful. Note the wideness of the range from top to bottom, a function of the small sample of only 22 games. These numbers aren’t predictive and don’t tell us where things are headed, only where we’ve been.
Next, let’s adjust for quality of contact. wOBA that we used in the first chart takes at-bat outcomes as given, no matter how well the ball was struck. Early in the season, wOBA can be quite skewed by luck (good and bad) based on where balls land. One way to show how a batter has actually been hitting the ball is to calculate run value based on the quality of contact. You assign the average, not specific, outcome for the way a ball is struck.
That stat is xwOBA or wOBA using expected (x) run value. Here is how the Reds have done there [data through Saturday]:
Top line note: Factoring out the luck reduces the spread from top to bottom.
Stephenson moves to above average. Fairchild and Steer lose ground but remain above average. Senzel jumps almost 100 points, reflecting he’s hit it better than his results show. But at .295 he’s still extremely low, mainly because his batted balls don’t translate to power. Another name worth mentioning is TJ Friedl, whose number plummets 80 points. He’s been quite lucky on balls in play so far. Jose Barrero’s xwOBA is forty points lower than his wOBA.
How much have players underperformed? To answer that, let’s compare their wOBA and xwOBA to the pre-season projections of their wOBA. We’ll use the FanGraphs composite projection (wOBA*):
Note the range compression using projections for entire seasons vs. one-month samples of either wOBA or xwOBA.
Comparing expert projections with the actual quality of contact in April is revealing.
- Underperformers: Fraley, Myers, Friedl, Benson, Vosler
- Overperformers: India, Fairchild
- At Expectations: Stephenson, Steer, Casali, Senzel, Newman, Barrero
In one sense, the Reds offense has underperformed. In a larger sense, what you see is what they rostered. It shouldn’t be quite this bad all year. But it won’t likely be much better, either. T.S. Elliot wrote “The Hollow Men” 100 years ago. But its final line aptly describes the Reds offense: not with a bang, but a whimper.
Saturday Night’s Alright for Spinnin’
Lucas Sims has returned from the IL (back) and David Bell is taking it slow with the veteran right-handed reliever. In two appearances (1.2 innings) Sims has faced seven batters. He’s walked one, given up a hit and recorded a strikeout. Nothing to get excited about there.
The cause for Sims optimism are the spin-rates he put up Saturday night. Statcast data showed Sims’ 10 sliders averaged 3149 rpm, a rate putting him in the top 1%. His four four-seamers averaged 2567 rpm, which is comparable to his 2021 rate that finished in the top 2%. Same with his curve. Sims induced nine swings and six whiffs on his 15 pitches. That’s a 67% whiff rate. When you add one called strike, his CSW% was a whopping 47%.
It was just one game, of course. We’ll need to see more like that before we can talk about his return to being one of the best relievers in baseball. But Saturday’s results are a bit of encouragement. Sims is still just 28 and has another year of team control with the Reds in 2024.
Coda: The Hunter Greene Extension
Last week, Hunter Greene and the Reds reached agreement on a six-year, $53 million extension. Greene was the the Reds first-round draft pick (#2 overall) in 2017. The deal extends team control over Greene up to two seasons. Prior to the extension, Greene was reserved to the Reds through 2027. The new contract adds 2028 as a guaranteed year plus a 2029 team option. Matt Wilkes analyzed the deal, its terms and Greene’s early career performance.
To be clear. For both the team and Reds fans the Greene extension is great news. The prospect of his superstar talent pitching for the Reds through the 2028 or 2029 seasons is appealing.
But let’s not get carried away with what the deal signals about Reds ownership and front office. Greene’s contract does not prove the Reds are committed to winning or serious about sticking to a particular plan. Instead, think of it as the first step of a long journey. Hunter Greene will be a part of the club’s plans right up until the day he isn’t.
Reds second baseman Jonathan India said the Greene contract showed “they’ll really keep parts of the team around to make it happen.” Except it doesn’t. At least no more than when the Reds signed Eugenio Suarez to an extension through 2024. On that day, the Reds said Suarez was a “building block to build the team around” and “a guy we want to be part of the team for the next seven years.” “We’re here to win,” said Bob Castellini. Instead, the Reds ditched Suarez half-way through the deal, after the 2021 season, and set course to lose 100 games in 2022 and 2023. Suarez was a guy they wanted around for the next seven years until he wasn’t.
Despite front office platitudes about the importance of building around homegrown talent, they shipped Jesse Winker and Tyler Mahle off when they got too expensive. Reds GM Nick Krall’s recent statements about building around pitching must seem odd to Sonny Gray and Luis Castillo.
The point isn’t that the Reds should be more faithful. They’re running a business and need to do what they think is right, given circumstances. No, the point is that press conference assurances, like those made around the Greene extension, only go so far.
Hunter Greene said he was moved by Krall expressing a “promise to try to win.” Think of that sad spectacle. Private commitments from a front office to its players that it’s trying to win. Made necessary by its public actions having fallen so far short.
Hunter Greene was only seven when Bob Castellini made his infamous pledge to bring championship baseball back to Cincinnati. Many of us were hopeful Castellini was on the level, like Greene is assuming today. But the long shadow of Castellini’s failure to follow through makes last week’s assurances ring hollow.
What will show the Reds are committed to winning? Actions. The Reds must:
- Continue to assemble a team for the long term. The contract for Greene was a bare minimum, the faintest proof-of-life for the Castellini family. Similar deals for Nick Lodolo, Graham Ashcraft and Alexis Diaz must follow if the promises to Greene are to be taken seriously.
- Lock up Elly de la Cruz to a long term contract now.
- Acquire through trade or free agency established players to go along with the young prospects they are developing. The St. Louis Cardinals are one of the best franchises at prospect development. Their player pipeline has been more productive than the Reds. But what makes the Cardinals serious contenders to win championships every year are free agent contracts like those they give to Nolan Arenado, Paul Goldschmidt and Willson Contreras. The Reds have to take similar steps to compete.
- Sustain commitments. The Reds can’t continue to trade every player when he becomes expensive. Hunter Greene’s deal is a huge bargain — not a risk — for the Reds through 2026. Will we see Greene in a Reds uniform after that? Chris Welsh made the point on the TV broadcast yesterday that it’s likely we won’t know for several years whether the Hunter Greene extension worked out. The same is true for the club’s promises to try to win.
- Ditch the ultra-conservative, risk-averse breakeven policy, an arrangement the Castellini family has with the club’s other investors. That policy operates like a straight-jacket, creating a downward spiral and preventing the club from responding to changing circumstances in ways other than slashing payroll.
- Allow the baseball experts to make baseball decisions. Bob Castellini is not a baseball expert. Phil Castellini is not a baseball expert. They must quit meddling.
If Hunter Greene sees the Reds taking those actions over several seasons, he’ll know they are serious about winning baseball games, not just press conferences.
In Case You Missed It
Edwin Arroyo blasted this homer for the Dayton Dragons. I’m looking forward to seeing him in person.
Edwin Arroyo shows some 💪
— MLB Pipeline (@MLBPipeline) April 22, 2023
[Image: Reds Facebook]