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 5-2 last week and are 24-29 overall. That’s good for third place in the NL Central, four games behind Milwaukee for first.
The Reds split a four-game series with the Cardinals
- Monday The Reds win a 6-5 extra-inning game where the score had gone back and forth. The bullpen covered 5.2 innings allowing one run. Spencer Steer hit his sixth homer. Nick Senzel had the game-winning sacrifice fly off fire-balling Cardinals closer Ryan Helsley.
- Tuesday The Cardinals struck back with an 8-5 win. Graham Ashcraft gave up seven runs in his first four innings. Matt McLain hit his first homer and drove in three runs. The Reds loaded the bases in the bottom of the 9th with two outs before Jonathan India grounded out.
- Wednesday The Reds jumped on Cardinals starter Steven Matz for four 1st-inning runs and cruised to a 10-3 win. Ben Lively went six innings giving up only two runs. McLain homered again. Spencer Steer had four of the Reds’ 18 hits, Stuart Fairchild had three.
- Thursday The Cardinals eked out the series equalizer with a 2-1 win. Luke Weaver threw six shutout innings against his former team. Lucas Sims shut down a two-on, one-out threat in the 7th but gave up two runs in the 8th. The Reds were held scoreless until the 9th.
The Reds swept the Cubbies in a three-game series at the Friendly Confines.
- Friday A 9-0 series-opening romp by the Reds featuring six no-hit innings from Hunter Greene and 19 hits (without a homer) from the offense. Matt McLain, Spencer Steer, Tyler Stephenson and Stuart Fairchild each had three hits.
- Saturday The Reds fell behind early but with two Jonathan India homers, cruised to an 8-5 win. The bullpen backed up Brandon Williamson allowing just one run in 4.2 innings.
- Sunday Spencer Steer hit his seventh homer, Matt McLain went four-for five while Nick Senzel and Kevin Newman each had two hits. The Reds offense led the way to another 8-5 win. Alexis Diaz recorded his 12th save. Only three pitchers have more.
Seven games against teams with winning records:
- Off day on Monday
- Three game series in historic Fenway Park against the Boston Red Sox (7:10, 7:10, 7:10)
- Back home for a wrap-around series against the first-place Milwaukee Brewers (5:10, 4:10, 1:40, 7:10)
Meet Eduardo Salazar
One of the most profound changes in professional baseball has been a decline in the number of innings covered and pitches made by the starting pitcher. It’s a trend based on rock-solid data about times-through-the-lineup that isn’t going to reverse. Ten years ago, relievers threw 33% of all pitches. Now, that number is 43%. In 2013, the average start went six inning, now it’s five.
Relief pitchers play a larger role. That means success at building a big league bullpen is more important than ever. Above-average relievers come from several places. They can be targeted trade acquisitions, free agent signings, and also grown at home through the amateur draft or international free agency. Above-average relievers seldom arrive from other team’s DFA piles. The vast majority of successful big league relievers began as starting pitchers.
Last week, the Reds promoted relief pitcher Eduardo Salazar from Triple-A to Cincinnati. Salazar is a 25-year-old right-hander signed in March 2017 as a 19-year-old out of Venezuela. He joins Alexis Diaz as the only two homegrown pitchers in the Reds bullpen.
Salazar got the big league call on the basis of 12 minor league relief appearances, all made this season. In 2021 and 2022, the organization had Salazar in a starter role, in High-A and Double-A. It didn’t go well. Over 27 appearances for Chattanooga, Salazar’s numbers — 5.16 ERA, 5.25 xFIP — were lousy.
Assigned to the bullpen in Double-A this spring, Salazar was a different pitcher. In nine games and 13.1 innings, he struck out 22 and walked two. That earned him a bump to Louisville where Salazar pitched in three games for the Bats. Over 4.1 Triple-A innings he struck out three and walked one. Combined at the two levels, Salazar faced 71 batters and hadn’t allowed an extra base hit.
With the Reds in need of a relief arm and options thin — the Bats’ bullpen sports a league-worst 6.32 ERA — Salazar got the call on Wednesday.
So how did Eduardo Salazar go from a player outside the organization’s top-30 prospects list to being a big league pitcher? Salazar’s 2023 breakthrough is attributed to the development of a sinker at the end of the 2022 season. In addition to his compelling strikeout and walk numbers, Salazar had an extremely high ground ball rate of 63%.
Based on Statcast data from his two appearances so far for the Reds, Salazar used that sinker for two-thirds of his pitches. It comes in at 93.4 mph, which is prime hitting velocity these days. But what Salazar’s sinker lacks in elite speed it makes up in movement. According to Statcast data, the pitch has 14% more vertical movement and 18% more horizontal movement than the average big league sinker.
Eduardo Salazar, Ridiculous 92mph Sinker…with 22" of Run. 😳 pic.twitter.com/PMuwp9IaGf
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) May 26, 2023
The other one-third of Salazar’s pitches have been an 87-mph slider. His slider breaks up-and-down more than side-to-side. Both pitches have extremely low spin rates.
In his first two Reds appearances, Salazar faced 14 batters, recording one walk and one strikeout. It didn’t take long for him to give up an extra-base hit. Cardinals outfielder Oscar Mercado doubled off a Salazar sinker as the third batter he faced.
Hard contact has been an early issue for Salazar. Six of the 12 balls put into play against Salazar have been hit at greater than 95 mph exit velocity. His average EV of 92.8 mph would be in the league’s worst 2% if he had enough innings to qualify.
That last phrase — if he had enough innings to qualify — foreshadows the most important point to make about Eduardo Salazar. The small sample size. Two games don’t tell us anything meaningful about Salazar’s future in the big leagues. Neither do his 12 minor league appearances in 2023. It’s nowhere near enough data to claim he’s a player development success story … yet.
Brandon Williamson After Three Starts
I wrote at the start of spring training that 2023 would be a big year for Brandon Williamson. Remember the bits of hype about Williamson coming out of Goodyear, some hushed in optimism, some in newspaper headlines?
Williamson is throwing his fastball with more velocity … It’s consistent. … Sitting 94 in his second spring start against the White Sox. … Hey, he looks stronger. … He has a new cutter. … He’s turning heads. … He’s more mature. … He says he’s going to throw more pitches for strikes instead of always looking for swings and misses. … He has a new workout program. … His shoulder is stronger. … He has a new approach. … He’s been reunited with a former pitching coach from 2021.
“If Brandon Williamson regains steady fastball velocity, rediscovers his control and develops command of the strike zone, the young lefty will be good enough for this Reds rotation, given the vast opportunity. He’ll have become the pitcher the Reds thought they’d acquired a year ago as the cornerstone piece in the Winker/Suarez trade. But there’s no rush. It’s a big year for Brandon Williamson. The Reds need to get it right not fast.”
Well, opportunity has indeed knocked hard on Brandon Williamson’s door.
Luis Cessa busted. Connor Overton broke his UCL. Justin Dunn has been so estranged from the team’s plans I’m no longer convinced he’s a real person. Nick Lodolo, fellow lanky lefty and Williamson’s college teammate at TCU, is sidelined with leg issues.
May 16, Williamson got the call up. But it was out of necessity not readiness. Williamson had been abysmal in eight starts for Louisville. But ready or not, he was thrust into a big league rotation.
Williamson has now made three starts for the Reds — a debut at Coors Field, a home start against the Cardinals and a Wrigley Field gig.
How has he done?
Well, his first game went better than expected. 5.1 innings allowing one earned run. But as we look a little closer, there’s not much other reason for optimism.
First, the basics. Williamson has thrown 14.1 innings, struck out 12 and walked nine. That’s a K% in the bottom quarter and a BB% in the bottom third. He’s given up eight earned runs, which produces an ERA of 5.02.
That paragraph was the good news.
Other composite measures, take your pick:
- xERA (7.60)
- xFIP (5.72)
- SIERA (5.67)
- FIP (5.31)
Williamson has been pounded, surrendering an average exit velocity of 91 mph. That’s in the bottom 15th percent. His hard-hit rate is 50%.
It hasn’t been bad luck. If anything, Williamson’s BABIP (.250) and HR/FB (10%) are well below league average. He’s allowed a batting average of .222 but his xBA is .285 (12th percentile).
Williamson’s xwOBA (contact quality, strikeouts, walks) is .411 or the 2nd percentile from the bottom.
Coming out of Seattle, it’s said his fastball hit 96 mph, but he pitched more comfortably at 93-95. Today’s Brandon Williamson is a far cry from the guy who struck out 37.4% of the batters he faced in 2021, fifth among minor league pitchers with at least 90 innings.
That fastball? The velocity hasn’t come back, averaging 91.4 mph. It’s being clobbered, at a blink-worthy .568 xwOBA. He’s been a low-spin, low extension guy.
Obvious caveat: This pile of bad news is based on only three starts. It’s in no way an indication of where Williamson is headed, just a description of where he’s been. But if you’re looking for a guy who can earn a place in the Reds rotation, based on what we’ve seen he’s not it.
So far, the only heads turning are people watching his pitches rocket back into the field.
In Case You Missed It
Louisville’s “Slugger Field” couldn’t hold this one as Elly De La Cruz blasts a 465-foot homer clear out of the park.