RED MONDAY: Tyler Stephenson, Jay Bruce, Brandon Nimmo, the Bats, Noelvi Marte

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 2-4 last week and are now 14-20 overall. They’re in fourth place in the NL Central ahead of the cratering St. Louis Cardinals.

The Reds began the week in San Diego, taking one of three games against the Padres.

  • Monday Not a great pitching day for Luke Weaver, Alex Young and Reiver Sanmartin. Nick Senzel homered and Stuart Fairchild had a two-run double. Reds lost 8-3.
  • Tuesday The Reds win an extra-inning game 2-1 behind terrific starting pitching from Graham Ashcraft and a slew of bullpen arms. Jonathan India singled in the Reds free-runner in the 10th. Alexis Diaz slammed the door, retiring Fernando Tatis, Jr., Manny Machado and Juan Soto.
  • Wednesday The Reds were never in this 7-1 loss. Luis Cessa had another shaky start. The bullpen was inconsistent and other than a Spencer Steer solo shot, the bats were largely silent.

David Bell’s team returned home to face the Chicago White Sox, who were not “utterly terrible” enough:

  • Friday The Reds dropped the series opener 5-4. Hunter Greene was spectacular for most of his start, but gave up a fluky 3-run homer to Elvis Andrus. TJ Friedl robbed the White Sox of another homer. Jake Fraley had a terrible base running mistake.
  • Saturday The TJ Friedl Show stepped in and saved the day after another poor start from Nick Lodolo. Friedl drove in four runs on a homer and triple. The bullpen shut down the White Sox for 5.1 innings. Friedl also had a run-saving sliding catch in the outfield.
  • Sunday Graham Ashcraft and Casey Legumina gave up 14 runs in two innings in a lopsided loss to end the week. The Reds had homers from Jonathan India, Spencer Steer, Wil Myers and Tyler Stephenson. 17-4.
  • Monday off
  • Three-game home series with the New York Mets (6:40, 6:40, 12:35)
  • Three games in Miami against the Marlins (6:40, 1:10, 1:40)
Is Tyler Stephenson’s Power Outage Real?

Conventional wisdom holds that Tyler Stephenson’s bat will be a cornerstone of the next good Reds team. Look at the home dugout and you’ll know the front office believes that. GM Nick Krall added not one, but two veteran catchers to the active roster to protect Stephenson’s health.

The young catcher’s well-being became a concern in 2022 when he was in David Bell’s lineup for only 50 games. Filling a bench of four players with two right-handed catcher-only players bares witness to the perceived importance of Stephenson’s offense. Of the 31 games he’s started in 2023, Stephenson has been at catcher for 14. He’s been the team’s DH 13 other times.

If the Reds see Tyler Stephenson’s future somewhere other than catching most days, they must expect pop from his bat.

You could base that view on his 2022 season, abbreviated as it was. In 183 plate appearances in 2022, Stephenson batted .319/.372/.482 with a wRC+ of 134. He hit six home runs and produced an isolated power of .163. That ISO was slightly above the league average of .152. Maybe, if the club can keep Stephenson healthy enough for 550 PA, he might hit close to 20 homers. Maybe more if you expected him to develop power as he aged.

But early returns from 2023 don’t seem to be encouraging. In 134 plate appearances in 2023, Stephenson is batting .254/.343/.331 with a wRC+ of 83. That .254 batting average is six points above league average. Stephenson’s .343 on-base percentage is more than twenty points above league average. So far, so good.

But Stephenson’s 2023 season has been power-free. He’s hit only one home run. Stephenson’s ISO is a mere .076, which ranks 98 out of 104 big league hitters with at least 130 PA.

Let’s dig deeper to see how alarmed we should be.

  1. Tyler Stephenson’s 2022 season was inflated by good luck. Throughout his career, Stephenson has maintained a higher BABIP (batting average on balls in play) than average. That’s due to his ability to hit line drives to the opposite field and his selectiveness at the plate. But in 2022, Stephenson’s BABIP was .409, more than 100 points above league average and seventy points above his 2021 BABIP. Remember, Stephenson only played in 50 games in 2022, so his sample was relatively small. Stephenson’s exit velocity (87.1 mph) was also below league average. If you look just at his six home runs, even that was inflated by ballpark luck. His expected home runs by ballpark ranged from two to six with an average of 4.1.
  2. Tyler Stephenson has been unlucky in 2023 relative to power hits. If you look at his expected ISO (based on the quality of contact he’s made) Stephenson should have a .115 ISO score. That’s still well below average, but more than double his .053 result so far. Likewise, his current expected home run total is 2.2. If you look across all the parks, his home run total would range from 0 to 5.
  3. Beyond the bad luck, Tyler Stephenson is hitting for less power this year. Even accounting for bad luck in 2023 and good luck in 2022, several measures show Stephenson’s power is down. His expected isolated power has dropped from 2021 (.134) and 2022 (.134) to 2023 (.120). His average hit distance has dropped from 161 feet in 2022 to 154 feet in 2023.
  4. There is still plenty to like about how Tyler Stephenson is hitting. As mentioned above, he’s above the league mean in batting average and on-base percentage. He’s maintained an excellent BABIP (.367). His plate discipline remains excellent (22% O-Swing%). The decline in xISO is not significant when you consider the full range of xISO in MLB. The highest is .395 (Matt Chapman) and the lowest .044 (Myles Straw). So a 19-point variance isn’t worth panicking over, especially just a month or so into the season.

Bottom line: Tyler Stephenson isn’t hitting that much differently this year compared to last year. His xwOBA was .318 last year and is .309 this year. His expected homer number was four in 2022 (183 PA) and is two in 2023 (134 PA).

The numbers across his 2021-2023 seasons paint a consistent story. Tyler Stephenson is a good hitter for average and for on-base skills. He hits line drives all over the field. He has an excellent eye at the plate. Stephenson is a slightly-below-average power hitter.

Now for the caveat. It’s too early to draw conclusions about what kind of hitter Tyler Stephenson will become. He’s only had 730+ plate appearances. While we have a general idea, there’s ample time and space for him to evolve.

That said, the organizational terrain has shifted. A few months ago, it was possible to see Stephenson’s bat as crucial for the Reds future (less so if you looked at the right stats). But now, with developments in the minor leagues, is Stephenson’s importance still the case? It’s easy to see other players in the organization batting in the power positions of 1B and DH. That seems more true every day.

One final thought as you ponder whether Tyler Stephenson will be a cornerstone of the next good Reds team: The first of his three arbitration seasons is 2024. Stephenson can become a free agent in 2027. The Reds traded Jesse Winker after his first arbitration season.

Jay Bruce, Brandon Nimmo and Dilson Herrera

When Jay Bruce debuted with the Reds in late May 2008, he was the top prospect in baseball and seemed destined to be a true superstar.

Over nine seasons in a Reds uniform, Bruce played in 1220 games and took more than 5000 plate appearances. While his career fell short of superstar status, Bruce was a three-time All-Star, two-time Silver Slugger winner, and received MVP votes in 2012 and 2013. He was the heartbeat of that run from 2010-2013 when the Reds won two NL Central titles. Bruce was the only player in the National League to hit at least 30 homers in 2011, 2012 and 2013.

Jay Bruce also authored the single greatest moment in Great American Ball Park history.

In the summer of 2016, the Reds front office was were up to its neck in rebuilding. Sent packing already were Johnny Cueto, Mike Leake, Mat Latos, Todd Frazier and Aroldis Chapman. Bruce had slumped in 2014 and for much of 2015. But that summer of 2016, he was having a great year, batting .265/.316/.559 with 25 homers.

With the club on its way to a 94-loss season after dropping 98 games in 2015, the time was right to part with Bruce. He was making $12.5 million in 2016 and had a $13 million club option for 2017. Bruce would become a free agent in 2018. Several clubs had been rumored to be in discussion with the Reds for their 29-year-old All-Star. News broke on August 1 that GM Walt Jocketty had reached a deal with the New York Mets to trade Bruce for a 23-year-old outfielder named Brandon Nimmo and two lower-level prospects.

Nimmo had debuted that season and had played about 20 games for the Mets. But at the last minute, Jocketty pulled the plug on the deal. The Reds medical staff had concerns. The two teams quickly reworked the deal and the Mets agreed to exchange second baseman Dilson Herrera and left-handed pitcher Max Wotell for Bruce.

Herrera, 22 years old at the time, was in Triple-A although had played a bit in the big leagues. He had been rated the #46 prospect in baseball by Baseball America prior to the 2015 season. Wotell was in rookie ball and a classic throw-in. He’d never make it above Low-A.

Dilson Herrera’s career busted over a shoulder injury suffered sometime in 2016. He played 53 games for the Reds (.184/.268/.414). Coming off season-ending shoulder surgery in 2017, Herrera pass through waivers unclaimed at the start of 2018. By that November, he had been released by the Reds and had re-signed with the Mets as a minor leaguers. Herrera didn’t stick with the Mets or several other franchises that gave him a look. He’s now the second baseman for the Pirates de Campeche in the Mexican League.

Meanwhile, Brandon Nimmo — who will lead off for the Mets in this week’s series — has had more than his share of injuries. He missed time in 2017 for a hamstring and later for a partly collapsed lung. He missed time in 2018 for a bruised finger and was on the 60-day list in 2019 for neck stiffness. In 2021, Nimmo made two trips to the IL (finger, hamstring). Only twice, in 2018 and 2022, has Nimmo suited up for at least 100 games.

But when Brandon Nimmo has gotten to the field, my goodness. From 2017 to 2023 he’s posted a wRC+ of 136, which is in the top 20 of all major leaguers over that time. He’s played plus-defense across the outfield, including  center.

As for Jay Bruce, the Reds saved $5 million with the trade and Jocketty confessed at the time that was part of the motivation for the trade. Bruce had a strong season for the Mets in 2017 before being traded to Cleveland. From there, Bruce went back to the Mets, Seattle, Philadelphia and the Yankees, playing 10 games in pinstripes to finish his career in 2021.

When Jay Bruce retired, I wrote that Bruce raising his arm after belting that dramatic home run in 2010 was the exclamation point punctuating the conclusion of the Reds 15-year drought. About that night:

“Like thousands of other fans, I lingered in the delirium that September night to celebrate with the team from the stands. That group of hungry players, clad in postseason t-shirts and hats, drenched in various carbonated beverages was as elated as could be. The picture taking, backslapping, player hugs and high-fives with fans seemed like it would go on forever. And not one of us wanted it to end.”

With the perfect vision provided by hindsight, the Reds should have stuck with the Nimmo deal instead of moving on to Herrera. Even better, the year before they should have made the rumored deal trading Bruce for Mets pitcher Zack Wheeler instead of backing away. But don’t get me started on that.

Checking in on the Bats

Two weeks ago, with the Reds were in the midst of a bad team-wide slump, we looked at a few composite batting stats to measure the futility. We now have another couple weeks of data. Recall that wOBA (weighted on-base average) is a stat that combines all aspects of hitting, including walks and strikeouts. It weights them in proportion to their actual run value. xwOBA (expected weighted on-base average) uses the average run creation value for each hit, factoring out the luck and defense. A reminder of what is good/average/awful per the FanGraph’s guide:

After a boost from the four solo homers yesterday, the Reds team wOBA is .308, about the same as two weeks ago. It ranks 19th out of 30 MLB teams. If you break that into components, the Reds rank 16th in batting average and 13th in walk-rate. Where the offense lacks is power, coming in at 27th for isolated power.

This chart shows three numbers for each player. On the left (wOBA 4/24) was the player’s wOBA from two weeks. In the middle (xwOBA) you have the expected wOBA based on quality of contact two weeks ago. And in the right column you have the player’s current wOBA (wOBA 5/7).

The current wOBA speaks for itself. TJ Friedl and Jonathan India stand out as the two best hitters. Nick Senzel has jumped into the above-average side. Spencer Steer has dropped to below average.

There’s an important analytics point to observe. Notice how a player’s expected wOBA often points in the direction he’s headed. Two weeks ago, Steer’s xwOBA was significantly below his wOBA which indicated he might be due for a fall. Jose Barrero and Curt Casali are smaller examples of the same thing.

On the other end, Nick Senzel’s xwOBA two weeks ago was 100 points higher than his wOBA, which meant he was likely headed up. Jake Fraley falls into that category as well.

TJ Friedl continues to defy gravity, with his wOBA dozens of points above his xwOBA.

That’s a look back at what xwOBA indicated two weeks ago. Now let’s look at what the player’s current xwOBA says about the next two weeks.

Among the regular players, Nick Senzel and Tyler Stephenson are hitting it better than their results show. TJ Friedl’s contact quality continues to point toward a downward adjustment. Spencer Steer falls into that category but less so.

In Case You Missed It

Noelvi Marte crushes a two-run walk-off homer for the Chattanooga Lookouts Friday night. It was Marte’s third homer in two nights. In his past 11 games, the 21-year-old is hitting .349/.420/.628 for a wRC+ of 182. His walk rate is 10% and strikeout rate 12% over that stretch.

[Image: MLB]

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.