About that Reds hitting slump

The defining characteristic of an MLB regular season is its length. It’s long enough that by design every team goes through good and bad stretches. That 1990 Reds wire-to-wire championship team? It lost eight games in a row that July. The awful 2018 Reds team that started off 8-27 and lost 95 games? It enjoyed winning streaks of six and seven games. Over a long season just about anything that can happen, does. 

The point is this: With such a large sample size of games, you get a normal distribution of outcomes based on talent level, with periods of excellence but also times of abject failure. If you further break a team down into parts — offense, pitching, defense — you’ll find similar up and down stretches. Players and teams get hot at the plate.

And players can slump. Teams go through hitting slumps.

As anyone who follows the Reds can attest, David Bell’s team went through a stretch of poor offensive performance the past few weeks. After averaging 5.3 runs in its first 24 games, the club managed less than half that, 2.6 runs/game, for the next 13. Whether you call that a slump or, like Yogi Berra, say the team “just ain’t hitting” it’s worth analyzing to see if there’s anything to learn. 

The Endpoints

We’re calling this an autopsy because we’re declaring the slump is dead. There’s solid evidence for that, which we’ll get to in a minute. For an accurate and thorough autopsy of the Reds team-wide slump, we need to pinpoint when it began and ended. 

The starting point is easy. That would be April 25. The previous two nights the Reds had scored 15 runs off the Phillies tough pitching staff. But that Thursday afternoon, Zach Wheeler and his bullpen mates shut out the Reds on three singles. After that, the Reds skid lasted two weeks, through May 9. 

For a more analytical basis for setting the slump’s endpoints, track the team’s game-by-game xwOBA. That stat provides a composite measure of contact quality plus walks.

As a yardstick, consider that league-average xwOBA has been about .318 in recent seasons and is again in 2024. Through the Reds’ first 24 games, its team xwOBA was .328, or ten points higher than MLB average. It’s almost impossible to believe now, but from Opening Day to April 24, the Reds had been the ninth best offense in baseball. In long seasons everything happens. 

But over the next 13 games — from April 25 through May 9 — the Reds posted 11 games of below average xwOBA, averaging just .263 in xwOBA. Rock bottom? May 3 when the Reds managed a season-low .157 xwOBA. That was the first game of the Orioles series when the lineup was limited to two Elly De La Cruz hits.

So, using xwOBA as our guide, the Reds team-wide slump began on April 24.

When did it end?

Did it end?

The Reds hit the ball well in all three games of last weekend’s Giants series: xwOBA Friday (.349), Saturday (.349) and Sunday (.366). The expansive dimensions of Oracle Park may have prevented the Reds above-average hitting from showing up in runs, but all three games were strong offensive performances based on contact quality and walks. 

So, for the sake of argument, analysis and our collective sanity, let’s stipulate the team-wide slump ended when David Bell’s club left Cincinnati for San Francisco after the game on May 9.

With endpoints of April 25-May 9 established, let’s poke around to see what we can learn.

A (Nearly) Comprehensive Slump

The Reds slump was worthy of the name. It was comprehensive in (almost) every aspect of baseball offense. More on the “almost” shortly. 

Hit Skill From April 25-May 9 the Reds had the league’s worst batting average (.181) as well as the league’s worst expected batting average (.209). During the first 24 games of the season, those numbers were .226 and .247. 

Power Hitting The Reds were dead last in isolated power (.098), last in slugging percentage (.279) and had the fourth-lowest hard-hit rate and average exit velocity. Prior to the slump, the Reds had a .169 ISO, good for 5th best in baseball. The Reds had been hitting for power. 

Run Production Overall, the team’s run production (wRC+) during the slump was 46, or in other words, 54 percent worse than league average. Over those days, that Reds xwOBA of .263 was an astonishing 20 points worse than the next lowest team, the Seattle Mariners.

Run Scoring As mentioned above, during the team’s first 24 games, the Reds averaged 5.3 runs. During the slump, they scored 2.6 runs/game. Gulp. 

Identifying Major Factors

Let’s analyze a few metrics that might suggest major factors in explaining the Reds team-wide slump.

Was the slump merely bad luck?

Not really, although the Reds did have the lowest batting average on balls in play (.227) and the sixth-largest gap between their BA and xBA and between their SLG and xSLG. So, bad luck on where balls landed was an aggravating factor. But remember, the Reds still had the league’s lowest xwOBA, xBA and low hard-hit rates, measures that are independent of luck.

We haven’t talked about strikeouts and walks yet.

The Reds strikeout rate was high before the slump started — 16% above league average. Did the Reds strike out more during the slump? Surprisingly, no. The team’s strikeout rate remained at 16% above average. 

Walks are a different story.

In the before times, through April 24, the Reds walked at a rate 15% above league average (10.2%), tied for third highest in baseball. That’s terrific. But during the slump, the Reds walked 22% less than average (6.9%), ranking 24th out of 30 teams. Most players saw their BB% fall. But leading culprits were Jonathan India, whose walk-rate plummeted from 16.3% to 7.7% during the slump, a drop that coincided with his being removed from the leadoff spot; Jeimer Candelario (11% to 2%), Santiago Espinal (10% to 3%) and Luke Maile (14% to 3%).

An interesting question is one of cause or effect? Did taking fewer walks contribute to the offensive slump, or did the slump cause players to take fewer walks? The latter makes some sense. When everyone is hitting, players accept walks, confident if they take a free pass and just keep things rolling, their teammates will do their part. But if your teammates are slumping, you might feel increased pressure and swing more. 

The Reds became swingers

The Reds did swing more often during the slump. Through April 24, their overall swing rate was 44.8% — third-lowest in baseball. But during the slump, the Reds swing rate shot up to 47.5%. That might not look like much. But the spread of lowest to highest team swing rates is 42%-51%. So, during the slump the Reds were swinging the seventh-most. 

What about speed during the slump?

This is the “almost” exception noted above. The Reds “aggressive base running” didn’t fall off during the slump. Over the 13 games when they averaged fewer than three runs, the Reds still had the third-most stolen bases in the league and the fifth-best base running score.

If you needed evidence that building a team around stealing bases and base running is ineffective relative to other skills, look no further. In the case of the Reds two-week slump, hit skills, on-base skills and hitting for power were connected to the Reds offensive slide. Whether the Reds were aggressive base runners didn’t matter. 

The tried-and-true recipe for scoring runs: Get on base and hit for power. Those skills generate offense. We saw that from the Baltimore Orioles. The Reds themselves followed that formula until April 24. In might be a cheaper way to build a team, but you can’t run your way out of offensive deficiencies.

The Bigger Picture

Slumps happen to every team. But teams with better and deeper rosters will have shorter and shallower downturns. Talent levels matter. 

So, let’s not overlook the haunted forest for the trees. The Reds Opening Day player position roster was built young and thin. The Reds’ original sin in roster construction was ownership limiting payroll to $100 million – a full $65 million below league average. 

The loss of TJ Friedl, Matt McLain and Noelvi Marte was a devastating body blow. Consider that the front office replaced those three with Bubba Thompson, Santiago Espinal and Nick Martini. On top of that were a series of illnesses and minor injuries that kept players out of the lineup. 

It was unrealistic to expect the Reds Opening Day roster to be above average. Yet, even with those factors stacked against them, in the first 24 games the Reds offense excelled. It was held together by Elly De La Cruz posting MVP numbers, Spencer Steer getting off to a strong start and Jonathan India walking 16% of the time batting leadoff.

It didn’t take much for that to change. De La Cruz came back to earth, Steer became plagued by bad luck and regression, and India moved out of the leadoff spot. The too-few other bats that could have stepped up, didn’t. That’s all it took. The young, thin roster made the team more susceptible to a slump.  

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.

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