RED MONDAY | Another week of losses, the rotation has been good, Rhett Lowder update

After a week off for vacation, Red Monday returns, still offering clear-eyed analysis of how the Reds are doing and where they are headed. 

Last Week | The Losing Streak is Dead

You may have heard Chris Welsh say this on the Reds broadcast, but it’s worth repeating. An eight-game losing streak isn’t great, but it isn’t fatal either. Last year’s World Series champion Texas Rangers lost eight in a row in August. And the NL Pennant winning Arizona Diamondbacks lost nine back-to-back, also in August. So, while the Reds recent losing streak isn’t what you want, it doesn’t make their situation hopeless either. 

The Reds finished what turned out to be a winless home stand with a three-game series against the Arizona Diamondbacks. 

  • Tuesday The Reds lost 6-2 in the series opener, wasting a terrific start by Frankie Montas. Montas allowed two runs (one earned) in six innings. He struck out seven and walked one. Reliever Justin Wilson gave up four runs in the 7th on two home runs. The Reds scored on homers by Jonathan India and Tyler Stephenson. The unearned run was due to a throwing error by Elly De La Cruz. 
  • Wednesday The Reds lost 4-3 despite stealing four bases. Jeimer Candelario had three hits and TJ Friedl and Tyler Stephenson each had two. Starter Graham Ashcraft gave up three runs in five innings. He walked three and struck out two. The winning run was a solo homer by Eugenio Suarez surrendered by Lucas Sims.  
  • Thursday The Reds dropped another one-run game, losing 5-4. Hunter Greene gave up three runs over five innings after walking five batters. Two of Greene’s earned runs scored after he left the game in the 6th after allowing two base runners. Nick Martinez gave up a run-scoring double and then another run later in the 6th. Fernando Cruz gave up a run after walking Tucker Barnhart with two outs. The Reds cost themselves more runs on the base paths. Elly De La Cruz got thrown out trying to steal third with no outs. 

 Attempting to put the losing streak in the rearview mirror, the Reds headed west for a three-city, ten-game road trip that began in northern California. 

  • Friday All the Reds had to do to end the losing streak was fly to San Francisco and put together a whole-team performance. The 4-2 win was the product of power hitting, speed, a solid start and reliable relief. Spencer Steer gave the Reds a first inning lead with a long double that scored Elly De La Cruz, who had singled. Steer and De La Cruz combined for the Reds second run, this time on singles by both a couple stolen bases by De La Cruz. Stuart Fairchild added an insurance run with an inside-the-park homer in the 8th. Andrew Abbott went five. The bullpen of Emilio Pagan, Justin Wilson, Lucas Sims and Alexis Diaz threw four shutout innings. 
  • Saturday The Reds fell victim to a first-inning grand slam and having a paddleboat-load of runners thrown out on the bases in losing 5-1 to the Giants. Other than the first inning, Nick Lodolo pitched fine, Mrs. Lincoln. He struck out six and walked only one over six innings. Lodolo induced seven swings on the 11 sinkers he threw, with three whiffs. Elly De La Cruz hit his 9th homer for the Reds only run. Jake Fraley had three hits and stole a base. 
  • Sunday Welp. The Reds jumped out to a three-run lead in the first on a bases-loaded double by Jeimer Candelario that bounced off the top of the right-center fence back onto the field. The Giants scored five runs in the 5th off starter Frankie Montas, who had showed signs of fading in the 4th. Elly De La Cruz and Candelario gifted the fifth run on an error. Cruz made a hard low throw that got past the Reds first baseman. The Reds chipped away with runs on a solo homer by Mike Ford and a Jake Fraley single. The Reds failed to score in the 10th. Lucas Sims grooved a two-out, 0-2 fatpitch fastball allowing the winning run to score in a 6-5 loss. 

The Reds finished the week with a 17-23 record, seven games out in the division. The Brewers (24-16) and Cubs (24-17) are fighting for first. The Reds are 3-13 since April 24. 

This Week | May West

The beauty of baseball’s regular season is the Reds play again today, with a chance to pay back the Diamondbacks. 

  • Monday (9:40 pm)
  • Tuesday (9:40 pm)
  • Wednesday (3:40 pm)

Then the Reds jump on the I-10 and head west Los Angeles for a four-game series against the juggernaut Dodgers.

  • Thursday (10:10 pm)
  • Friday (10:10 pm)
  • Saturday (9:10 pm)
  • Sunday (4:10 pm)
Checking In  | Rhett Lowder

On Saturday, Rhett Lowder made his first start at the Double-A level, pitching for Reds affiliate the Chattanooga Lookouts. The 22-year-old Lowder began the 2024 season at High-A and made five starts for the Dayton Dragons before his promotion.

At Dayton, the Wake Forest graduate recorded 29 strikeouts and just six walks in 25 innings, with a good 49% ground ball rate. His ERA for the Dragons was 2.49 and xFIP 3.27.

Saturday, Lowder went five innings, throwing 76 pitches. Unfortunately, no Statcast data is available, but we know he struck out five and walked one, allowing six hits and three earned runs. Here was his first strikeout.

First Forty | The Reds Rotation

Forty games, or roughly one-quarter into the 2024 season, let’s check-in on the performance of the Reds starting pitching. Keep in mind we’re still dealing with small sample sizes.

So far, the Reds have used just six pitchers to cover the team’s five-person rotation. Hunter Greene and Andrew Abbott have pitched eight games, Graham Ashcraft and Frankie Montas seven each, Nick Lodolo has thrown six and Nick Martinez stepped in to cover for Lodolo and Montas at times to pitch the final four games.

Strikeouts and Walks

Strikeouts and walks are the two most fundamental benchmarks when it comes to evaluating pitching. Strikeouts prevent batters from putting balls into play where they might become hits. Limiting walks prevents opposing batters from getting on base without putting balls in play. Another way to think about the two metrics are dominance and command.

In these measures, the Reds starting staff has been right in the middle of the league. They rank 12th out of 30 in strikeout percentage (K%) and 15th in walk-rate (BB%). To go along with strikeouts, the Reds rotation ranks 13th in swinging-strikes. If you combine the two (K%-BB%), the Reds starters rank 13th, or just above the middle of the pack.

Ground Balls

Ground balls are considered safer than fly balls for pitchers. While a certain percentage of grounders do go for hits, they seldom go for home runs or extra bases. On occasion, they turn into double plays. It’s important for pitchers who play half their games in homer-friendly Great American Ball Park to keep balls out of the air.

Here, the Reds rotation has been lacking. The league average for starting pitchers is 42% for ground balls. The Reds staff has the third-lowest GB% in the major leagues at 38.2%. Graham Ashcraft leads the rotation with a 51% ground ball rate. Nick Lodolo has also been better than average at 45%. Frankie Montas has continued his career pattern of average ground ball production at 42%.

Free agent signee Nick Martinez has the lowest grounder rate at just 23%. That’s not just the puniest on the Reds staff, it’s dead last among the 144 major league starters with at least 20 innings pitched. That said, Martinez’s 42% career rate and 50% rate the past two seasons give strong reasons to expect better from him. He’s also off the starting rotation now.

That leaves Hunter Greene (35%) and Andrew Abbott (31%) as regular Reds starters with too-low ground ball rates. Greene’s career rate in 46 starts over 2022-23 is 32%. Abbott is just in his second big league season, but his GB% last year was 29%. Both Greene and Abbott have much higher than average career home run rates.

Hard Contact

Other things equal, pitchers try to minimize hard contact. Hard-hit balls do more damage. They go farther and reduce reaction time for fielding. Several metrics aim to measure it. It’s unclear how responsible pitchers are for the hardness of contact they surrender. Some pitchers, like Wade Miley, have demonstrated year after year an ability to do it. Other pitchers fluctuate randomly in hard-hit rate. A reasonable conclusion is that pitchers have some control over contact quality but nowhere near complete control.

Good news here. The Reds rotation has been excellent so far in minimizing hard contact. They rank third out of 30 in minimizing hard-hit balls. They have the second-highest soft contact rate and fourth-lowest average exit velocity.

ERA and xERA

The Reds rotation ranks 13th in ERA while at the same time rank 2nd (!) in xERA.

What’s the difference and what explains the gulf between the two in this case?

xERA estimates what a pitcher’s ERA would have been had every batted ball they’ve given up had a typical result. It’s the translation of xwOBA to an ERA scale. It’s based on a formula using exit velocity, launch angle and, on certain batted balls, sprint speed of the runner. It takes every actual batted ball the pitcher gives up and calculates what the typical outcome would be. It mitigates the role of luck, defense, park dimensions, bullpens and official scorers. It’s a vast improvement over plain ERA as a way to evaluate how the pitcher threw the ball.

That’s more good news for the Reds, because the team’s starting rotation has been terrific as measured by xERA. Second-best in the league terrific.

What explains why the Reds staff has such a good xERA but a middling ERA?

Two factors. Poor defense and a small home ballpark. The Reds defense ranks near or at the bottom in several team metrics. That means the team doesn’t convert batted balls into outs as often as the rest of the league. That takes a toll on a pitcher’s ERA but not his xERA. GABP’s small dimensions mean that fly balls which typically go for outs often go for home runs. That’s rough for a pitcher’s ERA but not his xERA.

Stuff+

Stuff+ is a new metric that offers a more granular look at how a pitcher is doing. It evaluates each pitch he throws on release point, velocity, vertical and horizontal movement and spin rate. Secondary pitches are also evaluated based off the primary pitch based on differences in velocity and movement. Stuff+ does not account for pitch location.

Based on the Stuff+ metric, the Reds starting rotation is the best in baseball. Stuff+ is expressed on a 100-point scale with each point above or below representing a percentage point from league average. The Reds staff Stuff+ is 108.

Hunter Greene (129) ranks second in MLB in Stuff+. Graham Ashcraft (112) ranks 19th. Nick Lodolo (103), Nick Martinez (103) and Frankie Montas (101) all rank above. Only Andrew Abbott (93) has been below average in Stuff+.

[The stats in this item are through Friday night’s game.]

Conclusion

In figuring out how good the Reds would be in 2024, the starting rotation was an area of significant uncertainty. Hunter Greene, Graham Ashcraft and Andrew Abbott have been up-and-down in what are still short careers. Nick Lodolo is coming off a serious injury and sat out most of 2023. Frankie Montas, while a veteran, made only one start in 2023 and is recovering from major shoulder surgery. Over his career, swingman Nick Martinez has a much better track record as a reliever.

All that said, over the first 40 games of the season, the Reds rotation has been good. Even a little bit better than good once you subtract Martinez from the equation. 

[Photos: Reds and Brewers 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.

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