RED MONDAY | A welcome sign of life, rotation check-in, what’s going on with Alexis Diaz?

Best Memorial Day wishes as we honor those who have died in service to the United States.

And welcome to Red Monday a place for clear-eyed analysis of how the Cincinnati Reds are doing and where they are headed. 

Last Week |  Proof of Life

The week and 9-game homestand started with three against the San Diego Padres. 

  • Tuesday In the series opener, the Reds didn’t hit much but they sure did pitch, beating the sleepy Padres 2-0. David Bell’s team made three hits and four walks stand up, as Elly De La Cruz had two of the three hits, including a double, driving in a run. But the Reds pitchers won this game. Andrew Abbott threw seven shutout innings, holding San Diego to four singles and a walk. Fernando Cruz and Alexis Diaz each tossed a shutout frame to lock down the win. Cruz got five swings and three whiffs on the eight splitters he threw. 
  • Wednesday The Padres bats woke up against Nick Martinez who was forced back into a starting role by Nick Lodolo’s absence. Martinez gave up eight hits and a walk in 4.2 innings, striking out only two. Brent Suter gave up a run-scoring single in the 5th and another earned run the next inning. Jeimer Candelario hit a solo homer, his fifth long ball of 2024. Tyler Stephenson drove in the Reds other two runs in a 7-3 loss. 
  • Thursday The Reds had a legitimate chance to win this series, but too many holes in the lineup cost them in this 6-4 extra-inning loss. Frankie Montas had another middling start, giving up four runs in six innings. His xERA is 4.57, more than a half-run above league average. Fernando Cruz, who struck out the side, Lucas Sims and Alexis Diaz kept the Reds in it with shutout innings. But in the 10th, Sam Moll allowed two runs to score. Nick Martini led the offense with a two-run homer, tying the game 4-4 in the 6th. But the Reds were no match for the back end of the Padres bullpen, managing only a single and walk over the last four innings.

Then the Reds hosted the first-place Dodgers who they had just played in Los Angeles last week.

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  • Friday At least for a night, the Reds snapped out of their offensive funk using the tried and true formula of getting on base and hitting for power, outscoring the Dodgers 9-6. The Reds put 17 runners on base, counting the nine walks. Three home runs, including a dramatic grand slam by Jonathan India breaking a 5-5 tie, drove in eight. Stuart Fairchild, who hit one of those homers, was the defensive star, making two jumping catches after long runs toward the centerfield wall. Spencer Steer hit a three-run bomb. 
  • Saturday Behind terrific pitching, the Reds won back-to-back games for the first time in a month in a 3-1 victory. The offense consisted of two solo homers — Spencer Steer (94.9 mph, 362 feet) for the second night in a row and Will Benson (104.7 mph, 411 feet) with an opposite field shot — and a double by Jacob Hurtubise. The Reds outfielder was driven in by Elly De La Cruz on a solid single. Meanwhile, Hunter Greene was simply fantastic. He pitched six innings, allowing just one run. He gave up five hits and a walk in six innings. Greene threw 59 fastballs out of his 107 pitches averaging a blistering 97.8 mph. He struck out five. Greene induced 23 whiffs on 60 swings (38%). Following Greene were strong innings from Fernando Cruz (two more strikeouts), Sam Moll and Alexis Diaz. A great, all-around team win. 
  • Sunday The Reds implemented an opener/bullpen strategy to perfection once again, completing a sweep of the Dodgers with a 4-1 win. David Bell and his pitching coaches had Brent Suter face the first batter then follow him up with Nick Martinez. Martinez finished the first inning and completed four more shutout frames. Carson Spiers followed with 3.1 outstanding innings, allowing just one run in the 9th inning. Alexis Diaz came on for his 10th save. The Reds offense scored all four runs in the 3rd inning on a pair of two-out singles by Jonathan India and Nick Martini. 

How about that! The Reds went 4-2 last week. They are 23-30 with a big week of matchups against NL Central rivals ahead.  

This Week | NL Central Showdown

The Reds finish the homestand with three games against the St. Louis Cardinals, including the return of Nick Lodolo today. We’ll publish a series preview later this afternoon. 

  • Monday (4:10 pm) Memorial Day
  • Tuesday (6:40 pm)
  • Wednesday (1:10 pm) 

Then the Reds head to the Friendly Confines for three with the Cubs. 

  • Friday (2:20 pm) 
  • Saturday (7:15 pm) 
  • Sunday (2:20 pm) 
Checking In | The Starting Rotation

As the 2024 regular season reaches the one-third point, let’s look at how the Reds starting pitchers have performed.

These five players have made all but six starts for the Reds. Nick Martinez has stepped in for Nick Lodolo and Frankie Montas for five-plus games. A couple other games the Reds went with left-handed openers before turning the ball over to Montas. With Lodolo’s expected return this afternoon, the Reds should resume their planned rotation.

Thoughts:

  1. The Future. It’s a young staff. Four of the five are 26 years old or younger. The one exception is Frankie Montas who is on a one-year deal. The other four have multiple years of team control remaining: Abbott (through 2029), Ashcraft (through 2028), Greene (through 2029), Lodolo (through 2027). Each was drafted by the Reds: Abbott (2021, 2nd round), Ashcraft (2019, 6th round), Greene (2017, 1st round), Lodolo (2019, 1st round).
  2. Strikeouts and Walks. Greene and Lodolo are well above average in strikeouts with the other three well below. Abbott and Lodolo have lower than average walk rates — a great combo for Lodolo. In Abbott’s case, it makes up for a low-ish strikeout rate. Montas is on the wrong side of both metrics.
  3. Ground Balls. The Reds rotation isn’t built for the tight dimensions of GABP. You’d like to see all of them with above-average ground ball rates, but Abbott, Greene and Montas are below. Ashcraft helps neutralize his K% and BB% with inducing a good amount of grounders.
  4. xERA and xFIP. Keep these straight. Both are independent of defense, park dimensions and luck, so either is vastly superior to plain old ERA. If you’re using ERA to evaluate pitchers you’re ignoring much better ways of judging how the pitcher is actually pitching. The difference between xERA and xFIP is how much contact quality you attribute to pitchers. xERA assumes pitchers have 100% control. xFIP assumes none. The truth has to be in between, which is why I like to average the two to come up with a single composite measure. That’s the far right column, shaded pink. That’s the one you should pay most attention to. Lodolo and Greene have been way better than average. Abbott has also been great. Ashcraft is above average, but not way above. Frankie Montas has been far worse.

Remember, small sample size. These are measures of how these guys have pitched, not predictions of what’s to come.

What’s Going on with Alexis Diaz? 

The emergence of Alexis Diaz as the Reds closer was one of the most surprising breakthroughs for the ahead-of-schedule Cincinnati Reds.

The Reds had selected Diaz in the 12th round of the 2015 draft as an 18-year-old out of Puerto Rico and the young right-hander didn’t rocket through the club’s minor league system. Several years after joining the organization, the Reds gave up on Diaz as a starter. In 2019, he put up a 5+ ERA pitching in the Dayton Dragons bullpen and was inactive during the 2020 COVID year.

So, six years after being drafted, Alexis Diaz was assigned to Double-A Chattanooga for the 2021 season. Pitching for the Lookouts was when Diaz’s two-pitch portfolio came together. He struck out more than a third of the batters he faced, sporting a fastball velocity that reached into the upper 90s. The Reds added him to the 40-man roster that November.

With the Reds big league club desperate for relief pitching, the front office had Diaz skip Triple-A and assigned him to the 2022 Reds Opening Day roster. Notable for his unusual delivery and high spin rates, Diaz became one of the tiny number of feel-good stories on that 100-loss Reds team. In our 2023 preview, we wrote that Diaz had been the Reds best reliever in 2022, finishing the season with a club-high 10 saves.

By June 2023, Diaz had blossomed into one of the best relievers in baseball. But as the 2023 season played out, Diaz became less dominant. Some speculated the young right-hander had simply been worn down by excessive use, expecting Diaz would return to early-2023 form in 2024.

But now, two months into the 2024 season, a refreshed Alexis Diaz has not returned to anywhere near his peak form. During the first half of 2023, Diaz had an xERA of 2.62 and xFIP of 2.46 (average 2.54). His strikeout rate was 44% and whiff rate 41%. In the second half of 2023 (using June 23 as a cutoff), Diaz had an xERA of 3.70 and xFIP of 5.68 (average 4.69). His strikeout rate dropped to 19% and whiff rate to 31%. Now, in 2024, Diaz has an xERA of 4.05 and xFIP of 5.66 (average 4.75). His strikeout rate is 24% and whiff rate 25%. 

Alexis Diaz in 2024 has pitched the way he did the second half of 2023, not the first half of 2023 when he was elite. 

So, what’s up?

Before we get to what has changed, it’s worth pointing one thing that hasn’t.

Hard Hits Alexis Diaz is not being hit harder now than he was when he was dominant. His average exit velocity is lower in 2024 (88.2 mph) than it was in the first half (88.8 mph) or second half (90.3 mph) in 2023. His hard-hit rate (40.4%) is lower than during his peak stretch (42.3%). Same with his barrel rate. Diaz’s composite xwOBA on balls where contact is made in 2024 (.311) is even lower than in 2023 (.322). League average is .369. So, Diaz isn’t getting pounded. He remains effective at mitigating quality contact. 

Luck Has Alexis Diaz been unlucky? A little bit, but not much. When Diaz was his most successful, his BABIP (batting average on balls in play) was .275. This year, it has been .294. Taking a closer look, Diaz experienced a swing of 35 points (batting average points) in the direction of worse luck last year from the first half to the second. His luck on balls in play in 2024 is about the same as it was later in 2023. Bad luck hasn’t been a huge factor, but it hasn’t been zero, either.

Delivery With regard to his delivery, in many ways Alexis Diaz is the same pitcher in 2024 that he was the first half of 2023. His spin rates on both pitches are about the same. Diaz hasn’t lost his league-best extension (7.7 feet) which is boosting his perceived velocity three miles per hour above his actual velocity. He still throws with a unique arm angle. If anything, his release points are slightly lower now than they were last year.

But there have been changes.

Fastball His fastball velocity, both actual and perceived, is off by one mile per hour compared to the start of 2023. That may seem small, but across all MLB pitchers in 2024, the drop from 95 mph to 94 mph on a fastball is about 57 points of wOBA, from .320 to .377. When perceived speed drops from 97 mph to 96 mph, wOBA rises from .314 to .338. Diaz’s fastball has lost two inches of “rise” (less drop) compared to the first half of 2023. The Reds closer has seen his fastball whiff rate plunge from 35% to 20%.

For example, Diaz left this fastball in the middle of the plate, not high enough in the zone. The Mariners’ Julio Rodriquez slaps it into the corner.

Slider Diaz’s slider is breaking an inch less (3.6 inches) toward his glove side now compared to his peak (4.9 inches). His slider whiff rate has dropped from 46% to 30%. The run value per 100 pitches has fallen from 4 to zero. The expected batting average off Diaz’s slider has risen from .159 to .246.

Here’s an example of Diaz’s slider not moving far enough away to prevent a run-scoring single by Kevin Newman.

Whiffs Fewer whiffs mean more contact. Diaz’s overall contact-rate has soar from 62% in first-half 2023 to 78% in 2024. League average for relievers is 76%. Opponents aren’t being fooled like before. Last year they swung at 32% of his pitches out of the strike zone (O-Swing%). This year it’s 26%. Diaz induced a swinging-strike rate of 17% in the first half of last year. That’s fallen to 9% in 2024. League average is 11%.

Conclusion

After all the data and analysis it still comes down, as it does for most pitchers, to strikeouts and walks.

Alexis Diaz is striking out fewer batters, which means allowing more contact, and walking more.

Diaz remains a two-pitch reliever, neither of which is dominant. He depends on hitters being surprised or guessing wrong. But now in his third big-league season, Diaz is no longer unfamiliar to the league. Surprise or quirkiness doesn’t survive major league scouting, video and reps. As Diaz fools batters less often, they put more of his pitches in play. While they aren’t necessarily hitting him harder, added balls in play create more offense.

Beyond that, Diaz is walking more batters — up from 12% to 15% — which puts runners on base who don’t need to make successful contact and who can be driven in by the greater number of balls in play Diaz is allowing.

A word of caution about sample size. Analyzing pitchers based on a couple months is fraught with risk. Look no further than our June 2023 post, written when Diaz was at his peak. It turned out what he had done to that point didn’t predict what Diaz would do the rest of 2023. And here today, we’re out on a similar limb attempting conclusions based on even fewer games in 2024. As always, it’s best to think of small sample sizes as describing what has happened, not as predicting what will take place.

Although … the 2024 Alexis Diaz isn’t brand new. He’s been this pitcher since mid-June 2023. The super-high whiff and strikeout rates disappeared then and haven’t returned. This season, Alexis Diaz’s whiff rate is in the 44th percentile, strikeout rate in the 52nd percentile and xERA in the 48th percentile of MLB pitchers. And that walk-rate of 16%? It’s in the bottom 3rd percentile. Diaz’s overall pitching run value ranks in the 35th percentile.

The combination of (1) the league figuring him out, (2) command issues, and (3) mechanical slippage, has turned Alexis Diaz from a dominant reliever into an average one.

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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