Hey, the Reds Won a Series!

© Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports

The Reds won a series this weekend, beating the Pirates in two out of three games. Ordinarily, this wouldn’t rate as news, but it’s the first time since they swept the Nationals last September 24-26 that they could claim such an accomplishment, and the first time all season that they came from behind to win a game. They entered Friday with a 3-22 record — a standard of futility surpassed by only one team since 1901 — and had won just one of their previous 21 games in the wake of president Phil Castellini’s now-infamous “Where are you gonna go?” speech before the team’s April 12 home opener. Even with the series win, which came at the expense of the garden-variety bad Pirates (now 11-16), this undermanned team has been unsightly so far.

After making the expanded playoffs with a 31-29 record in 2020, the Reds went 83-79 last year, but missed out on the postseason thanks to their payroll slashing and then gutted the roster even further. With general manager Nick Krall euphemizing the teardown by telling reporters, “We must align our payroll to our resources and continue focusing on scouting and developing young talent from within our system” in November, the team was similarly aggressive in slashing payroll this past winter. They let lefty Wade Miley — on whom they held a $10 million club option after a solid, 2.9-WAR season that even included a no-hitter — escape via waivers to the Cubs, made no attempt to retain Nick Castellanos after he opted out, and traded Tucker Barnhart to the Tigers, though at least they had a ready successor to him in Tyler Stephenson. Once the lockout ended, they quickly dealt away Sonny Gray, Jesse Winker, Eugenio Suárez, and Amir Garrett. They did sign four free agents to major league deals, though all were for a single year, and only those for Donovan Solano ($4.5 million) and Tommy Pham ($7.5 million) came in north of $2 million. In fact, only two players, Joey Votto and Mike Moustakas, are signed to guaranteed deals beyond this season.

Thus a team that headed into 2020 with a non-prorated payroll of $147 million left the gate this year with a payroll about $37 million lighter, not to mention a preseason forecast for 75 wins and a 7.9% chance of making the newly-expanded playoffs. After splitting their first four games with the Braves in Atlanta, the team prepared to face the Guardians for their home opener on April 12, before which Castellani said the quiet part loud in a radio interview when asked why Reds fans should trust the current ownership, which after all had just held a fire sale for a team that finished with back-to-back winning records for the first time since 2012-13:

Well, where are you gonna go? Let’s start there. I mean, sell the team to who? I mean, that’s the other thing, I mean, you wanna have this debate? If you wanna look at what would you have this team do to have it be more profitable, make more money, compete more in the current economic system that this game exists, it would be to pick it up and move it somewhere else. And, so, be careful what you ask for. I think we’re doing the best we can do with the resources that we have.

Insulting the intelligence of the fan base was an aggressively stupid tack for Castellini to take, particularly when he doubled down later that day before finally issuing an apology so canned that it may as well have been accompanied by the now-infamous description of a drive into deep left field by Castellanos. While it felt a bit like the baseball gods’ justice was playing out as the Reds lost 20 of 21, none of the players involved in this debacle were the ones telling fans that maybe the franchise should move so it could make its owner (Bob Castellini, Phil’s father) more money. This team wasn’t well-built in the first place, and it has played badly while being smothered by injuries.

That 3-22 start, whew. The only post-1900 team with a worse opening record was the 1988 Orioles, who started 0-21 and were just 2-23 through 25 games. The 2003 Tigers went 3-22 en route to challenging the 1962 Mets for supreme futility, finishing 43-119, while every other team in the AL or NL since 1901 went at least 4-21 through 25 games. Even dialing back to the 19th century, the 1899 Cleveland Spiders, who infamously finished 20-134 after being stripped of all of their good players thanks to syndicate ownership, started off 5-20, though it took them two straight wins to get there. To find an NL team that started 3-22, you have to go back to the 1894 Washington Senators. They’re ancient history, and so is 3-22, but even the list of teams that began the year 5-23 is pretty grim:

Worst Starts Through 28 Games Since 1901
Tm Year W L Win% W L Win%
Orioles 1988 3 25 .107 54 107 .335
Tigers 2003 3 25 .107 43 119 .265
Browns 1936 4 24 .143 57 95 .375
Red Sox 1932 5 23 .179 43 111 .279
Pirates 1952 5 23 .179 42 112 .273
Reds 2022 5 23 .179 NA
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

Even the Spiders pulled themselves together to go 6-22 through 28 games, though the aforementioned Senators were 3-25; the latter would pull themselves together to finish at 45-87 (.341), but three of the five post-1900 teams with such awful starts couldn’t even manage a .300 winning percentage in the end.

That 5-23 is largely earned. The Reds entered Sunday with a -83 run differential, more than double that of the next-lowest team, the Pirates (-41). With their 7-3 win over Pittsburgh, Cincinnati still has the “edge,” -79 to -45, with the Royals’ -39 the majors’ third-worst. By Pythagenpat, the Reds are two wins behind their projected record, while by BaseRuns, they’re only one win behind; they “should” have a run differential of -95 by the latter.

While they’ve been pretty bad on both sides of the ball, the Reds have inarguably been worse on the pitching side. Their 6.39 runs per game allowed is nearly a full run per game worse than the Pirates’ 5.44, the majors’ second-worst mark. Things have particularly fallen apart with regards to the rotation, which has generally been an area of strength under pitching coach (and now director of pitching) Derek Johnson; in 2020 and ’21 combined, the unit ranked fourth in the NL in ERA (3.89) and WAR (22.7) and fifth in FIP (4.00). But with two of their four top starters from last year, Gray and Miley, now elsewhere, and a third, Luis Castillo, just now being activated from the injured list after a bout of shoulder soreness in spring training, this year’s rotation has been pulverized for an 8.54 ERA — that’s 110.2 innings and 108 runs allowed! — and a 5.82 FIP. In addition to those major league-worst figures, the Reds rotation owns the majors’ highest home run rate (1.95 per nine, 0.51 worst than the second-highest team, the Tigers) and and walk rate (11.4%, 0.6% worse than the nationals). Their 20.8% strikeout rate is a comparatively respectable 18th, their 9.0% strikeout-to-walk differential 28th.

Two of the starters are holdovers from last season. Tyler Mahle, who led the staff in WAR (3.8) while posting a 3.75 ERA and 3.80 FIP, has been lit for a 6.46 ERA so far, nearly three runs higher than his FIP. He’s walking too many guys and not striking out enough; his K-BB% has dropped from 19.2% to 10.0%, and he’s getting nicked to death via a .330 BABIP, though his quality of contact stats are actually good, with a 3.8% barrel rate and 3.69 xERA. Vladimir Gutierrez, a 26-year-old righty who was knocked around for a 4.74 ERA and 5.22 FIP last year as the fifth starter, has been dreadful due to mechanical woes, walking 17 and striking out just 13 in 21.1 innings; he’s the only pitcher in the majors with at least 20 innings who has more walks than strikeouts. He’s lost over 1 mph on his fastball, his swinging strike rate has dropped from 9.6% to 6.9%, and batters are chasing fewer of his pitches outside the zone. He’s carrying an 8.86 ERA and 7.53 FIP — but not very far, as he has yet to complete five innings in a single turn.

Two of the other starters are Top 100 Prospects, namely 22-year-old righty Hunter Greene (no. 31) and 24-year-old lefty Nick Lodolo (no. 51). Greene has dazzled by throwing a major league-high 60 pitches in excess of 100 mph — topping out at 102 — but man cannot live by fastball alone, and his heaters, which overall have averaged 98.3 mph, have been hit for a .448 average and .983 slugging percentage when they’re not buzzing past hitters. Batters haven’t been able to do much with his slider when they make contact (.067 AVG/.200 SLG), but his 14.3% swinging strike rate on the pitch and 22.2% chase rate can’t offset the damage elsewhere, not when he’s mixing in a changeup only 8.3% of the time. His strikeout and walk combination (28.7% and 10.7%, respectively) is certainly manageable, but allowing 10 homers in 20.1 innings — including five against the Brewers on Thursday — is not, and neither is a major league-worst 17.7% barrel rate. Lodolo, a sinker/slider southpaw with the potential for three plus pitches, made three starts of increasing quality before landing on the injured list with back soreness, though he’s expected to return later this week.

Another rookie, well-traveled 28-year-old righty Connor Overton, has made two very good starts (2.53 ERA and 2.32 FIP in 10.2 IP) and figures to get more chances, though his immediate status is in doubt with Castillo scheduled to make his season debut on Monday against the Brewers, who pummeled the Reds for 34 runs in a three-game series in Milwaukee last week. Reiver Sanmartin, a 26-year-old lefty, missed out on that mess but was torched for a 13.78 ERA and 6.69 FIP in 16.1 innings before being optioned to Triple-A Louisville after failing to escape the first inning at Coors Field last Sunday.

The Reds’ bullpen owns the majors’ worst ERA (4.92) and second-worst FIP (4.45), but it has at least featured a handful of respectable performances by Jeff Hoffman, Alexis Díaz, and Luis Cessa, all of whom have at least 10 innings pitched and ERAs and FIPs suitable for family publications. The likes of Hunter Strickland, Dauri Moreta, Tony Santillan, and Art Warren, not so much. Lucas Sims, nominally the closer, began the season on the IL due to elbow and back issues, and didn’t debut until April 23; he’s had two rough outings — including a four-walk, five-run pounding during garbage time in Milwaukee — and three solid ones. The starters have been so dreadful that the team has had just five save opportunities, tied with the Nationals for the majors’ low. Just as tellingly, the unit’s average Leverage Index (pLI) is just 0.48, 0.13 lower than any other team, and only two pitchers are at 1.0 or higher, Sims and Santillan. It’s all mops and buckets here.

Which brings us to the offense, which is second-to-last in the NL in scoring (3.57 runs per game) and batting average (.204), last in on-base percentage (.277) and slugging percentage (.326), and last in the entire majors in wRC+ (73) — but hey, they’re first in the Senior Circuit in strikeout rate (26.4%). Of its four top hitters from last year, two (Winker and Castellanos) are wearing other uniforms, and two others are on the injured list after underperforming, namely Votto and Jonathan India. On the heels of an impressive rebound, the 38-year-old Votto has hit an unfathomable .122/.278/.135 (35 wRC+) and has been on the COVID-19 IL for the past week; Dan Szymborski recently looked into his woes. India, last year’s NL Rookie of the Year, has been limited to 11 games by a recurrent right hamstring strain and hasn’t played since April 29.

Only three Reds — Stephenson, Pham, and Brandon Drury — have a wRC+ of 100 or better, and that’s with Stephenson starting just 14 of the team’s 28 games behind the plate. Drury, now on his fifth major league team, has hit .276/.333/.566 with a team-high five homers while splitting time between second base (in India’s absence) and third (with Moustakas struggling). Moustakas, who was limited to 62 games, a 70 wRC+ and -0.4 WAR last year by a right heel injury that included a bout of plantar fasciitis, again landed on the IL due to a right biceps strain. He’s hit a sizzling .344/.462/.531 in 39 PA since returning, but his overall 85 wRC+ testifies to the hole that he fell into. Elsewhere in the infield, Kyle Farmer, who was surprisingly solid at shortstop last year (91 wRC+, 16 HR, 1.9 WAR) has been awful, hitting just .198/.257/.271 (51 wRC+). Even with average defense, his -0.7 WAR is tied for the majors’ second-worst WAR among regulars, ahead of only Votto’s -1.1. Solano strained his hamstring in late March and underwent a PRP injection in late April following a setback.

As for the outfield, the unit as a whole has hit .187/.248/.320 for a major league worst 61 wRC+. Tyler Naquin, who had his best season in half a decade last year (110 wRC+, 19 homers, 1.9 WAR), has hit just .197/.256/.355 (73 wRC+) in a unit where everybody besides Pham and newcomer Albert Almora Jr. (who has all of 12 PA) has struggled. Nick Senzel, now 27 years old and in his fourth season, has again left the Reds wanting in terms of both performance (.192/.222/.308, 54 wRC+) availability, as he’s now on the COVID-19 IL. Jake Fraley, acquired from Seattle in the Winker trade, hit .116/.208/.233 through 48 PA before going on the IL with right knee inflammation. Aristides Aquino somehow went 2-for-41 (with two walks, of course) before being outrighted to Louisville.

It’s grim just about everywhere you look, and the best thing that can be said for this team, aside from it being only 134 games away from the finish line, is that maybe its ailing players — particularly Votto, India, Senzel, Castillo, and Lodolo — can return in better health and inject some life into this team. Even in tank mode, the Reds do have some compelling players, but right now, this mess is just unsightly, and nobody can be blamed for not watching.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky @jayjaffe.bsky.social.

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1 year ago

The Revenge of Eugenio Suarez

1 year ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Memo to management: Fans don’t like it when it looks like the team is just slashing costs. They also don’t like being told that their purpose is to make owners more money.

1 year ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

As long as baseball has an antitrust exemption, there will always be teams like this. Always.

The sad part is that, at the end of the day, politicians won’t do anything about it because fans would be up in arms if it happened.

1 year ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

He’s channeling Rob Deer: .204/.305/450 0.8 WAR/130WRC and probably thankful to be out of Cinci.
Hard to say its a true rebound; too early.
But at least nobody expected him to carry the team.

1 year ago
Reply to  fjtorres

Rob Deer’s K%+ was 218 in 1986, and Suarez is at 138 now. So, yeah, the line is similar except that there are more true outcomes now.

In case you’re wondering, here are the Top (qualified) K%+ rates from 1970 to 2019. (I left out 2020 and 2021 because 2020 was weird).

1978: Gary Alexander
1975: Dave Kingman
1975: Mike Schmidt
1979: Gorman Thomas
1976: Dave Kingman
1991: Rob Deer
1986: Rob Deer
1981: Dave Kingman
1989: Bo Jackson
1993: Rob Deer
1987: Rob Deer
1995: Benji Gil
1978: Gorman Thomas
1989: Rob Deer

Rob Deer was TTO monster. He would run 120-190 BB%+’s. Kingman was in some years, in other years he was just hacking. Most of the guys on this list had at least some years where they hit well, the big exception being Benji Gil (this is some selection bias, though, since pretty much anyone who qualified for the list would have been decent enough to play).