Two years ago, the Cincinnati Reds finished the season by starting rookie pitchers in 64 straight games. Overall, rookies made 110 starts for the Reds that season, third most in history behind the 1998 Florida Marlins and the 2009 Oakland Athletics. The ’98 Marlins team featured the dismantled remnants of the previous season’s World Series title team and lost 104 games. The A’s team finished .500, as Brett Anderson and Gio Gonzalez made solid debuts while Trevor Cahill, Vin Mazzaro, and Josh Outman also pitched. As might be expected, the 2015 Reds were bad, but given their reliance on rookies, we might think the staff might prove to have more veterans in 2016 and 2017. That hasn’t been the case at all.
After getting 110 rookie starts in 2015, the Cincinnati Reds followed up with another 56 rookie starts last year. In the last 100 seasons, only 24 franchises have ever had 81 games or more started by rookie pitchers. Of those teams, the 1934 Philadelphia A’s, the 1936 Philadelphia A’s, the 1978 Oakland A’s, the 2009 Baltimore Orioles, and the 2015 Reds were the only ones to follow up the season questions with another 50 starts by rookies. For the Orioles, Brian Matusz barely avoided losing his rookie status in 2009, so his 32 starts in 2010 comprised the bulk of the Orioles’ 50 rookie starts, with Jake Arrieta nabbing the other 18.
As for the A’s, there have been 234 team seasons over the past 100 years in which rookies started at least 50 games; the A’s alone are responsible 12% (28) of them. Whether in Philadelphia, Kansas City, or Oakland, the organization has almost always been a spendthrift operation, and from 1935 to 1967, the club finished in last place or second-to-last place 25 of 33 seasons, never placing higher than fourth. Only 30 times in history has a team started rookie pitchers in 50 or more games at least two seasons in a row, and the A’s organization is responsible for seven of those times, encompassing 19 seasons.
So generally speaking, we see two or three teams per year give 50 or more starts to rookie pitchers; in the last 20 seasons, 75 teams have done it, keeping the numbers steady. Generally speaking, these rookie-heavy teams have gotten okay production, roughly 1.4 WAR per 200 innings.* That’s not only a below-average figure as a whole but also worse than the typical rookie average of 1.8 WAR/200 innings. This suggests that the teams employing a rookie-rich strategy are likely not doing so because they have a number of great rookie pitchers, but because they’ve reached some sort of desperation point and really need the innings.
*The available data doesn’t differentiate between starter and reliever innings before 1973. To use the full 100-year sample, therefore, I’ve also included reliever innings in these WAR/200 innings.
Of the teams that have recorded at least 50 rookie starts, only 11 produced a 3.0 WAR or greater per 200 innings. Three of the teams featured Asian professional players who still had rookie status (1995 Dodgers, 2014 Yankees, 2016 Dodgers). Of the rest, the only team with at least half their games started by rookies were the 1984 New York Mets featuring Dwight Gooden, Sid Fernandez, and Ron Darling. The Reds were not one of these teams in either of the last two seasons, averaging a 1.2 WAR per 200 rookie inning pitcher in 2015 and following it up with -1.7 WAR per 200 rookie innings last year. The latter mark was the worst in history by about a win, as Reds rookie starters put up -1.2 WAR and -3.7 WAR including relievers last season and helped the Reds along towards setting a record of 258 home runs allowed.
Before we get to this year’s class, let’s take a look at where the past Reds rookie starters are now.
|Name||GS||IP||ERA||FIP||WAR||2017 Status||2017 Proj WAR|
|Anthony DeSclafani||31||184.2||4.05||3.67||3.1||Reds SP, DL||1.3|
|Raisel Iglesias||16||92.1||4.00||3.58||1.6||Reds Bullpen||1.2|
|John Lamb||10||49.2||5.80||4.16||0.6||Minors LAA||NA|
|Keyvius Sampson||12||51.1||6.66||4.87||0.3||Minors ARI||NA|
|Jon Moscot||3||11.2||4.63||5.62||0.0||TJ Recovery||NA|
|Brandon Finnegan||4||21.0||4.71||5.32||-0.1||Reds SP||1.4|
|Josh Smith||7||30.1||6.82||5.64||-0.2||Minors OAK||NA|
|Michael Lorenzen||21||105.2||5.45||5.48||-0.4||Reds Bullpen||0.3|
|David Holmberg||6||28.1||7.62||8.57||-0.9||Minor CHW||NA|
This isn’t a great result. We’d like to see some improvement, but the group is expected to produce at the same level it did two years ago when they played as rookies. If Iglesias had stayed in the rotation and if DeSclafani weren’t currently injured, we might be talking about a decent front to a rebuilding rotation. Add in Brandon Finnegan, and the results aren’t terrible, even if they aren’t where you might like them to be.
Now moving to last season, where we have a few carryovers.
|Name||GS||IP||ERA||FIP||WAR||2017 Status||2017 Proj WAR|
|Daniel Wright||2||8.1||6.48||2.91||0.2||Minors LAA||NA|
|Tim Adleman||13||69.2||4.00||5.30||0.1||Reds Minors||0.0|
|John Lamb||14||70.0||6.43||5.46||0.1||Minors LAA||NA|
|Josh Smith||2||8.0||3.38||4.90||0.1||Minors OAK||NA|
|Robert Stephenson||8||37.0||6.08||6.50||-0.3||Reds Bullpen||0.2|
|Cody Reed||10||47.2||7.36||6.06||-0.4||Reds Bullpen||0.5|
|Jon Moscot||5||21.1||8.02||9.85||-0.8||TJ Recovery||NA|
Cody Reed and Robert Stephenson might get some starts this year, but the Reds spent 166 starts over the last two seasons on 14 rookie pitchers and don’t have a single pitcher expected to produce wins at an average rate over the course of the full season. Here’s what the Reds depth chart looks like right now.
|Scott Feldman||165.0||6.1||2.6||1.3||.306||69.6 %||4.65||4.64||1.3|
|Brandon Finnegan||170.0||8.2||3.9||1.4||.297||73.0 %||4.42||4.66||1.4|
|Rookie Davis||114.0||6.3||3.1||1.5||.306||69.3 %||5.08||5.09||0.5|
|Amir Garrett||112.0||7.9||4.7||1.3||.303||71.6 %||4.77||4.94||0.6|
|Bronson Arroyo||136.0||5.0||2.2||1.8||.299||68.8 %||5.35||5.44||0.1|
|Anthony DeSclafani||95.0||7.7||2.4||1.2||.305||72.8 %||4.06||4.14||1.3|
|Homer Bailey||56.0||7.6||2.8||1.2||.309||70.6 %||4.38||4.28||0.7|
|Cody Reed||37.0||8.5||3.0||1.3||.307||73.3 %||4.09||4.22||0.5|
|Robert Stephenson||38.0||9.3||5.4||1.4||.301||72.3 %||4.87||5.04||0.3|
|Sal Romano||19.0||6.9||3.0||1.4||.306||69.4 %||4.85||4.77||0.1|
|Tim Adleman||9.0||6.9||2.8||1.5||.300||70.8 %||4.70||4.82||0.1|
They were dead last in the Positional Power Rankings, but with Amir Garrett and Rookie Davis making the rotation out of spring, and Robert Stephenson (who’s still rookie eligible) and Sal Romano lurking for starts, there’s once again the potential for the Reds to allocate 50 or more starts to rookies again. Garrett is a top-100 prospect and Rookie Davis could be a decent innings eater. While it’s impossible to put all rookies out there — and Scott Feldman and Bronson Arroyo are hardly fresh — it is nice to see the Reds let pitchers do work at the major-league level to see what they have.
Since World War II, only the 1987-1989 Baltimore Orioles, the 2007-2009 Washington Nationals, and the 2007-2010 Baltimore Orioles have recorded three straight seasons of at least 50 starts by rookie pitchers. While not necessarily related to their practice of starting rookie pitchers, the two more recent clubs among those three teams made they playoffs by 2012, while the Orioles would have made it in 1992 under the current system.
The Reds are rebuilding, and while they haven’t generated a lot of success thus far in continuing to try new pitchers, unknown pitchers are a lot more interesting than journeyman mediocre one (with only some offense to Scott Feldman and Bronson Arroyo). It might not be tons of fun watching young pitcher after young pitcher perform less than well at the major-league level, and there might be something to be desired in the way the Reds have handled their rebuilding process, but at least the team has no qualms about throwing guys out there and seeing what they have. The pitching staff might somehow be worse than the Padres staff, but if you’re going to be bad, at least be new.
Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.