The Reds’ Crowded Rotation

Sometimes, having too many starting pitchers is a good problem to have, and the Cincinnati Reds appear to be stuck in this rut. While the Reds’ rotation won’t get much attention compared to that of other NL teams like the Phillies and the Giants, they should head into 2011 with a serviceable rotation.

Bronson Arroyo leads as the workhorse of the rotation, eclipsing the 200-inning mark every year since 2005. He also posted a 3.88 ERA and a 4.61 FIP with a low BABIP of .239 in 2010, aiding the low-strikeout ground-ball pitcher. A pair of 24-year-old righties in Johnny Cueto and Homer Bailey are the first of the youth movement in the Reds’ rotation, both having pitched career seasons each with a sub-4.00 FIP. After recovering from Tommy John surgery, Edinson Volquez looks to return to the heart of the rotation and continue posting good strikeout rates.

Come spring training, however, it’s the last spot in this rotation that will receive the most attention amongst Reds fans, as Travis Wood, Mike Leake, and yes, even Aroldis Chapman are competing for the 5th spot. In fact, this was the same group of young talented pitchers who competed for the same spot last spring training, though this year it looks like the competition may be for a long-term role rather than for April.

All three now have 2010 playing experience on their resume as they head into 2011, albeit under different circumstances. Right now, Wood and Leake are much more likely to start than Chapman. Leake beat out Wood for a starter role to begin 2010 (even without a single minor league appearance), but suffered from shoulder fatigue as the season progressed and was eventually put on the disabled list. After posting a 2.97 ERA, 3.23 FIP, and 8.91 K/9 in AAA, Wood was called up in July and pitched well for the rest of the season, including a one-hit loss against Roy Halladay in his third career start. It would appear that the Reds will continue to knock on Wood (just had to say it), who closed 2010 as a 24-year-old with a lot of upside. But we may not have seen the last of Leake in the rotation.

You could make a case for both pitchers. Wood ended the season well and has consistently held a low home-runs-allowed rate and a low BABIP. He is also a left-handed pitcher in a rotation that is completely right-handed. But Wood also held an absurd 48.1% fly ball percentage compared to a 30.5% ground ball percentage. Take a look at all of the candidates for the Reds’ starting rotation and their batted ball numbers in 2010:

Arroyo: .239 1.08 16.3% 43.4% 40.3% 10.5%
Cueto: .290 1.07 19.4% 41.7% 38.9% 8.6%
Bailey: .315 1.12 21.1% 41.6% 37.2% 9.3%
Volquez: .323 1.75 15.2% 53.9% 30.9% 11.8%
Wood: .259 0.63 21.4% 30.5% 48.1% 6.3%
Leake: .302 1.57 17.8% 50.2% 32.0% 12.1%

Of the six potential and most likely starters, Wood is the only one that allowed more fly balls than ground balls. Yet he was able to depress home runs at an HR-friendly ballpark, holding a 6.9% HR/FB at home. The success of the other Reds’ starters relied on ground balls when there weren’t enough strikeouts, but every one of them gave up the long ball at a higher rate than Wood’s 0.79 HR/9 rate. And Wood’s success in the minors was due to consistently low home run rates and low BABIP numbers.

Whether Wood will continue to suppress home runs despite giving up a lot of fly balls or reveal that his consistently low BABIP was a fluke, we’ll have to see in 2011. I’m anxious to know what will happen, because I personally don’t know how he can keep those skewed batted ball splits and low home run rates pitching at the Great American Ball Park.

Amazingly, none of these six aforementioned pitchers will become free agents until 2014 at the earliest. There is, however, one other pitcher who is a dark horse candidate for the 5th starter spot in 2011: the left-handed Chapman. All indications are that he will enter the season in the bullpen instead of developing into a starter in AAA, perhaps eventually challenging Francisco Cordero for the closer’s role. But the 103+ mph fireballer has the stuff that could eventually turn him into an effective starter if he can develop his changeup to add to an off-the-charts fastball and a devastating slider. The Reds organization will use Chapman where the club needs him over his own development, but a starter’s role may eventually come in the long run.

There are a lot of stories to look forward to in the Reds’ rotation in 2011, and it will be particularly interesting if Wood will be able to hold his spot in the rotation for the entire season.

Albert Lyu (@thinkbluecrew, LinkedIn) is a graduate student at the Georgia Institute of Technology, but will always root for his beloved Northwestern Wildcats. Feel free to email him with any comments or suggestions.

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12 years ago

Management has stated that Chapman will be a reliever in 2011, but, as far as I know, the long term plan is still for him to start. Things could change, obviously, but that’s the plan.