There was a time, early last season, when an increasing number of people was jumping on the Phillies bandwagon. The team was rebuilding and overachieving, but there were early signs that the front office had assembled a dynamite pitching staff. While the Phillies were the rebuilding team getting the most positive attention, the Reds might’ve been the rebuilding team getting the most negative attention. Rebuilds are rebuilds, and losing teams lose, but the Reds didn’t seem to have anything exciting. The Phillies were a team with possible studs. The Reds were a team with just about nothing to speak of.
As 2016 rolled on, the Phillies dropped off, while the Reds improved. The Phillies had the National League’s worst second-half record. The Reds closed out by playing .500 baseball. And now it’s 2017, and the Phillies continue to struggle. They presently have the worst record out of anyone, while the Reds have been somewhere in the vicinity of average. Suddenly, it’s the Reds who have players to talk about. It’s the Reds who look a little bit promising. They just — well, the season’s been weird. At the same time, the Reds have been very good and very bad.
It shouldn’t be hard to explain what I mean. What’s been going well for Cincinnati? We might as well start with Joey Votto, who’s been going to the plate with what’s basically a perfect approach. He’s never been one to swing at many balls, but he’s been swinging at even fewer than usual, while going after a greater number of strikes. The numbers you’d expect to follow have followed, as Votto works to remain among the league elite.
Yet Votto hasn’t been the best hitter or position player! Zack Cozart doesn’t just lead Votto in WAR — he also leads Votto in wRC+, which would’ve been unimaginable a few years back. And, to be honest, it’s still unimaginable, and it won’t keep up, but Cozart has clearly improved at the plate, after having been miserable earlier in his career. Cozart’s a quality everyday player, and there are still more to list off.
Eugenio Suarez? Pretty good, now. Adam Duvall, Scott Schebler? Perfectly acceptable regular outfielders. Billy Hamilton is still working on getting his offense going, but he runs and fields as well as ever, so he’s valuable. The Reds have value, is the point. How much value? So much value that, at this writing, the Reds lead the major leagues in position-player WAR:
Clearly, this isn’t how the Reds were projected. Even now, for the rest of the season, the Reds position players project in 13th place, between the Twins and the Giants. But the Reds, collectively, have been better than average at the plate, while also being better than average on the bases and being better than average in the field. The Reds are done with April and May. Those are two of the season’s six months. The sample size now is pretty big, and the Reds’ position players, together, have been remarkable.
On the pitching side, the Reds’ leader in WAR is Scott Feldman.
That reads kind of mean. Feldman has been okay. He’s been Scott Feldman. But he’s sort of, you know, Scott Feldman-y. He’s by no means supposed to be the leader of a staff. And yet, here we are. It’s not that there’s nothing good going on — Raisel Iglesias and Michael Lorenzen, for example, are still reliable relievers. But that was already true a year ago, when the Reds became the first team in history to have a pitching WAR below zero. Their group 2017 WAR is not below zero. It was, however, below zero in May. At this writing, the Reds are last in the major leagues in pitcher WAR:
The Reds are first, and the Reds are last. For a different visual idea of how the league has looked through two months, consider the following scatterplot:
It’s kind of extraordinary. And I should say that the pitching stuff feels more sustainable. I mentioned that, the rest of the way, the Reds’ position players collectively project to be about average. The Reds’ pitching staff projects for baseball’s lowest combined WAR. Which makes sense, after that 2016 performance. The more sustainable part of this is the more unpleasant part of this.
But I don’t want to dwell on the negatives. The Reds have been decent. The Reds have been bizarre! It’s not fair to focus on the last-place pitching staff without giving just as much attention to the first-place position players. With that in mind, I went searching for precedent. I examined every single major-league team-season since 1950, which felt like far enough back. I ranked every team-season within every year by position-player WAR and pitching-staff WAR. Here are the 10 most lopsided or top-heavy teams:
|Team||Year||Player WAR||Pitcher WAR||Player Rank||Pitcher Rank||No. Teams|
The only team to be first in one category and last in the other: the 1959 Washington Senators, who had the least-valuable position players and the most-valuable pitchers. Yet, not only is that the opposite mix, compared to the present Reds; in 1959, there were only 16 teams. Right now there are almost twice as many. So the closest match would be the 2000 Anaheim Angels, who finished 82-80, with a Pythagorean record of 81-81. Those Angels had baseball’s very worst pitching, but they were also first in the American League in position-player WAR, and second in baseball. That’s the team the Reds have most looked like, except that the Reds have a one-slot rank advantage.
Two points. One, and most obviously: There’s plenty of baseball to go. The Reds could very easily finish last in pitching WAR, but they could have trouble hanging onto their No. 1 position-player ranking. Nothing is set, so all the numbers are uncertain. The 2017 Reds aren’t yet officially anything. Two: Does this count as a potential fun fact? It might be right on the line. It would be one thing to say, conclusively, that a team had the league’s best position players and worst pitchers at the same time. But we can’t actually be that conclusive. WAR makes a series of assumptions and estimates. And there are different WARs, which have been calculated differently over different eras. Everything in here is based only on what’s available at FanGraphs, but there would be different data at Baseball-Reference. I didn’t analyze that, and maybe over there, the Reds aren’t quite so strange.
But I can only work with what I have. Based on *this* analysis, through the season’s first two months, the Reds have been baseball’s best half-team, and baseball’s worst half-team. It is, if nothing else, a substantial improvement from last season’s first two months. And you can’t say the Reds haven’t gotten people talking.
Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.