The Reds’ Plan, Rebuilding, and Team Volatility

The Reds rumors are coming in hot and fast, or at least hot and fast for the weeks right before Thanksgiving, when most of baseball seems to be watching football. Mostly, it’s the obvious scuttlebutt: Aroldis Chapman and Brandon Phillips are available, for packages of varying quality, and mostly for players close to the major leagues.

Depending on what you think of the Reds and their current competitiveness, you’ll read “listening to any and all offers” differently. If you like the Reds’ young starting rotation, you think you might sell anything that’s not nailed down for 2017, meaning the focus is on jettisoning Jay Bruce and getting a haul for the Cuban closer. If you think there’s no hope and the division is too awesome for the Reds, you think they should probably trade Todd Frazier, and maybe even Joey Votto.

The team’s own words give us a clue as to how they are thinking. From a piece by C. Trent Rosecrans on the team’s direction this offseason:

“We still wanted to be somewhat protective of our club last year and we had some offers on certain guys we just didn’t want to move because we still wanted to be… It didn’t play out as good (as we’d hoped),” [Reds President of Baseball Operations Walt] Jocketty said. “But I think we really started at the deadline knowing that ’16 was going to be a transition year and ’17 and ’18 will be the timeframe we think will be able to be stronger and more competitive.”

Frazier and Votto are under contract in 2017, and given the fact that it will be an arbitration contract for the third baseman, and a $22 million salary for a player that just put up seven-plus wins in 2015, those contracts will represent relative bargains. If being competitive in 2017 is possible, you’ll want those guys around.

Because the team admitted they are are selling for major-league-ready prospects, and thought that 2015 might have been a competitive year for them, and that 2017 should be a good year for them, we’re probably not going to see Frazier or Votto go.

But what’s the likelihood that the Reds are competitive in 2017? Well, there are multiple ways to attempt to answer that question.

First, there’s an example from the club’s own history. The 2015 season marked only the second one since free agency began in 1975 that the Reds won fewer than 66 games. The Red Sox and Yankees haven’t won less than 66 in a non-strike season since Free Agency, and the Angels, Cardinals, Giants, and Dodgers have had one season that bad. The Reds are in good company.

The 1982 Reds won 61 games. After adding free agent Dave Parker, receiving a strong year from a young Tom Browning, and installing Pete Rose as player manager, club had crawled back to 89 wins by 1985 . Eighty-nine wins in today’s game buys you a wild card bid most years, and a division if you’re lucky. That’s reason for optimism. Unfortunately, were the current Reds to follow the same timeline as their 1980s predecessors, they wouldn’t reach that figure until 2018, a year after Frazier’s team control is up.

Since free agency started in 1975, 62 non-expansion teams have won between 60 and 65 games. They averaged 63 wins in that bad year, and 74 wins the next season (after pro-rating strike year win totals). Things go wrong in bad seasons, and teams try to improve the squad, or the injury/luck improves the next season. Whatever happens, teams don’t normally get stuck in that 60-65 win range for much more than the average six years. The double-digit stretches — where a team failed to win 88 games for more than ten years after a 60-65 win season — those stretches belong to the Padres, Athletics, Orioles, Rangers, Royals, Tigers, Pirates, Brewers, Mariners and Expos/Nationals.

The Reds are looking to turn this into a competitive team in two years. Teams averaged six years until their next 88-win season, so even if it’s an aggressive turnaround, it isn’t impossible. Of the 56 teams that have already had an 88-win season after their poor season, 11 of them turned it around in two seasons or fewer. So the Reds are asking to do something that one in five teams in their position has done so far.

But there is evidence that today’s game is a little different, and that the sport is more volatile now then it was when free agency was in its infancy. That’s a really tough thing to study, but hopefully here are two ways to talk about team volatility that are better than “count up the championships.”

The first is to look at the year-to-year correlation between team win totals over time. The theory is that — despite tons of noise — you’re looking at how “sticky” teams are. It’s a way of looking at volatility in the standings. Thanks to wunderkind Sean Dolinar, we can see how year-to-year correlations on team wins have done since free agency.

MLB Year-to-Year Win Correlation Only-3

There’s a lot that has happened since 1974. The introduction of expansion teams, strike zone changes, rule book changes, and arbitration system changes can push that line up and down over time. For the purposes of the Reds, and today’s baseball, it’s only instructive to consider the end of the tail.

Perhaps that downward slope in recent years lends credibility to the idea that the second wild card has probably pushed the year-to-year correlation on wins downward. In other words, teams are more volatile from year to year now, possibly because teams are considering lower thresholds as competitive.

Consider a team like the Reds. Back when two teams made the playoffs, 88 wins wasn’t really a number worth caring about. The Reds would probably have to work towards a 95-win team sometime in the future, which means they wouldn’t buy a veteran to improve an 80-win team, and they wouldn’t necessarily care how close the prospects were. They’d be more likely to burn this down and try to stock up for a really excellent team further out in the future.

Another way of looking at team volatility is the Gini coefficient. The Gini coefficient is used to judge parity, and a higher number means there are more teams on the extreme ends, and a lower number means there are more teams clustering at .500.

Year to Year Team Win Correlation & Gini Coefficients
Decade Average Correlation Average Gini
1970 0.6165 0.0816
1980 0.3458 0.0714
1990 0.3409 0.0731
2000 0.5443 0.0809
2010 0.4370 0.0775
Average Correlation = average year-to-year correlation on team win total, grouped by decade.
The Gini coefficient is a measure of parity. Higher means there are more teams on the extreme ends of the win/loss and lower means more teams closer to 81 wins.

We haven’t pushed parity, as judged by this stat, back to where it was in the 1980s and 1990s. But we have improved it a bit with the advent of the second wild card, probably.

All of this comes back to where the Reds think they are on the win curve, and how volatile they think the game is. There’s definitely some evidence that baseball is more volatile year to year now then it was last decade, and that teams are clustering closer to .500 now than they did last decade. Those two things make sense in a Wild Card era.

So if it’s going to become easier to turn things around, it makes sense to hold on to Todd Frazier for a bit. Trade prices usually go up in July, so the team might get more for Frazier later, even as the player would come with fewer months of team control. And if the Reds discover that, despite a nice young rotation, they are headed for another sixty-something-win season next year, they’ll know that it would take a turnaround on par with the 1991 Braves, 1996 Cardinals, 2001 Cubs, 2004 Rays, 2011 Diamondbacks, and 1977 White Sox in order to be competitive in 2017. It’s been done, but you’re talking about one in ten odds instead of one in five.

And those kinds of odds are pretty bad, even if today’s baseball might be changing the math a little bit. Expect Frazier to stay with the Reds until July, when they know a little better how long their current rebuild might take.

With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

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Only Glove, No Love
8 years ago

Nice one. Lots to think about here. Just one thing to add… I have read multiple quotes from Jocketty that CIN is not a place where you can lose. The last quote I read, Walt mentioned ATL and HOU as markets that could sustain more “thorough” (my word) rebuilds.

I would also like to see some discussion of the volatility of ownership and GMs over time. Especially for GMs in different jobs.

Malcolm-Jamal Hegyes
8 years ago

* CIN is not a place where Walt Jocketty can lose


Only Glove, No Love
8 years ago

Sorry not following you…

8 years ago

Ownership won’t keep him around at GM until winning starts 3-4 years down the road.

8 years ago

Meaning Walt hasn’t been doing a good enough job to have the job security to endure an extended period of losing. He’s suggesting a different GM with a better track record might have a longer leash.

Only Glove, No Love
8 years ago

Got it. But that surprises me. I watch the NL Central pretty closely and I think he’s done a solid job. He has run a close third to Moz and Huntington which is nothing to be ashamed of. Not many other GMs would have done as well.

8 years ago

So Jocketty has done a better job than Theo Epstein / Jed Hoyer?

8 years ago

There are definitely GMs that have performed worse, but every year it seems we end up with awful FA signings like Ryan Ludwick, Skip Shumacker, and Jason Marquis in starting roles. He’s made some shrewd trades (both the Suarez and Desclafani trades have recently looked good), but he’s also made some very bad ones (the Marshall trade). It’s clear from statements he’s made that he won’t embrace advancements in baseball thinking and won’t be the one to take us to the next level.

Remember, he only came to the Reds when he lost a power struggle in the Cardinals org over their movement towards analytics/progressive thinking (with him resisting that movement). Which side do you think is happier with the results?

Only Glove, No Love
8 years ago

I am a Cards fan, so I have seen a lot of Walt. He did great things in STL. And yes, he isn’t a sabermetric guy. And yes, I am incredibly happy that MOZ is the GM. And yes, Huntington has done a better job with similar resources. But there is only one Huntington and Moz is one of the top 3 GMs in MLB.

8 years ago

While I wouldn’t buy it without seeing some pretty comprehensive data, it is theoretically possible that a city (Cincinnati) is somehow unique in its low winning elasticity of attendance…

That said, it seems like if that were the case, the Bengals would have had to move a long time ago.

8 years ago
Reply to  Scrap

Sorry – high elasticity. … low tolerance.