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The Righty Stuff
The Reds have a unique lineup in that the three most talented hitters are all left-handed. Two of those lefties, Joey Votto and Shin-Soo Choo, also happen to be on-base machines, ranking second and third in the majors in OBP. In an effort to ‘protect’—for lack of a more analytical term—batters from facing specialists in later innings, Dusty Baker, like most managers, tends to stagger his lefty hitters. Choo generally bats leadoff, followed by [insert underwhelming, right-handed left fielder/shortstop], followed by the lefty Votto and so on. This diversification has its detractors, but it’s a commonly used and basic managerial tactic. But with a lineup that relies so heavily on the ability of a few left-handed hitters to get on base, there is more pressure on the right-handed hitters to perform. And perform, they have not.
I first started looking at the numbers after seeing a tweet the other day from Reds stats guru Joel Luckhaupt. It mentioned how some of the recent offensive struggles (Monday night was the first game since June 11th in which the Reds topped five runs) can be linked to the Reds right-handed hitters failing to hit right-handed pitchers. I ran the numbers and Joel was right. Reds righties are hitting just .216 when facing right-handed pitchers, the fourth-worst percentage in baseball.
I decided to take the numbers a bit further to see if it was just right-handed pitchers that bother the Reds righties. Turns out they have trouble with basically anyone pitching to them. Cincinnati’s right-handed batters are hitting just .229 this year overall, third-worst in baseball. Not surprisingly, their collective OPS is also a miserable .642.
So let’s take a look at who some of the culprits are in this right-handed drought by using heat maps (among other stats). If you were a deprived child growing up and did not experience the glory of playing All-Star Baseball ’99 on your N-64, or if you’ve never looked at a hotel shower nob, red means hot and blue means cold.
To me, the heat maps are a good way of representing how adaptable a hitter is to different pitch locations. If he is tomato red down the middle of the strike zone and blue everywhere else, that basically just tells me that, like basically every other hitter in baseball, he is good only at hitting balls pitched right down the middle. In essence, what I’m looking for is more widespread reddish-to-gray boxes throughout the zone rather than a smattering of bright red quadrants. The heat maps are a good way to visualize the numbers used so often.
Two notes: I took a look at the four righties with the most plate appearances on the team. It didn’t feel right to dump more on Ryan Hanigan. Also, remember that the sample size against lefties is small for most guys. At this point in the season, batters have faced righties more than twice as many times as lefties.
Slash line vs. RHP: .260/.303/.385
Slash line vs. LHP: .286/.359/.505
What does this heat map show? The interesting component is not the colors in the strike zone. It is the blue outlining the zone when he faces right-handed pitchers. Phillips has always been a bit of a free swinger, but this year he’s not being quite as productive as he has been on pitches outside the zone, and the numbers back up the chart. He is swinging at 37.2 percent of pitches outside-the-zone. He outside zone contact percentage has also dropped more than five percent to 64.9.
However, Phillips should not be a big concern. He may struggle a little bit against righties, but he more than makes up for it in other areas, such as with runners in scoring position. Phillips is batting .405 and has a 1.033 OPS with RISP. With that kind of production, a little free swinging against righties can be excused.
Slash line vs. RHP: .242/.270/.360
Slash line vs. LHP: .250/.287/.432
Cozart takes home the Eiffel 65 Award for bluest heat map. Unless the ball is right down the middle or high and outside, Cozart has really struggled. It’s not an entirely surprising heat map and doesn't say a whole lot other than what we expected to see: Cozart is not a very good hitter.
It seems out of place to have such an impotent bat hit second in the lineup. Baker thought Cozart was misplaced as well, dropping him to seventh more often in hopes of solving his hitting woes.
But here are a few odd numbers: in the 55 games that Cozart has hit second this season, he has put up .274/.301/.404; not overwhelming numbers but certainly serviceable given his high-level of defense. However, since he’s been dropped to seventh, his numbers have plummeted. His slash line is .138/.190/.310 as the No. 7 hitter.
I’m not suggesting that Cozart would be better served as the No. 2 hitter. Far from it. Instead, it just illustrates in a vacuum how inconsistent he can be. Until he can start finding consistency at the plate, no matter his spot in the order, the blue will only remain.
Slash line vs. RHP: .200/.265/.330
Slash line vs. LHP: .298/.389/.426
Mesoraco has, by far, the most dramatic drop off in production against LHP vs RHP. Against LHP, Mesoraco has proven to be a decent hitter in limited at-bats. But he is going to face righties far more often than lefties and an average hovering at the Mendoza line will not cut it, especially when you consider the alternative. Ryan Hanigan has, amazingly, been even worse this season. (Hanigan is batting .175 vs. RHP with an OPS of .521. And while these numbers are far below his career average, the Reds do not have the luxury of waiting for him to snap out of this funk.)
But the monkey wrench in the catcher battle is that Hanigan is significantly better than Mesoraco defensively. He’s thrown out runners on 52.4% of steal attempts while Mesoraco has thrown out just 21.4% of batters.
So does Mesoraco’s less awful hitting numbers outweigh Hanigan’s not terrible defense? Until we see some significant improvement, particularly against righties, I don’t think it will matter a whole lot.
Slash line vs RHP: .242/.338/.385
Slash line vs. LHP: .229/.327/.422
Frazier entered Monday’s game with one home run since June 13th. Then, of course, he went 2-3 with a homerun and 4 RBI Monday in his best attempt to ruin my hypothesis that right-handed hitters aren’t pulling their weight. The Reds were facing Giants rookie lefty Michael Kickham, so I assumed that Frazier was just smartly taking advantage of an inexperienced lefty.
But the numbers seem to indicate that Frazier bucks the trend of righties struggling against righties. While his heat map suggests he gets to more pitches against lefties, that’s primarily due to the small sample size. His average is actually slightly higher than that against lefties.
With Frazier, though, his splits against RHP vs LHP are not nearly as interesting as his home and away splits. (And if there were heat maps that showed that, I would’ve use it instead.)
In exactly the same number of at-bats, Frazier is hitting nearly 100 points higher at home (.291) than on the road (.194). His OPS nearly doubles at home and he’s knocked in 17 more runs at GABP. In all likelihood, Frazier is probably destined to be a .265-.270 hitter with above average pop. But his maddening inconsistency at home vs away is an exaggerated microcosm of the collective struggle of the Reds’ right-handed batters.
These are not new deficiencies for the Reds. As Luckhaupt pointed out in his aforementioned tweet, the Reds right-handed hitters were last in the N.L. vs. RHP last year. But this year is a little different. At the midway point of the season, Cincinnati finds itself in the most competitive division in baseball, fighting against two teams in the Pirates and Cardinals that seem to be here to stay. (Laugh at your own peril at the Pirates, who currently own the best record in baseball.) The Reds have the talent to win the World Series and have veteran lefties that are coming through. But it’s time for the righties to start picking up the slack.
Adam Flango is a video producer for CBSsports.com. He bats left-handed, but throws right-handed.