I am not a big fan of American football because, well, because of the Bengals primarily. I’ll watch my alma mater’s game every Saturday, but that’s enough football for me. Give me baseball every single day of the week, please and thank you.
Talking with my fellow Reds fans over the last week or two, however, reminds me of a discussion we hear among football fans every year. It’s something that has become known as “backup quarterback syndrome.” Essentially, among many fan bases, the backup quarterback is the team’s most popular player. Whenever the starter begins to falter, fans inevitably clamor for the backup quarterback—usually an unknown quantity with a good resume and perhaps good numbers in very limited action, often in blowout games—to be given the chance to take over. Since the backup doesn’t have a real record, other than in college, fans can project onto him all their hopes and dreams. Think Andy Dalton and AJ McCarron, and you’ll have an idea of what we’re talking about here.
Which brings me to Phillip Ervin, who’s unquestionably having a dynamite month as a member of the Cincinnati Reds. Since being recalled from Triple-A Louisville in mid-June, Ervin has posted a slash line of .377/.433/.639 with two homers, two doubles, and four triples in 27 games (67 plate appearances). He’s a former college baseball All-American and the Reds’ first-round draft pick back in 2013, so there have always been high expectations.
With Cincinnati’s offense in the metaphorical toilet all season long, Ervin has been a breath of fresh air. He’s slugging the ball, running bases aggressively, and generally playing an exciting brand of baseball. He’s a fun player, and haven’t I always advocated fun to you, the devoted reader?
All of a sudden, fans are clamoring for more Ervin. Some say he should be starting every day in left field instead of Jesse Winker. Others say he should replace Yasiel Puig when Puig moves on to greener pastures next year—though we’re still hoping he stays here in Cincinnati, right?
Let’s pump the brakes on all that chatter, shall we? Phillip Ervin is a perfectly acceptable major league player, but he’s not likely ever to be an everyday starter, no matter what we’ve seen the last six weeks. I don’t like writing this opinion, because every time I suggest such a thing a certain segment of the readership acts like I’m being critical of Ervin. Hey, I like him. A lot! He’s a good baseball player who can be a valuable contributor to the Reds over the next few years. It’s just that he’s almost certainly a fourth outfielder, a guy who can fill in capably and be a good bat off the bench, a player you’re comfortable handing 300 or so at-bats over the course of a season.
But pretty much every metric tells us that Ervin is just not as good as Winker. So if we’re picking one of these guys to be the Reds’ starter in left field, it’s not really a close call. Though we don’t have to pick just one—more on that in a moment.
Ervin just turned 27. Winker is 25. At every level of professional baseball, Winker has been the superior hitter; that’s even true in the majors, where Winker has hit .283/.375/.465, a 119 OPS+ in 228 career games. Ervin, more than a year older, is .275/.345/.453, a 109 OPS+ (which isn’t bad, obviously, but it’s in 95 fewer games). There are some reasons to keep an eye on Winker, as noted over at the outstanding Reds Content. Plus, he’s good and has plenty of prime seasons in his future.
As I said over on the horrid wasteland known as twitter dot com this weekend, at some point the Reds have to concede that the current offense is just not good enough. They need to make drastic moves to fix the problem before 2020 rolls around, if they’re serious about competing. But there’s a quick way to ensure that the Reds have above-average contributors at all three outfield positions next year: Sign Puig (perhaps easier said than done) and platoon Winker and Ervin in left field. Combine those two with Nick Senzel in center, and you have a superb outfield.
Winker gets a bad rap as a defender, and he’s not particularly athletic. Ervin is very athletic, but doesn’t gain much of an edge on Winker here. Neither player is going to help the Reds defensively, but a platoon of the two would be a solidly above-average left fielder.
I’ve been trying to tell you for a long time that you should appreciate Winker more. He has such a good approach at the plate and is what the old-school guys always called “a professional hitter.” But it’s become increasingly clear that Winker just isn’t very good when facing left-handed pitching.
There has been some grumbling about the fact that Reds manager David Bell has refused to play Winker against lefties. Certainly, if the Reds aren’t going to the playoffs, I’d love to see Winker get more attempts against southpaws, just to see if he can improve. But the simple fact of the matter is that Winker’s lefty-right splits are atrocious and have been since at least 2014, when Winker played most of the season in Single-A.
Ervin’s splits are interesting. Surprisingly, he hasn’t been much better against lefties over the course of his pro career than against righties. Frankly, he hasn’t been particularly good against either, in the minors or majors (until the last six weeks). Just kinda somewhat competent, you know? It’s why the former first-round pick has never established himself as a real prospect and why no one should believe that he has—all of a sudden—figured out how to mash big league pitchers at the age of 27. That just doesn’t happen.
Thus, it makes sense to use Winker, a left-handed batter, against right-handed opposition. That would give Ervin, who hits from the right side of the plate, plenty of starts against lefties while also allowing him to be your primary pinch hitter the rest of the time. Both guys get a lot of at-bats, and both are put in spots where they are more likely to succeed. It’s a win-win, baby!
Last night, in Milwaukee, we saw a perfect example of Bell playing these platoon splits like a Stradivarius. Winker started against right-hander Zach Davies and went 2-for-2 with an opposite-field homer. The third time through the lineup, Milwaukee had gone to their bullpen. With a lefty now on the mound, Bell sent Ervin up to pinch-hit for Winker. Ervin promptly delivered a bases-clearing triple.
If you put Winker and Ervin in spots where their weaknesses are minimized, you create a situation where both guys can be big-time contributors to a good Reds team. But if you play them too often, like AJ McCarron, they may get exposed a little bit.
OK, perhaps I don’t know what I’m talking about when it comes to American football. But this I know: Signing Puig and platooning Winker and Ervin would give the Reds’ front office a couple of fewer things to focus on this off-season. Freeing management up to go sign Gerritt Cole to a massive free agent contract, maybe? World Series, here we come!
Chad Dotson authors Reds coverage at Cincinnati Magazine and hosts a long-running Reds podcast, Redleg Nation Radio. He wrote about the 1970s Reds as part of the magazine’s “10 Events That Shaped Cincinnati” package. His first book, The Big 50: The Men and Moments That Made the Cincinnati Reds, is available in bookstores and online.