Baseball isn’t my only obsession. Sure, many of my waking hours are consumed with baseball—thinking about the game, watching the game, writing about the game. But I have other obsessions, like bacon. And movies.
I’m a pretty serious cinephile, which is precisely as pretentious as it sounds. I adore the films of Wes Anderson, Martin Scorcese, and Damien Chazelle; watch every obscure film I can find on the Criterion Channel; and each year I rank my top films. Only recently, however, have I begun to develop an appreciation for horror movies. That was based primarily on two expertly-crafted titles from the genre that appeared in the last couple of years, A Quiet Place and Get Out.
Seriously, I recommend you seek out both movies, even if you aren’t generally a fan of horror films. Trust me, you’re ready. After all, you’ve been experiencing a horror story of nearly historic proportions over the last few years known as “Reds Pitching.”
It’s difficult to overstate how bad Cincinnati’s pitching staff has been the last three years. If we judge strictly by Wins Above Replacement, the Reds had the next-to-worst staff in the National League last year: 14th out of 15 teams. In 2017, Cincinnati was dead last in the NL. In 2016, it was even worse: Reds pitching compiled just 0.9 WAR, by far the worst in all of baseball. (Next to last was the Angels, with 7.6 WAR; the Nationals led the majors with 23.3.)
That 2016 staff featured such luminaries as Tim Adleman, John Lamb, Ross Ohlendorf, and the bloated corpse of Alfredo Simon, not to mention current Reds assistant pitching coach Caleb Cotham—it was enough to make you want to scream. It was so bad that Cincinnati inspired an in-depth study from FiveThirtyEight entitled “The Reds Pitching Might Be the Worst of All Time.”
Yikes. That three-year stretch, in which the Reds had the worst pitching staff in the entire major leagues by a huge margin, was the impetus for Reds owner Bob Castellini to promise fans that the team was going to “get the pitching.” That declaration, during the media event announcing the club’s super-cool throwback uniform promotion throughout the 2019 season, was followed by an off-season in which the Reds did acquire some pitching, by trading for Tanner Roark, Alex Wood, and Sonny Gray and signing reliever Zach Duke.
So how’s that working out, more than a quarter of the way through the 2019 season? Well, take a look at this chart from FanGraphs:
Gorgeous, right? Cincinnati clearly has the best pitching staff in the NL, and you could even make the argument that the Reds’ hurlers are the best in all of baseball. Sure, we still have 100-plus games remaining in the season, and that chart may look different by the time the 2019 season winds to a close. But we’ve seen enough to know that the pitching is much, much better than we’ve experienced in past seasons.
The starting rotation has been golden. Luis Castillo is developing into an ace right before our eyes. Tyler Mahle, Sonny Gray, and Tanner Roark have all been solidly above-average, and even Anthony DeSclafani—finally healthy—has been roughly league average.
The bullpen has been, far and away, the best group in the NL by almost any metric. Only one reliever who has pitched for the Redlegs this season has been below average (the aforementioned Duke boy). Everyone else has been shining, especially Amir Garrett and Michael Lorenzen. Even Raisel Iglesias, who has lost five games and had some dramatic blowups at costly moments, has a 3.47 ERA and a 129 ERA+ (29% above league average).
Of course, I’m not telling you anything you didn’t already suspect. What’s most exciting to me (in my self-appointed role as the Voice of the Reds Fan™) is what this dazzling production from the staff means for the Reds in future years.
First of all, I think what we’re seeing is sustainable. If you scan the stats for the current pitchers, nothing jumps out at you as being abnormal. None of these pitchers are performing way above what we should expect from them. The obvious exception to that is Castillo, but he’s been an ace in waiting for some time. No one is surprised that he is among the best pitchers in the league, even if we can’t expect Castillo to finish the season with a sub-2.00 ERA.
Also, most of these guys are going to be wearing a Reds uniform for a while. Roark likely won’t be around next year. Alex Wood was expected to be one of the prime contributors to this rotation; he hasn’t pitched a single inning thanks to back problems, and it’s looking increasingly unlikely that he’ll be a Red beyond 2019. In the bullpen, David Hernandez and Jared Hughes will be free agents. Otherwise, the bulk of the pitching staff will be back.
Most importantly, Castillo, Gray, and Mahle are looking like a pretty decent 1-2-3 group for the next few seasons. The Reds could still seek to improve at the top of the rotation—and they should—but when you have at least three reliable starters, it eliminates (or at least reduces) an area of need as Reds management seeks to improve the club over the off-season.
Perhaps the biggest reason I’m so excited about the future of this pitching staff over the next few years is the duo in charge: Manager David Bell and Pitching Coach Derek Johnson. Johnson has been widely regarded as one of the brightest pitching minds in all of baseball, and nothing I’ve seen thus far makes me want to argue with that judgment.
Bell, on the other hand, has been widely criticized for his handling of the pitchers, even among his own players. Fans constantly moan about Bell’s “Captain Hook” tendencies, pulling his starters from games earlier than we’ve become accustomed to. Roark gave voice to that complaint last week, and it’s understandable. But the research shows that starters are almost uniformly less effective the third time through an opponent’s lineup, and Bell is aware of the analytics behind player performance. Isn’t it also possible that the starters’ outstanding statistics have been enhanced by the fact that the manager is pulling them before they have a chance to fall apart?
There has been an abundance of criticism of Bell’s management of the bullpen too, including from Iglesias. Bell makes a ton of pitching changes. So, so many pitching changes. Lots and lots and lots and lots of pitching changes. I’ll be the first to tell you that I don’t like it, as I think it’s an aesthetic nightmare. It’s just not fun to watch. But you just can’t argue with the results.
The Reds still have some things to sort out with the pitching staff as they look to next year, and there are even more questions about some of the hitters. But settle in for a fun ride—the horror show is finally over.
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.