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Was this the worst (pitching) April in Reds history?

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Cincinnati's pitching has struggled to start the 2016 season. Where do these struggles rank in franchise history?

Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

If you've watched the Reds this season, then you're well aware that the pitching staff has struggled. There have been a few bright spots here and there, but on the whole this is a staff has been hit hard and often in baseball's opening month. A simple glance at pitching statistics around the league make this point abundantly clear.

Through April, Cincinnati led the league in home runs allowed with 43. This actually broke the franchise record of 41 set in 2003 and 2006. The Reds allowed 140 runs by the end of the month which was also worst in the league. To be fair, they only allowed 124 earned runs which was fourth worst. As a staff they finished 28th in ERA (5.42) ahead of only the Rockies and Brewers. They walked more hitters than any other team (110), struck out the fifth fewest amount of batters (168), and their 5.94 FIP suggests this wasn't a fluke. To top it all off Reds pitchers finished April with -1.5 fWAR, again worst in the league.

FanGraphs has a statistic known as "win probability added" (WPA). It "captures the change in Win Expectancy from one plate appearance to the next and credits or debits the player based on how much their action increased their team's odds of winning." No pitching staff, other than the Brewers, decreased their teams odds of winning more than Cincinnati's this past month (-3.15 WPA). We could go on and on with statistics, but it should be clear at this point. This past April won't be a month that Reds pitchers remember fondly.

This was a bad opening month of pitching, but where does it rank in franchise history? Is it possible that fans have just witnessed the worst April performance by any Reds pitching staff? This can be a difficult question to answer because you can't simply compare statistics across eras. The Reds had a few staffs who had higher April ERAs or gave up more runs, but those results came in different offensive environments. Is there a way that we can assess the production of a pitching staff in its context?

There are several ways to answer this question, but one of the better options is to use a stat like OPS+. For those of you not familiar with the statistic here is a helpful definition from FanGraphs:

On-base Plus Slugging Plus (OPS+) has not gained as much widespread acceptance, but is a more informative metric than OPS. This statistic normalizes a player's OPS — it adjusts for small variables that might affect OPS scores (e.g. park effects) and puts the statistic on an easy-to-understand scale. A 100 OPS+ is league average, and each point up or down is one percentage point above or below league average. In other words, if a player had a 90 OPS+ last season, that means their OPS was 10% below league average. Since OPS+ adjusts for league and park effects, it's possible to use OPS+ to compare players from different years and on different teams.

This stat does a number of things that will be helpful for answering our question. On the basis of a team's OPS, or in this case OPS allowed, it helps us understand how a staff fared compared to the league average in a given season. This helps solve the problem of trying to compare pitching staffs in different eras. From year to year the pitchers are compared to what the rest of the league was producing at the time. As mentioned above it also adjusts for league and park effects which help minimize some of the factors that can artificially enhance or diminish pitching statistics.

With that being said this method of comparing pitching staffs still isn't perfect. In fairness to this Reds staff, there are still a few qualifications that need to be stated. This statistic obviously doesn't take weather into account which can be a factor in pitching performance. It also doesn't taken into account strength of schedule from season to season. According to ESPN's Strength of Schedule stat the Reds have played the hardest schedule in baseball up to this point. Playing the Cubs, potentially MLB's best team, seven times in April will do that.

With all of the qualifications mentioned above in mind, how does this Reds pitching staff compare to others that have struggled in March/April?

Rank

Year

sOPS+ ▾

1 1954 150
2 1972 143
3 1953 142
4 1913 131
5 2003 129
6 2016 129
7 1962 129
8 1968 128
9 1997 127
10 2005 127

The s in sOPS+ above simply means "split." It's the OPS+ relative to the split that we're using (March/April).

So what do we learn by looking at this statistic? When compared to other offensive environments, and the productivity of other staffs around the league, the Reds didn't have the worst April in franchise history. However, they did have one of the five worst opening months in the one hundred plus seasons of Reds baseball. Given that period of time this level of production is a pretty incredible, albeit inauspicious, achievement.

While we're looking at it, what went wrong with the pitching staffs that finished in the top five?

  • 1954: The 1954 Reds actually had a winning record at the end of April (9-7). They were the only team listed above to reach that goal. By the end of the opening month Cincinnati was next to last ERA (5.51), last in hits allowed (163), next to last in runs allowed (91), and next to last in batting average against (.295). A major problem was their league worst 33 home runs allowed. The next team by that stat, St. Louis, only gave up 20. Pitchers of note on the staff: Frank Smith, Jackie Collum, Art Fowler, and Joe Nuxhall.
  • 1972: In 1972 the Reds finished April with a 5-8 record. They were last in the league in ERA (4.98), next to last in hits allowed (132), last in home runs allowed (20), and next to last in batting average against (.283). This is actually a surprising team to have on this list considering they finished the season 95-59. Unfortunately they dropped the World Series in seven games to the A's. Pitchers of note on the staff: Gary Nolan, Clay Carroll, Pedro Borbon, and Tom Hall.
  • 1953: From 1945-1955 the Reds didn't finish above .500, so it's not surprising to see 1953 and 1954 on this list. In 1953 the Reds finished April with a 2-7 record, and were last in the league in SLG% (.495). A league worst 24 doubles allowed contributed to that high percentage. Pitchers of note on the staff: Fred Baczewski, Jackie Collum, Ken Raffensberger, Joe Nuxhall, and Bob Kelly.
  • 1913: For those of you fuzzy on the 1913 baseball season, the Reds finished April with a 2-12 record. The usual culprits were at play here. They were last in the league in ERA (4.79), last in runs allowed (81), next to last in walks (69), and last in both batting average against (.285) and OBP (.380). Pitchers of note on the staff: Red Ames, Mordecai Brown, Gene Packard, and Chief Johnson.
  • 2003: Now for some pitchers you're likely familiar with. The 2003 starting rotation included Paul Wilson, Danny Graves, Ryan Dempster, and Jimmy Haynes. That should probably answer a lot of the questions about what went wrong here. They were the only staff in the league with an ERA above 6 at the end of April (6.14), and they surrendered the most earned runs in the league (164). However, they weren't the worst pitching staff in baseball at that point. Toronto checked in with a 132 sOPS+ of its own. Pitchers of note on the staff (other than mentioned above): Felix Heredia, Scott Sullivan, and Brian Reith.
  • 2016: You probably have a pretty good handle on this.
Using OPS+ to compare pitching staffs from different eras isn't a perfect science. However, it does probably confirm what you were thinking. This was a historically bad start to the reason for Reds pitchers. It wasn't the worst in franchise history, but it ranks right up there with the worst of them. The silver lining for Cincinnati in 2016 is that a number of key contributors should be returning from injury soon, and there's pitching prospects to be excited about in the farm system. There's nowhere to go but up from here.