The 2017 Reds, losers of 94 games, have accomplished two franchise rarities. First, the team duplicated its record of the previous season for the first time in franchise history. Second, this is the first time since the early 1930s that the Reds have lost at least 90 games in at least three consecutive seasons.
The former piece of trivia doesn’t tell us much about the state of the franchise, but the latter certainly does. We shouldn’t completely overreact: the team is just four years removed from a wild card appearance and there are many encouraging pieces from which to build. One of the dumb stats I like to track is a rolling five-year winning percentage. The Reds over the last five seasons have a cumulative winning percentage of .452, which is as low as the team has seen since the 2001-05 era. There are some useful parallels between the current day and the Griffey/Dunn era, most notably that: a) the team generally isn’t very good; and b) the hitting is far better than the pitching.
One of the great flaws, in my mind, of that early 2000’s team is that they were stocked with players who were somewhere around average. Take a look at the Baseball Reference page of, say, the 2004 team. There aren’t any obvious weak links on the hitting side. Every regular had an OPS+ of 92 or higher, there were two or three bright lights, and there were some useful parts on the bench. And even putting aside the dumpster fire of a pitching staff, the team only finished 10th out of 16 NL teams in runs scored.
What’s more: that team, despite having over-the-hill versions of Barry Larkin and Ken Griffey, was an above average defensive team. So here’s the challenge: assume you can swap out the horrible pitching staff with a fairly decent one. You still have a mediocre offense…where do you upgrade? What kind of marginal returns over D’Angelo Jimenez (.364 OBP, 99 OPS+) or Sean Casey (44 doubles, 137 OPS+). These guys weren’t great, but they were good enough that you could kinda get fooled into thinking you really had something.
Which brings us to Adam Duvall.
I should probably start by saying that I like Adam Duvall. Or said better, I think mostly positive thoughts when I turn on the Reds game and see his name included in the lineup. He hits the ball hard and plays pretty good defense. And it’s hard to bash a guy who was seemingly an afterthought in the trade that brought him to Cincinnati, followed by him averaging 32 HR and 101 RBI in two full seasons.
There’s a big but coming, but I wanted to linger on the fact that I still like Adam Duvall.
Duvall is, theoretically, just past his peak. He turned 29 years old just before the season ended. The power is unmistakable, but he walks so infrequently that his on-base percentage with the Reds is on the wrong side of .300. His defense is good, but is already showing signs of decline. He strikes out a ton, of course, but that probably comes with the territory.
The thing I think about when it comes to guys like Duvall is how might the front office view the state of the outfield. Duvall was the best of the bunch in 2017, but only had a 1.8 bWAR. Duvall and Schebler are more or less mirror images of each other from the two sides of the plate, and Billy…well, you know the pros and cons to Billy. I am certain that the team can’t be a serious contender with two corner outfielders who profile as 100 OPS+ guys. There has to be an upgrade somewhere, either through Jesse Winker busting through or through an addition from the outside (or both!). Personally, I’m of the mind that one of the easiest ways to experience an immediate gain would be to platoon Duvall and Schebler.
Here’s a quick and dirty thought exercise: Duvall and Schebler played (more or less) full time, each with strong slugging percentages, offset by weak on-base percentages, such that Duvall was at 100 OPS+ and Schebler at 103+. Combined, that’s 101 OPS+ production from the corners.
Now assume that Duvall were only to hit against left-handed pitchers. Last year, he killed them, to the tune of .279/.352/.571 (136 OPS+). Meanwhile, assume Schebler took all the at-bats against righties. He didn’t have much of a platoon split at all: .215/.313/.481 (104 OPS+). Combine the two, with appropriate weighting to there being more RHP, and we could get something like this: .233/.324/.507 (113 OPS+). Coincidentally, those numbers are very close to what Jay Bruce hit last year (.254/.324/.508; 115 OPS+). With such an obvious comparison point, it becomes a pretty simple exercise to say that Duvall/Schebler in one of the outfield spots might be worth about 1.5 wins more than either one of the two on their own.
I can’t remember the last time the Reds had such an obvious platoon pairing, especially in a position that lends itself so well to platooning. Were they so inclined, the team could then get fairly creative: what about a platoon with Hamilton (speed, defense) with an on-base machine that already exists on the 25-man roster? Let’s say Winker plays the first 5-6 innings, then gets substituted out when (hopefully) he’s on base in a key situation…Hamilton runs wild, then closes out the game in the field. Add a legitimate hitting right fielder, and that’s an outfield that could make some noise, including the fact that there would always be a 4th outfielder on the bench with game-changing pop in his bat.
Alas, that’s probably wishcasting a few dozen orders of magnitude beyond reality, but the fact is that the Reds, among their various other problems, do not have a first division outfield today. The status quo, paired with normal year-to-year player progression is unlikely to change that.
Adam Duvall has played 334 games with the Reds, hitting .244/.299/.489 (103 OPS+) with plus defense in left field and a powerful bat that has produced 69 home runs and 211 RBI. He makes his debut on the honorable mention list of greatest players in franchise history, ranking at #236.