We have long lamented the shape of the Cincinnati Reds pitching staff, particularly their starters, and rightfully so. Anytime you see a unit rank among the bottom five teams in all of Major League Baseball in key metrics, it’s an easy call to suggest that there needs to be improvement. For the starting pitching, that’s certainly the case, as they rank among the league’s worst in ERA, BB/9, HR/9, FIP, and fWAR since the start of the 2017 season.
You know that. I know that. The Reds know that. It’s an instance where the eye-test meets up with what the advanced metrics suggest, too, and it’s an area that 100% needs to be addressed. This article isn’t about starting pitching, though - it’s about another aspect of the team that we don’t jump to as quickly when trying to address the reasons behind multiple 90+ loss seasons.
This article is about the state of the team’s outfield, which also ranks among the league’s worst in a number or ways, somewhat surprisingly.
Since the start of the 2017 season, the collective Cincinnati Reds outfield has only been valued at a total of 7.5 fWAR, good for fifth worst in all MLB. Almost as important as that ranking is the list of teams behind them, as each of the Kansas City Royals, Chicago White Sox, Baltimore Orioles, and San Francisco Giants have either begun rebuilds in that time or have sunk to abysmal overall records in the process. Their wRC+ of just 87 ranks as the third worst in all of baseball, their .308 wOBA the fourth worst, and despite playing their home games in GABP their .407 slugging percentage ranks as the sixth worst in MLB.
Your first reaction was probably these are largely offensive stats, and Billy Hamilton sinks all of those - but he adds so much value on defense! And, you’d be correct - to a point. Despite Billy’s all-world defense, though, the overall Cincinnati outfield defense over the last two seasons hasn’t graded out as a positive despite it being slightly better than average. DRS (Defensive Runs Saved) ranks them as just the 14th best unit in the game over the last two seasons, while UZR/150 is even more sour on them at 17th.
To step back from judging this group purely on statistical leaderboards - especially defensive ones, as those metrics are incredibly wonky at times - it’s worth telling the tales of the characters involved. Adam Duvall, who’s now a member of the Atlanta Braves (though may well be a non-tender candidate after the World Series), thumped dingers for a time and played passable LF defense, but his lack of walks and low on-base ability sunk his overall offensive production. In the other corner, Scott Schebler has been a powerful, decent OBP, iffy defender that the team will continue to count on, but injuries have sidelined him repeatedly and tasked backups to fill-in for weeks on end. Jesse Winker now stands to see a full-time role in a corner spot, but a shoulder injury and surgery ended his 2018 early, and there isn’t a defensive metric around that doesn’t hate what he does with the glove. And, there’s Hamilton, whose offensive foibles we’ve watched for parts of six seasons already despite his elite CF defense and baserunning (when he actually gets on base).
The questions here, I suppose, are these - is there enough in the current crop of largely young outfielders to suggest a massive upside? Is this a unit that can provide the kind of production that’s good enough for a winning team? Are the numbers from the last two seasons - each of which featured the established players we’re likely to see in 2019 - indicative of ‘just scratching the surface of what they can do,’ or are the Reds likely to be asking too much out of a unit that’s just not good enough as currently constructed?
Put it this way - 131 MLB players have had at least 450 PA total over the last two seasons, and the highest ranked Cincinnati OF in that time by fWAR is Hamilton, at 74th overall. Winker, if healthy, will provide tremendous offense. Schebler, if healthy, is the kind of player I think could potentially flirt with a 4 WAR season, as I’ve opined dumbly in the past. Still, that just doesn’t stink of the kind of upside that will place this unit among the league’s best, and might not even push them into even the middle of the pack.
So, what should the Reds do?
Like it or not, it seems that uberprospect Nick Senzel is officially going to be getting reps in the outfield in instructional league play, as the Reds appear willing to take a player who profiled as a potential elite defender in the infield and give him reps in left field in order to find a way to get his bat into the big league lineup as soon as possible. For now, we’ll ignore that reasoning and the apparent decision to keep Scooter Gennett and his meh defense at 2B, and we’ll focus on the hope that Senzel can provide the kind of offensive and defensive infusion to an outfield unit that needs it in the worst way. Since, for now, that appears to be the only solution that’s been publicly kicked around.
Senzel, as a righty, might be just what the Reds need, too. A glance at their outfield production against LHP the last two years - or, rather, the lack thereof - shows a nearly dead-last wOBA (.297) and wRC+ (80) against southpaws, which makes a bit of sense considering Winker and Schebler are both lefties and Hamilton...well, Billy is Billy. Adding a potent righty bat to the outfield mix might well help alleviate that issue, though it still fails to address that the team ranks among the five-six worst in the game against RHP in those metrics, too.
Since the Reds are not in the market for a Bryce Harper level addition, it’s certainly worth questioning whether even dipping into the free agent market for a significant outfield addition would add enough value for its cost, since there’s not an abundance of obvious impact in that group. Adding, say, Andrew McCutchen to the mix would likely be an upgrade offensively, but the former MVP certainly won’t come cheap, and adding him on a multi-year deal wouldn’t address the inevitable hole in centerfield that will be created if Hamilton departs after 2019 when his team control is up. Perhaps chasing A.J. Pollock would be of interest for that reason alone - especially since the other in-house options aren’t legitimate centerfielders - but even he is already 31 years old and fresh off a litany of injuries in recent years.
The reality is that the Reds will almost certainly enter the 2019 season with a regular outfield of Winker, Hamilton, and Schebler, with some combo of Phillip Ervin, Mason Williams, and Brandon Dixon around to serve as backups. Senzel, once the nebulous Super Two cutoff has passed, will get the call around the end of April, though what the team chooses to do with his outfield development and with Scooter’s contract status this winter will certainly impact how he’s deployed. Barring a complete surprise, the Reds will simply be banking on better health and a massive turnaround in production from their low-cost outfield group, and will likely resist a cash-infusion out there in order to funnel it into much needed investment in their pitching staff.
Whether that’ll be good enough, though, is certainly something worth watching.