After five consecutive losing seasons, four consecutive years of losing 90+ games, and a seemingly endless amount of time since the Cincinnati Reds ever played a game with any sort of relevance, it seems somewhat of a fool’s errand to attempt to pen a season review piece about what went right this season. On the whole, of course, things haven’t been right, weren’t right this year, and don’t appear to be - on paper - fixed enough to project much pending right for next year.
Yesterday, we looked at the aspects of the 2018 season that went swimmingly, the parts of the team that carried them to what few victories they tallied. Today, we’ll look at the middle of the road, the parts of the team that weren’t great, weren’t bad, and were largely OK enough to be the core of a functional baseball club - provided there were better parts and pieces around them to help lead the way.
Sans-power Joey Votto
For the first time in his illustrious career, Joey Votto played over 110 games and was not the most valuable position player on the Cincinnati Reds. Back in 2013, when he was still dealing with the debilitating quad strain, he still posted a 6.6 bWAR season, and even though FanGraphs suggested that Shin-Soo Choo’s excellent 2013 season was slightly more valuable than Votto’s, Baseball Reference’s gap in WAR between the two still gave Votto the edge in production, all told.
2018, though, was a different Votto all around. Though there was a hint of back pain mentioned earlier in the season and a DL stint late in the year thanks to a kneecapping from a Ryan Madson fastball, there was no serious injury that Votto was fighting for the bulk of the season. That makes the 12 dingers and career-worst .417 slugging percentage stick out like a sore thumb, especially when you consider that during a 102 game stretch from April 28th to September 2nd he hit just 5 homers in 438 PA, with a slugging percentage of just .403 in that time.
Considering he posted a .578 slugging percentage and 36 dingers just last year, that’s quite the precipitous drop for the now 35 year old.
Fortunately, if this is the beginning of the decline of Votto’s Hall of Fame caliber career, he still managed to acquit himself quite well in other aspects of the game. His .417 OBP again was the best in the National League, he again walked more (108) than he struck out (101), he played a cromulent defender at 1B, and his OPS+ of 125 was well above league average. All told, it was good for a 3.5 fWAR, 3.5 bWAR season, which is still plenty good enough to be a big part of this team going forward, if this is what he now is.
Maybe it’s just time to tweak where he hits in the everyday batting order.
Post-April Luis Castillo
It’s easy to forget that Luis Castillo started the 2017 season in AA having thrown a grand total of 14 innings above A+ ball, or that he still, to this day, has never thrown a pitch in AAA. Last April, he got the opportunity to pitch in warm-weather Pensacola, Biloxi, Jacksonville, and Mobile, too, enjoying a 2.08 ERA in 30.1 IP in some fine southern, spring weather.
Whether it was the first taste of a sophomore season in the big leagues, the awful, brutal 2018 April weather, or a combination of the two, though, Castillo’s start to 2018 was plain terrible. In the bigs to start the year after his brilliant rookie campaign of 2017, he was pounded for 25 ER in 28.2 IP in 6 April starts, with 6 dingers surrendered and a .539 slugging percentage allowed. Ouch.
What came after that, though, was the Castillo that we hoped we’d see all season, the one who dazzled in 89.1 IP in 2017. Over the final 141 IP of Castillo’s 2018 season, he pitched to a solid 3.57 ERA, limiting opposition hitters to a .693 OPS while fanning 141 against just 36 walks. The homers allowed were still an issue - 22 in that span - but while his season ERA+ finished at just 98, it’s safe to say he didn’t pitch like a slightly below average pitcher for the duration of the season. Rather, he went from an awful start to the kind of finish that still suggests he can help anchor this pitching staff for years going forward.
The bench finally, finally got younger
A quick perusal of the offensive production from the primary bench bats this season doesn’t show a ton of jaw-dropping stats. Aside from Curt Casali - who we mentioned as a bright spot yesterday - there were no gaudy home run totals, no stolen base specialists, and not even a list of names who truly profile as overall elite defenders.
What does stand out, though are these numbers: 25, 25, 26, 26, 24. Those are the ages that Phil Ervin, Alex Blandino, Mason Williams, Brandon Dixon, and Dilson Herrera were while playing during the 2018 season, and assuming that Blandino’s knee recovers from ACL surgery on schedule, all figure to be a part of a set of dynamic, young bench options for next year, too.
In baseball, having young bench players can be a bit of a conundrum, since there’s still a part of all of us who want to see them play everyday and continue to develop into more regular players. That said, they do come with that upside, and also the potential to be better than what their sparsely produced stats suggest they can be, and that might well be the case with this particular group - one that features a pair of former 1st round draftees and three players who once cracked Top 100 overall prospect lists.
It’s also important to note that, in baseball parlance, young almost always equates to cheap, since none are anywhere close to arbitration yet, meaning the Reds have these bench options in place with the ability to use their limited funds on other, more pressing matters. In other words, no multi-year contracts for a Skip Schumaker, a Jack Hannahan, or Miguel Cairo, thank the lord.
The dinger-prone version of Raisel Iglesias
Raisel Iglesias saved 30 games, posted an ERA+ of 177 that was in-line with the 169 and 181 numbers he posted in the last two seasons, respectively, and finished exactly 57 games in 2018 - the same as the 57 games he finished in 2017. All of those number suggest he had a fine, Iglesias-esque year, which was pretty much the case.
Things do get a bit more alarming when you dig a tad deeper into Iggy’s other numbers from 2018, particularly his fastball velocity and proclivity for allowing home runs.
In 2017, he averaged 96.4 mph on his fastball and threw it nearly 57% of the time on the mound, allowing just 5 total dingers on the season (and only 2 off his fastball). He generated grounders on that fastball 43.1% of the time, limited opposing hitters to just a .657 OPS with it, and held an impressive 7.1% HR/FB rate on it despite pitching his home games in homer-prone GABP.
In 2018, however, things went much, much worse. His average fastball velocity dipped to just 95.2 mph, he threw it only 51% of the time, and he surrendered a total of 12 dingers on the season - the same as the combined total allowed by Jared Hughes, David Hernandez, and Wandy Peralta. FanGraphs’ splits breakdown also reveals that the groundball rate on his fastball dipped from 43.1% down to just 30.9%, the OPS against his fastball jumped all the way to .903, and his HR/FB% spiked to an absurd 27.3% against it. And, it wasn’t even necessarily a luck thing, as hitters posted a .313 BABIP off his fastball in 2017 and just a .261 BABIP off it in 2018, though that’s mitigated somewhat by how many more homers flew out of the ballpark and out of the BABIP equation in total.
Look, there was nothing about Iglesias that screamed IMMEDIATE DECLINE SELL SELL FLEE RUN AWAY, but it was certainly a down year for the team’s most prized bullpen arm. Hopefully, it’s more a one-year blip than a telling trend, as most of his other peripherals still appear to be pretty in-line.