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.
First, we looked at the things that actually went well for the Reds, of which there were actually a surprisingly decent few.
Next up, we examined the aspects of the team that didn’t exactly exceed expectations, but were solid enough parts to at least consider them as OK.
Today, we get to the fun stuff. The juicy stuff. The back-breaking, mind-numbing, standings-crushing aspects of the 2018 Reds that were the fuel behind their 67-95 fire and, almost as importantly, behind the malaise many of us currently have with the rebuild’s pace. Gahhh.
One-run games - or, rather, losing by one-run all the dang time.
Way, way back in the year 2005, when YouTube was still in its infancy, Twitter had yet to exist, and Facebook was still going by “The Facebook,” The Hardball Times was already diving into interesting, provocative pieces about the game of baseball as we knew it - and as we hoped to know it. It was in that year that former HT editor Dave Studeman dove into some of the statistics behind team results in one-run games, noting that regardless of overall team record, teams records’ in one-run games feature a winning % much, much closer to .500 than in any other outcome.
That’s a long-winded way of saying that despite the true talent of teams, and despite how good they are overall in a 162 game season, one-run games - at least by win/loss % - are largely a toss-up. That puts this nugget of information from former Red Reporter fearless leader Joel Luckhaupt a bit more into context:
Since 1900, worst record in one-run games— Joel Luckhaupt (@jluckhaupt) September 28, 2018
1935 Braves 7-31
1937 Browns 10-31
1999 Royals 11-32
1916 A's 11-32
1936 Phillies 12-34
2018 Reds 10-28
Of course, that tweet came on September 28th, and the Reds still found a way to lose another one-run game before the end of the season, meaning they clocked in with a brutal, abysmal 10-29 record in their 39 games decided by a lone run this year. I can’t even...
The thing is, it’s often cited that the ability to manufacture runs the old way, meaning with steals and bunts and moving runners over, is one reason why teams succeed in tight contests. Well, given Jim Riggleman’s proclivity for bunting, the stolen base prowess of both Billy Hamilton and Jose Peraza, and the team’s 19.1% K-rate being only the 19th highest in all of baseball, you’d think that wouldn’t be a problem on the offensive side of the ball in these contests. Pair that with revamped back of the bullpen - also a reasonable surface indicator of teams that win close games - and you’d think, if anything, one-run games might’ve actually been a place where the Reds excelled.
Heck, they even hit .254 with men in scoring position, which was the 11th best mark in baseball, ahead of the New York Yankees, Chicago Cubs, Milwaukee Brewers, and Los Angeles Dodgers, among many others.
For whatever reason, they were abysmal in these type games, the worst in all MLB, and it brutalized their overall record. If they went, say, 20-19 in those games - hell, the San Diego Padres went 22-21 in one-run games - that turns their 67-95 season record into a 77-85 record, and while that still sucks an egg, it’s at least a somewhat shinier egg.
This is the part where we mention injuries happen, and are no excuse for losing.
OK, this here’s a caveat, and one that I mentioned up top in the intro.
The injuries the Reds faced this year were brutal, of course, but those simply cannot be fall-back reasons for the abysmal record in the standings. That said, I’m including them here because they’re a big, big reason behind the end-of-season malaise I think many of us faced, and that’s why I’ll mention it here.
Y’see, even in awful years, late August and the month of September at least usually give rebuilding teams a chance to bring up their talented youngsters - the future of the organization - and give the fans a different perspective when they show up at games. Sure, they might lose again, but at least we’ll get to watch those guys who are supposed to dig this team out of the cellar in the future! LET’S GOOOOOOO!
Nope. Not so much this year.
Jesse Winker’s rookie season was cut short by a freak shoulder jam, meaning the .400+ OBP and emerging power we saw from him that helped catapult the offense into relevance mid-year was long gone by September. Nick Senzel, a consensus Top 5 prospect in the game and presumptive mid-year call-up candidate, found out he’s no Stretch Armstrong when bending his finger twelve awkward ways on a slide, and was done for the season before ever getting a chance to be called up. Even Lucas Sims - the most promising piece of the Adam Duvall trade to Atlanta - had his shoulder flame out before he could ever start a game in September, meaning we’ll go into this offseason without knowing whether he might be one of the few young pitchers who can help this rotation going forward (more on that below, of course).
Scott Schebler faced multiple DL stints. Eugenio Suarez was shelved early. Michael Lorenzen and David Hernandez missed a month, which preceded the signing of Yovani Gallardo. Gahhhh. Even the indestructible Joey Votto landed on the DL for a time, ending a run of Cincinnati Reds seasons that were admittedly awful but buoyed by his record-breaking talent sending out statistical anomalies in the latter months that made you tune in anyway.
Rebuilding seasons are often designed to show the future’s promise while ignoring winning, and while certain young players gave glimpses of that for the Reds in 2018 - here’s looking at you, Jose Peraza - injuries sapped even that from us this year, which was just awful.
OK, fine. Here’s the part about the starting pitching.
Unlike the last few seasons - here I go, trying to spin optimism into this - the Cincinnati Reds starting pitching wasn’t the absolute worst in all of baseball. Heck, the unit even cobbled together 4.4 positive fWAR in 2018!
That said, they still posted a collective 5.02 ERA from their starters, which was good for the 6th worst mark in the game.
Their 1.62 HR/9 mark was ‘bested’ by only the abysmal Baltimore Orioles staff, albeit barely (1.72).
Their 4.88 FIP ranked as the 4th worst mark across all MLB teams.
If you dig into the individual numbers, you’ll also see some troubling aspects. 140 MLB pitchers threw at least 100 innings in the 2018 season, and if you sort those 140 by ERA from worst to best, you’ll find several familiar names on that ‘leader’ board.
Homer Bailey’s 6.09 ERA ranked as the third worst, somehow. Sal Romano’s 5.31 effort ranked 11th. Tyler Mahle’s 4.98 was 19th, Anthony DeSclafani’s 4.93 was 22nd, and that’s how you end up with a starting rotation that you can barely depend upon to get into the 5th inning of most games, let alone through it. And, if you sort it by FIP just to get a slightly different potential explanation for why those four allowed so many earned runs, you still find each of them ranked among the 21 worst pitchers in that category, which is equally disconcerting.
Look, the fact that Robert Stephenson was too bad to even factor into this may or may not be a positive. The same can be said for Brandon Finnegan, in what was another lost year for him. The Matt Harvey experiment was reasonably not awful, but if he leaves in free agency, that just further dents a group that already drove like it’d sat out in a hail storm.
They weren’t last, no. They weren’t good, though, for the fifth consecutive season, and we’re reaching the point of the rebuild where one of the key pieces that was acquired to begin the rebuild - Anthony DeSclafani - is already set for his second trip through arbitration this winter. Better, yes, but still with miles to go before being anything other than the weakest link on the team.