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What if the Cincinnati Reds don’t need to add starting pitching?

Pitching, yes. But starting pitching? Maybe not.

MLB: Cincinnati Reds-Workouts Kareem Elgazzar-USA TODAY Sports

There’s no real secret to why the Cincinnati Reds have logged four consecutive seasons in which they have lost at least 94 games. Starting pitching has continued to dog them in their efforts to rebuild, with the majority of the hurlers tasked with replacing the once-in-a-generation rotation that powered the 2012-2013 teams simply unable to get the job done with any sort of consistency.

Since the beginning of the 2015 MLB season, Reds starting pitching ranks absolutely, completely dead last in all of baseball in the following pertinent statistics:

  • fWAR, at just 18.7 total. Second to last are the Miami Marlins at 27.0, with Cleveland the league-leaders in that time at a whopping 76.2 fWAR.
  • HR/9, at 1.54 per 9 innings. Second worst are the Baltimore Orioles at 1.48, with NL Central rivals St. Louis best in baseball at a minuscule 0.94.
  • FIP, at 4.93. Again, Baltimore pushed the Reds in this race to the bottom, sitting second worst at 4.87.

Reds starting pitching also ranks second to last in innings pitched since the start of the 2015 season, second worst in overall ERA (behind Baltimore by a mere 0.06), and third worst in walks per 9 innings (at 3.40, with San Diego’s league-worst 3.42 barely in front). Perhaps just as important to note, the culprits during this stretch haven’t been solely identifiable among their peers, either, since more or less every single starting pitcher the Reds have rolled out in that time has has their own personal set of struggles, with the lone exception in that time maybe, hopefully being Luis Castillo.

As the Reds again change managers and embark on a winter where the front office has promised increase spending and a dedication to improving the results on the pitching side of things, there’s been an obvious baseline under which we’ve operated: the Cincinnati Reds need better starting pitching. There have been numerous calls to keep veteran free agent Matt Harvey around after his so-so stint with the Reds in 2018, for instance. There has been some pining to chase Houston Astros starter (and former AL Cy Young Award winner) Dallas Keuchel, as he’s potentially the biggest name on the free agent market this side of future Hall of Famer Clayton Kershaw. Trade ideas for Noah Syndergaard, Marcus Stroman, and the likes have been lobbed out in recent months by none other that the jerk writing this particular article.

What if, though, what the Cincinnati front office chooses to pursue aren’t significant additions to the quality of their starting rotation, as we all have long assumed would be the case? What if, instead, they take a less obvious, perhaps equally rational approach to solving their problem that is a concept beginning to trickle into modern baseball construction as we speak?

What if they simply take the worst part of what their team has been for the last four years and, y’know, decide they need less of it - not more?

The idea that there are 200 inning workhorses out there in the modern baseball landscape is a faded one in many ways. A grand total of just 13 pitchers in Major League Baseball topped the 200 inning mark in 2018, and only two of them - Keuchel and Arizona starter Patrick Corbin - are set to be free agents after these playoffs finish. Way back in 2012, for instance there were 31 such pitchers who topped 200 innings. In 2007, there were 38. In 2001, there were 45. Way back in 1996 - immediately after the last time the Reds managed to actually win a playoff series - there were 49. So while the Reds have seemingly needed help from one obvious source, that same source has repeatedly been depleted, become more and more scare, and - in many ways - has become increasingly obsolete.

What’s an equally interesting trend is that what you’d assume would be the direct flip-side of the vanishing 200 inning starter isn’t found in the numbers, either. Back in that 1996 season that saw 49 starters fire at least 200 innings, there were some 56 relievers who threw at least 70 innings. And, since the seasons are still 162 games long and games still have 9 innings each, you’d anticipate that since the workload on ‘starting’ pitchers in 2018 had fallen so dramatically, the number of relievers who picked up that load would have skyrocketed, too.

Wrong. In 2018, only 34 relievers topped 70 IP, showing that the evolution of how teams assemble their pitching staffs over the last 23 seasons has been far from binary. More importantly, there’s a specific parameter that comes into play here that’s of utmost importance to this particular argument I’m attempting to make, and that’s this: to qualify as a ‘reliever’ on each of those leaderboards, the pitchers in question had to be exclusively relievers, meaning that nobody who actually started a single game was eligible for the list. In other words, a large portion of why the drop in peak ‘starters’ innings over the last 23 years hasn’t been a 1 for 1 exchange with a spike in peak ‘relievers’ innings is that there are an increasingly larger number of pitcher who are tasked with doing a little bit of both.

What’s interesting to note here, I think, is how the Reds already began to experiment a bit with that concept this season, especially as the season wore on. Castillo, Anthony DeSclafani, Harvey, and Tyler Mahle each were stalwarts of the rotation, making each of the appearances this season as starters and starters only. Homer Bailey did, too, though that was seemingly as much of his own volition as anything as he reportedly rejected the idea of pitching from the bullpen at all points despite a desire to use him in such a role by management. Sal Romano, Michael Lorenzen, and Cody Reed, on the other hand, bounced between the rotation and the bullpen throughout the year, and Robert Stephenson was moved to the bullpen for his final start (though that was as much due to performance issues as anything else). Even mid-year acquisitions Matt Wisler and Lucas Sims were picked up as hybrids, having both started and relieved for the Atlanta Braves (and their AAA affiliate) for several years before joining the Reds in the Adam Duvall trade.

What that might say is that the Reds spent part of the 2018 season seeing just how flexible the parts of their existing staff could be. With there being absolutely zero guarantees that the players available on the free agent and trade market during an offseason that you want to acquire can actually be acquired, there’s a great chance that the Reds might end up with some consolation prizes as winter additions even if they have the loftiest of goals. And the fact is, the better flexibility they have in their current options allows for a more seamless transition as soon as 2019 rolls around.

It’s with that in mind that my eyes wandered to the pending free agents who aren’t ‘starting’ pitchers anymore. While the star-caliber quality on the starting list dims quickly after Kershaw, Keuchel, and Corbin, the names on the available relief market make for a pretty decent who’s who of bullpen stars of the last few seasons. Andrew Miller will be available, for instance, as will Davids Phelps and Robertson. Adam Ottavino, the man with the most wicked-moving curveball in the game, will be a free agent, too. Fireballer Joe Kelly will be on the market alongside former Boston Red Sox teammate and perennial All Star Craig Kimbrel. Former All Star (and World Series hero) Kelvin Herrera, at 29, will also be on the market, as will longtime Cleveland closer Cody Allen, among many, many other notable relievers you’ve known for years.

The longwinded point here is that if the Reds are willing to expand their search from ‘improve starting pitching’ to ‘improve the chance that the end-of-year stats from the entire pitching staff are better on the whole,’ perhaps it would behoove them to invest the $20 to $30 million they’re willing to spend this offseason not in the priciest, most scarce assets out there, and rather in impressive arms that might just continue to evolve the way we look at modern pitching staffs.

Heck, in 1996, starting pitchers averaged almost exactly 6 IP per start. By 2018, that number had dipped to just a hair over 5 IP per start. Per team, per game, per season, that’s roughly akin to adding 162 innings from what would’ve been starting pitching to what is now being tasked to the bullpen. It has me wondering if the Reds might not be better served signing up another pair of elite relievers capable for sniffing 80 innings each rather than searching for the lost-cause of pitchers capable of dependable 162+ innings seasons in this day and age.

With three or four designated starting pitchers with Castillo, DeSclafani, and Mahle in particular hopefully still destined for improvement in 2019 over their 2018 output), an existing crop of swing starters/relievers, and a solid handful of existing relievers in Jared Hughes, David Hernandez, and Raisel Iglesias, perhaps the Reds might be better off bringing in another two-three relievers to help cover innings that we almost blindly have thought needed to be absorbed by ‘starting’ pitchers that just don’t really exist anymore. And perhaps the stellar crop of available arms set to be free agents this winter provides them with just the right year in which to be on the hunt for such assets.

For the Reds to find a way out of the NL Central cellar and back into competitive baseball, they’re 100% going to have to invest more than they have overall, and certainly improve their quality of pitching. They need to be right, more than anything, but they also will need to be both creative and innovative in their search, since simply holding out hope that the old way of roster construction is going to both be available on the market and come back into fashion is a pretty reactive way of doing business, and that sure won’t get them very far in an increasingly proactive Major League Baseball landscape.