It long ago became common knowledge that the Cincinnati Reds had a bit of a Great American Ball Park problem. The tight, cozy confines of their home stadium were designed to accommodate the sweet, yet aging swing of Ken Griffey, Jr. and his chase of Hank Aaron’s home run record, and a legacy of dinger-swatting is exactly what it produced in its wake.
Cincinnati pitchers surrendered 135 dingers in GABP in 2018, the most home-homers allowed by any pitching staff in baseball. In 2017, their 127 home-homers allowed tied for the second most in the game. In 2016, 140 homers were launched by opposition batters in GABP, which was 18 more home-homers allowed than any other major league staff. It’s an obvious problem with no real obvious solution, even with a dedicated mandate to ‘get the pitching’ despite its inevitable record cost. It’s the primary focus of the offseason for the Reds, at least publicly, and will certainly go a long way towards getting out of the NL Central cellar should they find the right parts.
That is not the particular Great American Ball Park problem I’m worried about here, though. Despite the overriding sentiment that the Reds have a position player core that’s good enough to win now paired with a pitching staff that’s dragging them down, the 2018 season featured a GABP problem that calls that pre-agreed upon notion into question.
To be more specific, the Cincinnati Reds offense had a GABP problem in 2018, and a rather big one at that. It’s the only place where they actually hit with any authority.
Despite an offense that sent a trio of hitters to the All Star Game, the Cincinnati Reds hit just 74 homers in their away games in 2018, which was the third fewest in all MLB. To give just a tad more oomph to that stat, dead last in that category were the Detroit Tigers with just 71, meaning the Reds were just a sniff away from the tail end of that list. It’s therefore unsurprising to note that their .129 ISO in road games in 2018 was almost dead last in the game, too, siting 29th out of 30 and just a smidge better than the dead-last Giants mark of .127.
It wasn’t really a statistical fluke, either. Digging into the team’s batted-ball data reveals the Reds hard-hit rate of 32.5% was third worst in baseball - thanks, Miami and Philadelphia - which makes the fact that their 10% HR/FB rate checked in at third worst in the game, too, seem somewhat expected.
What makes that road power outage more glaring is a tidbit I wrote about at the start of September regarding the team’s 2018 dinger leader, Eugenio Suarez. Despite a breakout 2017 campaign that prompted the Reds to give him a 7-year contract extension, Suarez had begun to look the part of a horse for a course, a one-trick pony who did all of his damage in one park and one park only: GABP. Of his 26 homers in 2017, 21 of them came at home, his stellar .595 home slugging percentage dwarfing that of his .340 road mark. In 2018, though, that normalized in a big, big way, as he hit 19 home-homers, 15 road-homers (in 10 fewer PA), and slugged over .500 in both splits.
That means that despite a genuine level of great road production from a player who had notoriously been a GABP-only hitter in the past, the Reds still ranked almost dead last in all of baseball in road power statistics. So, just imagine how those team numbers would’ve looked had Suarez not had such a pronounced one-year correction.
This isn’t just a one-year phenomenon, either. That 2017 season of Suarez’s looked quite similar up and down the Cincinnati roster despite it boasting three batters who clubbed 30+ dingers and a whopping six who hit at least 24. Their 29.7% hard-hit rate on the road in 2017 ranked second to last, though they did manage to at least sneak into the middle of the pack in homers (at 15th). In 2016, their 76 road homers ranked 25th in MLB - just 6 more than last place Miami and Atlanta - and their 28.3% hard-hit rate again ranked second to last in all MLB.
All told, their three-year run from 2016 through 2018 leaves them with these ranks among their MLB peers in the following categories:
- 29th in hard-hit % in road games (30.2%)
- 26th in road ISO (.148, when .142 would have them 29th)
- 27th in road HR (252)
You’d be right to point out that dingers and power are not everything when it comes to offense, and that’s certainly a valid point. In that three year stretch, the other aspects of the Reds offense have helped dig them all the way to 19th overall in road wOBA and 20th in road wRC+. Still, that’s a thumpless three year stretch, especially when you consider that there has been little to zero speculation about upgrading the position player group on the Reds in any form or fashion.
There is some room for in-house improvement if you squint quite a bit, I suppose. A full, healthy season from Jesse Winker in 2019 is a possibility, though after hitting 6 of his 7 dingers in GABP in 2018 before injuring his shoulder, I’m not so sure he’ll be the one to help boost those road numbers (barring a Suarez-sized evolution). There’s nothing about Scott Schebler’s violent swing that suggests he can’t hit dingers anywhere - and his .448 career road slugging percentage is actually better than his .430 mark at home - but he has struggled to stay healthy enough for it to really show. Adding-in Nick Senzel anywhere should help any and all offensive marks, especially if it comes at the expense of Billy Hamilton getting PAs in any park. Who knows...maybe even Joey Votto will find a way to turn back the clock on his power numbers across the board, which never failed to discriminate between ballparks before.
Still, that looks to me like a lineup that has a three-year history of not producing much at all in half the games they play, as well as one that hasn’t had the kind of scuttlebutt behind it in terms of seeking any applicable upgrades this offseason. It’s a big reason why their road records in the past three seasons have been 30-51, 29-52, and 30-51 - each time ranking among the absolute worst in the league. Yes, the Reds need to go ‘get the pitching.’ Yes, they need a completely revamped way in which they attack opposing hitters in any ballpark, especially their own. The fact is, though, that if they don’t find a way to start producing offense in parks other than their own, they’re still going to struggle to produce wins in half the games they play, which isn’t exactly a recipe for climbing the standings.