It’s pretty much open public discourse that the pitching the Cincinnati Reds have rolled out for several consecutive years now has been abysmal. You need look no further than the total fWAR accrued by MLB pitching staffs since the start of the 2016 season for a bit of certification of that fact, as the Reds rank dead last in that by a pretty massive margin relative to their own total.
It’s this three-plus year run of awful pitching that has team owner Bob Castellini and the front office on an off-season quest to ‘get the pitching,’ a statement that I certainly hope comes to fruition. Yes, it’s pretty blatantly clear that the Reds need an upgrade in the caliber of who pitches for 9 innings a game. It’s also encouraging to know that they’ve sought out and found a new pitching guru in Derek Johnson, who in theory will give a fresh perspective on how the Reds go about their work.
With the who and the how seemingly under renovation, that’s a pretty good step in the right direction for the state of the pitching staff, at least in theory. And since the where and why they’ll be pitching are rather rhetorical questions, that left only one real nebulous inquiry to dig into: what they’re throwing, and whether that has any bearing on why they’ve been the worst collective group at getting opposing hitters out in their craft.
The results of that question were pretty damn interesting, actually.
Since the start of the 2016 season - the first full year after the team had moved on from former rotation stalwarts Johnny Cueto and Mike Leake - the pitching staff has thrown fastballs some 58.0% of the time, good for the 8th most frequent in all of baseball (behind Pittsburgh’s MLB-high 62.3%). In 2018 alone, the Reds rate of 60.4% was the second highest in the game behind the Pirates 62.6%. In other words, the Reds have had their pitchers turn to their fastball almost more than any other team in the game, leaning on it some 3 out of 5 times over the last three years. That would make you think that they lean on it because it’s been their go-to, their out pitch, or the best thing that their pitchers have to offer, right?
Well, that’s not at all the case. In fact, while the Reds have leaned on their fastballs at a rather prolific rate, it’s been the single worst pitch by any team since 2016, its -331.4 wFB value in that time nearly twice as bad as Baltimore even, who ranks 28th in MLB in wFB in that time. As their fastball usage rose over the 60% mark in 2018, their wFB managed to not be completely last in the game, as they made a whopping jump up to 26th in MLB in wFB in that season alone.
The first obvious question is this - are the Reds using their fastballs too much? A quick glance at FanGraphs’ pitch type leaderboard does reveal a few interesting tidbits, to be sure. Perhaps the most glaring is a look at the bottom of the list from 2018, particularly at the six teams that turned to their fastballs the least often. The New York Yankees, Seattle Mariners, Boston Red Sox, Colorado Rockies, Tampa Bay Rays, and Cleveland Indians occupy those six spots, with the Mariners’ 89 wins in 2018 the fewest among that bunch - and all threw fastballs between ~10 to 13% less often than did the Reds. If you stretch that back to the start of 2016, the two teams that have thrown fastballs the least often are the Yankees and Houston Astros, both of whom have built absolute juggernaut teams in that time frame.
Somewhat predictably, the sorting the list of MLB teams by how often (or not) they throw curveballs begins to reveal a bit of a pattern, too. Since the start of 2016, the four teams that have thrown curveballs the most often: Cleveland, Houston, the Dodgers, and the Red Sox. In the case that you’ve been living under a rock, all four of those teams have made it to at least one World Series in that time span. The Reds, meanwhile, rank among the bottom four in all MLB in curveball use in that three-year window, alongside such non-luminaries as Baltimore, Miami, and Toronto. In 2018 specifically, Reds pitchers threw curveballs less often than every single other team in baseball, surprisingly while their 82.6 average velocity on curves was the highest in all MLB.
That velocity bit is of interest, too. Since the start of the 2016 season, Reds pitchers have averaged 93.2 mph on their fastballs, tied with the New York Mets for the fourth highest in all MLB, just 0.1 mph behind the Rockies for third highest, and behind the Pirates (93.7) and Yankees (94.2) at the top. Given what we just breezed through in the last paragraph, that’s something that shows a bit of a trend to me - despite having the hardest average throwers in the game, the Yankees have opted to use their fastballs less often than anyone else, instead using their sliders almost 6% more than any other team in the game in that time. Meanwhile, the Pirates and Reds - owners of two of the other highest velocity averages - have instead chosen to lean on their fastballs more often than not, and Reds pitchers simply haven’t been able to make that work despite throwing them really hard and really often.
There’s a pertinent note I should make here. There certainly seems to be a moderately distinct split among National League and American League teams in play here, specifically that the five teams that threw fastballs most frequently since 2016 all reside in the NL, as well as seven of the top ten - and, the exact same is true at the opposite end of the spectrum, as seven of the ten teams who threw fastballs the least often reside in the AL. The difference in pitching to pitchers several times a game versus designated hitters certainly cannot be dismissed from this observation. That said, if you limit the scope to only NL squads, the three NL teams that finished dead last in their divisions - the Reds, Marlins, and Padres - also threw curveballs the least often among their peers, with the World Series-bound Dodgers atop the NL list.
None of this is to say that if the Reds simply threw fewer fastballs and more curveballs, all would be right in their world. In fact, despite throwing curveballs less often than any other NL team in 2018, the Reds still had the second worst wCB among all 15 NL teams, meaning it might well have been the worst per-capita offering in the entire senior circuit in 2018. That said, it might be the kind of apparent trend that would suggest that when the Reds begin targeting who they might bring in to augment their pitching staff going forward, they might want to focus less on the radar gun and more on the mix of pitches those pitchers throw, since the Reds have certainly become a bit of a fastball-dependent one trick pony.
(Speaking of which, of the 140 MLB pitchers who threw at least 100 IP in 2018, free agent Charlie Morton ranked 9th throwing curveballs 29.3% of the time - the highest rate among all current free agents - while ranking 6th in wCB among that group, too. Just saying...)