Baseball, despite some of the current efforts of commissioner Rob Manfred, is not a game played against a clock. There are no 15 minute quarters or 20 minute halves, no trio of 20 minute periods in which time teams try to both outscore their opponents and hold on until there’s a 00:00 in big, shiny numbers in between the two scores on the board. The idea of if we can just get the ball back with some time left isn’t really a thing in baseball, and that’s one of the absolute most beautiful things about the game.
At the big league level, the other team has to get you out at least 27 times to end the game. And, until you’ve made out number 27, only a monsoon or a flock of dragons or an earthquake can see a game called - and even then, 15 outs have to be in the books for it to be official. So, by definition, not making an out is a pretty damn vital thing to do in baseball, and there’s a reason why there has been an increase in emphasis on finding players that excel at that ability over the last decade-plus.
The Cincinnati Reds, of course, employ the single most influential force in that regard, in one Joey Votto. Since 2008 - his first full season in the majors - Votto’s .428 on-base percentage is the best in all of baseball by a solid margin, with Manny Ramirez (.417), Mike Trout (.416), Aaron Judge (.401), and Paul Goldschmidt (.400) the only other big leaguers to eclipse the .400 mark. What’s been a larger issue, though, is that so many of Votto’s teammates in that stretch have struggled to come anywhere close to reproducing that kind of not-out-making.
From 2008 through 2018, the Reds own a team OBP of .321 even when you include Votto’s otherworldly numbers, and that ranks them just 18th in all of MLB in that time. Just as telling are the numbers from just the last four seasons, as Votto has posted an absurd .443 OBP in that span to anchor just a .323 OBP by the team as a whole during the darkest days of the rebuild - and Votto has rarely, if ever, missed games in that time.
The 2018 season has been a bit different, however, and that’s one thing we can kind of take away as a positive despite yet another abysmal record in the standings. Their team mark of .334 in 2018 ranks as the 3rd best in all of baseball, buoyed by the emergence (when healthy) of the likes of Jesse Winker and Phil Ervin, the continued breakouts of Scooter Gennett and Eugenio Suarez, and even the savvy pickup of backup catcher Curt Casali. For once, the art of not-making-outs seems to be permeating throughout what should be the healthy Cincinnati lineup for this year and going forward, particularly when you factor in the return of Nick Senzel and his projected 10+% walk rate.
A quick glance at the company the Reds are keeping atop that 2018 OBP list is a bit telling, too. The Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs, two similarly built juggernauts with the best records in each league, respectively, sit as the only two clubs with better marks than the Reds, with their twin .338 numbers just a hair better than Cincinnati’s. Rounding out the Top 10 are a who’s who of the best clubs in baseball this year, with each of the Atlanta Braves, Los Angeles Dodgers, New York Yankees, Cleveland Indians, and Houston Astros all in there (with only the talented yet mystifying Washington Nationals joining the Reds in the Top 10 as teams that are under .500, though they’re just a game from that mark).
“Wick, you dolt,” you say. “Why the hell are you writing an article lauding the merits of on-base percentage as something a team should strive to achieve while also pointing out that the Reds, while finally achieving said success there, still have one of the absolute worst records in all of baseball?!”
For one, a dolt I surely am, though in this particular instance I assure you there’s a destination for this article. Y’see, the other fun part about baseball is that pitching, which the Reds have fumbled for the better part of a century, matters just as much as what a team does at the plate, and the flip-side of these OBP numbers weave a pretty solidifying story.
A quick glance at the on-base percentages yielded by the collective pitching staffs across baseball shows that the nine worst teams are these, in order:
Baltimore Orioles (.353)
Kansas City Royals (.344)
Chicago White Sox (.337)
Cincinnati Reds (.337)
Toronto Blue Jays (.335)
Minnesota Twins (.335)
Miami Marlins (.334)
Texas Rangers (.334)
San Diego Padres (.327)
Consequently, a quick look at the single worst winning percentages in all of baseball shows that, well, every damn one of those teams ranks near the top (bottom) of that list, too. A quick glance at the teams with pitching staffs that have allowed the lowest on-base percentages against them also yields something telling:
Houston Astros (.282)
Los Angeles Dodgers (.294)
Cleveland Indians (.300)
Tampa Bay Rays (.300)
New York Yankees (.301)
Oakland A’s (.303)
Arizona Diamondbacks (.304)
Boston Red Sox (.308)
It’s realistic that all of those teams end up in the playoffs in 2018, save for the poor Rays - who just so happen to be a full 15 games over the .500 mark but unfortunately stuck behind the Red Sox and Yankees in one of the most stacked divisions in recent memory.
For the Reds, it’s fairly easy to be increasingly optimistic that one half of the OBP equation is continuing to progress in the right direction, as the Reds on offense have seemed to find a decent core that does a solid job of not-making-outs. Just a day after Votto’s 35 birthday - and in a season in which he is once again leading the National League in OBP - that seems only right to emphasize.
On the flip side, however, shows something in numeric fashion that I think all of our emotions have been seared with for years now - that Cincinnati pitching just cannot find ways to get opposing hitters out in good enough fashion, and that’s the reason the rebuild still has them mired in the NL Central cellar. Maybe, just maybe, that’ll finally be a focal point of the offseason this winter.