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Cincinnati has been a black hole for left-handed starting pitchers

No team in baseball has struggled to find quality southpaws more than the Reds

MLB: Los Angeles Dodgers at Los Angeles Angels Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

Alex Wood had a perfectly fine season with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2018. In 151.2 innings, he finished with a 3.68 ERA, a 3.53 FIP, and 2.6 fWAR. That last number is the one I’m interested in. It isn’t Cy Young-worthy, nor is it the best of his career. It doesn’t even place him among a particularly exclusive group of big leaguers. There were 48 starting pitchers who reached that total in 2018 alone, and 51 who did so the year before that. It was only the fourth-best figure on his own team.

But Wood is no longer in Los Angeles. He has taken his competent left-handed pitching abilities to Cincinnati, and that makes him something of an anomaly. Dating back to the 1997 season, there have been 343 individual seasons of at least 2.5 fWAR being posted by left-handed starting pitchers*. None of those have come with the Reds. They are the only team in Major League Baseball who can claim fewer than three.

Is it inherently a failure to not have any good left-handed starters on your big league team? Not really. The 2012 Reds rotation featured five right-handers, and proved to be one of the best in baseball. There is certainly something to be said about being able throw a variety of deliveries at an opponent over the course of a series, but if you can still put together five diverse enough pitchers throwing out of the same hand, you’ll still accomplish a similar objective.

Is it weird to go this long without a left-handed starter reaching a pretty attainable benchmark for value? It absolutely is! Over the past 22 years, there have been 1,237 individual starting pitcher seasons that have resulted in at least 2.5 fWAR. That works out to an average of about 56 starters per season reaching the 2.5 fWAR mark — an average of 15 of which, gave or take, tend to be lefties. Yet, the last Reds left-handed starter to clear that mark was John Smiley, all the way back in 1996. He finished that year with 4.5 fWAR, posting a 3.64 ERA and 3.59 FIP in 217.1 innings. A couple of months after that season ended, I — the writer of this blog, a gainfully employed college graduate — turned 2 years old.

Now, Fangraphs’ formula is just one model available for determining wins above replacement. Baseball-Reference uses a different formula, one that is more results-based than the peripherals-focused one Fangraphs uses. Therefore, the values they spit out for the same pitcher in the same season can be quite different. Wood’s 2018 season lays that fact out pretty well — he was worth 2.6 WAR according to Fangraphs, but only 1.0 WAR according to Baseball-Reference. You’d be justified in thinking, then, that perhaps Baseball-Reference has valued a Reds southpaw at 2.5 WAR more recently than Smiley, and you’d be correct. Cincinnati did, in fact, have such a left-handed starter... all the way back in 2000. That was Denny Neagle, who finished the year with 3.0 bWAR and 2.5 fWAR. The problem? He didn’t pitch that entire season with the Reds — they traded him to the New York Yankees in July, where he pitched 91.1 of his 209 innings that season. He still crossed the 2.5 bWAR threshold in a Reds uniform, but he didn’t eclipse the same fWAR mark until he was in New York. Even if you don’t particularly care for that technicality, it still stands out that the one Reds left-handed starter to achieve roughly Alex Wood’s 2018 value in the past 22 seasons did so all the way back in 2000, and he was traded in-season.

So, where are all the good left-handed starting pitchers? Well, one important thing to keep in mind is that the table** above shows how many 2.5-fWAR seasons have been thrown by lefty starters for each team, and not how many pitchers have done it overall. Teams at the far left side of the table have such a high number because of the fact that they have seen more than one great southpaw pitch a number of years in their organization. The White Sox got several years each of Mark Beuhrle, John Danks, Chris Sale and Jose Quintana, while the Yankees have enjoyed consistent runs by C.C. Sabathia and Andy Pettitte, and in shorter bursts, David Wells and Randy Johnson. Over the past 22 years, there are seven left-handed starters who have reached at least 2.5 fWAR in a season 10 times, and Sabathia has done it 15 times. Locking up one or two of those guys for even a few years will get a team well on its way to the middle of the pack in this exercise.

Does that mean a small collection of left-handers are racking up these seasons every year, and the Reds have missed out simply because they haven’t landed one of these rare talents? Not exactly. Those 343 2.5-fWAR seasons pitched over the past 22 seasons have been thrown by a group of 102 pitchers. Fifty-nine of those are responsible for no more than two 2.5-fWAR seasons, and 33 threw just one. In other words, there should have been very good odds that at least one of these guys might have fallen into Cincinnati’s lap over the years. But it hasn’t happened.

It hasn’t been for lack of trying, either. Before the 2005 season, the Reds signed a then-29-year-old free agent lefty named Eric Milton, who had amassed 14.7 fWAR to that point in his career. He was a catastrophe in Cincinnati, finishing his three-year tenure with a total of 2 fWAR, and -0.5 bWAR. Around that same time, the Reds promoted their No. 3 overall prospect at the time, according to Baseball America, in left-hander Brandon Claussen. Claussen pitched just three years in Cincinnati, picked up 3.3 fWAR in that time, and was out of baseball in 2008. He was the lucky one — out of the four left-handed pitchers who were included in the Reds top 10 prospects in 2004, only two made the majors. Phil Dumatrait pitched 151 innings in the big leagues — most of which did not come with the Reds — and finished his career below replacement level. Ty Howington and Tyler Pelland never got the call up.

Baseball was hardly kinder to other Reds left-handed prospects, such as soft-tosser Matt Maloney and slow-mover Ismael Guillon. Others sort of panned out, though not in the way the organization would have hoped — Travis Wood’s debut season netted him 2.2 fWAR, making him the most valuable Reds left-handed starter of the new millenium. But he was traded after two years in Cincinnati, and never became more than a back-of-the-rotation arm, even on crummy Cubs teams. Tony Cingrani also had an intriguing rookie season, but shoulder injuries relegated him to a bullpen role until he, too, was traded.

Over the past two decades, the closest the Reds have come to putting a lefty in their rotation who could have reasonably reached that next level of big league production was in 2011, when Cuban defector Aroldis Chapman was in line for his first full season at the major league level. He had pitched out of the bullpen throughout his first call-up in 2010, but was being stretched out as a starter during spring training before would-be closer Ryan Madson suffered a season-ending elbow injury. Chapman was tossed into the bullpen, and one year later, racked up 3.3 fWAR as the closer for a Reds team that won its division.

You might think this is a silly exercise. It might be a silly exercise! Picking out a WAR figure and measuring the competency of team’s left-handed starters using that might seem trivial and dumb. But regardless of the WAR value you choose to dig into, Reds southpaws consistently show up less often than any other team’s. Move the goalposts up to 2 fWAR, and you end up with 443 left-handers reaching that mark since 1997, just three of which came with the Reds — again, the smallest total in baseball.

It’s a fascinating blind spot in the organization, and maybe the most interesting part of it all is that it doesn’t appear close to being over with. Just two years ago, the future of left-handed starting pitchers in Cincinnati’s organization looked stronger than it had been in decades — Brandon Finnegan was coming off a season in which he threw 172 innings with a 3.98 ERA, and the organization had two other southpaws in Cody Reed and Amir Garrett anking not just among its top three prospects, but among the top 100 prospects in all of baseball. Two years later, Garrett is a virtual lock for the bullpen, while Finnegan and Reed will need to scratch and claw for roster spots. It appears unlikely that any of the three have a future as starters with the Reds.

As far as current prospects go, the highest-ranked LHP in the system according to MLB Pipeline is a 20-year-old who has yet to pitch above rookie ball, perhaps generously ranked as the 12th-best prospect in the system. Scott Moss appears to be the most likely left-hander in the Reds’ farm system to contribute to the big league club soon, and he’s a 24-year-old with Tommy John surgery in his past and zero career innings above Advanced-A. For comparison’s sake, the Padres — the closest team to the Reds in terms of their dearth of left-handed starters over the last two decades — have four left-handed pitchers ranked in the top 100 prospects in baseball. In other words, the gulf between Cincinnati and the rest of the league in this particular area appears set to widen before it narrows.

In the meantime, the Reds have Wood. He’s been worth at least 2.5 fWAR in four of the past five seasons, which makes him the most proven left-hander Cincinnati has landed in a very long time. It looked like he was as solid of a bet as the Reds could have asked for to break this very long, very weird drought of 2.5-win pitchers, but over three weeks into spring training, he’s thrown just one inning because of back tightness. Manager David Bell made the injury seem like a minor thing, and maybe it is that, and he’ll return to form in short order. Perhaps, though, this will nag him long enough to seriously inhibit what he’s able to do in 2019. Maybe Wood isn’t meant to break this streak. Maybe no one is.

* Any pitcher who started in at least 50 percent of his appearances in a given season was counted as a starter in this exercise. For example: Glendon Rusch’s 2.8-fWAR season with the Chicago Cubs in 2004 was counted, because he made 16 starts in 32 total appearances. Meanwhile, Corey Luebke’s 2.7-fWAR season with the San Diego Padres in 2011 was not counted, because he made only 17 starts in 46 total appearances.

** Not shown in this table are the 18 instances in which left-handed starting pitchers accumulated at least 2.5 fWAR while pitching for more than one team during the season.