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Despite Cards’ Sunday slugfest, Reds home run prevention is on the right track

Cincinnati’s pitching staff has been the best in baseball at limiting dingers

St Louis Cardinals v Cincinnati Reds Photo by Azael Rodriguez/Getty Images

The Cincinnati Reds’ 9-5 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals in Monterrey, Mexico on Sunday provided fans with an eerily familiar feeling. It wasn’t just because it was another loss to the Cardinals — although, yeah, that was part of it. It was the way the Reds lost, or rather, the way the Cardinals won. St. Louis got some good pitching and put together a few good at-bats, but most importantly, it hit dingers. Four of them, to be precise. Two came in the first inning before Cincinnati starter Anthony DeSclafani could even get settled in, and two more came in the seventh inning, when relievers Amir Garrett and Jared Hughes lapsed from their mostly strong starts to the season to serve up one home run each.

Allowing a bunch of home runs is nothing new for the Reds. They gave up the second-most bombs in the majors last year, which was actually an improvement over the previous two seasons, both of which saw them finish dead last in home runs allowed. The Cardinals hit 29 homers against Cincinnati all by themselves last year, and did so in just 19 games. It was never much of a surprise, with a constantly changing pitching staff composed of mostly inexperienced arms attempting to limit runs in one of the most homer-friendly parks in the big leagues, but that was little comfort to fans who watched those young pitchers serve up tape-measure blasts night after night.

The Cardinals’ latest surge of homers was, however, new for these Reds. Before Sunday, Cincinnati pitchers had allowed just seven homers in their first 13 games of the 2019 season, good for a 0.55 HR/9 figure that was the best in the majors. In fact, even after Sunday, the Reds have still allowed the lowest home run total in the big leagues — just ahead of the Twins, Indians and Rays, each of whom have allowed 12.

Despite DeSclafani’s two homers allowed against St. Louis, Reds starters have been particularly stingy against the long ball this season. For example, Luis Castillo and Sonny Gray — two pitchers who combined to allow 42 homers in exactly 300 innings last season — have allowed a total of zero homers in 33 combined innings this season. Tanner Roark and Tyler Mahle, both of whom were similarly prone to homers in 2018, have allowed just one each. No rotation in baseball has limited home runs better than Cincinnati’s.

It’s worth noting that the Reds’ sudden ability to suppress homers has coincided with yet another power surge across Major League Baseball. Through Saturday, 3.41 percent of all plate appearances in the 2019 regular season had resulted in a home run, up from 3.02 percent in 2018, and higher even than the record 3.29 percent mark that was reached in 2017, when speculation about juiced baseballs reached peak levels of concern. On their face, these are seemingly small fluctuations in percentages. But keep in mind, this isn’t even the time of year that the ball is supposed to be traveling particularly well. How many times already have we seen Joey Votto fly out to the warning track in center field, and immediately grumble to ourselves, “that’s a home run in June.” It was extremely cold over the first week of the season, and there’s been lots of rain, and those two things typically mean it’s hard to hit the ball out of the yard. And yet, for just about every pitching staff in baseball, home run numbers are way up. Every staff, that is, except for Cincinnati’s.

Of course, with just 14 games played in the 2019 season, it’s appropriate to question just how much luck plays a factor in the staff’s numbers, and how much regression to the mean — or in the Reds’ case, to far worse than the mean — can be expected the longer the season plays out. It likely won’t surprise you that, entering Sunday, Cincinnati’s home run to fly ball ratio was the lowest in the big leagues, sitting at 6.9 percent. For context, the Chicago Cubs have allowed MLB’s highest HR/FB%, clocking in at a ghastly 23.7 percent. Last year, no major league team finished with a HR/FB% lower than 10.5 percent, and no team finished with a higher one than 15.8 percent, the latter of which was posted by — you guessed it — Cincinnati. The luck the Reds have had on batted balls in the air turning into outs is flatly unsustainable, and when that luck starts to even out, it’s going to look the way it did on Sunday.

It’s also fair to wonder, with the sample size being what it is, how much of a factor the Reds’ opponents play into these numbers. Of their first 13 games, nine have come against the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Miami Marlins, who ZiPS projected to have the third-worst and worst slugging percentages in the National League, respectively, before the start of the season. Every team is sort of expected to keep those two in the ballpark, even the homer-prone Reds, and even when they’re playing in hitter-friendly Great American Ball Park.

So, should Cincinnati’s run of home run suppression be chalked purely up to good luck wasted by a 5-9 start? Maybe, but let’s hold on a second. If a team wishes to improve its home run numbers, one would expect that they would try to focus on two areas: Raising ground ball rates, and inducing weaker contact. Interestingly enough, the Reds were already pretty good at that first part last year. They had the eighth-highest ground ball rate in the majors in 2018, and had the fifth-lowest rate of fly balls. This year, they’re 19th in ground ball percentage, with the seventh-lowest fly ball rate. “Fewer ground balls plus more fly balls equals fewer home runs” seems like a very sketchy math problem, to say the least, so maybe the Reds really are just a ticking time bomb, with horrifying, sad regression coming as sure as the sun will rise tomorrow.

Except, that’s not necessarily the entire equation, and that’s where generating weaker contact can come into play. According to Statcast, in 2018, Reds pitchers carried the fourth-highest expected slugging percentage, ninth-highest barrel percentage, and 12th-highest average exit velocity. This year, the Reds are third-best in the majors in expected slugging and barrel percentage, while they’re up to No. 16 in baseball in exit velocity allowed. The Reds’ home run prevention totals probably aren’t a sign of what we should expect from them going forward, but they are a sign of real progress getting made with regard to how hard they’re getting hit — thanks both to new additions to the pitching staff, along with improvements to the pitchers who were already there.

Now, I’m aware that writing about how the Reds have been great at limiting home runs on the day they start a series against the Los Angeles Dodgers is a lot like standing on top of the Empire State Building during a lightning storm and daring God to smite me. In a matter of hours, I will profoundly regret this entire post. But right now, I’m happy I wrote this, and I’m happy you’re all reading it. Because not that long ago, it would have seemed insane that we would be discussing the Reds as the major leagues’ leader in suppressing homers a whole two weeks into the season. It seems insane right now! Sometimes, it’s worth taking a moment to savor these moments, knowing that they could be taken from us any day. The Cardinals’ outburst on Sunday was a reminder of that. Then again, most of us didn’t need one.