The 2020 Cincinnati Reds finally got off the Cy Young Award schneid in 2020, as Trevor Bauer took home the trophy after a brilliant campaign of pitching. Those Reds finally spent money in free agency, which was refreshing (if short-lived). They even made the ‘playoffs,’ too, their quick exit only a slight damper on the excitement we got to experience from afar during their regular season stretch run.
There were undeniably positives with the most recent vintage. A flawed team, still, but one that still had a lot going for them, one that perhaps could have matured into much more than a quickly-cobbled core had they had more than 60 games to figure it out. But as we begin to close the books on calendar year 2020, running through some of the strange and quirky outputs produced by the club in this extremely shortened season revealed one particular aspect of their play I hope they leave behind and let fade into the annals of history.
Their luck. Specifically, their hilarious, godawful batted-ball luck.
Their surface stats, while rarely a clear indication of overall performance anymore, do tell an accurate tale of things to kick off the look back. Their putrid .212 team batting average was the worst of any team in baseball, historically awful as the worst team batting average in any single season since virtually the dawn of time. A slightly deeper dive shows their .245 BABIP also the worst of any club in baseball, also the worst of any single-season club since at least the Battle of Bannockburn.
Today, though, I’d like to waste the final day of this hellyear diving just a tad bit deeper than that. I wanted to see if their historically awful result in that category was due to simple bad luck, or if there was something more sinister behind it. Were there magnets in the balls and opponents gloves? Did the Reds screw up and have the fans pointed inward in the bottom half of GABP innings? Was every half-inning played in snow? Aliens?
The first look was towards their overall batted-ball profile which, thanks to the fine folks at FanGraphs, is a quite easy thing to do. (In fact, if you’ve got a brain for baseball and a few bucks lying around, you should probably join and support them.) Anyway, the Reds collectively posted a 34.0% hard-hit rate, tied for 9th best of all teams with the Yankees and the Mike Trout Baseball Club of America, two clubs that we know can swing hammers. There was no pure polarization, no all-or-nothingness to their profile, either, as their 15.2% soft-hit rate was the 4th best in all baseball, behind only luminaries like the Dodgers, the Mike Trout Baseball Club of America, and the Padres. Cool company, all of it, and not anything to suggest historically awful outcomes.
Next, it was worth a check of the types of swings being placed on those balls. Were they tomahawking balls straight into the dirt? Hitting chili peppers up Lee Janzen’s ass? Infield poppers like Willie Mays Hayes? As it turns out, there’s nothing to those theories, really, either. The had the 6th highest fly-ball rate in the game at 37.9%, behind four division winners (Dodgers, A’s, Twins, Braves) and the Phightin’ Bryce Harpers, all potent offenses in their own right. Their 5th best HR/FB rate would suppress their overall BABIP (in a good way, since dingers aren’t counted in the denominator there), but that’s not outlier enough to suppress their overall BABIP into historic territory, either. They ranked middle of the pack in liner-rate, had the 5th lowest overall grounder rate, and while they pulled the ball overall more than average (42.7%, tied for 7th most in the game), even that’s not outlandish.
So, what gives?
It comes down to one specific, catastrophic area: production out of everything other than fly-balls.
It wasn’t as if the putridity of the overall Reds offense was equally distributed across the board. They posted a solid 1.077 OPS on all fly-balls hit, for instance, which was better than playoff-bound clubs from Oakland, Chicago (Cubs), and 19 total MLB franchises. But once you eliminate the swings that send the overwhelming majority of balls into the seats for dingers, the Reds production/luck/production/luck plummeted to the depths of baseball hell.
On liners, the numbers still sound astronomically good, but keep in mind we’re talking about some of the most hard-hit balls in the game here. Lasers off the bat, ones that give the clinchies to hot corner defenders. The 1.449 OPS on liners by Reds bats sounds good, but was 3rd worst in the game, just .010 off the bottom. Their .619 BABIP on liners was next to last, ‘bested’ only by the .611 mark from the Pittsburgh Pirates.
But while the liner numbers were bad in a ‘somebody has to finish last’ sense, it’s their numbers on grounders that drags their overall numbers into historically awful levels.
Only a trio of teams had BABIP on grounders less than .210 - the Reds, of course, finished dead last at just .170. Only a trio of teams had overall OPS on grounders less than .442 - the Reds, of course, finished dead last at just .357. As a team, as a whole, as the entirety of the bats on the club, the Reds posted a -11 wRC+ collectively on grounders, and while it’s common knowledge that it’s generally harder to get hits on grounders than liners and fly-balls, the Chicago White Sox posted a 55 wRC+ to lead the game in that area.
Before you jump to decision to crucify slogging lefties like Joey Votto, Jesse Winker, and Mike Moustakas for rolling over breaking balls and leading the club into this mess, it’s worth highlighting one very pertinent point. While the numbers as lefties on grounders were decidedly bottom-barrel from the Reds (.346 OPS & -14 wRC, both 3rd worst in the game), the comparable numbers posted by Reds righties were, vs. their peers, even worse. Reds righty hitters posted a combined .372 OPS and -7 wRC+ on grounders in play, both ranking absolutely, positively dead last in all of baseball.
There are undeniably concrete aspects to this futility beyond just luck, though bad luck certainly played into this plenty, too. The Reds featured a number of aging regulars last season, sometimes exclusively, and were not regarded as one of the better overall baserunning clubs in the game. They were old at most every position, and the eye-test doesn’t identify any real speedsters (aside from Nick Senzel, who barely played). Building off that observation, they don’t seem to have many players who, if a grounder comes off the bat, would seem to have that be anything close to an ideal result given their approach at the plate.
The Reds cobbled together a lineup of would-be bombers, dinger-mashers up and down the lineup, almost every one of whom has goal number one of socking a meatball into the stratosphere. And, if that’s the primary goal, a batted-ball result of a grounder isn’t merely a slight miss, it’s a complete miss. It’s not as if they’re trying to smoke liners 8 feet off the ground and if a ball comes off as a one-hopper to the shortstop, they’ve tremendously missed their launch angle - these Reds are aiming much, much higher, on the whole, and anything their bats make contact with that bounces before an infielder is on the complete opposite end of the desired batted-ball spectrum from their goal most of the time.
I don’t know how to rectify that, really. I suppose the epic groundball failure would be absorbed comfortably if this Reds lineup truly maxed-out their primary goal. If they sock a record amount of dingers and carry extremely low BABIP as a result, I don’t suppose we’d blink an eye while cheering. Add-in a league-best walk rate and turn a lot of those solo jobs into 2-run blasts, and we’d never notice.
As it was, and as it may well be again in 2021 without tweaks, it seems the Reds were poorly able to make something out of anything other than their best at the plate, a trait that while didn’t necessarily become the lone culprit of their scoreless postseason may well have solely deserved such an unfortunate outcome.
Many thanks again to FanGraphs, and I’ll leave you with one more request to sign-up and support their tremendous work.