On the surface, there should have been plenty of good on which to focus regarding the 2021 Cincinnati Reds pitching staff. At least, if you just focus on the starting pitching things should, in theory, have been damn rosy.
Wade Miley threw a no-hitter and had a mostly brilliant second season with the Reds after his lost 2020. Luis Castillo is perennially hosing some of the filthiest filth on the planet out of his right hand, his fastball/change combo posing perpetual mysteries to opposition batters. Tyler Mahle was poised to take a huge step forward again, and did, while Sonny Gray’s dancing spin-balls move just about as much as any pitcher out there.
Four legit superlatives on the surface, and that paired with a rookie season from Vladimir Gutierrez that was mostly good on the skim-surface of my memory made me think hey, I bet these Reds ended up looking pretty good in the overall starting pitching rankings.
On area where the Reds did rank in elite company was the number of innings pitched from their starters. Their 864.0 total IP ranked as the third most in the game, showing a combination of durability and effectiveness that, obviously, warranted keeping them in the game for more outs than their peers. Of course, this could also be one of the byproducts of having a completely abysmal bullpen for much of the year (more on that in a bit), too, as the fear of what may become could have led David Bell to ride his starters a bit harder.
That’s a quantity stat, though, and it’s when you dive into the quality/rate stats where the team’s overall starting pitching performance in 2021 wanes a bit.
After leading all MLB starting staffs in K/9 last year, they dropped all the way down to 14th in 2021 (a drop of 11.01 to just 8.96). Much of that, though, can be attributed with the replacement of that one complete asshole in the rotation with Miley, as Ks are simply not his calling card. Thing is, though, that if the drop in K/9 came with an organizational philosophy of more ‘pitch to contact,’ you wouldn’t think the Reds would be a staff that walked a lot of batters...but, they did. A lot. Their collective 3.49 BB/9 from the rotation was the 4th highest in the game (behind three clubs who also went nowhere this year), and that led to a 2.57 K/BB that ranked in the bottom third league-wide.
Fortunately, the starting staff’s ability to keep their HR/9 down at 1.19 (9th best) meant they weren’t bitten too badly by said walks, especially when you factor in their home park. A 47.0% grounder rate certainly helped that, too, as it ranked as the 3rd best among all starting staffs (with Colorado, at 47.3%, the league-leader just barely ahead). That would certainly seem to be a continually overriding organizational philosophy.
Maybe that’s what it was - don’t give in to hitters and walk them if need be, but don’t serve up meatballs at all costs, and do your damnedest to make them put the ball in play on the ground. All told, it resulted in a starting pitching ERA of 4.03 (12th overall), a FIP of 4.19 (14th overall), and - fueled by that quantity of IP - a total of 13.9 fWAR from their starters this past year (9th overall).
Then, there was the bullpen.
I’ll be quite honest, there reached a point in the 2021 campaign where I simply stopped looking at the Reds bullpen stats. I wrote this on August 12th, just after the trade deadline acquisitions of Luis Cessa, Justin Wilson, and Mychal Givens, and things were still very much godawful at that juncture.
The Reds bullpen got off to a horrendous start to calendar year 2021 after the frugal dumpings of Raisel Iglesias and Archie Bradley, and that was before the performances by those still around torpedoed the early fifth of the regular season. Then came injuries a-plenty, with Tejay Antone and Lucas Sims and Michael Lorenzen all shelved. The waiver-claims rocketed immediately into high-leverage situations, welcoming failing upon failing thanks to an offense that was good enough to continue to ask them to close out would-be wins.
So, when it came time to look at the year-end numbers for the Reds bullpen, I had very small expectations. Believe it or not, I was actually pleasantly surprised, I think, though the bar was set so incredibly low that it was tough not to be.
The 2.3 overall fWAR from the bullpen ranked 21st in the game. There was a time when they were so abysmal that I thought they’d somehow find a way to rank 37th out of just 30 teams, though. That was powered by their 10.48 K/9 ranked 3rd behind juggernaut bullpens in Milwaukee and the Chicago south side, showing the kind of swing and miss stuff that seemed to match the eye-test for much of the year.
That’s...not bad! There’s value in having that kind of elite stuff, and the 94.7 average fastball velocity from their relief arms ranked as the 9th best in the game, too.
Since I’d expected to be greeted with dead-last rankings more or less everywhere, it was nice to see the Reds not completely in the doldrums universally. Unfortunately, I’ve now highlighted the areas in which they were more or less not abysmal, and - SPOILER ALERT - there’s a lot of abysmal bullpen rankings coming your way.
Remember that potential organizational pitching philosophy mentioned above? Yeah, it would appear the bullpen either never received or outright ignored that memo. Their 39.6% grounder rate was dead last among all 30 MLB teams, which would maybe sorta kinda be alright if not for their hard-hit rate of 34.8% being the 2nd highest among all relief units. No grounders and loud contact on balls hit in the air is a recipe for disaster in any ballpark, let alone GABP, which is a pretty good correlation to why their 15.2% HR/FB rate was 4th worst in the game and, thusly, their 1.45 HR/9 was 2nd worst.
Pair all of that, if you will, with a walk rate (4.45 per 9) that was tied for the 2nd worst in the game. Then pair that bundle with a 68.4% strand rate that was 4th worst in the game. To what does that all add up? An alarming rate of loud contact on balls hit mostly in the air, usually with walked runners loading up the bases and an inability to pick up the pieces left behind by those who pitched before you. As organizational pitching philosophies go, don’t mimic that one.
What it quite literally added up to was an overall bullpen ERA of 4.99 (4th worst, behind only the last place Orioles, last place Diamondbacks, and last place Nationals). Their 4.56 FIP ranked 6th worst, pretty well confirming that no, this was not a unit that was really up to snuff.
For those that would like this all rolled together into one unified unit, I’ll oblige. Their overall team ERA of 4.41 ranked as the 11th best in the game, their 4.34 collective FIP a similar 12th. Their 3.87 BB/9 was the 2nd worst in the game (just a hair behind last place Pittsburgh), and the end result was a pitching staff that totaled 16.2 fWAR - 11th most in the league.
As a pretty firm believer of the tenet that teams only go as far as their pitching will take them, noting that the Reds will draft 18th overall next year - on the back of having the 11th best overall pitching staff, per fWAR - feels just about right. Not bad, by any means, but simply not good enough.
All stats and leaderboards courtesy of FanGraphs.com, a site full of stats and leaderboards.