Nineteen games does not a season make, and it’s a sample size small enough for there to be the kind of skewed noise that, at season’s end, won’t reflect at all in the final numbers. But when there’s the kind of noise that skews something all the way to the top, or bottom, of a league-wide leaderboard, it’s probably worth highlighting at the time to see if it sticks, or fades away.
Through nineteen games, Cincinnati Reds pitchers have been the unluckiest group in all of Major League Baseball...if you ascribe to the notion that BABIP is a true indicator of luck. At .350 collectively, their mark is the single highest in the game, meaning no team has surrendered hits on balls in play at a higher rate than the Reds, a mark that should, in theory, normalize back towards the ~.300 level eventually.
However...the Cincinnati Reds have, so far, graded out as one of the worst defensive teams in the game, too. Their overall -7.5 DEF rating from FanGraphs ranks as third worst among the 30 MLB clubs, suggesting that their inability to turn balls in play into outs with proclivity might be fueling their league-high BABIP. And, if you aren’t one to believe in that particular defensive metric, UZR/150 currently has the Reds rated dead last at -10.8, too.
Is it a result of the pitchers allowing more hard contact than anyone else? Lasers off the bat are a lot harder to field than moderate grounders, after all. At 29.2%, their hard-hit rate sits tied for the 10th lowest in the league, and that would seem to suggest they aren’t yielding more barreled rockets that would cause their defenders to be behind the 8-ball.
Could it all be somewhat by design, though? At 44.8%, Reds pitchers sit tied for the 9th best groundball rate in the league - with the Rays 45.5% 4th best just barely ahead of them - meaning that the team’s pitchers are generally quite good and inducing grounders for their infielders to field. That theory is backed up a bit by their meager 35.1% flyball rate - 8th lowest where the Cubs 33.9% is 3rd lowest - suggesting that perhaps the team’s tiny home ballpark has led them to pitch in a way that keeps the ball on the ground (and in the park) as often as possible.
Again, this could just be early-season small sample noise. I certainly hope and expect the overall BABIP to fall to a more reasonable rate given the lack of absurdly hard contact being allowed, but the defense - a question mark for years even before the rule change to limit shifting - could well be a problem worth tracking all year.
All stats and leaderboards via FanGraphs, which you should visit no fewer than 17 times per day for baseball information.