The Cincinnati Reds have found something.
Not much time from the MLB media is spent talking about the Cincinnati Reds, but there is something about the Reds that needs to be talked about.
That’s right, the Reds have the 2nd best starting pitcher FIP behind only the Tampa Bay Rays. Surprised? Me too. Last year, the Reds finished with a starting pitcher FIP of 4.88, which was 27th best in the league. So this year is almost a complete turnaround from last season. The Reds have brought back some familiar faces including Luis Castillo, Tyler Mahle, and Anthony Descalfani. They also brought in outside help from Tanner Roark and Sonny Gray. So, 3/5ths of this staff is the same as last year. The long-awaited breakout from Luis Castillo has finally come to fruition, and that has played a role in this number, but what else?
My first thought was that there might be changes in pitch selection or pitch velocity, but I didn’t find anything that jumped out at me. Then I started to consider other factors, and I found something striking.
Looking at wOBA against for the 1st and 3rd time through the order, the Reds are essentially league average. But WHAT is happening in that second time through the order? A difference of 70 points in wOBA isn’t nothing. That’s a big jump. The Reds have a wOBA against in the 2nd time through the order that is 40 points better than the next lowest team. There are a couple theories for why this would happen. I’d like to briefly consider one theory, and then dive into another
1. The Reds starters have suddenly become excellent at adjusting to batters after they have seen a hitter in a game.
I WANTED to like this theory (after all I did think of it…), but I don’t really buy it, especially considering the Reds revert back to league average in the 3rd time through the order. If the Reds had suddenly become outliers at in-game adjustments, I would expect to see that carry over into the 3rd time through the order as well. So this theory is a no-go
2. The Reds starters are pitching against fewer batters for each start, so they feel more comfortable “giving it their all” the second time through the order.
That sentence is confusing, so I’ll break it down with a pair of (probably more confusing) charts.
These charts show the percentage of batters the Reds starters have faced that were in the third time through the order. For example, if the pitcher faced 9 batters the first time through, nine batters the second time through, and 2 batters the third time through, he would have faced 20 batters. 2/20, or 10% (0.10) would be batters he faced 3 times. So, the lower the number on this chart, the fewer batters the pitcher faces 3 times in an outing. I’ve put the NL average in both plots as a reference since we know that starting pitchers aren’t going as deep into games in MLB as a whole. Looking at individual starters (1st chart here), or at the team as a whole (2nd plot) you can see that the Reds are on the forefront of this movement.
Every one of these pitchers on this chart has a lower FIP than they did last season, yet 3 out of 5 of them are facing fewer batters (Mahle is almost identical to last season). Traditionally, if you’re pitching well, you stay in the game, but that’s not the case with the Reds starters this season. Their statistics have been far more impressive than in years past, yet they are facing fewer batters than ever before.
I further broke this down by separating Reds’ starts by number of batters faced. I took the 2019 data and projected it out for all of 2019, so I could compare across years.
As expected from the previous chart, there is an inflection point at about 21 batters, or about 3 batters into the third time through the order. You can see a striking decrease in the number of starts that face 23+ batters is dramatically lower in 2019 than it was in 2018.
When we separate Reds’ starts into two bins around this inflection point at 21 and 22 batters, the difference is even more obvious.
Goodbye long starts!
Traditionally, there are two reasons to pull a pitcher out of a game, he’s pitching poorly, or he has too many pitches. Both of these are based upon performance. If the pitcher is pitching poorly, then there is no benefit to keeping him in. If he has thrown a lot of pitches, then he is likely to get fatigued, and begin to pitch poorly. The Reds put forth third reason, and attempted to dodge the third time through the order as frequently as possible. In doing so, the Reds are limiting the number of batters their starters are facing, and it’s paying dividends in their outcomes.