As anybody who follows my weekly chats in the early part of baseball seasons can attest, I’m a big proponent of shooing off small sample size worries with a brush of the hand and a curt reply of “April.” That answer mostly applies to players, but for teams that are fringe contenders, it’s possible to dig a hole in April that’s nearly impossible to escape from, especially in a competitive division. Expected playoff teams such as the Red Sox and Cubs have had wretched starts of their own, but they also had some room for error based on their talent level. For the Cincinnati Reds, however, it may be closer to panic time.
One reason why it’s easier to panic on the team level than it is for individual players at the start of the season is due to the fact that the bright lines for team success are quite different than the foggier ones for players. If a four-win player has a replacement-level month but then otherwise plays at his normal levels, his eventual 3.3-3.4 WAR still contributed greatly to the team’s bottom line. But the playoffs provide a much sharper divide for team success, and a team that makes the postseason by a single game has a much different penumbra of success than one that misses it by that margin.
So let’s talk about the Reds. On a basic level, it’s disheartening that they’ve struggled to this degree, being one of the few teams this past offseason to aggressively push their roster forward and try to open their contending window early. Teams being successful when they do this kind of thing is something I feel is fundamentally beneficial to baseball.
The Reds didn’t go after the big stars this offseason, and if they ever talked with the Harper, Machado, or Corbin camps seriously this winter, it’s news to me (though there was a rumor last fall they were at least interested in Corbin). But they did make significant moves and take on salary, adding Yasiel Puig, Sonny Gray, Alex Wood, and Tanner Roark in a bid to provide a short-term boost to their weakest spots. They’ve already committed to Gray for an even longer period, extending him through 2022 with a $12 million team option for the 2023 season.
The Reds have been rewarded for all that hard work with a 1-8 start, and an offense hitting .170/.233/.301.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, the 2018 Reds weren’t a playoff-caliber offensive team that simply had to wait for a fire truck to put out their dumpster conflagration of a starting rotation. Despite playing in a hitter’s park, the team was 18th in the league in runs scored, 20th in home runs, and combined for a wRC+ of 95, 17th in baseball. But they did do a couple of things well. The offense was in the top five at avoiding soft contact, and the other four teams — the Athletics, Red Sox, Indians, and Braves — were all very successful teams in 2018 (the sixth place Royals were not). Cincinnati didn’t walk a ton or anything, but they still had a solid approach at the plate, simultaneously being the seventh-best team at not swinging at bad pitches and the fifth-best at offering at the good ones. The 39-percentage point difference between the two plate discipline stats was the second-best in baseball, behind only Oakland.
This year, the approach has changed to a more aggressive one, and not in the good “let’s not be Ben Grieve” way. And the change is more than just Yasiel Puig and Matt Kemp. Players such as Scott Schebler, Joey Votto, and especially Jose Peraza (whose O-Swing jumped to 65% in this small sample) have also seen similar jumps. Even Puig and Kemp themselves, hardly the most disciplined hitters, are swinging at bad pitches more aggressively than they did with the Dodgers last year. It makes one wonder if being away from Los Angeles, the league leader for the lowest O-Swing% in each of the last two seasons, has resulted in them exhibiting less restraint on their bad habits.
Team Swing Differential, 2019
|Team||2018 Outside vs. Zone Swing Differential||2019 Outside vs. Zone Swing Differential||Difference|
Even with a poorer approach at the plate than last year, the Reds’ offense obviously won’t finish the season anywhere near a .534 OPS. The team’s .208 BABIP is an outlier; using the zBABIP that ZiPS calculates as part of its algorithms, the team’s hit data suggests that their team BABIP ought to be around .286 right now. That’s not good — it would have put them 25th in baseball in 2018 — but it’s a sea change of improvement.
The larger problem the Reds face is that it may actually already be too late. Nine games isn’t a lot, but the Reds were projected as the fourth or fifth-place team in the NL Central by ZiPS, varying a bit based on the assumptions you made on playing time. ZiPS projected Cincinnati as an 80-82 team with an 11.5% chance at making the playoffs. With three teams in the division projected for 85 wins going in, a slow start always had the potential to ruin the math for the Reds by quickly closing off their divisional chances.
ZiPS Mean Standings, NL Central, 4/8/19
|Team||W||L||GB||PCT||DIV%||WC%||PLAYOFF%||WS WIN%||#1 PICK||AVG DRAFT POS|
|St. Louis Cardinals||82||80||5||.506||18.9%||11.0%||29.9%||1.6%||0.0%||16.1|
It’s almost shocking how quickly Cincinnati’s projections for 2019 have deteriorated. Even beyond the wins already missing in the standings, ZiPS thinks the roster itself, over the rest-of-the-season, is 18 points of winning percentage worse than it thought it was two weeks ago, or three wins per 162 games. That amounts to about 75% of their playoff paths being closed for 2019. While I haven’t collected the changed projections in nine games for every team at every point in every season, it’s the largest drop I can remember.
So, how do the Reds make the playoffs? Obviously, they need to play better, but just how wrong does ZiPS need to be to give them a fighting chance? ZiPS projects the current roster’s strength at a .483 winning percentage (which comes down to .472 after strength of schedule is taken into account). To get an idea about how steep Cincinnati’s playoff challenge is, and how sensitive the odds are to increases in team quality, I’m doing the simulation backwards, telling it the team’s roster strength and seeing the resulting change in the playoff percentages.
Reds Playoff Probability by Roster Strength
|Reds Roster Strength||2019 Playoff %|
|.483 (Current Projection)||2.7%|
To get back just to their preseason odds, you would need to assume the Reds have a roster that, given a million games, would go 84-78 on average. That’s about a five-win improvement over what the projections say right now, meaning they would have to sign Craig Kimbrel and Dallas Keuchel just to claw back what they’ve lost since the start of the season. Being the best team in the NL Central (ZiPS currently has the Brewers at .526), would still not get the Reds quite to one-in-five odds.
Only two teams in history have come back from a 1-8 (or worse) start to make the playoffs: the 2011 Tampa Bay Rays and the Reds themselves in 1995. The 2019 Reds probably aren’t going to be the third.