The Reds Pitching Staff Is On A New Level: Atop Baseball

The nature of change often makes it seem as though it’s happened overnight. We aren’t particularly good at seeing the tiny, consistent changes that build up over time when it comes to seeing it in others. We aren’t particularly patient enough to enforce those same tiny, consistent tweaks when we attempt to change ourselves. And beyond that, it’s more fun to subscribe to the idea that someone went to bed one night one way, and then woke up the next day completely different. It’s conveniently inspiring and hopeful.

Nonetheless, real change happens with quiet commitment. The Cincinnati Reds pitching staff so far in 2019 is proving to be a great example. Last year, they were the fifth-worst in all of baseball. So far this year, they’re tied with the Tampa Bay Rays for the best in all of baseball.

Reds data

The data only go as far back as when games started at the end of March. But to appreciate when the Reds really started to implement change to their pitching approach, we have to go back to last October when they hired away Derek Johnson from the division rival Brewers. Johnson came to Cincinnati with a reputation as one of the best pitching coaches in the league. He spent the last three years in Milwaukee; before that, he was the minor league pitching coordinator for the Cubs for three years, and before that, he was the pitching coach at Vanderbilt University from 2002-12. Those are all in their own ways forward-thinking organizations of which Johnson was integral part.

He’s not the only improvement the team made. In January, the Reds hired Caleb Cotham as an assistant pitching coach. Cotham was coached by Johnson and was teammates with Sonny Gray at Vanderbilt. He has Major League pitching experience, has trained at Driveline, and most recently worked for the Bledsoe Agency while focusing on player development.  To get a sense of his approach, consider this picture he tweeted in January 2018:

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Those baseballs are marked up to aid the use of a Rapsodo, to help show a pitch’s spin axis and provide cues for pitchers as to how to manipulate the ball as it leaves their hand. The Reds joined the revolution this offseason and began using Rapsodo in spring training, and made sure they had staff that not only wanted to implement it, but knew how to get the most out of the cameras that can provide thousands of slow motion frames per second.

That’s what the team has done on the coaching side of things, but the games and execution are still left to the players. Big changes were made there, too — Sal Romano, Matt Harvey, and Homer Bailey are no longer on the 25-man roster. They recorded the second-, fifth-, and sixth-most innings for the Reds last year and just 2.4 fWAR combined. Others who contributed somewhat regular innings, like Matt Wisler, Austin Brice, Dylan Floro, Jackson Stephens, and Brandon Finnegan, are also either no longer with the organization or are in the minors.

The Reds have fortified their rotation with Sonny Gray and Tanner Roark, and moved Robert Stephenson to the bullpen full time. So far, they’re the best pitchers the Reds have who aren’t named Luis Castillo, in large part thanks to a serious commitment to sliders. Gray isn’t trying to throw his for strikes as he was with the Yankees, and he looks like his old productive self. Roark is throwing the slider an additional 12% from last year. Stephenson has gone mad and is throwing it 20% more than in 2018. The early returns have clearly been favorable, but was solving the problem really just about the Reds getting new coaches and shuffling the deck?

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All of these heat maps are from the catcher’s perspective. As a staff, Reds pitchers are demonstrating better command almost across the board. Fastballs are more clearly up and to the first base side. Sliders are extremely crisp, painting the low, first base-side corner and seemingly refuse to leak more into the zone. Curveballs aren’t being left in the heart of the plate. Changeups are being pounded with more authority to the low corner on the third base side. Two-seamers are working more to the lower third of the zone.

The team is also employing them far less, having accounted for anywhere between 5-10% less of the staff’s total offerings, depending on which pitch classification system you use. Over the course of the season, that’s roughly a thousand less sinkers, at least.

The two-seamer is the pitch that gets the least amount of whiffs. Trading them for literally any other pitch is a net win in that regard, which might help explain how the Reds have managed to maintain the amount of walks they give up while adding 20% more strikeouts over last year. We’re at a point where pitchers and hitters are each optimizing for the best possible outcome: strikeouts and homers. Going for more whiffs as hitters are already primed to swing and miss because they’re going for extra base hits is a no-brainer, but the Reds appear to have had more room to improve in this area than most teams, and have done it as much as possible since last year.

The improved command has lead to improved efficiency, too. Reds pitchers have thrown the eighth-fewest pitches in the Majors. From 2016-18, they never ranked better than 16th by that measure. Throwing fewer pitches doesn’t necessarily correlate to automatic success — for example, the Yankees threw more pitches than nearly everyone last year but their staff was also better than every team except the Astros — but in this instance, it’s clear that the Reds’ efficiency is representative of a big part of their ascent so far.

It started with one coaching hire, and then another. And then they added new tech that complements old knowledge and relationships. Since then it’s been about executing each pitch with more authority to places that are harder to hit it. The Reds are five games under .500 in what could be baseball’s toughest division, and yet they’re in the midst of a turnaround on the mound that’s unprecedented. Tune in to be a witness. 

Heat maps from Statcast. All other data from FanGraphs. Feature photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images.

Eugenio Suarez Has Optimized His Brain, Results Have Followed

Last season, Eugenio Suarez was a pretty good Major Leaguer — 17% better than his peers, by measure of the runs he created. He was far better at home than he was on the road, as you may expect for a slugger who plays half their games in Great American Ball Park, but overall he had turned into a dude with Cincinnati in his third full year there.

2018 has been a different, even better story since jump street, though. Suarez has morphed again, this time into arguably the best hitting regular third baseman and the eighth best hitter in all of baseball, regardless where he’s playing. It’s even more impressive when considering his thumb was broken on an errant pitch in April and he hasn’t missed a beat since coming back. The whole thing is really curious.

Suarez rate stats

He’s walking and striking out a little less and he’s hitting a few more balls in the air. None of those explain how he’s driving the ball so much harder, as his ISO indicates, or why he’s been 23% better than last year when he was pretty good, though. Sometimes, seeing year-over-year differences in these numbers tells enough of the story. But looking at the surface doesn’t for Suarez doesn’t show us how he went from a dude to the dude. He leaves us with no choice but to wade into the water.

Suarez Contact and Discipline

Did your eyes pop going over the change in how Suarez attacks the ball like mine did? He’s dwarfed his lightly hit dinkers this season compared to last. He’s absolutely ripping the ball when he does hit it. He’s chasing the exact same rate of pitches and he’s going more at the ones in the zone. Throw in that he’s hitting the ball less to the opposite field and more up the middle, and the picture starts to clarify.

But not completely. We can see the What that’s driving Suarez’s production, but not the How. We don’t know how he went from just above average at generating hard contact to top two in the Majors, a half percentage point behind only Matt Carpenter, who has been Ares on a warpath for months.

Let’s wade into the Suarez water deeper and get to some gifs.

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This is Suarez in 2017. He pulls a 94 mph fastball into left field for a single. He ended up driving in a run. An all around solid outcome.

Suarez 18 change

This is Suarez this season. He drives a 94 mph fastball into the right field seats for his 22nd tater of the year.

Suarez’s two swings are largely the same. But the big difference is that he’s gone from starting with his bat being parallel to his body in 2017 to starting with it parallel to the ground in 2018. His rate stats being so similar over the last two seasons suggest that he hasn’t drastically changed his approach. The tiny mechanical difference in his stance suggests that he’s found a way for his brain to make the same decisions in the mere milliseconds it takes for a pitch to reach the plate, but provide much more impressive results.

Frankly, what he’s doing this season is amazing. We don’t know where he’ll go next, but we do know that the new Eugenio Suarez is a strong representation of baseball in 2018: able, powerful, smart, and optimized.

Data from FanGraphs. Gifs made with Giphy from Statcast video. Feature image from Kareem Elgazzar/Cincinnati.com