Wait 'Til Next Year: Reds' offense collapses in second-half stumble
While so much of our day-to-day attention in this space is devoted to the teams still battling for playoff spots, we feel as though it's only fitting to acknowledge the teams that have been mathematically eliminated from contention, giving them a brief sendoff that should suffice until Hot Stove season. Thus, the Wait 'Til Next Year series.
Current Record: 71-82 (.464, fourth in the NL Central)
Mathematically Eliminated: Sept. 17
What went right in 2014: Coming off a 2013 season in which he was unable to make three consecutive starts without getting hurt, Johnny Cueto reclaimed his position not only as the Reds' ace but also as one of the best pitchers in baseball. In a performance that should earn him the Comeback Player of the Year award and a top-three spot in the Cy Young voting, Cueto has compiled an 18-9 record, 2.33 ERA, and 155 ERA+. He also set career-bests in strikeouts (228), strikeout rate (9.0), strikeout-to-walk ratio (3.56), WHIP (0.98), and innings pitched (227 2/3), the last of those a league-leading total.
Despite missing 22 games due to a pair of muscle strains early in the season, catcher Devin Mesoraco had a breakout season at the age of 26, hitting .278/.365/.536 with 23 home runs and 74 RBI, setting career highs in nearly every major hitting category and leading all major league catchers in homers. Third baseman Todd Frazier rebounded from his disappointing sophomore season to set career highs in home runs (26), RBI (75), runs scored (79), stolen bases (20), total bases (122), and, thus far, batting average (.277), on-base percentage (.337), and OPS+ (122).
On the mound, 33-year-old Alfredo Simon stepped into the void created by injuries to some of the Reds' other starters and turned in an All-Star-worthy first half, going 12-3 with a 2.70 ERA in 18 starts. The league caught up to him in the second half, but he remains a solid contributor in the rotation, having posted a 3.62 ERA over his last six starts.
Meanwhile, closer Aroldis Chapman recovered quickly from taking a comebacker to the face in spring training, making his season debut on May 11 and proceeding to set new records with his pitch speeds and strikeout rate. Chapman has struck out 94 men in 48 innings thus far this season, or 17.6 per nine innings, surpassing Craig Kimbrel's existing record of 16.7 for pitchers with at least 50 innings pitched in a season. In fact, Chapman's current strikeout rate would be an all-time record for any pitcher with six or more innings pitched in a season, breaking Kimbrel's 17.4 K/9 mark set in 20 2/3 innings in 2010.
Chapman also now leads all pitchers with seven or more innings pitched with a career rate of 15.3 strikeouts per nine innings. The same holds true for his strikeout percentages, as he has whiffed 52 percent of the batters he has faced this season and 42 percent of the batters he has faced in his career, both records given the same innings minimums. It's not hard to figure out how he does it. Per BrooksBaseball.net, Chapman has averaged 101.3 miles per hour on his fastball this year, making his 2014 the hardest-throwing pitcher season on record (and very likely ever), though he misses even more bats with his slider on a per-pitch basis.
All five of the players mentioned above were All-Stars this year, a significant number for a team now 11 games under .500. The last time the Reds sent five men to the All-Star Game was in 1991, when they were coming off a world championship. As that might suggest, the Reds weren't nearly as bad in the first half as they have been in the second. In fact, from June 11 to June 29, they went 14-4, finishing that run in second place in the NL Central and tied with the Nationals for the second wild-card spot. They then traveled to San Diego, got swept in three games, and never touched second place or a playoff position again.
What went wrong in 2014: Even the positives in the Reds' season came laced with negatives, whether it was Chapman's and Mesoraco's injuries or the rape accusations filed against Simon in April (the criminal case was dropped by the prosecution, but a civil case remains underway). What buried the Reds this season, however, was the collapse of their offense, which, other than Mesoraco and Frazier, was a total disaster.
Only the Braves and Padres have scored fewer runs per game than the Reds' 3.66 this year, and only San Diego has a lower team OPS+ than Cincinnati's 86. The quad injury that has limited Joey Votto to 62 games this season has been the backbreaker, but outside of Frazier and Mesoraco, there isn't an innocent man in their lineup.
Jay Bruce has hit just .213/.282/.364 with 16 home runs, all career lows. Brandon Phillips, who in March swore (literally) that he wasn't declining, has hit .261/.304/.366 with seven home runs, 48 RBI, and just two stolen bases, all lows for his nine years with the Reds. Zack Cozart's already weak bat collapsed completely with a .222/.271/.297 line and just three home runs, again all career worsts. Ryan Ludwick stayed healthy but failed to recapture his power, slugging .387 with nine home runs, the latter a career low for a season in which he made more than 175 plate appearances.
Finally, Billy Hamilton, despite a hot June and his excellent play in the field, was an utterly insufficient replacement for Shin-Soo Choo atop the lineup. He even failed to do well the one thing he supposedly does better than anyone else, stealing 56 bases at a poor 71-percent success rate. With Hamilton leading the way with a major league-worst 23 times caught stealing, the Reds made more outs on the bases this season than any other team in baseball except the Dodgers. Cincinnati's 113 outs on the bases (including times picked off, doubled off or thrown out trying to stretch a hit or advance on a non-force play) amount to more than four full games worth of outs.
Additionally, as evidenced by Simon's importance, the rotation suffered its share of injuries despite Cueto's healthy season. Mat Latos didn't make his season debut until June 14 due to offseason knee surgery. After a strong April, sophomore Tony Cingrani's season was ruined by a shoulder strain, as he failed to record another quality start after an initial disabled list stay in early May and saw his season came to an end in late June. More recently, Homer Bailey, who recovered from a lousy April to go 8-3 with a 3.17 ERA over his next 18 starts, had his season ended in early August by a confluence of knee, neck, and arm injuries, the last a flexor mass strain in his right forearm that required surgery earlier this month.
With Votto, Cingrani, and ultimately Bailey injured; Phillips missing 33 games in July and August due to a torn ligament in his left thumb; Hamilton having cooled off after his hot June; Bruce's bat flatlining (.180/.227/.305 since June 29); and the rest of the offense failing to pick up the slack, the Reds have gone 28-44 (.389) since their one day in second place on June 29. Only the Rockies and Rangers have been worse over that span.
Overall outlook: Despite how little went right for the Reds this season, Mesoraco's breakout and Cueto's and Frazier's comebacks were important. Mesoraco and Frazier are 26 and 28, respectively, and are both under team control through 2017. Cueto has only a team-friendly $10 million club option for 2015 remaining on his contract, but he won't be 29 until February and may have just pitched his way to an extension. In Cueto, Bailey, Latos, Mike Leake (who has quietly emerged as a reliable league-average horse) and Cingrani, the Reds have a talented young rotation under control for 2015. They also have a recent history of winning, with 90-win seasons and playoff berths in three of the four seasons prior to this one.
All of that said, their offense needs significant upgrades. Phillips, who is under contract for three more years, is a very old 33. Hamilton did little to prove he's a viable major league hitter this year. With the team sure to decline Ludwick's $9 million option, that leaves big holes in two of the three outfield pastures, and that's assuming Bruce, who has posted a .315 on-base percentage over the last three seasons, can bounce back from his brutal age-27 season. I'm more optimistic about Bruce's bat than I am about Cozart's at shortstop. Meanwhile, the dismal performances elsewhere and his own injuries have overshadowed the fact that Votto's power took a significant drop for a second straight season, as he managed just six home runs and a .409 slugging percentage in his 62 games with a career-worst .155 isolated slugging.
The Reds need a lot to go right both this offseason and next year in order to return to contention. They still have a talented enough core to make it happen, but a rebound in 2015 is far from a sure thing.