“This ball is killed into left center field,” Cincinnati Reds broadcaster Thom Brennaman intoned glumly on Monday as Cubs right fielder Jason Heyward blasted a ball deep into the Chicago night. “And that’s a home run” — the Cubs’ third of the night.
Brennaman could be forgiven for his lack of enthusiasm. The Reds are 63-87, 32 games out of first place in the NL Central, and he’s had to make the same call 242 times so far this season. With two weeks left to play, the Reds’ pitchers have allowed the most home runs of any team in major league history. It’s a staggering total: Cincy hurlers allow an average of 1.6 homers every 9 innings, or one every 21.2 at-bats (meaning they effectively turned average NL hitters into Larry Doby or Joe Carter).
But it’s also symptomatic of a pitching staff that is, by another measure, the worst ever — and the only one in history that would have been better off being stocked with replacement-level players instead.
The Reds have struggled to build an effective staff for a looooong time, having broken league-average in fielding independent pitching only twice in the past 21 seasons. (And this is even after accounting for Cincinnati’s home parks, which have tended to inflate scoring.) But this season’s version has taken bad pitching and elevated it into some kind of twisted art form.
Last year’s Reds staff also struggled. It posted MLB’s sixth-worst strikeout-to-walk ratio and allowed its ninth-most homers per 9 innings despite having access to a few pretty good pitchers — most notably, Johnny Cueto and Aroldis Chapman — for most of the season. But Cueto and Chapman were both gone by the start of the 2016 season, and that’s when Cincinnati’s real problems began. In April, the Reds posted the league’s worst FIP, and they haven’t looked back: They were also the worst in May, in June and in September. (They were “only” 10th-worst in July and eighth-worst in August.)
The cumulative effect of all that badness has been, in FanGraphs’ estimation, the least-valuable staff by wins above replacement in modern MLB history1:
|2006||Kansas City Royals||162||62||100||+0.5|
|1964||Kansas City Athletics||163||57||105||+1.4|
|1977||San Diego Padres||162||69||93||+1.7|
|1966||New York Mets||161||66||95||+1.7|
|1955||Kansas City Athletics||155||63||91||+1.8|
Indeed, that’s an understatement. Somehow the Reds have been the only staff in MLB history to post a cumulative WAR below the replacement level. Not every Cincinnati hurler has been historically bad — Anthony DeSclafani has done admirable work, leading the team with 1.9 WAR, and Raisel Iglesias has 1.3 WAR with a superb 3.30 FIP. But by the logic of the theory that underpins WAR, the Reds’ sub-replacement tally means they could have stocked their entire pitching staff with nothing but freely available fringe players and AAA callups, and they’d have won an additional game. To find another team that could say that, you’d need to hark back 127 years (!!) to the 1890 Pittsburgh Alleghenys, whose 23-113 record still stands as second-worst in the long annals of major-league failure.
But that’s just according to FanGraphs’ model of WAR, which parcels out pitching credit (or, in this case, blame) based on FIP. Baseball-Reference.com’s competing WAR model2 uses runs allowed — a fielding dependent statistic — as its starting point, before accounting for a pitcher’s defensive support using fielding metrics. Oftentimes, the two varieties of WAR will be in agreement, but they do not see eye to eye on Cincinnati’s place in baseball history: According to the B–R version, not only are the Reds not the worst staff ever, but their 4.3 pitching WAR is only the fourth-worst tally of 2016.
The reason is simple. As gawdawful as the Reds’ fielding-independent numbers have been, Cincinnati pitchers have also overseen a .289 batting average on balls in play, seventh-lowest in baseball. FanGraphs’ WAR doesn’t care about this, seeing it as an artifact of luck and good fielding behind the Reds’ dreadful pitchers — but B–R’s version gives the pitchers some measure of credit for suppressing opposing BABIP, particularly because Cincinnati’s defenders score poorly in advanced fielding metrics such as defensive runs saved above average.
Which approach is correct? That’s been a matter of no small debate among baseball wonks, but uber-wonk Tom Tango (MLB’s newly minted Statcast Czar) probably has the right idea when he advocates for averaging the two methods. Luckily, Dan Hirsch’s excellent site, The Baseball Gauge, allows users to create their own custom WAR metric,3 with an option to average B–R’s WAR with a FIP-based method à la FanGraphs. By that combined method, the 2016 Reds are bad — 29th-worst since 1901 — but not the worst. (That mantle belongs to the 1995 San Francisco Giants, whose combination of a horrible FIP and a mediocre BABIP — despite league-leading fielding metrics — was enough to dissatisfy all versions of WAR.)
But even though this year’s Reds (probably) aren’t the worst staff ever assembled, it’s been a painful season for Brennaman and anyone else forced to watch them give up one gopher ball after another. Fans in Cincinnati can only hope that an offseason spent scouring the free-agency market for pitching will help close the book on one of the ugliest performances since people first started hurling a mass of hide-covered yarn and cork into a catcher’s mitt.