Sports The Reds' starters delivered. Predictably, their offense didn't

04:05  02 october  2020
04:05  02 october  2020 Source:   thescore.com

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Moments after the hard-charging Cincinnati Reds clinched their first playoff berth since 2013, Joey Votto, the club's elder statesman, gave a frank appraisal of his team's outlook heading into a decidedly unusual postseason.

a baseball player pitching a ball on a field © Joe Robbins / Getty Images

"I think we're a f------ nightmare," said Votto.

It wasn't just bluster, either. For all their flaws, the Reds, who seemed poised in early September to miss the playoffs yet again despite an uncharacteristically aggressive offseason, looked uniquely equipped to terrorize opponents in October. With three of baseball's 25 best starters in their employ - and a fourth who could likely land next year's Opening Day nod for half the league's teams - the Reds seemed better suited than virtually every other team to thrive in a no-off-days postseason that would put a premium on starting depth.

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Instead, they floundered. The Reds' first postseason series in the better part of a decade lasted just over 24 hours as the club dropped successive games to the Atlanta Braves. (The Braves exorcised some demons of their own with a best-of-three sweep, securing their first playoff series victory since 2001.)

In a postseason seemingly designed for maximum unpredictability, the Reds petered out in the most predictable fashion. Their most glaring weaknesses undermined their greatest - perhaps only - strength, the thing that made them, as Votto put it, such a nightmarish opponent.

True to form, the Reds, who ranked third in the majors in pitching WAR and second in runs allowed per game during the truncated regular season, stymied the Braves in the wild-card round. In Game 1, Trevor Bauer, the National League Cy Young favorite, confounded Atlanta's hitters with a dizzying blend of four-seamers, sliders, cutters, and the occasional curveball en route to a dozen strikeouts over 7 2/3 scoreless innings. Cincinnati's bullpen kept the Braves off the board for the next four-plus innings. In Game 2, with the Reds' season hanging in the balance, Luis Castillo delivered a fine start himself, surrendering only one run over 5 1/3 innings before turning it over to a tired relief corps that nevertheless kept the deficit at one until the eighth.

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In toto, the Reds held the game's second-best lineup thoroughly in check for two games, allowing a total of six runs - four of which came in the eighth inning of Game 2 - over 20 1/3 innings. Their vaunted staff, in other words, held up its end of the bargain.

But, as was often the case in 2020, Cincinnati's lineup proved unable to do its part. In their two games against the Braves, the Reds didn't score a run, setting a dubious postseason record with 22 consecutive scoreless innings. Their batting average for the series was .169. Collectively, they struck out in more than a third of their plate appearances and managed just one extra-base hit, an 11th-inning double in Game 1 from Nicholas Castellanos, one of their prized offseason acquisitions and the only Reds player with more than two hits in the series. Mike Moustakas, another major offseason pickup, had none, and he reached base only once in nine plate appearances. Shogo Akiyama, who inked a three-year, $21-million deal with Cincinnati this past winter following a brilliant career in Japan, went 0-for-5.

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Ultimately, nobody did much of anything at the plate, and the Reds' haplessness against Atlanta typified a season in which their offense consistently let down the pitching staff.

The offseason spending spree notwithstanding, the Reds' offense in 2020 was only negligibly better than the one that finished 25th in runs per game last year. Of their major additions, only Moustakas wasn't a disappointment: Castellanos regressed hard following a mammoth 2019 and Akiyama struggled to adjust in his first season stateside. A breakout campaign from Jesse Winker, meanwhile, was offset by a sizable step backward from Eugenio Suarez, who was barely a league-average hitter one year after blasting 49 homers and earning down-ballot NL MVP votes. With multiple soft spots in their lineup and only one hitter consistently performing at a high level, the Reds' offense finished bottom 10 in the majors in almost every meaningful statistical category, including wRC+ (91), on-base percentage (.312), and runs per game (4.05). They struggled so profoundly that in spite of their lights-out staff and a winning record, a positive run differential eluded them for a seventh straight season.

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In retrospect, the confidence the Reds had coming into the wild-card round - as evinced by Votto's quip - was perhaps misplaced in light of the pitchers they were set to face: Max Fried and Ian Anderson. Not only was Fried one of the game's top starters in 2020, authoring a 2.25 ERA (3.10) across a dozen regular-season starts, but his go-to secondary offering is a wicked, biting curveball that accounts for nearly a quarter of his pitches. No team was more helpless against left-handed curveballs this season than the Reds, even though their two ostensibly most dangerous hitters, Castellanos and Suarez, hit from the right side.

Lowest wOBA vs. curveballs from LHP, 2020

As such, it wasn't all that surprising to see Fried toy with the Reds, allowing only five hard-hit balls (i.e. balls with an exit velocity of at least 95 mph) while striking out six over seven scoreless innings in the series-opening marathon. Of his five pitches, his curveball notably earned him the most called strikes and swinging strikes, including this memorable one from Aristides Aquino in the top of the seventh:

Anderson, the 22-year-old rookie who started for Atlanta in Game 2, presented a formidable challenge, too, and not merely because his numbers through his first six big-league starts - 1.95 ERA, 11.4 strikeouts per nine innings - were off the charts. Anderson complements his heater primarily with a dastardly changeup, a pitch he uses nearly a third of the time. The Reds, with their glut of left-handed hitters, struggled mightily against changeups from right-handers this year.

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Lowest wOBA vs. changeups from RHP, 2020

Less than five weeks removed from his MLB debut, Anderson was even more dominant than Fried, limiting the Reds to two singles (on four hard-hit balls) and two walks while striking out nine over six shutout innings in his first postseason start. He got batters to swing and miss on nearly a third of his changeups, too, inducing eight whiffs on 28 such pitches.

Thanks to the Herculean efforts of Bauer and Castillo, Cincinnati's offense didn't need to light up the scoreboard. A solitary run would've gotten the job done in Game 1, at least in regulation, while a bloop-and-blast at any point through the first seven innings of Game 2 would've put the Reds in the driver's seat. They couldn't do it, though, and only by virtue of their starters' brilliance did the series not devolve into a laugher. In that sense, it mirrored their regular season.

And now, as another offseason looms, the Reds find themselves in a difficult position. Their most valuable player, Bauer, is headed for free agency, and it sounds like retaining him is a priority of theirs, as it should be. But can they afford to both bring him back and bolster the lineup just one year after committing serious money (by their standards, at least) to upgrade their offense? And what, for that matter, do they bolster? Following last winter's spree, their infield is set for the foreseeable future outside of shortstop, as is their outfield.

There are no obvious solutions, and while the circumstances of the 2020 season are somewhat mitigating - perhaps, given the small sample size and general weirdness of the campaign, their hitters' disappointing numbers aren't to be trusted - doing nothing doesn't feel like a solution, either.

They just made it back to the postseason, after all. Taking a step backward after working so long and so hard to be relevant again would be, well, a nightmare.

Jonah Birenbaum is theScore's senior MLB writer. He steams a good ham. You can find him on Twitter @birenball.

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