The previous posts in this series have attempted to establish that the Reds need to ignore out-of-date clichÃƒÂ©s andÃ‚Â trade pitching for hitting. Given the constraints they face in terms of payroll and the current roster ofÃ‚Â position players, the new guy will likely be aÃ‚Â left fielder. The posts following this one will look at the left fielder market, both free agents and trade candidates. But to narrow the options, it’s important to identify qualities the Reds should look to acquire in a hitter.
1. OBPÃ‚Â above allÃ‚Â
In 2014, the Reds lineup suffered a catastrophic drop in on-base-percentage, both in absolute terms and in relation to the rest of the National League.Ã‚Â Table 1 shows the severe change. The Reds went from generally being decent-to-good compared to the rest of the league the previous four seasons to 16 percent below NL average in 2014. (It’s telling to see how closely the third column correlates to the health of Joey Votto’s left leg.)
Overall, the Reds had 272 fewer base runners this season compared to last. John Fay nailed itÃ‚Â recently when he isolated the cause and quantified the dramatic decline. The sharp fall was primarily due to the the strain of Joey VottoÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s left distal quad and the loss of Shin-Soo Choo to free agency.
Votto got on base a whopping 316 times in 2013. Compare that to the RedsÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ #3 hitters in 2014, who combined to get on base only 219 times. Shin-Soo Choo got on base 302 times in 2013, while Billy Hamilton reached only 176 times. Between the two, thatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s 223 fewer base runners.
What was the impact of that deficit of base runners alone on run production?
34 percent of Reds base runners scored in 2014 (compared to 34.5 percent in 2013). If the 272 extra runners had scored at a 34 percent rate it produces 92 more runs. That’s at least 9-10 more wins (maybe more considering the mind-boggling number of 1-run losses the Reds suffered). And that doesn’t factor in the dynamic effects that those extra hits and walks would have had on other players.
If you need more evidence of a link between on-base percentage and productive offense, here’s a cheap, calculated appeal to a happier day: The Big Red Machine led the major leagues in OBP in 1975 and 1976, by a country mile, including the AL teams using a DH.
So the guiding principle for the Reds brass when looking for new hitters this offseason is: Acquire on-base-percentage.
2. Walk-rates and Willy Taveras
Stipulate: Hits are preferable to walks. The run value of a walk was .689 in 2014, while the run value of a single was .892.
But the ability to draw a walk is more consistent throughout a season and from one year to the next than is the ability to get a hit. Hitters slump and experience wild swings in luck with balls put in play. The ability to take a walk can be a powerful hedge against those variances. For example, in 2013, Shin-Soo Choo struggled mightily against left-handed pitching. But his 11 percent walk-rate against lefties elevated his paltry .215 batting average to a well above average .347 OBP.
That brings us inevitably to the cautionary tale of Willy Taveras.
Recall the offseason prior to 2009. The Reds had ditched Corey Patterson and were looking for a lead off hitter. They signed Willy Taveras, who had been released by the Colorado Rockies, for that role. (The club and Taveras inked a … wait for it … yep, a two-year deal.)
The Reds had a pair of obvious data points on Taveras. In 2007, Taveras had hit .320/.367 (AVG/OBP) for the Rockies. In 2008, he slumped to .251/.308. Back then, the league OBP was .335, so Taveras was above average in 2007 and considerably below in 2008.
When announcing the signing of his new center fielder, Walt Jocketty said that the Reds saw value in Taveras, Ã¢â‚¬Å“if he gets back to being an on base guy that hits ground balls, it creates a lot of havoc on the bases.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Leaving aside the sticky fact that Taveras had identical ground-ball percentages in 2007 and 2008, the real fatal flaw with the Reds thinking was that Taveras rarely walked. His BB% was 5.1 percent in 2007 and 6.7 percent in 2008, several percent below league average (8.9 percent).
In other words, TaverasÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ on-base-skill was enormously dependent on his batting average. If Taveras had been a consistent .300 hitter like Pete Rose, the walk rate wouldnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t have mattered much. But Willy Taveras was no Hit King, a surprise to no one outside the Reds front office.
The evidence was obvious that TaverasÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ batting average fluctuated wildly. His .320 AVG in 2007 was plainly a product of an inflated BABIP of .370. In 2008, when TaverasÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ hits didnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t fall in at such an extreme rate (.296 BABIP), well, his batting average and on base percentage tumbled.Ã‚Â Not exactly what you want in a lead off hitter who also has zero power.
Sort of predictably, Taveras cratered for the Reds. In 437 disastrous plate appearances, he batted just .208 and walked a pathetic 4.1 percent of the time. Dusty Baker, of course, batted Willy Taveras first or second all year, except for seven (hitless) pinch hitting appearances.
Painful lesson: In looking for new hitters, the Reds should acquire players with above-average walk-rates. The target rate was 7.9 percent or above in 2014, let’s call it an even 8.
3. Speaking truth about power
Yes, the Reds should look for hitters with high OBP rates that have relatively large walk components. But they can’t stop there.
For any new acquisition, the front office must avoid hitters that scratch out decent on-base percentages but offer little power. The contribution of those hitters tends to be hollow. They are certainly preferable to players with equally empty but lower OBP. But power matters. To reverse the old adage, power is money.
Let’s return to the case Shin-Soo Choo’s 2013 season. If you recall, he got on base 126 more times than Billy Hamilton did this year. Choo also scored 107 runs compared to Hamilton’sÃ‚Â 72. Here’s where power comes in: Choo drove himself in 21 times. That’s nearly a fifth of his runs scored. Choo’s 15 home run edge over Hamilton accounts for nearly half the run differential between the two players. Nearly half. Because of power, not walks, not getting hit by pitches, home runs.
Making sure the new hitter has solid power is important especially because thereÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s a pretty good chance the Reds will continue to bat Hamilton first, even if the new guy has a substantially better OBP. Havoc being what it is. The new left fielder may hit as low as sixth.
A good way to measure a hitterÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s power is the statistic ISO, which stands for isolated power. It indicates how often a player hits for extra bases and how many extra bases. Slugging percentage (SLG) is a more traditional statistic, but it rises when a batter hits a single. That means two batters hitting .200 and .300 respectively might each have a SLG of .400, but their power would be considerably different. ISO isn’t complicated or fancy, it simply subtracts AVG from SLG to isolate the effect of extra base hits. In the above example, the first hitterÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s ISO would be .200 and the second hitterÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s would be .100. Among National League hitters with 400 at bats in 2014, Devin Mesoraco was second, to Giancarlo Stanton, in ISO.
Despite Mesoraco’s great year,Ã‚Â the 2014 Reds experienced an ISO collapse, as Table 2 shows.
One way not to identify power hitters is by looking at their RBI totals. As weÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve come to understand, RBIs are context-driven. They depend largely on opportunity provided by runners being on base. The fact that the best hitters seem to accumulate them only proves that managers generally know who their best hitters are and bat them in the middle of the lineup. Hitters arenÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t talented because they get lots of RBIs, they produce lots of RBIs because they are talented.
Modern-thinking GMs donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t bother with RBI totals when evaluating players. For example, Theo Epstein, who led the Boston Red Sox to World Series titles in 2004 (at the age of 30) and in 2007 said, Ã¢â‚¬Å“You guys can talk about RBI if you want. We ignore them in the front office Ã¢â‚¬Â¦ it simply is not a way that we use to evaluate offensive players.Ã¢â‚¬Â
4. Hoping the Reds get itÃ‚Â Ã‚Â
If thatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s just Jocketty shorthand for power hitter, then fine. But if instead, heÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s looking for players whose RBI totals outpace that hitter’s apparent skills, then the Reds could end up on the wrong side of Mesozoic Era market inefficiency. Brandon Phillips knocked in 100+ runs in 2013 in large part because Shin-Soo Choo and Joey Votto got on base about 600 times ahead of him.
There are reasons, however, to be optimistic that Walt Jocketty gets it.
Jocketty did trade for the Platonic ideal, Shin-Soo Choo, last year. On the other hand, Jocketty nearly repeated the Taveras tragedy when he came within a hair’s breadth ofÃ‚Â tradingÃ‚Â for Ben Revere instead of Choo. The Twins bailed Jocketty out by sending Revere to the Phillies. In two seasons, Ben Revere has hit a total of two home runs and walked 3.0 percent of the time. Not sure how one GM targets Ben Revere and Shin-Soo Choo for the same job, but whatever.
Happily, in a recent interview with John Fay, Jocketty identified the failure to get on base as the primary deficiency in the Reds lineup. Ã¢â‚¬Å“Offensively, I think you recognize we didnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t get as many guys on base this year,Ã¢â‚¬Â said the Reds GM. Ã¢â‚¬Å“Fewer guys on base, fewer runs are going to score. WeÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve got to take a hard look at that.Ã¢â‚¬Â
To end this on a positive note, I’ll leave it there and not mention it shouldn’t take a hard look to figure that out.