With over a quarter of the 2019 season in the books, I thought it would be worth giving some historical context to the very unexpected performance from the Reds starting pitching. Whether the Reds #GotThePitching, developed the pitching, or just blindly stumbled into the pitching, the Reds currently have very good starting pitching. In terms of previous Reds teams, this is something that has been few and far between for roughly the past 30 years.
There is still plenty of baseball left to be played, but if the season had ended this week, this group would be notable for both it’s top-line talent and depth. I compared the current five-man rotation with the top five starting pitchers (based on fWAR) for each of the Reds last 50 seasons. Looking at the top pitchers by fWAR means that not every group will include the pitchers who were used most frequently and may also include some starters who were also used as relivers. It will, however, ensure the comparison is with the 5 best pitchers from each season, making this an inherently conservative analysis.
The three metrics I used are ERA, FIP and WAR (projected for the 2019 group). This gives a mix of stats that show what happened (ERA), how the pitchers performed based on the factors in their control (FIP), and the overall value to their teams (WAR).
Earned Run Average
I will start off by saying that including 2019, there have only been a couple starting rotations to deliver noteworthy ERAs since 1991. Johnny Cueto put the Reds on his back in 2014 (3rd out of 50), getting help from strong performances from Mat Latos and Alfredo Simon, while Mike Leake and Homer Bailey rounded out group.
Before that, you must go back to 1972 (1st), 1988(2nd), 1981(4th) and 1973(5th), when some of the best pitchers in Reds history took the mound. Gary Nolan, Mario Soto, and Jose Rijo all led their respective clubs with great overall starting pitching.
The 2019 squad currently sits in 10th, with an overall ERA of 3.40. Luis Castillo’s 1.76 ERA would be the lowest of any Reds starting pitching since 1970. Sonny Gray’s ERA took a bit of a hit lately, pushing him out of the top half of all #2 pitchers, but Roark, Mahle and Declafani rank 14th, 24th and 22nd (all out of 50) for their respective slots as the 3/4/5 starters.
Fielding Independent Pitching
The numbers for recent Reds teams gets much bleaker when looking at recent years, as 1996 – 2018 does not reflect strongly according to FIP. 2015 is surprisingly the strongest at 14th overall with a 3.66 total FIP.
Once again, the early 80s rise to the top with Mario Soto and the 1982 (1st) and 1981 (2nd) teams leading the way. They are followed by another Jose Rijo led group in 1992 (3rd) and another Gary Nolan led group in 1971 (5th).
The current 2019 team’s FIP places them 4th in the last 50 seasons with a 3.33. And it is not just Castillo and Gray doing the heavy lifting. While they both sit with FIPs under 3.00 and are in the top 5 for #1 and #2 starters, respectively, Tanner Roark’s 3.30 would be the 3rd best FIP for a Reds #3 starter. Tyler Mahle’s 3.55 FIP would be the 8th best for a #4 starter. Desclafani’s 4.25 drops him a bit to 21st, but still good enough for top half. All five hurlers are doing an excellent job according to the peripherals.
Wins Above Replacement
Because WAR is a cumulative stat, the numbers used in the analysis are projections for the remainder of the season. This is far from perfect, but still conservative.
Using the average innings pitched for each rotation slot from the past 10 Reds seasons, I established a season-end target number of total innings for each current pitcher. I then calculated what percent of the season they have theoretically completed based on that target and projected their remaining WAR, assuming they would continue to accumulate it at their current pace.
To show how this is conservative, the season completion estimates for Roark, Mahle and Desclafani came out to be 35%, 30%, and 39%, respectively, based on their current innings pitched. This is well above the actual 26.5% based on 43/162 games. Castillo was also a bit higher at 28.7%. Sonny Gray was below the mark, so I manually set his to 26.5%. So while the assumption that each pitcher will continue to accumulate WAR at their current pace may be aggressive, the calculations behind that assumption are not.
The reason I go so in depth on the process is because the result is very exciting. Based on the current pace and performance, the starting rotation is on pace to have the highest WAR of any Reds team since 1970, and by a wide margin. The projection of 16.8 fWAR would be the highest since 1967, when Gary Nolan, Jim Maloney, Milt Pappas and Mel Queen all dominated the league together. In total, this year would become the 16th best output in team history.
Anthony Declafani, if he can stay healthy, is on pace to post around 1.3 fWAR. That may not seem like much compared to his breakout 2015 season, but for a 5th starter that is very good. It would be the 6th best for a Reds 5th starter since 1970. Tyler Mahle, on pace for 2.5 fWAR, would slot in as the Reds 3rd best #4 starter over that same time frame. These two may not be top of the rotation material, but they are more than serviceable back end starters and certainly have potential to be even more.
Newcomer Tanner Roark, who may not be a Red for long, has a chance to post the most fWAR for a Reds #3 starter since 1970. Roark may have the highest xFIP of the five starters, but his ERA, FIP and fWAR all point to a very strong performance so far. If nothing else, this just goes to show how good the depth is, considering Roark, Mahle and Declafani could all range from #3 to #5.
That brings us to Sonny Gray and Luis Castillo, two pitchers who will potentially be with the Reds for a long time. Currently projected as the 7th best #2 starter (Gray) and 5th best #1 starter (Castillo), the vision of a dominant top-line pair of starters doesn’t require nearly as much squinting now as it did last year. Gray could very well be rediscovering his All-Star form that landed him 3rd in the AL Cy Young voting in 2015, making his three-year extension potentially very exciting. Meanwhile, Castillo appears to be fully utilizing all of his incredible skills and on his way to a breakout season. Only time will tell if he can write his name in the Reds history books among former aces like Gary Nolan, Mario Soto, Jose Rijo and Johnny Cueto.