The Reds resurgent pitching staff has the second-best ERA and SIERA in the National League. They get whiffs at will, striking out the highest percentage of batters in the NL. After the last few years where young pitchers struggled and league castoffs threw plenty of innings, these facts seemed impossible.
The best pitchers typically excel in at least two of three of the following: striking out batters, minimizing walks, and inducing groundballs. Here are the five top starters so far in K-BB% ratio with ERA included:
- Gerrit Cole – 3.54
- Chris Sale – 3.49
- Max Scherzer – 2.62
- Justin Verlander – 2.59
- Matthew Boyd – 3.35
And the top 5 relievers:
- Josh Hader – 2.02
- Kirby Yates – 1.13
- Giovanny Gallegos – 2.76
- Brad Hand – 0.88
- Matt Barnes – 3.16
That’s quite the list. Strikeouts keep batters off the bases entirely, and groundballs don’t go for extra-base hits nearly as often as line drives or flyballs. They are also more likely to produce double plays than other batted ball types. The Reds K-BB% has gone from 11.6% in 2018 to 17.1% this season, and their GB% has gone up slightly and ranks 7th in all of baseball.
The Cincinnati baseballers did add some productive new arms in the offseason, spending prospect capital to improve a dreadful staff. But, the newcomers do not entirely explain the drastic improvement in outcomes for Reds pitchers. Finally, after waiting three or four years, some of the Reds younger pitchers have taken significant steps forward:
- Luis Castillo
- Tyler Mahle
- Robert Stephenson
- Michael Lorenzen
- Amir Garrett
Each of these hurlers has improved in at least two of the three areas previously discussed, leading to better results. Below is an overview of how the K%, BB%, and GB% have changed for each pitcher since last season with some information on how they’ve done it.
- K% +5.7%
- GB% +11%
- BB% +5.5%
In 2018, Castillo was actually quite good after an awful April. Still, he had noticeable declines in his K% and GB% from his stellar 15-start debut the year before. Batters also hit him considerably harder, leading to 28 homeruns allowed and one exasperated me.
However in 2019, Castillo has embarrassed hitters, striking out 29% of them and inducing a ton of groundballs (56.9% GB%). The changeup is savage, missing bats and breaking wills. But, Castillo’s third pitch, the slider, has seemingly taken a step forward, producing more groundballs and an .088 batting average against.
Castillo is living on the edges of the zone and often out of it. Matt Wilkes has already written about Castillo’s walk rate, which will eventually get him in trouble unless it improves. Other than that, Castillo looks like the ace the Reds need.
- K% +3.1%
- BB% -4.9%
- GB% +6.0%
Mahle has long been known as a control pitcher, a guy who won’t give out free passes easily. Strangely, in his rookie season, Mahle had a below average BB% (10.5%). The walks, combined with a hard hit% in the bottom 9% of the league, led to significant struggles in the second half of 2018.
This season, Mahle’s elite control has returned. He ranks 19th among all qualified pitchers in BB% (5.6%) and that’s after a four-walk game early in the season. Mahle still lets up some hard contact, but his K% has improved (24.6%), and batters are hitting more grounders (44.7%). Less contact and more groundballs goes a long way.
Mahle has gotten better results with his changeup, and while it remains a work in progress, the curveball has shown flashes. We will see if hitters adjust to him as they seemed to last season, but Mahle looks like he is progressing, having improved in all three key stats as a 24-year-old.
- K% +16.1%
- BB% -9.1%
- GB% +1.9%
No need to rehash Stephenson’s past issues in detail. He has always been a giver instead of a taker, providing free passes to first base to anyone and everyone who came to the plate. These mound indiscretions led to many extended stays in the crown jewel of the commonwealth: Louisville.
Armed with a new fastball grip, Stephenson has found some semblance of control, giving his plus-plus slider elite results. When swinging, batters have missed about 54% of the time, and Stephenson has 27 of his 35 strikeouts on the pitch. Stephenson generates more swings and misses than any other Red and has thrived at keeping the ball out of play.
One concern: Stephenson has walked batters in five of his last six plate appearances, and his BB% remains below average. We need a bigger sample to see how much he’s actually improve, but the early returns are promising for a former 1st round pick who seemed completely lost six months ago.
- K% +7.9%
- BB% -3.7%
- GB% -2.0%
Lorenzen had an excellent ERA last season (3.11), especially for a guy who made nine appearances of at least three innings. He was a pseudo starter at times. Below the surface, things were less appealing and sustainable. Lorenzen struck out only 15.7% of batters and walked almost 10%, both numbers well below league average. He struggled to miss bats, strange for a pitcher who can touch 99 and bench press a stadium.
To his credit, Lorenzen recognized the issue, saying after hurling a 5 2/3 shutout gem as a starter to end 2018 that he needed a put away pitch. Enter the changeup, a pitch Lorenzen rarely used the last three seasons. Right now, his changeup has almost the same swinging strike% as Castillo’s vaunted changeup. While not an apples to apples comparison because Castillo has to face batters multiple times, it shows just how effective Lorenzen’s changeup has become.
The strikeout rate has risen to almost 24% and his BB% is way down to 6.2%. Since May 1st, those numbers are an otherworldly 29% K% and 4.3% BB%. He’s missing more bats than he ever has, a drastic change from 2018. Armed with six different pitches, it would be interesting to see how Lorenzen would fair in longer outings.
- K% +7.2%
- BB% +1.4%
- GB% +10.6%
Garrett struck out plenty of batters last season, but in 2019, he’s striking out all of them. Almost. Over a third of the batters he’s faced have walked back to the dugout bewildered, discouraged, and full of regret. The main reason is Garrett’s slider, which has given him 38 of his 42 Ks so far.
Besides the increase in strikeouts, Garrett is getting a lot more groundballs than in past years, leading to only five extra-base hits allowed. He’s been the most dominant reliever on the staff and deserves serious All-Star consideration. Garrett still walks too many batters, and it bit him against the Astros this week. But the strikeouts and groundballs have limited the potential damage caused by the free passes.
Fairly or not, the Reds have been criticized for not developing pitching during this rebuild. So far this season, these five players have seemingly made important strides. Their growth has likely resulted from Derek Johnson, the increase in analytics provided to them, and more experience in the Major Leagues. While we need a bigger sample to see the extent of that growth, each of these guys looks improved over last season.
Every one of these pitchers is 27 and under. Along with Sonny Gray, They form a strong nucleus for the next few years as the Reds look to contend.