“When I was a boy, I dreamed of Philip Marlowe,
Took me as his partner, took me as his friend,
Gave me his fedora, gave me shotgun fever,
Took me as his partner, ‘til the end” — Burton Cummings
According to Baseball Reference, the breeze was a light six miles per hour and from an unknown direction that day. It was the first post-season start of Johnny Cueto’s career. Facing Cole Hamels, Johnny Beisbol stood bravely at the ramparts, taking a solo arrow from the bow of Chase Utley, the only earned run in five innings of work. Hamels would surrender nothing for nine, however, and Cueto would take the loss, his post-season history with the Reds—like the wind that day—headed in an unknown direction.
Now, we know how and where the road turned for Cueto, the twist and turns that—like his Luis Tiant-like delivery—took him in one direction, then another. Two years further down that road, he would walk off the hill in San Francisco, wounded after all of 7 pitches. He would spend much of 2013 fighting injury, pitching 61 innings, rushing back as September drew to a close, readying himself for a Wild Card game in Pittsburgh. He wasn’t the pitcher he would become a year later in 2014, when he shouldered the load of a team ravaged by injury, pitching a career-high 244 innings. No. In this, his last October appearance in red, he came into PNC Park without his armor, the lasting image a baseball, slipping, as if in slow motion from his hands, quietly landing on the soft earth that was the mound, amid the roar of the Pirate plebeians.
Cueto, Mat Latos, Homer Bailey, Bronson Arroyo and Mike Leake collectively missed zero starts in 2012. In 2013, I remember National League managers being asked to name their quintessential starting pitchers 1-5. At the top of their rotation was Clayton Kershaw. They named Latos their ideal #2 and Homer Bailey their #3. It’s quite a pitching staff when Mike Leake is your #5.
The Baseball Gods would answer the 2012 season, calling for recompense. When Homer was healthy, Latos would be pitching with an abdominal strain, elbow and knee surgery ruining his 2014. While Cueto was pitching brilliantly, Bailey would succumb to a flexor mass injury late in 2014, eventually succumbing to the Tommy John flu. Those three would never be healthy again at the same time. For all the pitching they had, in the end they didn’t have enough at the very moments they so desperately needed it.
When I was a boy, I believed in the might and the hammer of offense above all else. And why not? Each summer day, the only thing hotter than the artificial playing surface at Riverfront Stadium was the lumber the Great Eight brandished, often beating rivals into submission well before 9 innings had passed. A voyage back to 1970, 1972 and 1973 via rows and rows of numbers and Wins Above Replacement tells us now what my youthful eyes told me every summer and fall: no matter who took the hill for the Reds, they would end the day victorious because they would simply push more runs across the plate due to the sheer will of the everyday eight and their almost mythical bats.
But Jim Palmer, Mike Cuellar and Dave McNally would prove too much starting pitching for the Reds in the 1970 World Series; and in ’72, Catfish Hunter, Ken Holtzman and a bullpen led by Rollie Fingers once again stymied the powerful Machine. 1973 would be particularly painful as the New York Mets brought a pedestrian 82-win team into a 5-game playoff series against the Reds. But Cincinnati, with their poor starting pitching, were no match for Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman and John Matlack, who held the Reds to a paltry 8 runs in 5 games, sending a team that won 99 games home in shocking fashion.
When I was a boy, I marked down the end of each season on my mental scorecard to bad luck, or those vengeful baseball gods. I was too young to understand opportunity cost, but I sure understood opportunity lost. If only home plate umpire Ken Burkhart hadn’t blown that out call at home on Bernie Carbo in Game 1. If only those big city imposters from New York had to face my Big Red Machine for 7 games instead of 5. If only a journeyman catcher in tacky white shoes named Tenace hadn’t stumbled into a hall of fame week that mournful October of 1972 at the expense of my clean-shaven boys.
I know better now. I know that just because you can split a game into two halves, it doesn’t mean they are equal. Human nature wants to believe that in sport, offense and defense are just two sides of the same coin; a 50/50 proposition. It’s easy. It’s a clean proposition. But, they are not.
Brad Pitt gave a wholesome face and earnest voice to Billy Beane, bringing analytics to the masses in the form of on base percentage with a side of popcorn. But, the run prevention wing of analytics struck back. Shifts and pitch framing were just the beginning. Platoon advantages would wane as relievers matched up batter to batter. Long after the last reel had unspooled, we would discover that pitchers and run prevention in general have one decided advantage. They have the rules of the game in their favor.
Pull up a barstool on any given Sunday in November and you’ll hear the NFL fan next to you drop some age old wisdom: defense wins championships. There’s both truth and fallacy in that old trope. The rules of the game in fact favor the offense. It’s why teams march down the field without completing a pass. It’s why Tom Brady will play until he’s 50. You can’t touch the quarterback in today’s NFL and every receiver knows how to draw a flag downfield on a pass he had no intention of catching. Still, football has always been defined by defense and hitting. That’s been the culture of the game. Everybody remembers the Steel Curtain, the Doomsday Defense, the Orange Crush Defense, the Sack Exchange, the Fearsome Foursome. Nobody gives offenses memorable names. There are plenty of examples of defense carrying the day because that’s how the tenants of the game thought it should be played. So, they hired the people who preached and carried out that philosophy. Sure, there were offensive minds, but they were few and far between; and straying from the herd has always been bad for job security.
All that is changing. Head coaches with a degree in defense are disappearing. More and more, analytics are convincing owners that offensive minds are best suited to leading football teams because the rules favor that side of the coin.
For its part, baseball has velocity. Pitcher velocity. Velocity eats offense. Batters change their launch angle and teams retaliate by teaching their pitchers to pitch up in the zone. Batters feast on pitchers the third time through the lineup, so teams bring in relievers early, relievers throwing with max effort before handing off the ball to the next man up. Longer-limbed pitchers like Aroldis Chapman and Amir Garrett shrink the diamond’s dimensions, the 60 feet, 6 inches reality broken, exploiting what is now known as “perceived velocity” to further handcuff hitters.
Opener use is only rising, as the run prevention side recognizes the first inning is the most potent for offenses. Strikeouts have risen in every season since 2007. It’s the first time a major stat has gone up unabated for 13 straight years. Why? Pitchers have the hammer and hitters know it. Hitters are countering by selling out for the long ball because they know that sequencing hits together to plate runs has become a losing proposition, especially in the post-season.
The conventional wisdom is that the Reds #GotThePitching. The development of Luis Castillo, the rebirth of Sonny Gray, and the acquisition of analytic wonderkid Trevor Bauer have turned eyes to the newest object in need of repair: an underachieving offense.
All the talk now centers on deficiencies at shortstop and catcher, two positions that are defense-first positions. Talk revolves around Didi Gregorius and Yasmani Grandal because there’s a dearth of available players at those positions. As such, the overpay—like the rent—will be high. Last year, Grandal would have been fine on a one-year contract, but as his age …
Josh VanMeter and Aristides Aquino are huge question marks. Playing them every day for the remainder of the season won’t tell the Reds what they need to know. It will take several hundred at bats to discover if they can handle the adjustments pitchers will throw at them; and in Aquino’s case, pitchers will come at him like Michael Corleone came at Moe Green.
The Reds could make a play for Marcell Ozuna to bolster the offense, but ultimately, they will need Winker, Votto and Suarez to bounce back from sub-standard seasons and Nick Senzel to continue to improve.
The words ALL IN have reappeared in the Reds’ lexicon. If the trade of the top prospect for one year of Trevor Bauer is the bat signal announcing the Reds are going for it, then they should go after Gerritt Cole. Cole is the biggest impact free agent of the off-season. There is no equivalent on the offensive side of the ledger, no single player that can improve the Reds’ fortunes like Cole can.
There are all kinds of ways to convince yourself that Cole would never come to Cincinnati. But they should nevertheless offer him more money than any other team and force him to turn down the highest offer to go somewhere else. The Reds have the money. The payroll is lean. ALL IN shouldn’t mean the payroll increases merely to league average. ALL IN should mean a payroll in the top ten in baseball—$160-170M. The ballpark shouldn’t matter to Cole, as, at 29 years of age, he would be signing a career contract, 6 or 7 years in length. Max Scherzer got 7 years at $210M, covering his age-seasons 30-36. Zack Greinke? 6 years, 206.5M, covering age 32-37. Jon Lester? 6 years, $155M, covering age 31-36. Yu Darvish? 6 years, $126M, covering age 31-36.
The Reds have that kind of money. What would a Gerritt Cole signing mean for the Reds?
It would set the Reds pitching up for the foreseeable future. As Sonny Gray’s contract expires, Hunter Greene will be poised to take his place. The Reds could now conceivably match up with anyone in a 7 game series. With Cole in the fold, Bauer could be traded for prospects to replenish the farm system or an outfielder to improve the offense. They could even face down injury and those baseball gods who so often have written a different post-season script for Cincinnati’s best.
If you think the Reds have enough pitching now, you need to not only learn the lessons of Cueto, Latos and Co., you need to heed the example of the Houston Astros. The 2019 Astros offense is not only the best in baseball this season, they are bordering on being historically great:
At the trade deadline, this is what the Astros top three starters looked like:
Yet unbelievably, the Astros went out and traded for Zack Grenke. This is the current environment in baseball. No matter how swaggy the offense may be, the Astros know they have to contend with the Nationals’ Scherzer, Strasburg and Corbin; and/or the Dodgers’ Ryu, Buehler and Kershaw; and/or the Mets’ deGrom and Syndergaard.
Erstwhile Fangraphs managing editor Dave Cameron once said:
“Obviously your SS and 1B won’t be exactly the same, but you can have relatively good glove/average bat players everywhere and be fine if the pitching and defense are good enough.”
Cameron also broke down the discrete parts of the game thusly: 40% pitching, 35% hitting, 20% defense, 5% baserunning. That’s a 60-40 split between run creation and run prevention. But, I would posit the recent increased advantage in pitching skews the advantage to run prevention even more.
Whether the Reds intend to cash in the farm system for a two or three year run—or instead attempt to build a young and sustainable organization that competes seemingly every year like the Cardinals do—they will have to confront the reality that the Dodgers and Astros are not going away. That while the Nationals’ window may be closing, the Braves’ window is opening and the Phillies will continue to spend “stupid” money and both will almost certainly spend it on pitching.
When I was a boy, I believed in lucky jerseys that never saw the washing machine and clutch hitting that would somehow find a way. I’ve put all those things away now. Now, I just want the pitching. All of it.