Baseball America has named Cincinnati Reds pitching coach Derek Johnson as their Major League Baseball Coach of the Year for 2019. It’s the players that often get talked about when it comes to free agency and adding to the team. But even last year when the Reds announced they had brought in Johnson as the new pitching coach, it just felt different.
And was it ever different. The 2018 Cincinnati Reds pitching staff struck out 7.86 hitters per 9-innings and posted a 4.65 ERA while posting 8.1 WAR (Fangraphs version). The Reds did a lot more to change the pitching staff than just bring in Derek Johnson, but he oversaw a huge change from year-to-year. In 2019 the Reds pitching staff struck out 9.71 hitters per 9-innings and posted an ERA of 4.18.
The jump in strikeouts per 9-innings pitched of 1.85 was easily the best in baseball. Only the Rangers (1.58) and the Rays (1.07) topped the +1.0 mark. Of course, some teams had a lot less room to climb than the Reds did, who ranked 23rd in the stat during the 2018 campaign. The drop in ERA of 0.47 was also the best in baseball from 2018 to 2019.
The team as a whole pitched a lot better. But it might be what the two starters at the top of the rotation did that sticks out the most. Luis Castillo and Sonny Gray were both named to the National League All-Star team. In 2018 Luis Castillo flashed the brilliance we saw during his rookie season, but he struggled to find it consistently, posting a 4.30 ERA in 169.2 innings for the Reds. But under Derek Johnson in 2019 that improved to a 3.40 ERA in 190.2 innings while striking out 226 hitters.
Sonny Gray pitched for the New York Yankees in 2018. And he struggled, posting a 4.90 ERA in just 130.1 innings. Johnson was a big reason the Reds were going after Gray last winter – he was his college coach at Vanderbilt. With a few changes in 2019, Sonny Gray powered a career best 158 ERA+, throwing 175.1 innings with a 2.87 ERA and 205 strikeouts. The year marked the first time in the Cincinnati Reds history that two pitchers topped 200 strikeouts in the same season.
Donnie Ecker hired by the San Francisco Giants
The Cincinnati Reds didn’t have all great news on Thursday. Late on Thursday night C. Trent Rosecrans from The Athletic reported that Donnie Ecker was taking the job as the San Francisco Giants hitting coach. Ecker has been the Reds assistant hitting coach in 2019. He’s the coach who suggested changes to Aristides Aquino about his swing in spring training this past season, and helped unlock the record breaking season for the slugger known in the batters box as The Punisher.
There’s no word yet on whether the Reds will replace Donnie Ecker with another assistant hitting coach. And if they do plan on that, who it would be is certainly unknown. But with Redsfest getting started tomorrow and everyone all in one place, it’s likely we could find out the answer to the first question this weekend.