It’s one of those numbers that I’ll wonder about occasionally during a normal baseball season. But for some reason during this year, I don’t think I’d thought about it once.
And then I read Doug Gray’s recap of Sunday’s Reds win over the Twins, which included a note that the Reds’ 2020 .212 team batting average was the lowest for any major league team in 110 years.
How could a team make the playoffs with a team batting average that low? But guess what? Four other teams that made the playoffs had team batting averages under .230 — the Cleveland Indians (.228), Oakland Athletics (.225), Milwaukee Brewers (.223), and the Chicago Cubs (.220).
Interestingly, the batting statistic that is now the “default sort” on MLB.com is OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage). If MLB makes it the default sort, that means they believe — and they believe that you believe — that is the most important batting statistic nowadays. No argument here. It’s just a big change from what those of us who have been following baseball for a lifetime are accustomed to.
Despite finishing last (30th) in batting average, the Reds were 19th in OPS at .715 — compared to the MLB-leading Atlanta Braves at .832.
All of these numbers made me curious. Just what was it that turned the Reds from disappointing dregs after 44 games (19-25) to a team capable of winning 12 of the final 16 against top competition? So I went to the data.
Chapter 1: The offense changed very little between the first 44 games and final 16
When a team is winning, everything looks better than it did when they were losing. But the actual numbers showed very little difference between the two segments of the 2020 season from a hitting standpoint.
This chart shows various team batting numbers over the first 44 games and the final 16 games:
Batting average? Only three points higher during the hot streak. Again, mostly very consistent between the first segment of the season and the second segment. The biggest differences were in a higher strikeout rate and in a higher BABIP (batting average on balls in play) rate. The two stats might be directly correlated. If you’re putting the ball into play less often, the ones that result in hits make up a larger percentage of the overall balls batted into play.
More team numbers:
These reflect the manner in which a ball was hit: GB (ground ball), FB (fly ball), LD (line drive), etc. The line drive rate was down 2.7% overall, which represents a decease of 12% from where it was in the first 44 games.. The hard hit rate dropped by 2.2% overall, which represented a 6.4% decrease from where it was in the first 44 games played.
Individually, there weren’t many numbers that would make you say “ooooh.” But the offensive leaders in the 16-game stretch were:
- Joey Votto (1.005 OPS in the final 16 compared to .719 in the first 44; 163 wRC+ in the final 16 compared to 93 in the first 44; five homers in the final 16 compared to 11 overall; 11 runs scored in the final segment compared to 32 overall; 14 walks compared to 37 overall).
- Shogo Akiyama (batting average .295 in the final 16, compared to overall .245 and .225 in the first segment; and .415 on-base percentage in the final 16 compared to .333 in the first 44).
- Mike Moustakas (13 RBI in the final 16 games compared to 27 overall).
These three helped to keep an anemic team offense at least on par with the first 44 games during the late-season streak. Without them, who knows how poorly this offense would have finished?
But, then, there is the pitching.
Chapter 2: An amazing and possibly historic pitching performance
Feast your eyes:
As a relative old-timer, the number that jumps out and SCREAMS at me is the ERA: 4.24 in the first 44 games, 2.98 over the final 16 — AS A TEAM. When you’re allowing 1.26 less runs per game over any time span, you’re going to win more than you did previously. Also, note these significant statistical improvements between the first segment and second segment of the season:
- Batting average against: .222 to .194
- OBP against: .313 to .274
- Slugging percentage against: .385 to .346
- wOBA (weighted on-base average): .305 to .272
I’m sure someone knows how to find this out, but has ANY MLB pitching staff EVER held opponents to less than a .200 batting average over a 16-game span?
Here is something historic that my Redleg Nation colleague Nick Kirby uncovered:
The Cincinnati Reds pitchers team 10.98 K/9 is the highest in the MLB since 1900
— ???? ????y (@Nicholaspkirby) September 28, 2020
But wait, there’s more:
Over the final 16 games, Reds pitchers left 11 percent more runners on base than they did in the first 44. WHIP (walks and hits per innings pitched) was down .23 per inning. Over the course of a nine-inning game, that’s an average of more than two fewer runners per game than the average of the previous 44 games. Over the course of the final 16 games, that’s 33 fewer baserunners.
In the final 16 games, Sal Romano, Raisel Iglesias, Archie Bradley, Trevor Bauer, Luis Castillo, Sonny Gray, Wade Miley and Michael Lorenzen all had WHIPs of 1.00 or lower. And 1.00 is considered excellent.
Strikeout percentage among the Reds pitching staff was up, while walk percentage was down.
What the numbers tell me is that this Reds team is riding a wave of pitching excellence that may be historic in nature. The offense didn’t wake up in the final 16 games, though they did score runs at a slightly higher rate despite basically hitting the same. The pitching just put all of the other teams’ offenses completely to sleep.
While the team offensive statistics did not improve significantly, many of the hits and homers in the final 16 games came in clutch situations at meaningful moments. I don’t have numbers to back up that argument. Just the eye test.
All of that being said, it was the pitching staff that made the difference in winning the final five series in a row against playoff teams (except four games against Pittsburgh). Cincinnati’s last nine games were essentially playoff games, and the pitching led them to a 6-3 record over that span.
The Reds begin postseason play Wednesday at Atlanta during the lunch hour. Of course, the objective is to win it all, but objective number one is to win the series opener and then capture the Wild Card series from the Braves. Interestingly, the majority of MLB.com’s panel of experts is picking the Reds to advance to the NLCS against Los Angeles.
No Cincinnati professional sports team has advanced in the playoffs since 1995 when the Reds beat the Dodgers in the Division Series. Twenty-five years later, a pitching staff on a possibly historic streak hopes to continue its lights-out performance of the past 16 games — this time against the best-hitting team of 2020. Cincinnati’s offense can really only be counted on for three to four runs per game tops, so it’s up to the pitching — pitching that gives Reds players and fans true hope that a championship is possible.