Everyone saw it. The Cincinnati Reds offense, even before setting a playoff record for futility, struggled during the 2020 season. There were plenty of reasons that can be pointed to. Their BABIP was historically low (more on this later). The team finished last in the league in batting average as a result of that. It was that lack of hits leading to the team relying on home runs to produce runs at a rate higher than any other team in baseball.
One can argue that the historically low BABIP was directly responsible for the low batting average and the high reliance on homers to score (if you aren’t getting hits because of a low BABIP it’s going to decrease the chances to score on non-homers). There are a lot of theories that people have put out there about why the Reds BABIP was so low – though most of them don’t hold much water. Every team faces the shift. Every team hits into the shift – a lot. Cincinnati didn’t stand out in how often they pulled the ball. They didn’t have some outlier batted ball profile compared to any other team. Weird things happen in 60 game stretches. Combine that with perhaps a team that had some flaws, and you get what you got.
With all of that said, it was worth asking Dick Williams whether or not the team would look at possibly changing their offensive philosophy moving forward given how things worked out in 2020.
“I don’t think anybody is enamored with the fact that this game has evolved to the three true outcomes – it’s not just the Reds, obviously, it’s league wide phenomenon,” said Williams. “We may have been at the extremes of some of those categories. At the end of the day you’re trying to get to the post season, you’re trying to win and beat the other teams. And you got to prevent runs, you’ve got to score runs. And we did it – we did it to get into the post season. Some days that was through the long ball. All of us would like to see a lot more line drives, a lot more balls in play, a lot more action, a lot more movement on the bases. The way we built our team this year, we knew we were investing heavily in pitching and the offense we were able to acquire on the free agent market blended with what we had was probably going to be more of a power team, more of a station to station – we don’t have a lot of sprinters on this team. There’s not a lot of base stealing, hit-and-run type of action that you’re going to see. But I think we will have the coaching staff looking, reevaluating their messaging to the players, their approach to the players because at the end of the day we want those guys to get more hits. We do need to figure out a way to get those guys where they are – we’ve seen it in the past. We’ve seen it in their track records. It will definitely be a focus.”
Williams says that the Reds may have been at the extremes of the three-true-outcomes. They really weren’t, though. The Reds did finish 2nd in baseball in walk rate, trailing just the New York Yankees. Cincinnati also hit plenty of home runs – 90 of them – and finished 7th in baseball (but 28 behind the Dodgers). The Reds also struck out plenty – their 25.2% strikeout rate was 7th most in baseball. But that’s not at the extremes in any scenario.
Where the Reds were at was in BABIP, where they finished at .245, 21 points worse than the 29th place Texas Rangers. Since 1975 the 2020 Reds are the only team to finish below .250 in team BABIP. Only five teams, out of 1294, finished below .260. Strange enough, but also likely of importance, three of the bottom 28 teams out of those 1294 teams played in the 2020 season (Rangers at .266 and the Pirates at .268). That absolutely has to improve next season. There are zero questions about it.
The question is, how to go about it. Was it all merely bad luck? Possible – yes. Plausible? Also yes. But that doesn’t mean that’s what it all was. It’s also possible that the Cincinnati Reds found that magic doughnut hole in BABIP that saw multiple different things they were doing lead to an overall approach that made their .245 BABIP their “true skillset” rather than bad luck and random variance revealing it’s ugly head in a small sample size of just 60 games.
The outside of baseball world can get their hands on a lot of information today. Thanks to sites like Baseball Savant, Fangraphs, and others – fans, journalists, or anyone else can grab all kinds of batted ball data that will include launch angles, exit velocity, hit distances, hit types, where the ball landed, etc. That’s information that even a decade ago teams would have killed for, and now you can go grab it with for any player in the league in the span of about three minutes if you know what you are doing.
But for as much information that we can get – the teams are getting access to more information. What the teams can potentially do with that information in determining more specific defensive tendencies, as well as reasons as to why something happened the way that it did. If Cincinnati did have a reason as to why their BABIP was among the worst in the entire history of baseball that can’t be chalked up to bad luck and random variance in a small sample size, hopefully their analytics crew and coaching staff can figure it out in the offseason and come up with a design (both through coaching as well as strategy) to correct it.