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.

39 Responses

  1. Klugo

    Personally, I think the approach thing lies more with the individual player. And habits are hard to break. I think it’ll be more of a personnel balance thing. There is obviously going to be an opening at SS. Change at any other position will require some wheelin n dealin.

  2. CFD3000

    i suspect it’s not easy to just decide to start spraying the ball to all fields, but to the extent that’s possible I hope the Reds will make that more of a priority in 2021. I know the shift is not entirely to blame, but it makes sense that it’s easier to get hits if there are fewer defenders where you hit it. Akiyama, Senzel, Winker, Votto and Castellanos are all naturally capable of using the whole field. I hope they do. And Votto in particular will need to be the second half hitter from this year and not the ineffective, crouching, choking up hitter from the first half. Even without major lineup changes – after adding Garcia at shortstop and Stephenson at catcher – the 2021 Reds should be a good offensive team. If they are, it will be a good year. If not, a long one. How many days until pitchers and catchers report?

    • Klugo

      I would argue that the reason Votto went to the crouching choke-up was to adapt his game as he got older from a power guy to a guy that can hit against shifts. So, I think I see where he was trying to go with that. He’s been trying to stay ahead of the curves- age and defensive approaches to him. To me, this goes to show just how hard it is to make that adjustment to your approach at the plate- even for a demi-god like Votto.

  3. TR

    I doubt that much will change offensively unless key organizational people at the top are replaced. Few players who have reached the major leagues are going to change their hitting philosophy. After all, they play half their games at GABP.

  4. Mark Moore

    It’s definitely a puzzle that needs to be worked out. Coaching staff (which apparently won’t change) and players. Other teams have made adjustments and shown results. I realize some of our players will always be the 3-outcome crowd, but even there we can see more discipline and selection at the plate.

    No answers from me. If I had them I’d be working in baseball 🙂

    I’m thinking Castellanos will be back. He didn’t have the kind of year, freaky short though it was, that warrants anybody opening the vault for him. Bauer is gone, but I think our pitching core will be OK.

    The shift is the shift. We beat it sometimes, but not consistently. As Jimmy Duggan (Tom Hanks) said to Evelyn Gardner about missing the cutoff man, “That’s something I’d like to see you work on before next season.”

    Thanks again for keeping us informed, entertained, and as sane as possible, Doug.


  5. Bred

    It seems like they need a guy like Boddy to install a system wide hitting philosophy. I read Boddy’s Twitter, and he often has tweets about hitting clinics. Maybe Diveline would be helpful.
    The Reds hire and fire hitting coaches frequently. Does a hitting coach even matter at the big league level? Last year Senzel tried to change his approach mid season. Whose idea was that?
    By the time a player reaches the show, is he going to change what got him there? I doubt it.
    The Red’s players are mostly 3 player outcome hitters. Maybe make it 4 outcome if weak ground balls are thrown into the mix. Until the lineup changes, I doubt the outcome next year will be much different. But spring brings new hope we will get them this year.

  6. Mark Moore

    And Dick Williams just resigned … 😮

  7. Jimbo44 CN

    Wow. Now what does this mean? I have no idea but a new broom sweeps clean. We will see.

    • Bill J

      I’m afraid it won’t be a new broom, if it’s like we’ve seen in the past.

  8. realist

    Doug you are awesome and I love your writing and enthusiasm for baseball. It just seems odd that with all of the metrics used in baseball that we are talking about luck and BABIP. Occam’s razor state when there are two explanations that account for all the facts, the simpler one is more likely to be correct. Here is what I believe: Joey Votto at this stage of his career is a poor hitter with a good eye. Dick Williams and David Bell were hired and are now still currently employed by the Reds because their Dad’s affiliation with the Reds. Alan Zinter has a terrible track record as a hitting coach. The Reds haven’t won a playoff series in 25 years, my 15 year old son is a Dodger’s fan because of the terrible baseball that has been played in Cincinnati for most years during the 25 year run of mediocrity. Joey Votto is right this team is a F##*ng nightmare, for the fans of the team that is.

  9. Nkr

    Williams stepping down is a step in the right direction.

  10. DataDumpster

    Nice, balanced article, Doug. I’ve always been critical of the low BABIP factor as very meaningful but only in the likelihood that it indicates that the batters this year were a little less prepared than the pitchers because of the pandemic. I think many predicted it would swing the other way but it didn’t and low BABIP helped illuminate this (of course “regular” BA dropped quite a bit as well). I also add that the Reds low BABIP was due to being less prepared than most and also being severely unbalanced in their approach to traditional base runner rather than long ball dynamics.

    We had precious few players with the skill set to hit for average; Shogo (when he was used), JV (still may be able if he gets benched more often), Winker (before changing his approach), and SS Jose Iglesias who hit about .370 this year (oops…we let him go, forgot). We had a lot of young guys get a chance but they were mostly blasters too (or tried to be).

    As far as the future, instead of further studying analytics, why don’t we cater to the video-centric generation with some old game tapes of people of pre-analytic vintage like Tony Gwynn, Wade Boggs or Rod Carew. Don’t know if these kinds of tapes are readily available but we used to have a Reds guy who was pretty good controlling the bat…Pete Rose (tapes but probably not him should be readily available). As far as a new approach, I have listened/watched for over 200 games now from a team that had very good hitting in 2018 but now is awfully bad because of excess use of analytics, lack of baseball strategy, and poor player management.

    The only hope is that the horrific playoff performance will be a stark reminder of how the majority of this season went and how it was managed. David Bell is clueless and admits as such “they have worked so hard, tried every possible approach to improve their hitting, we believe in our team, trust the process, etc.” You never get what this approach or adjustments are but the results rarely come.

    The best hope would be a new management regime. In this weak division with a very solid pitching staff (even w/o Bauer), a shored up catcher/shortstop opportunity and different hitting philosophy, there should be some good name managers available to the Reds for a good turnaround opportunity for a starving fanbase.

    Let David Bell stay with the team and try his minor league player development stuff that he was hired to do for SF in 2018 but gave up upon receiving this gift job. He can also get some practice in the minor league management ranks if the need arises. Good luck to him. Perhaps he can be utilized in other ways to prove that he is not just “long on resume but short on accomplishments.”

    • Droslovinia

      Interesting response. I love how you obliquely pointed out that sending the player with your highest BA packing in favor of someone who hit less but had more homers proved unhelpful, but I’m sure Iglesias’ new team appreciated the help. Now if the Reds can just get the other teams to buy into the “close your eyes and swing real hard” school of hitting, they’ll be back in the thick of things!

  11. Rednat

    i just think the shift has basically phased out the type of player the reds have been enamored with since the turn of the century. big left handed bats that pull the ball to the right side. what value do guys like Votto, Winker, Barnhart, Casey, Hatteberg, etc etc have in today’s game. hard hit balls to the right side just dont create the hits that they once did. Shogo’s approach was starting to work and we need more guys like him that can hit the ball ON THE GROUND to the left side.

    it is funny how the game has changed. Right handed bats are the new left handed bats in baseball. the good news is our young guys , Senzel ,Aquino, Garcia, Stephenson are all right handed bats at least.

  12. Dean

    I’m wondering about the BIP part of the BABIP. I wonder where the Reds rank on putting balls in play.

    • Doug Gray

      The Reds were dead last on “balls in play”, which is simply at-bats minus home runs, minus strikeouts, plus sac flies.

      The Reds had 1225 BIP.The Cardinals, Brewers, Tigers, and Cubs were all also under 1300 for the season. Five more teams were also under 1350 for the season. Arizona was the lone team over 1500, at 1501.

      The lower your BIP, the more luck and random variance can swing the numbers.

      • RojoBenjy

        If all the BIP are right into the shift, how can that be entirely bad luck?

      • Doug Gray

        Every team is shifted on, on almost every play.

        Here’s the BABIP for the Top 6 teams in 2020 in terms of pull rate:
        .300, .273, .282, .309, .280, .311.

        The Reds were tied for 7th in pull rate in baseball. So it’s tough to say “they pulled the ball into the shift and that’s why their BABIP sucked” when the teams that all pulled the ball more had significantly higher BABIP.

      • Dean

        Thanks for finding those numbers. So it seems that if they are dead last in BIP, that would be the first philosophical shift that needs to happen in their approach to batting. Put more balls in play. Maybe the more balls they put in play the less luck will play a role?

      • RojoBenjy

        Doug, does that assume that the shift is always on the pull side? If so then the logic holds. I’m not really arguing just trying to get a better idea.

      • Swayback8

        I agree Rojo, hitting into the shift consistently does not suggest luck to me, it suggests approach. I understand the shift is used on all teams, but if you are saying that this team hit into it the 7th most times in baseball, I would say that is pretty drastic.

        I am curious how much more Castellanos pulled the ball this year compared to previous years, especially after he went on the tear. Just seemed like his approach changed.

      • Doug Gray

        Castellanos pulled the ball significantly less this year than ever before. He went up the middle more than ever before.

        As to the “the Reds hit into the shift a lot” thing – again – 6 teams pulled the ball more than the Reds and all had significantly higher BABIP’s, including three that were higher than the league average BABIP. So the argument that “you hit into the shift a lot” is why your BABIP was low just does not hold up as the causation.

      • Swayback8

        6 out of 30. That means 23 teams were better than them at hitting to the opposite field. That is not a moot point.

      • Doug Gray

        It is when the difference is “worst ever” and “half of those teams were better than league average”. If the point is that they earned the worst ever BABIP by not going to the opposite field, then teams who went to the opposite field even less would also be very low on the BABIP scale. But they weren’t.

      • Doug Gray

        Now, if you want to say that is *some of it*, we can have that conversation. But there was likely a lot more to why the Reds had the worst BABIP in 50 years than “they pulled the ball into the shift a lot”, because we’d see the other teams that pulled the ball a lot fall down the line, too – and we simply didn’t see that to the same extent that we saw it with the Reds.

      • Swayback8

        So you’re saying they wouldn’t have a better BABIP if they hit the ball to the opposite field?

      • Doug Gray

        What I’m saying is that just citing “they pulled the ball a lot” does not add up as to the reason their BABIP was historically low.

      • Swayback8

        I’m not saying that there pull rate is the soul factor, but to pretend that it is not a factor seems narrow sited to me. The point I’ve always tried to make is that they need to use different approaches in every at bat. Hall of Farmers will say in interviews that they went an at bat with differing approaches depending on the situation.

      • Dean

        It seems that pull or opposite field aren’t the issue so much as putting the ball in play at all. Is it too simplistic to say that if you hit the ball into play more, no matter if it’s pulled or oppo, you’ll get more hits? There were times when it seemed they were leading the league in called third strikes.

  13. JB

    I think the first thing they need to figure out is the outfield. Castellanos is the only guy really who consistently played every game. Position players need to be playing every day to get comfortable at the plate and in the field. They went into the season with seemed like 200 outfielders and Bell wanted to play everyone of them every game. Castellanos,Winker,Senzel, Akiyama,Goodwin and Aquino. They need two guys who can consistently play ever game besides Castellanos.

    • Jimbo44 CN

      Castellanos was the only one to get almost all of his playing time in the outfield. He is a good hitter, but mediocre outfielder. Senzel got some playing time when he wasnt out, Shogo started the year platooning with what seemed like everybody, Aquino went up and down and up and down and finally back up, he should have gotten more playing time and should not have been treated like that. Has to just destroy your confidence. Goodwin I am not sold on, sorry, I just think he’s another average outfielder, and not a starter. Winker, streaky hitter, mediocre outfielder. I think Senzel should go to second, Akiyama in CF, Aquino in Left, Castellanos in right, and Moustakous at first, if the DH is around next year. Winker and Votto could then DH.

      • Melvin

        I like your outfield lineup. That’s what I was thinking. Leave em there and let them play. I keep on thinking that Senzel and Winker, when it comes to value, will keep steadily decreasing. I’m of the mindset to trade them while they still have decent value left. The two together in a package could potentially bring a pretty good return right now but maybe not for long.

      • RojoBenjy

        Shogo platooning was a crime against the baseball gods and they avenged themselves

  14. Steve Schoenbaechler

    Will they? They better!

  15. Still a Red

    Well, statistically speaking, it would be hard to judge the lineup based on 60 games. That said, interestingly enough, all of the NL Central teams were in the bottom third in BABIP…Cards 9, Brewers 11, Cubs 13, Pirates 14, Reds 15. Also, the NL Central had the best pitching (using MLB stats…no BAIBP for pitching but using BA for pitching)…Reds (.215) second only to Dodgers, Cards 3rd (.216), Brewers 4th (.229), Cubs 5th (.233), and Pirates 7th (.235). Given that the Central played 2/3 of their games against each other…these numbers have some relevance and can only compare to AL Central. So maybe the Reds were just up against some really good pitching…OR…all of the Central hitters are really bad!

    • Still a Red

      Al central pitching: Indians 1st (.223), Sox 2nd (.226), Twins 3rd (.232), Royals 12th (.254),Tigers 14th (.265). So three of them placed 1,2,3…just the Tigers and Royals had ‘bad’ pitching…and of course the Reds didn’t do so good against them, but they did play those two teams relatively early. Interestingly, these teams hit for BABIP ranked 2,3,6,9, and 12 (all over .280, except Indians at .277)

  16. Still a Red

    Al central pitching: Indians 1st (.223), Sox 2nd (.226), Twins 3rd (.232), Royals 12th (.254),Tigers 14th (.265). So three of them placed 1,2,3…just the Tigers and Royals had ‘bad’ pitching…and of course the Reds didn’t do so good against them, but they did play those two teams relatively early. Interestingly, these teams hit for BABIP ranked 2,3,6,9, and 12 (all over .280, except Indians at .277)