For many, the two most memorable days Homer Bailey ever spent on the bump for the Cincinnati Reds were a September night at PNC Park in 2012 and a July evening 10 months later at Great American Ballpark. And yet, his greatest day was likely sandwiched in between, on a cool October afternoon in 2012 against the San Francisco Giants in the cauldron of the NLDS. Those first five no-hit innings and Bailey’s final line that day: 7 innings, 1 hit, 1 earned run, 1 walk, and 10 strikeouts, was the defining moment of his tenure as a Red. It was a gutty performance destined to drive the final nail in the sorry narrative that was the Reds’ postseason series victory drought, one that stretched back to 1995. As the post-season pitching matchups were being set, I distinctly remember Homer saying he was more comfortable pitching away from GABP, so his performance that day on the river burnished the memory all the more for me.

In the end, what would happen in the 10th inning rendered Homer’s day a footnote in Reds’ history. The ever-dependable Scott Rolen would misplay a ground ball, allowing the go-ahead run to cross the plate, and unbeknownst to everyone, signal the beginning of the end of the 2012 season for the Reds.

Game 5 is notorious for many reasons, most of which centered around the fifth inning, when Mat Latos, he of the famous temper, the kind that left him looking like a petulant, over-sugared child on the mound, watched rookie shortstop Zack Cozart bobble an easy chopper, allowing the game’s first run to score from third. Latos, hereafter known as Mat Vesuvius, had already gone down on one knee to get out of the way of Cozart’s throw home, but then chose to accentuate his inner strife by dramatically holding the pose, laying one arm over the other and dropping his head as if to say, “Why is this happening to me?”

There are many reasons the Reds failed to advance past the 2012 NLDS, not the least of which was Johnny Cueto’s soul-crushing oblique injury that occurred before the last strains of the National Anthem had drifted out over the bay. Of course, Dusty Baker’s laissez-faire approach to the series in general added its own special patina to the proceedings. Thanks for that, Dusty.

But those two errors at critical moments stuck with me, and maybe they did with you, too. Why? Because defense is expected. When extra outs are given, it feels as if the fabric of the game is being ripped. “Four outs? That’s certainly not how the game is played.”

Now that ownership has decided that shortstop is a non-essential, to instead let Derek Johnson’s boys carry the load and hope last season’s free agent haul can find their 2019 feet, it might be time to help out the pitching staff and improve a defense behind Sonny Gray, Luis Castillo, and Co. that lately—well, let’s just say it—has been less than stellar.

Our Redlegs have taken a particular fondness for playing players out-of-position of late. They seem to have fallen in love with the Ben Zobrist Approach, players who can fill multiple roles, utility men supreme.

When the Reds announced Eugenio Suárez had become the latest contestant on Cincinnati’s top-rated show, WHO WANTS TO PLAY SHORTSTOP?, I already had, like the cautious, timid chess player I am, moved Geno off his position at third. But where? Pushing him up one square to left field was a non-starter. Jesse Winker and to a lesser extent Shogo Akiyama already owned that space, and the outfield, as overcrowded as Thanksgiving at O’Hare, couldn’t take another visitor.

In my opinion, two things need to be accomplished straight away: (1) improve the defense as best as possible with the current roster; and (2) get Nick Senzel to the infield where he belongs.

Senzel epitomizes the new trend toward Zobristing the game. Some would suggest his value is increased by his ability to play multiple positions. In reality, Nick has been sentenced to servitude in centerfield because—not unlike ownership’s predicament at shortstop—they are devoid of a true centerfielder, and Senzel’s considerable athletic ability has made him the obvious stopgap solution. Likewise, Mike Moustakas, third baseman by trade, has been shuttled out of position to second because a more valuable tenant resides on the corner.

Moving Suárez to short and settling Moustakas into his more natural position at third begins to solve multiple problems. Most importantly, moving Senzel to the keystone improves the infield defense and may even aid Suárez in transitioning to a position he’s never going to be more than adequate playing. Sliding Akiyama into centerfield gets him more at-bats without sacrificing too much of Senzel’s defensive abilities there. And, with the news that Aristides Aquino is out of options, perhaps the case can be made that Infield Nick would mean more room for Outfield Aquino?

Shoehorning players out of position to get more offense into the lineup comes with its own set of drawbacks. No one enjoys the nostalgia of Pete Rose’s generous offer to play third to make room for George Foster more than I. But, this is not the 1970’s, Linda Ronstadt posters no longer adorn my bedroom walls, and well, you get the picture.

Unfortunately, this has all seemed to revolve not around Senzel, but Jonathan India. The Florida Gator has chomped spring training pitching so far. One gets the feeling the Reds are making these moves all with intentions of potentially installing India at second base. It feels like a mistake.

Forget that spring training at-bats are suspect for a moment. This is about Senzel.

Jeebus, people. The first-round reward for all that rebuild suffering was the overall #2 pick out of Tennessee. And make no mistake, the Reds have had their way with him, using the service time rules to the organization’s advantage. They’ve shoved him out of position. They talked him into revamping his swing. They’ve used him, then misused him. If the Reds value Nick—and they should—if they wish to keep him in the fold when the time comes to sign him long term—and it says here they should—they need to start doing right by Nick Senzel. That starts by moving him to the infield dirt where he belongs.

Yes, he’s the best centerfielder the Reds currently have, and excuse the double-negative, that’s not nothing. But, he’s more comfortable at second. He improves the infield defense. He has a better chance of staying healthy at second base. And maybe if the Reds can muster an honest contract offer to their best young everyday player, Nick can become the cornerstone to replace the soon to depart Votto.

I have no metrics to back this up, but if players are free from the angst and extra work of preparing to play out of position, might that free them to concentrate on their hitting? Might these moves not just improve the defense behind this valuable pitching staff, but also have the potential to make the offense more potent?

If listening to Reds fans has taught me anything, it’s that we don’t value defense. It’s a shame because people are working harder than ever before to help us understand the value of catching the baseball, then turning that skill into outs. Your dad didn’t value defense because all he had to go on were the vagaries of the official scorer and little else. And This Week In Baseball’s Mel Allen shoveled batting average and RBI with every Saturday morning bowl of Wheaties.

Offense has always ruled the day. It’s visual. It’s visceral. It’s valuable for its ease of measure. Defense? Not so much. In some ways, the new metrics have created a more polarizing view of the game. Defensive Runs Saved? Ultimate Zone Rating? Outs Above Average? They measure the same ground from different angles and at different temperatures. Like political parties, they often agree on very little. Because defense is difficult to measure, we on the other side of the rail throw up our hands and tend to undervalue it. For us, a run saved is never equal to a run scored. Cincy Shirts won’t be printing t-shirts that say “Chicks dig the force out” anytime soon.

A couple of years ago, Joey Votto hit a home run out in Oakland that was turned into an out by a beautiful leaping catch over the fence. A journeyman pitcher named Mike Fiers wielding a sparkling 6.81 ERA was further aided by an extraordinary diving catch by Jurickson Profar, both of which helped seal an improbable no-hitter. The Reds went on to lose 2-0. How much was that defensive worth that night? You don’t need an SQL table to figure it out.

It’s become fashionable to cite The Shift and the Three True Outcomes as reasons why defense doesn’t matter anymore. And maybe that’s true, assuming your boys can out-slug the competition night-after-night and your back of the rotation pitchers can miss bats each time their turn comes up. But, sooner or later in a game, even your swing-and-miss #1 starter will need the boys to turn a crucial double-play to keep the game in hand. Said Rose heading into the 1976 season: “Our defense is spectacular and that’s what wins a lot of games for us.” But, by all means, let’s ignore the lessons of the Big Red Machine era, the yellowed newsprint, the faded black and white view of the game it left behind. That was decades ago. It might as well have not happened. Go ahead, ignore defense. Cram your best hitters into the lineup card with little consideration for the fielding consequences. Just get ready for the inclement leather on the horizon.

It’s difficult to know how the Reds value defense. Every team has their own internal metrics. According to Eno Sarris, Outs Above Average said that Freddy Galvis was a better defensive shortstop than Francisco Lindor. We all know the Reds hired Freddy because he was cheap, but did we also just dismiss him and his mediocre bat without a second thought to his contributions with the glove? Or was all this just The Shift. Can a team simply shift its way out of bad glovework and slow-footed players? Rob Arthur over at FiveThirtyEight wrote this. It may be relevant to the Cincinnati Reds. It may not:

Teams may be late to understanding the value of good defense. Mitchel Lichtman, the sabermetrician who created the defensive metric Ultimate Zone Rating, told me in an email that “it will probably be a long time before teams fully appreciate the proper mathematical role of defense in evaluating players and making transactions.”

Defense undergirds the game, providing the undercurrent for more shiny and profitable endeavors. It too often labors under the yoke of ignorance. We ignore it at our peril.

37 Responses

  1. LDS

    Any Reds fan old enough to remember the 1970 World Series and Brooks Robinson knows defense matters. Alas Bell doesn’t.

    • JB

      Brooks won that Series. He was incredible with the glove. My mom was a Orioles fan and was enjoying every moment.

    • Alex Gary

      As much as people love to talk about the Big Red Machine’s offense, what truly made them special was the defense. Bench at catcher, Concepcion at SS and Geronimo in center were topline defenders. Morgan got Gold Gloves, but he was more of an above average defender. Still, those Reds were strong up the middle which covered up the fact that they had middling pitching at best.

      The 1990 Reds, Joe Oliver was solid, Larkin and Davis were Gold Glove level defenders and the rotating second baseman were at least league average. Again, good defense made up for average starting pitching outside of Rijo.

      • Reaganspad

        Actually, it was all 3 phases; the offense was as good as any ever which meant they were never out of any game. The defense was spectacular defining strength up the middle. But the pitching was also completely under rated. And you have great managing by Captain Hook in an era of 4 @ 20 game winners, Seaver, Matlack Koosman and Gentry; all the Dodger greats, Gibson and Juan Marichal.

        Sparky had that staff competing with all of them

  2. DataDumpster

    Excellent article, Richard. My feeling is much the same. I cannot understand how David Bell can change player’s natural positions, rotate them in and out of play every few days, assume different spots in the batting order, etc. and not expect that a shortcoming in defense and other intangibles will have a negative impact. Also agree on your comments about Senzel and India but it now seems too late to switch since the hot hand for one spring training rules. Maybe it will work but if the Reds are 5-10 below at midseason, we can only hope that Bell gets relieved because of the deeply flawed “Five Third Basemen Strategy.”

  3. greenmtred

    Thank you, Richard. You have eloquently made the point that I make–less eloquently–from time to time. I’ll add that great defense, besides being a boon to the pitchers, adds needed excitement to a game drifting ever closer to some over-priced version of T-ball. And also, even in tis era, more than half of the outs recorded are not strikeouts.

  4. SultanofSwaff

    Nice article Richard. Man, in my mind I always blame Hanigan for losing that series by calling for a fastball on Posey’s granny, but I forgot about that Cozart error. I still believe we had the best team in baseball that year, but they didn’t get it done AT HOME when it mattered.

    Feels too late to switch Senzel given the infield depth and lack of CF prospects. What gets me upset it the lack of consistency from the front office. We know Senzel is more athletic than Geno, but Nick was deemed not good enough to play a league average SS when the eye test said he was more than adequate. Now the job is Geno’s and we’re all expected to go along with the plan no questions asked. Maddening.

    • Richard Fitch

      I like to think Latos shook Hanigan off. I’d have to go back and look at the video. Don’t know if I want to watch it again. I wrote about that 5th inning and the Latos meltdown from start to finish:

      It was a slow motion disaster everyone could see coming from the TV announcers to Hanigan to the fans. Everyone but the Reds’ dugout.

    • RojoBenjy

      Don’t forget game 3–the first in Cincinnati. If Philips doesn’t get greedy trying to take third on the overthrow of first, then he scores on the next base hit, and the Reds win 1-0. Series sweep.

      • Tom B.

        Absolutely! That was a bonehead play on Phillips’ part. Completely changed the mojo and the momentum on that one play.

      • Reaganspad

        Fortunately I had forgotten that, but now have to relive it daily for the next few months…..

  5. Jon Ryker

    Defense is essential….offense is bonus, if you have a good pitching staff.

    I don’t see why anybody would be high on Senzel right now. Can’t stay healthy.

    I don’t see why playing second base would make him less prone to injury.

    There is no reason not to play India if he’s ready.

    While staffing an entire team with third basemen is cute, it has not been and will not be successful.

    • Richard Fitch

      Well, you can get hurt anywhere on the field. But there are fewer walls to run into at second, not as many long runs which could (maybe?) reduce the hamstring injury risk, and running into other infielders seems less likely than those potential high speed collisions with your fellow outfielders.

      This shouldn’t be about India. Frankly, if he’s improved that much, he’ll play himself into a spot on the roster. There will be injuries, after all.

      • greenmtred

        Well, there is getting wiped out by the runner on a double play, and more plays that require nearly instant acceleration and change of direction. Maybe.

    • Gonzo Reds

      Senzel is a bust until he proves otherwise. India can hit and is deserving of playing at 2B or his more natural 3B when Moose is out or covering for Joey at 1B.

      Go Gators!

  6. Roger Garrett

    Great article Richard but it makes too much sense to expect anything from this organization other then the lets try this or that approach.Team never looks ahead but rather just throws a team together and hires a guy like Bell to figure it out.Thats how you end up with a roster full of DH’s and guys that are best suited to play the same position.Its Little League at its finest for sure and Bell who just loves to move people all over the diamond excels at it.Laurel and Hardy’s comedy skit of Who’s On First can be viewed soon in city near you.


      Roger, wasn’t that comedy skit from Abbott and Costello? David Bell seems to over manager every aspect of the game.

      • Roger Garrett

        Your right it was Abbott and Costello.Old guys like me only can get close sometimes.

  7. Matt WI

    Richard… first of all, as always, fantastic writing. Inclement Leather seems like the perfect album title on which to release “The Day Defense Died.”

    We will have an active case study in the NL Central on this very topic- The Milwaukee Brewers are actively selling the idea that the changes they’ve made this year are intentionally centered around improving their defense. Not bats, not pitching… they are excited about having Kolten Wong and Jackie Bradley Jr and getting Lo Cain back.

    Davide Stearns, Brewers GM- “The best opportunities for us to improve our team largely revolves around defensive-oriented players,”

    Craig Counsell “We value defensive players,” they add wins to your team.”

    See ya at the finish line, we’ll see how it goes.

    • Richard Fitch

      Yikes. Let’s just hope the Brewers starting pitching remains suspect.

  8. RedsFan11

    Part of what made that 2012 team so great WAS the infield defense. Cozart and Phillips were perhaps the best double play duo in the business, and you had gold glovers on the corners with Votto (yes not GG anymore) and Rolen.

    Perhaps it was fate or irony? that a defensive error from the infield cost them the series….

    I can agree with Richard I prefer moving Senzel to 2nd and let him play there giving more time to Shogo in center. But.. based on injury history of Senzel, Winker, and now Shogo, I think there will be a necessity to have them all in the OF. Plus I think the Reds have a horrible history of waiting to long to call players up. Let India start the season at 2B and see how it goes.

  9. Old Big Ed

    It’s hard to disagree with any assessment that the Reds will be a poor defensive team this year.

    I think at this point, though, that Senzel is perfectly happy in center field. He hasn’t played infield since 2018, so his “natural position” is now center field. I have never been sure what “natural position” actually means, outside of Johnny Bench, but it seems to mean whatever position the player is most comfortable playing.

    Senzel played a total of 45 games at 3B as a junior at Tennessee, after being a 2B his first two seasons there. He played 66 games at 3B in the Reds system in 2016, 116 in 2017, and 14 in 2018 for Louisville in 2018. He played 231 games at 3B in college and pros over 3 years. He’s now played 127 games in CF over the past 2 years, all but 8 with the Reds, and he has now been through three springs in MLB camp as a center fielder. He’s pretty much a center fielder now, and a good one.

    I was against moving Suarez to SS, until I saw that he was much lighter and more mobile than he had been in years. He may still turn out to be the worst defensive SS in MLB, but the more lithe Suarez is at least plausible there now. Also, I think India is likely to be much better at 2B than Moustakas would be, so the overall infield defense won’t be affected that much. To be blunt, I think the main defensive problem in the infield is Joey Votto, who would have been a bad beer league defender last year. Votto’s defense drove Trevor Bauer bats last year.

    Jose Garcia, on the other hand, is a legitimate defensive star — the best defensive player in the organization at any position, except maybe Barnhart. He may well have been ready this year, if he had a full AA season last year. Yeah, I get the theory that prospects are prospects, but his glove (and arm) will play even if he doesn’t develop as a hitter. Garcia, India and Senzel would figure to be very good defensively up the middle, and with Votto as DH in 2022, the infield defense will be much better.

    • Old Big Ed

      Senzel has only played 85 games at second base since high school, plus an inning and a third in 2019 for the Reds. Returning him to 2B would seem to be just more tinkering with him, which is what you (I think correctly) believe has held him back a bit.

      We can’t change our favorite team any more than we can change mothers, so we’re just going to have to grin and bear it, no matter what they do. I do think the dominoes that fall from Garcia’s being at shortstop — effectively replacing Votto at first — will make a big defensive difference next year.

      In the infield, at least. We are still going to have to grin and bear the outfield corners next year.

      • Richard Fitch

        Senzel was installed at second in Louisville and was quite good there. I drove from NYC to Pennsylvania to see him play against the Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs and he made several impressive defensive plays before homering in the 9th. No one who saw him play that night would want him playing anywhere else.

    • Roger Garrett

      Looking ahead is for me also.Younger guys becoming the nucleus of this team.I think Tyler behind the plate may help also.Good stuff Old Big Ed

    • Droslovinia

      Oh there you had to go and use the “B-word” again. Everyone knows that if Barnhart doesn’t bat at least .400 and hit 70 homers a year, the whole team will collapse. Since he can’t do that, it apparently proves that his defense is a liability.

  10. Daytonnati

    I would like to think that people paid to make personnel decisions for the Reds know more than I do? Alas …

    Senzel, like Winker before him, seems to have been monkeyed with enough to have lost his shine. Remember them sending Amir Garrett back to the minors after several dominating starts? Now, like Chapman, he is a 70 innings a year piece.

    I am actually encouraged by their willingness to start India this early. A better managed, more far-sighted organization might be starting this season with Senzel at third, Gregorius at short, India at second, and Suarez at first. (And there is no bigger JV fan than me, but it is a cold business.)

    • Roger Garrett

      Right on buddy.They threw Garrett under the bus and out of the starting rotation really quickly.

  11. Rednat

    great stuff Richard. a lot to digest. i think defense (and base running) has been devalued in baseball just because there are not a lot of good defenders and baserunners playing anymore. The best athletes are not playing the game anymore. the game has gravitated to its strength which is power pitching and power hitting. players try to “bulk up” during the offseason so they can hit more homeruns. they don’t try to slim down to improve their speed and range . quite simply there are too many lions and tigers in baseball and not enough leopards and cheetahs in my opinion. the shifts have come to be out of necessity as Ceasar Geronimo and Eric Davis are not patrolling centerfield anymore. it is players like Jessie Winker.

    what frustrates me most with the reds is that when they finally do cross paths with a player that can actually play good defense. they are so quick to flip them or just trade them off. ie. .. Yasiel Puig and Jose Iglesias.

    • Redleg Bob

      Preach! Never understood letting Iglesias go. Solid hitter and outstanding glove.

  12. enfueago

    First, while I don’t agree with the article it is an excellent article. To the point, Senzel has become an outfielder and defensively the Reds need him in center field (and in large swathes of left and right). Maybe some day, as he ages, he moves back to the infield. There is value to letting players get adjusted to their positions in how well they play them and in how much of their focus it takes from their hitting. My concern with Suarez is not that he will be a bad short stop but that if he struggles it will carry over to his hitting. If the move works though it leaves only the catcher position without a very good hitter and that may even improve with Stephenson.

  13. TR

    As a ‘forever’ Reds fan, I’ve felt since Senzel first came up that he belongs in the infield only to be disappointed by the organization. Thank you, Richard, for supporting those of us who feel the same way.

  14. RojoBenjy

    Good article, Richard.

    1) “Thanks for that, Dusty.” Your words are very merciful. My sentiment on the matter would get me banned from the comments for life

    2) I agree that Senzel has been jerked around more than the bridle of a stubborn mule. The organization has no clear direction. When you fail to plan you plan to fail.

    • Richard Fitch

      “brindle of a stubborn mule.”

      I will steal this.

  15. Jack

    Appreciate the article although I disagree with several points. Senzel is a centerfielder now and has been for a while, switching him back is just another adjustment he doesn’t need. His plus speed plays well there. If they were making decisions on India based on just this spring I’d be unhappy but by all accounts this is just a continuation of his work from last year and having a more athletic 2B than Moustakas is a plus. Moustakas is at least as good at 3rd as Suarez. I fully expect Suarez to be bad at shortstop but hopefully the damage will be limited somewhat through liberal shifting.

    • Gonzo Reds

      And hopefully this will be the last year of the shift. Haven’t seen a write-up on this site but perhaps it was mentioned on Doug’s minor league site that baseball is experimenting with some of the rules in the minor leagues this year. One is tightening up on defensive position requirements where you have to at least have four infielders on the dirt which will hopefully lead to only having two infielders on each side of second base where they should be. We’ll see how it plays out.