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Entries in Cincinnati Reds (36)

Thursday
Dec262013

Without Choo, Cincy's Outfield in Trouble

With Shin-Soo Choo departing Cincinnati to sign a seven-year, $130 million free agent deal in Texas, the Reds' outfield now features Jay Bruce and two guys who could be offensive black holes next season. Center fielder Billy Hamilton is a blur on the bases, but the slap-and-dash hitter will be lucky not to get the bat knocked out of his hands, much less come close to replacing Choo atop Cincy's lineup. Left fielder Ryan Ludwick, now in his mid-thirties, has to prove yet another career-threatening injury hasn't sapped his power. For a team still intent on battling the St. Louis Cardinals and Pittsburgh Pirates for NL Central supremacy, the Reds have a lot riding on Hamilton's legs and Ludwick's mended shoulder in 2014.

Can Hamilton's wheels make up for all the outs?

In replacing Choo with Billy Hamilton, the Reds will unquestionably lose a ton of offensive value. The more interesting question is, can Hamilton's Ricky Henderson-on-Red Bull speed possibly compensate for his slack bat?

Hamilton had no trouble reaching base in 2012, walking in 14.2 percent of his plate appearances between High-A and Double-A. But he drew a free pass just 6.9 percent of the time at Triple-A last year, as more experienced pitchers attacked the 6-foot, 160 pound singles hitter in the strike zone. Hamilton might eventually learn how to work the count despite his limited power, a la Brett Gardner, but he figures to struggle at the plate in 2014. Two projection systems, Steamer and Oliver, peg Hamilton for an on-base-percentage slightly over .300 and an On-Base-Plus-Slugging-Percentage (OPS) more than 20 percent below the major league average. That kind of offensive futility would put pressure on Hamilton to create runs on the bases and save them in the field like few other fly catchers ever have.

Just 16 outfielders have managed to be at least an average starter (defined here as two Wins Above Replacement) during a season in which they posted a park-and-league-adjusted OPS (OPS+) that was 20 percent or more below the MLB average. To make that many outs and still provide value, these guys had to cover serious ground and create havoc when they did manage to get on base.

Source: Baseball-Reference.com

In the long run, these players seem to fall into three bins. A few improved dramatically with the bat, becoming stars (Kirby Puckett, Carlos Gomez, Willie Davis). Some used their speed to carve out lengthy careers despite remaining easy outs (Otis Nixon, Gary Pettis, Darren Lewis). Others suffered injuries, crashing and burning once their sole standout skill declined (Willy Taveras, Joey Gathright). Hamilton doesn't possess the latent power of a Pucket or Gomez, so his ceiling appears limited if he doesn't develop top-notch plate discipline.

Hamilton's wheels might just be special enough for him to join the list above. He's a top-tier base thief in terms of both quantity (he averaged 79 steals per season in the minors) and quality (an 82.5 percent success rate, plus a 13-for-14 cameo in the bigs). The converted shortstop is also a natural in center field. Even so, the Reds -- last in leadoff OBP in 2012, and first in 2013 -- could have one of the game's most prolific out-makers setting the table for Joey Votto and Bruce.

Can Ludwick shoulder the load in left field?

Ludwick's career has been defined by devastating injuries and improbable comebacks. The 35-year-old must bend the aging curve once again after a season in which he suffered a dislocated right shoulder and showed Hamiltonian power upon returning to action.

Ludwick's slugging percentage by pitch location, 2012

 

Ludwick's slugging percentage by pitch location, 2013

Ludwick wrecked his shoulder on Opening Day sliding head-first on the bases. After undergoing surgery and enduring four months of rehab, he lacked the punch that allowed him to pop 26 home runs and post an OPS that was 30 percent above average the previous season. Ludwick hit just two homers in 140 plate appearances, with an OPS 30 percent below average. It was a small sample, but Ludwick lost nearly 30 feet of distance on his fly balls hit between 2012 (270) and 2013 (244).

Perhaps an off-season of rest and training will allow Ludwick to reach the seats with regularity again in 2014. But that's an awfully big if for a team already punting so much offensive value in center field.

Outside Help

The Reds have committed to Hamilton in center field, so Ludwick looks like the only one who might face competition for a starting spot. Internally, the club's options look bleak. Donald Lutz is a hulking lefty hitter who could platoon with Ludwick, though he didn't exactly excel at Double-A (.741 OPS) and got carved up in the majors (a 1-to-14 walk-to-strikeout ratio). Righty Chris Heisey has declined three years running at the plate. Prospects Yorman Rodriguez and Juan Duran are toosly and on the 40-man roster, but both are hackers who need upper-level ABs in the minors.

At this point, the free agent market for corner outfielders is Chris Sale thin. Nelson Cruz is still available, though the low-OBP slugger with durability concerns and limited range could turn into a handsomely paid Ludwick clone. Tyler Colvin and Laynce Nix are lefty power bats who could partner up with Ludwick, but both are coming off wretched seasons and make Hamilton look like an OBP juggernaut by comparison. Former Reds farmhand Chris Dickerson offers a better eye and some speed, but also questionable durability and contact skills. Grady Sizemore, the Mark Prior of position players, has reportedly recovered from microfracture surgery on his right knee. The last time he played? September 22, 2011.

On the trade front, LA's Andre Ethier still slugs against righties (.854 OPS last year), though he's owed at least $71.5 million through 2017 as he marches toward his mid-thirties. The Cubs' Nate Schierholtz (.799 OPS against right-handers), projected to make $4.4 million during his final year of salary arbitration, could be a more cost-efficient platoon partner.

Wednesday
Dec182013

Believing in Edinson Volquez

Poorly as Edinson Volquez pitches, teams just keep coming back for more. It has been half a decade since Volquez vanquished hitters with premium heat and a tumbling changeup, making the All-Star team and finishing fourth in NL Rookie of the Year voting with the Reds in 2008. Since then, he has arguably been the lousiest pitcher in baseball not booted out of the rotation. Once you account for park factors and league run-scoring levels, Volquez had the worst ERA (25 percent below average) among starters tossing at least 500 innings from 2009-13.

Despite all of that aggravation -- Tommy John surgery, LaLoosh-like control, quick hooks aplenty -- Volquez continues to get opportunities. The Pirates are the latest club hoping to channel Volquez's '08 form, signing him to a one-year, $5 million free agent deal for rotation depth in case A.J. Burnett retires or refuses to take a below-market deal to remain in Pittsburgh. Let's be honest: Expecting Burnett and ending up with Volquez is kind of like asking Santa for an XBox One and instead unwrapping a Cosby sweater on Christmas morning.

Those who still believe in Volquez point out that he bears some resemblance to the Bucs' 2012 reclamation project, Francisco Liriano -- lots of strikeouts, ground ball tendencies and a fielding-independent ERA (4.24) far lower than his actual ERA (5.71), suggesting better days are ahead. Of course, Volquez could just climb the ranks of starters who continue to get the ball despite getting their heads handed to them on a regular basis (during the Expansion Era, only Jimmy Haynes and Randy Lerch have made more starts while posting a worse adjusted ERA).

If Volquez is ever going to succeed again in the majors, Pittsburgh may be the place. Pitching coach Ray Searage has helped resuscitate the careers of Liriano, Burnett and Charlie Morton. The 30-year-old righty will also benefit from working with two of the best pitch-framing catchers in the business, and a collection of rangy fielders who gobble up grounders and fly balls.

Martin, Stewart steal strikes

Volquez deserves plenty of blame for issuing 4.8 free passes per nine frames during his career, ninth-highest among Expansion Era starters throwing at least 850 innings. But it doesn't help that he also gets squeezed by umps on pitches located on the edges of the zone, and he rarely gets calls on pitches thrown a bit off the plate. Over the past three years, Volquez has a slightly lower called strike rate on pitches thrown within the strike zone (80 percent) than the MLB average (81 percent). On pitches thrown outside of the zone, Volquez has gotten called strikes just 7.7 percent of the time, well below the 9.7 percent average.

Luckily for Volquez, his new battery mates excel at getting strikes on close calls. Russell Martin has an 82.5 percent called strike rate on in-zone pitches since 2011, while backup Chris Stewart (84.3 percent) has fared even better. Both steal strikes on out-of-zone pitches, too (10.9 percent called strike rate for Martin, and 11.1 percent for Stewart). Searage and Volquez have countless video screenings and bullpen sessions ahead of them to address the pitcher's control woes, but the Bucs' catchers give them a head start.

The power of quality D

Part of the reason why Volquez underachieved last year was his .330 batting average on balls in play, fourth-highest among qualified starters and 24 points above his career average. In particular, his BABIP on fly balls (.231) was dead last among starters and over 100 points above the MLB average (.128). With Starling Marte and Andrew McCutchen chasing down fly balls in Pittsburgh (and graceful right field prospect Gregory Polanco not far away), Volquez should see fewer pitches reaching the gaps in 2015.

Collectively, Bucs pitchers had a .121 BABIP on fly balls last season. Overall, Pittsburgh converted balls put in play into outs at the fifth-best clip in the majors. By comparison, the Padres and Dodgers (Volquez's 2013 teams) ranked near the middle of the pack. Better luck and better defense should help Volquez get his ERA out of the high fives.

Volquez has some built-in advantages in Pittsburgh, though the same was said in San Diego, where he pitched in spacious Petco Park under the tutelage of Bud Black. His top-tier stuff could be waning, given that he lost a tick on his fastball (from 93.4 MPH in 2012 to 92.4 MPH in 2013) and struck out a career-low 7.5 batters per nine innings last year.

Maybe he is the second coming of Liriano, erasing years of disappointment with a dominant season. But for every Liriano, there are a dozen Kyle Davies who just never figure it out. Volquez keeps getting chances, with pitching coaches thinking he's a few mechanical tweaks away from turning back the clock to 2008. Past promise counts for less with each passing day, though. If Volquez can't make it with the Pirates, he might not get another chance.

Monday
Nov112013

Can Brandon Phillips Stand the Heat?

Brandon Phillips is reportedly on the trading block, with the Reds second baseman being mentioned as a possible replacement for the Yankees should free agent Robinson Cano cash in elsewhere. Phillips is coming off a 2013 campaign in which he drove in a career-high 103 runs, ranking second to Cano among all players at the keystone spot and trailing only Joe Morgan (111 RBI in 1976) on the single-season list for a Reds second baseman.

That's where the comparisons to Cano and Morgan stop, though. Batting behind on-base machines Shin-Shoo-Choo and Joey Votto, Phillips tallied all of those ribbies despite posting a park-and-league adjusted OPS that was eight percent below average (92 OPS+). In fact, Phillips OPS+ last year was his worst since his first season in Cincinnati (88 OPS+ in 2006) and by far the lowest ever for a second baseman driving in 100 runs (Jeff Kent's 1997 season is second, at a comparatively robust 105 OPS+).

Phillips, owed $50 million over the next four years, remains a slick fielder. But any club thinking about trading for him has to consider whether he can reverse a three-year decline at the plate that has seen his adjusted OPS dip from excellent (118 OPS+ in 2011) to average (99 OPS+) to subpar. To do that, the 32-year-old will have to start turning on fastballs once again.

Check out Phillips' slugging percentage against the heat over the past three seasons:

Phillips' slugging percentage vs. fastballs by pitch location, 2011

Phillips' slugging percentage vs. fastballs by pitch location, 2012

Phillips' slugging percentage vs. fastballs by pitch location, 2013

Phillips slugged .528 versus fastballs in 2011, topping the major league average by nearly 100 points. That figure dipped a bit in 2012 (.482) and then plummeted to .393 in 2013. You might think his power outage against the heat is the product of his hitting more ground balls, but Phillips actually hit more fly balls and line drives in 2013 than in the previous few seasons. It's just that the fastballs he lofted didn't travel as far: Phillips' fly balls and liners carried an average of 257 feet this past year, compared to 271 feet in 2011.

While Phillips might not be a terrible pick-up for club seeking airtight D at second base, he has Choo and Votto to thank for that RBI total more than his own offensive prowess. To truly make a difference at the plate, Phillips has to re-discover his power strike when pitchers bring the heat.