The 2013 Cincinnati Reds had an excellent season. Their star first baseman reaffirmed his status as one of the game’s premier offensive talents, a shrewd offseason trade paid dividends and strong performances from a talented starting rotation led the team to a 90-72 record and a place in the wildcard play-in game. On the surface, 2013 was a positive season for baseball fans in Cincinnati, but you could forgive them for not quite feeling that way in the Queen City.
The season culminated in a wildcard play-in against the surprising Pirates in the even-more-surprisingly competitive NL Central, and for the third time in four years, the Reds made the playoffs and failed to advance beyond their opening round. That the loss this year came as part of the brand new one-and-done format does little to help matters, as Reds’ fans likely feel as though the surging Pirates stole their playoff hopes out from under them. After six years at the helm, manager Dusty Baker was let go at the end of the season amidst reports that the team wanted to shake up his coaching staff, to which Dusty told the team to fire him instead.
Baker was embattled for much of the year in the media, largely for his open criticisms of superstar first-baseman Joey Votto‘s propensity for taking walks, and his support of the outspoken Brandon Phillips in the wake of the second baseman’s verbal assault on reporter C Trent Rosecrans who merely tweeted about Phillips’ lackluster on-base percentage. 2013′s media boondoggles aside, Baker leaves with a 509-463 record as a Red, leading his team to two first place finishes. His old-school tactics should do nothing to tarnish his legacy as a great manager in Cincinnati.
What Went Right?
Votto and leadoff man Shin-Soo Choo were on-base machines, taking first and second places respectively in the National League OBP race, with Choo having a nearly 20 point lead on third-place Andrew McCutchen. Choo and Votto played very similar games, with both walking in over 15% of their PAs and striking out in less than 20%. Votto’s 18.6% walk rate is just hilarious and needs to be mentioned as often as possible. His .305/.435/.491 line led the team and earned him 6.4 bWAR and a 6th place finish in the NL MVP race that’d likely have been higher if the team had gone deeper into the postseason. Choo hit .285/.423/.462, making for a fearsome presence at the top of the order and on the basepaths as he stole 20 bases, although Fangraphs BsR rating of 0 (a measure of a player’s baserunning contributions that factors in taking extra bases and SB success rates) suggests that the high total may have been a factor of his being on base so often. Jay Bruce continued to be a consistent offensive force, hitting .262/.329/.478 and earning 5.1 bWAR and coming tenth in the MVP vote.
Reds’ pitchers continued to be consistently above-average, with their starters posting the third best ERA in baseball behind just the Cards and Dodgers. Mat Latos continued to be completely awesome, earning a 3.10 FIP and teammate Homer Bailey was nearly just as good with a 3.31. Bailey stole the stage for media attention, however, after he threw his second no-hitter in 10 months in July. Mike Leake danced between the raindrops with a below average K rate and outperformed his 4.04 FIP by over 60 points with his 3.37 ERA.
Defensively the team was quite strong, which was a tad surprising given the amount of talk before the season that focused on their questionable deployment of Choo in center. Fangraphs Def rating, based largely on DRS, ranked the Reds as the fifth best defensive team in baseball.
What Went Wrong?
Baker may have been an all-time great Reds’ manager, but his managerial decisions this year were far from beyond reproach. His strange utilization of Zack Cozart and Brandon Phillips to take most of the at-bats in the two-hole for the year led to the team getting an embarrassing .228/.281/.356 line with only 7 steals from the second spot in the batting order. The team’s right-handed hitters in general underperformed, combining for a .233/.288/.356 line.
The aforementioned media gaffes proved to be a distraction all year around the team, and multiple studies proved that the coach’s criticisms of his star player’s best skill were unfounded. The Rosecrans incident was embarrassing and could have at least something to do with the teams’ reported shopping of it’s longtime representative at the keystone. That any high-ranking voice in an organization would speak ill of a player’s on-base skills is mysterious, especially since without Votto and Choo’s inflated contributions, Reds’ hitters posted a measly .297 OBP that would have been second worst in baseball, trailing the Astros by two points.
While I’m not a big believer in clutch stats being predictive in any way, they are an interesting way to look at a season that was, and the Reds this year failed to capitalize on a lot of their most important opportunities. Their 87 wRC+ in high-leverage situations was 11th worst in baseball and was the worst mark of any team to earn entrance to the playoffs. Perhaps nothing is more emblematic of their failure to get the big hit than their early exit from the playoffs at the hands of the Pirates, losing 6-2 as the Bucs teed off and the Reds failed to find an answer.
There are plenty of reasons for optimism for Reds’ fans in going into 2014. Their roster is pretty well set, and without any significant holes to fill they can focus on making sure any big moves are legitimate upgrades. All-time minor league single-season stolen-base champion Billy Hamilton (that is quite a mouthful) impressed in his limited use in 2013 and figures to supplant Choo in the outfield assuming Cincy does not resign last year’s acquisition or make a splashy OF acquisition. The leverage stats should normalize next year, and the team’s emergence of young talent like Hamilton and starting pitcher Tony Cingrani is a lot to be excited about. With former pitching coach Bryan Price taking the manager’s reins in 2014, fans can hope that he will fare a little better at lineup construction, and perhaps will leave one of the best hitters in the game to do his thing in peace. Votto was excellent, but pundits may legitimately question why he put up his career-worst ISO and his lowest wRC+ since 2009, and his power output will be something to monitor going forward. He will remain valuable with diminished power, but it will affect his valuation negatively nonetheless if the power dropoff is permanent.
At the winter meetings, the Reds’ lack of real needs should see them make relatively few waves. If their rumored shopping of Phillips bears fruit, they could become surprise players in the Omar Infante sweepstakes, but aside from that expect them to just pick up some depth in the starting pitching area and maybe a center fielder to pair with Hamilton as the youngster learns the ropes. Rajai Davis could likely be had on a cheap deal and may fit the bill, having hit right handers well over the last few years in Toronto.
Overall, the Reds have every reason to believe that they’ll be successful in 2013. They are a young team with their star player signed through his prime years and the starting pitching that a championship level squad requires. Dusty Baker and his old-school, no-nonsense ways will surely be missed, but if it means they can do better than a .281 OBP from the two-hole I think it’ll shake out fine.