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Understanding the Plight of Cincinnati’s Historically Awful Starting Pitching Staff

You could probably homer off these guys

Getty Images / Ringer illustration
Getty Images / Ringer illustration

One of the great mysteries in baseball since the 2015 All-Star break has been the sudden spike in home runs. Whether because of a subtle change in ball construction or a leaguewide adoption of the aluminum bat power-up, baseballs have been flying for the fences more frequently than ever before.

Second basemen are aiming for records. Shortstops are surging with power. Even pitchers are beginning to think of themselves as batting-practice Babes. It’s all been great fun.

Except for the pitchers. For every hitter enjoying a round-tripper renaissance, there’s a hurler on the mound with his glove over his face. And it just so happens that a preponderance of those offenders play for the Reds. On Monday, Cincinnati’s hurlers set a major league record when they allowed their 242nd home run of the season.

The Reds embody the (im)perfect union of factors that might inspire such an ignominious record. They play a staff that skews young, in a hitter-friendly home park, amid a league environment trending toward the long ball.

Those inherent disadvantages aren’t sufficient excuses for Cincinnati’s pitching plight, however. The Reds allow more home runs at Great American Ball Park, but they surrender 1.53 homers per nine innings on the road, too — which would itself represent the highest rate overall for any team in history. And it’s not just the league context, either: The 2016 Reds are in the bottom 1 percent of home runs allowed compared to the league average in any given year going back to World War II (17th out of 1,716 team-seasons), and that’s with them facing an opposing pitcher the first couple of times through the order.

Brandon Finnegan has been the most victimized Red, surrendering 29 homers in his first full season as a starter, which ties him for the NL lead. But he’s certainly not alone. Dan Straily has induced 28 trips around the bases, and J.J. Hoover watched nine in just 18.2 innings. Jon Moscot allowed 10 home runs in 21.1 frames, Tim Melville five in nine. I think Johnny Vander Meer might have even given up a blast or two at some point in July.

The beneficiaries have been just as diverse. Seven Matts have homered against Cincy pitching, along with a Freddie and a Freddy, four Carloses, and both a Yasmani and a Yasmany. Both a Drew (first name) and a Drew (last name) have feasted on this staff, as have an Adonis and an Ángel; Yu (Darvish) could tell a (Trevor) Story with all the names that have homered.

Here’s one tale: Aaron Hill hit five homers in 30 plate appearances against the Reds this season. Against all other teams, he’s cleared the fence just four times in 390 trips to the batter’s box.

Yet as long as the list could extend — at 244 home runs and counting, there are still plenty of names to go — it’s worth noting that the “HR” column isn’t the only one on the stat sheet that has given the Reds trouble. Cincinnati also tops the majors in walks, with Finnegan leading in individual bases on balls. (As if that statistical dominance weren’t enough, the Reds also pace the pack in hits by pitch and balks.)

Combine the home run and walk binges, and Cincinnati owns the worst pitching staff in the last century by fielding independent pitching, adjusted by ballpark and league environment. Not since the 1915 Athletics — a team so cheap that it included a unit derisively deemed the “$10 infield” — has a team posted worse adjusted FIP numbers.

Even more troublingly, Reds pitchers have combined for negative 1.1 wins above replacement this season. The 1890 Pittsburgh Alleghenys — a team that went 23–113, finished 66.5 games out of first place, and featured a veteran pitcher named Phenomenal Smith — were the last team with a staff below replacement level over a full season.

FanGraphs’s glossary defines a “replacement level player” as one who “would fill in for the starter in case of injuries, slumps, alien abductions, etc.” So one way to think about the previous paragraph is that if the entire Cincinnati staff had been shipped to Mars the day before the season began, the Reds would have won an extra game this year. (Their original pitchers, meanwhile, would probably be giving up even more home runs in the Martian league thanks to the diminished gravity on that planet.)

That’s a lot of ways to say the Reds’ pitching has been historically terrible in 2016. Here’s the silver lining, if one can exist amid such dire production: These results don’t matter all that much. Besides Finnegan, none of the most homer-happy names mentioned thus far will play any part on the next good Reds team, and the team’s frequent bullpen blowups — unlike, say, the Giants’ — aren’t going to cost the club a playoff berth.

Anthony DeSclafani (8–4, 3.15 ERA) has pitched well in his second season in Cincy, and waiver claim Straily (13–8, 3.83 ERA) has parlayed a flukishly low BABIP into semirespectable results. And while the team’s prized pitching prospects have struggled in their brief forays in the majors thus far — for one, Cody Reed’s fastball in 47.2 MLB innings was hit the third hardest of any in the league — at least they exist and give Reds fans some measure of hope that better-than-replacement-level days are on the horizon.

That day might be as distant as the ends of the earth, though, given the current construction of Cincinnati’s roster. On offense, Joey Votto is the only active Red with numbers meaningfully better than league average (minimum 25 plate appearances), and on the mound, the team is a year removed from its unprecedented rookie pitching experiment without much more to show for it than it had last September.

Like a scientist relying on integration methods, we can draw on historical data to pinpoint that far-off horizon. The 1996 Tigers, who held the allowed-homer mark before this year’s Reds, appeared in the World Series 10 years after their record-setting season. The erstwhile Philadelphia Athletics became a pennant contender a decade after their 1915 debacle. And the Alleghenys — after rebranding as the Pirates — evolved into a perennial power 10 years after their futile campaign.

That pattern shows that we can write the Reds in for the 2026 World Series — and that we can expect Great American to continue being great for opposing hitters in the interim.