The nature of change often makes it seem as though it’s happened overnight. We aren’t particularly good at seeing the tiny, consistent changes that build up over time when it comes to seeing it in others. We aren’t particularly patient enough to enforce those same tiny, consistent tweaks when we attempt to change ourselves. And beyond that, it’s more fun to subscribe to the idea that someone went to bed one night one way, and then woke up the next day completely different. It’s conveniently inspiring and hopeful.
Nonetheless, real change happens with quiet commitment. The Cincinnati Reds pitching staff so far in 2019 is proving to be a great example. Last year, they were the fifth-worst in all of baseball. So far this year, they’re tied with the Tampa Bay Rays for the best in all of baseball.
The data only go as far back as when games started at the end of March. But to appreciate when the Reds really started to implement change to their pitching approach, we have to go back to last October when they hired away Derek Johnson from the division rival Brewers. Johnson came to Cincinnati with a reputation as one of the best pitching coaches in the league. He spent the last three years in Milwaukee; before that, he was the minor league pitching coordinator for the Cubs for three years, and before that, he was the pitching coach at Vanderbilt University from 2002-12. Those are all in their own ways forward-thinking organizations of which Johnson was integral part.
He’s not the only improvement the team made. In January, the Reds hired Caleb Cotham as an assistant pitching coach. Cotham was coached by Johnson and was teammates with Sonny Gray at Vanderbilt. He has Major League pitching experience, has trained at Driveline, and most recently worked for the Bledsoe Agency while focusing on player development. To get a sense of his approach, consider this picture he tweeted in January 2018:
Those baseballs are marked up to aid the use of a Rapsodo, to help show a pitch’s spin axis and provide cues for pitchers as to how to manipulate the ball as it leaves their hand. The Reds joined the revolution this offseason and began using Rapsodo in spring training, and made sure they had staff that not only wanted to implement it, but knew how to get the most out of the cameras that can provide thousands of slow motion frames per second.
That’s what the team has done on the coaching side of things, but the games and execution are still left to the players. Big changes were made there, too — Sal Romano, Matt Harvey, and Homer Bailey are no longer on the 25-man roster. They recorded the second-, fifth-, and sixth-most innings for the Reds last year and just 2.4 fWAR combined. Others who contributed somewhat regular innings, like Matt Wisler, Austin Brice, Dylan Floro, Jackson Stephens, and Brandon Finnegan, are also either no longer with the organization or are in the minors.
The Reds have fortified their rotation with Sonny Gray and Tanner Roark, and moved Robert Stephenson to the bullpen full time. So far, they’re the best pitchers the Reds have who aren’t named Luis Castillo, in large part thanks to a serious commitment to sliders. Gray isn’t trying to throw his for strikes as he was with the Yankees, and he looks like his old productive self. Roark is throwing the slider an additional 12% from last year. Stephenson has gone mad and is throwing it 20% more than in 2018. The early returns have clearly been favorable, but was solving the problem really just about the Reds getting new coaches and shuffling the deck?
All of these heat maps are from the catcher’s perspective. As a staff, Reds pitchers are demonstrating better command almost across the board. Fastballs are more clearly up and to the first base side. Sliders are extremely crisp, painting the low, first base-side corner and seemingly refuse to leak more into the zone. Curveballs aren’t being left in the heart of the plate. Changeups are being pounded with more authority to the low corner on the third base side. Two-seamers are working more to the lower third of the zone.
The team is also employing them far less, having accounted for anywhere between 5-10% less of the staff’s total offerings, depending on which pitch classification system you use. Over the course of the season, that’s roughly a thousand less sinkers, at least.
The two-seamer is the pitch that gets the least amount of whiffs. Trading them for literally any other pitch is a net win in that regard, which might help explain how the Reds have managed to maintain the amount of walks they give up while adding 20% more strikeouts over last year. We’re at a point where pitchers and hitters are each optimizing for the best possible outcome: strikeouts and homers. Going for more whiffs as hitters are already primed to swing and miss because they’re going for extra base hits is a no-brainer, but the Reds appear to have had more room to improve in this area than most teams, and have done it as much as possible since last year.
The improved command has lead to improved efficiency, too. Reds pitchers have thrown the eighth-fewest pitches in the Majors. From 2016-18, they never ranked better than 16th by that measure. Throwing fewer pitches doesn’t necessarily correlate to automatic success — for example, the Yankees threw more pitches than nearly everyone last year but their staff was also better than every team except the Astros — but in this instance, it’s clear that the Reds’ efficiency is representative of a big part of their ascent so far.
It started with one coaching hire, and then another. And then they added new tech that complements old knowledge and relationships. Since then it’s been about executing each pitch with more authority to places that are harder to hit it. The Reds are five games under .500 in what could be baseball’s toughest division, and yet they’re in the midst of a turnaround on the mound that’s unprecedented. Tune in to be a witness.
Heat maps from Statcast. All other data from FanGraphs. Feature photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images.