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MLB Bettor’s Notebook: What To Make Of The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Cincinnati Reds (May 2)

MLB Bettor’s Notebook: What To Make Of The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Cincinnati Reds (May 2) article feature image
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Michael Reaves/Getty Images. Pictured: Joey Votto

Each week during the MLB season, the Action Network’s Anthony Dabbundo will compile a weekly notebook of observations, analytical findings and actionable information to help bettors find an edge in betting the daily grind of a 162-game season. 

The Reds Can’t Really Be This Bad … Right?

Cincinnati has become one of the stories of the first month of the season because of its futility. The Reds began the season with a solid 2-2 split on the road against the defending World Series champion Braves. Since that road trip, Cincinnati has one win in 18 games.

The Reds were swept by the Guardians, Dodgers, Padres twice and Rockies. They managed to win one of three in a series with St. Louis.

The schedule has been relatively difficult to this point, but the Reds have been a betting conundrum. At some point, they have to positively regress and the rotation actually has some really intriguing pieces. But bettors have been losing big on Cincinnati when trying to back them in this absurd losing streak.

If you bet $100 on the Reds every game in 2022, you’d be down $1,455 with a -66.1% ROI.

The lineup has not produced, the bullpen is as bad as the underlying numbers suggest and you have to wonder what the mindset is of a guy like Joey Votto after Nick Castellanos, Jesse Winker and Eugenio Suarez left the middle of the Reds’ lineup this offseason.

Votto is slashing .122/.278/.413 and his xBA and xSLG are both in the bottom 5% of MLB. He’s had a career-high strikeout rate of 32% and all of that suggests that father time may have finally caught up to Votto.

The sample is too small to say he’s finished, but the numbers on their franchise’s centerpiece aren’t encouraging. Last season’s NL Rookie of the Year, Jonathan India, has just 34 batted balls because he’s been in and out of the lineup with injury. What we have seen from India (83 OPS+ and a 7% drop in barrel rate) indicates that he’s either hitting the sophomore slump or was playing through an injury and should have been on the IL sooner.

So much of baseball is situational hitting, and the 2022 Reds are unfathomably and unsustainably bad at it. The Cubs rank 29th with a .440 OPS in high impact at-bats. The Reds are 30th with a .100 OPS, which equates to a -66 OPS+. This will improve as the season progresses and with it the Reds will start to win a close game or two.

But even their Pythagorean record, at 5-17, is the worst in all of baseball. There’s a few things to really like about the Reds. Tyler Mahle is a legitimate ace who has been quite unlucky this season when you look at his underlying numbers. He has a 6.45 ERA thus far, but a career-best xERA of 2.88 and he has not allowed a single barrel in 68 balls in play yet. Mahle is improved in walk and strikeout rate too, but his ERA is lagging way behind because of his 54% strand rate, 20% below his career average.

Mahle is 100% a bet-on pitcher as he’s truly an ace and there will be opportunities to bet Reds first five when he pitches. The same is true for Hunter Greene, who has ace-level stuff even though he’s struggled since coming up to the majors this season. His 11.8% walk rate will have to be controlled, but it seems he’s going to take a couple ticks off his fastball to control it better.

One bet-on hitter who I’d expect to improve is Tommy Pham, who despite his advanced age has shown excellent plate discipline and hard hit rate this season. Pham has a whopping 54.5% hard hit rate, has a barrel rate 3% above league average and has one of the lower chase rates in the league on pitches outside of the zone. All of that projects well and Pham’s OPS should rise above its current .704 standing.

Takeaway:  The Reds came into the season as a 73-win team and while they have been the league’s worst team through April, that doesn’t mean they will be the rest of the season.

There’s still reason to believe that Pham and Votto will improve in the middle of the order, India will get healthier and play better. There’s confidence that Mahle will continue to pitch to an ace level and get positive results, and that Greene’s stuff will win out over his control issues.

I understand hesitancy betting the Reds because of their terrible bullpen and results thus far, but the clutch hitting numbers should regress positively and the starting pitching is too good for this team to be this bad.

I’ll be holding my nose and betting some Reds first five innings bets in the coming weeks, especially when Mahle or Greene are pitching in the right spots.

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Shortened Rosters Could and Should Help Offense, or Maybe Just Positive Regression

I wrote last week about the lacking offense across MLB’s start to the season and some of the rules helping pitching and bullpens are taken away on Monday. Rosters must be cut down from 28 to 26 players, although they can still carry 14 pitchers through the end of May.

This might not seem like a huge change on the surface, since these are mostly back-end of the bullpen guys getting sent to Triple-A, but it matters quite a bit on the margins.

Managers now have less flexibility in working their bullpens. More relief pitchers will need to pitch on back-to-back days where history shows they are generally less effective. More starters will need to go deeper into games and third time through the order, which tilts the advantage in favor of the hitter considerably.

Some of the drop-off in scoring in the middle innings can be explained by managers throwing so many different pitching looks at hitters throughout a game that the hitter never truly has the advantage.

While I’m not expecting every starter to be impacted, it could be enough to tilt slightly back toward the offense. Because thus far, the hitting hasn’t come close to matching past seasons or even the expected Statcast data league wide.

MLB's dying baseball has turned Statcast data on its ear – there's a 19-point gulf between actual (.233) and expected (.252) batting average, and a 64-point gap in slugging (.370/.434).
Yes, the hitters have been getting hosed. How long will it last?https://t.co/gpxNdK20r3

— Gabe Lacques (@GabeLacques) May 2, 2022

Strikeouts are down a couple percent, but homers are down even more to the point where teams are now averaging fewer than one homer per game. Given the hard hit rates across the league, that should start to change — and there was some optimism it did with Friday’s 45-homer explosion league-wide. But as it turns out, Saturday and Sunday suggested it was mostly a blip.

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Pitcher Report

When you line up the best pitchers in baseball, there’s no doubt that the National League is better at the top right now. Max Scherzer, Carlos Rodon, Brandon Woodruff, Corbin Burnes and eventually Jacob deGrom make trying to grab a long shot difficult in the National League.

For example, Aaron Nola (+4000 Cy Young) has impressive underlying numbers right now (eighth in MLB in xwOBA), but the traffic in front of him with Scherzer and Rodon makes it difficult to see the case. The same is true for Zac Gallen (+8000) and Pablo Lopez (+2000), although I do think Gallen is worth a flier at the current number with his career-low walk rate and career-low hard hit rate contributing to his 2.01 xERA.

Instead, I’m turning my attention to the American League for a potential dark horse at +1200 with Toronto second-year starter Alek Manoah. Manoah already dominated three of the best lineups in baseball this season when he threw six shutout against the Yankees, six innings with two runs allowed (on a 2-run homer) against Houston and seven shutout against the Red Sox.

Walks were an occasional issue for Manoah last season as he walked 3.2 batters per nine, but he’s lowered that to 2.5 this year. Even though his strikeouts are down, that’s allowed him to go deeper into games because his hard hit rate remains low and he’s 80th percentile in generating chases. His slider is one of the best pitches in all of baseball and I’m betting him +1200 to win the AL Cy Young this season.

As a whole, the league is wide open. Dylan Cease is the only other place I’m invested and his control can be an inhibiting factor to him going deep into games despite elite stuff. Verlander is fresh off a major Tommy John surgery and I’m still quite skeptical of Shane Bieber and Robbie Ray as their underlying numbers and spin rates concern me.

Shane McClanahan (+1200) is another potential buy-low candidate with elite stuff and if he can harness the bad fastball command that has hurt him this season. I’m going to wait and hold on a potential McClanahan ticket, but given quality of opponent and his 1.44 ERA, Manoah has probably been the AL’s best pitcher thus far in 2022.

The use of his sliders against righties and changeups against his lefties — both with a whiff rate above 25% — also makes him valuable against hitters on both sides of the plate.

Takeaway: Alek Manoah +1200 to win AL Cy Young

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