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Series preview: The Reds have the best pitching staff in baseball right now

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This weekend’s weird Friday-Monday 4-game series will recall to mind pretty much every recent trip to Cincinnati.

MLB: Cincinnati Reds at New York Mets Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

The Reds spent their entire offseason overhauling the pitching staff and making cost-neutral moves to their lineup, and all they have to show for their efforts so far this season is a last place standing in the NL Central despite having the best pitching in the league.

I know, I know. I’m as surprised as you. We’re used to seeing a team be rewarded for having the best pitching. Instead, the Reds’ combined pitching fWAR of 5.3, 3.21 team ERA, and 3.36 team FIP has buoyed them to a 13-18 record and 7-game deficit in the NL Central.

That’s entirely thanks to having the second-worst offense in baseball. By good ol’ wins above replacement, they and the Marlins both have negative totals. The Reds’ offense has been worth -0.6 FanGraphs Wins Above replacement. Meanwhile, the Giants have accumulated half a win of positive fWAR through the first month of the season.

How has the Giants’ offense — which is bad — managed to be just slightly better than the Reds’ offense? Look at the comparisons:

Giants — Runs Scored: 98, HR: 24, walk rate: 6.7%, K rate: 23.7%, team wOBA: .267
Reds — Runs Scored: 110, HR: 39, walk rate: 8.4%, K rate: 24.8%, team wOBA: .280

The Reds look better in all those categories except for strikeouts. They also have a +10 run differential (the Giants have a -25). Two boring counting stats might tell us a bit more why the Reds are viewed as so much worse: they have six more GIDPs than the Giants (22 to 16) and have the second-most caught stealings (10) in all of baseball — more caughts than successful steals (just 8).

Outside of all those caught stealings, they’ve made just nine other outs on the basepaths, below the league average of 10. Remember, outs on bases (OOBs) don’t include pickoffs, caught stealings, or force plays, but do include outs while advancing on a flyball, trying to take an extra base on a hit, doubled off on a line drive, or being thrown out while attempting to advance on a wild pitch or passed ball.

The Giants have 13 of those outs coupled with 6 caught stealings, so they’re equal if you add both types of those outs on the basepaths together.

The Giants might hold a very slight statistical edge on the Reds’ offense, but over the past decade, they’ve held the overall talent advantage and it has mattered not against the Reds. Since 2009, the Giants are just 12-20 at the Great American Ballpark. They’ve also lost seven straight games there. As Kerry Crowley put it in his series preview for the Mercury News this morning:

During the seven-game skid, the Giants have been outscored 58-15, scoring an average of 2.14 runs per game at one of the most hitter-friendly parks in all of baseball.

Since 2009, the Giants have scored just 118 runs in their 32 games in Cincinnati, an average of 3.69 runs per game. They were also shutout three times. Over the last decade, the Giants’ offense averaged 4.07 runs per game and the Reds’ team ERA was 4.17. The Reds have been extra good against the Giants at home, and the Giants have been extra bad in Cincinnati.

Save a few series and key moments.

This weekend’s four-game “wraparound” — it begins Friday night and ends with a morning/day game on Monday — could be more of the same from the Giants’ perspective: lots of pain.

On the other hand, we’re going to see a pair of highly touted prospect debuts in Tyler Beede (technically, just his season debut on Friday night as the Giants’ starting pitcher) and Nick Senzel (top prospect for the Reds and one of the best prospects in baseball). That’s something! Potentially exciting!

The Giants have been bad on the road (75 wRC+), but still a bit better than at home (58 wRC+), while the Reds have been close to league average on offense (90 wRC+) at home.

In the offseason, the Reds did not plan to have the same record as the Giants come May 3rd and the Giants have to be surprised that they’ve matched the Reds. Is this one of those weird series where the Giants can surprise everybody?

They won’t have to face Matt Kemp, Alex Wood, or Scooter Gennett, but they’ll have to contend with Yasiel Puig, who’s slumping horribly (.538 OPS) but could use the Giants for a kickstart. It was probably for the best that the Giants got Madison Bumgarner that start on Wednesday. It might’ve been a long weekend had he melted down and gotten Puig going in the same game to kick off the series.

Former Giants farm director and 2002 third baseman David Bell is now managing the Reds and it looks like he’s decided to pull generously from the Book of Manager Stereotypes to lead his troops. As noted yesterday:

Managers tend to get ejected more to fire up their team than to bail on the team or demonstrate that they don’t have the emotional control necessary to absorb the frustrations of losing and human error inherent in the game of baseball. At least, the average to good managers get ejected for these reasons.

The last time the Giants were in Cincinnati, Chase d’Arnaud wound up pitching a scoreless relief inning because the Reds were blowing them out (again). Bruce Bochy was ejected twice in April, matching his season totals for the prior three years. The last time he was ejected from more than two games in a single season was 2015 (five times). The most he’s been ejected in a single season managing for any major league team was six times in 2007, his first year with the Giants. He was ejected 15 times, in fact, over his first three seasons in San Francisco.

So, then, is David Bell being ejected from games so he doesn’t have to watch the Reds lose?

Hitter to watch

Let’s go with the big rookie call up. Nick Senzel is MLB Pipeline’s #5 prospect in all of baseball and he’ll be making his debut Friday night.

MLB Pipeline’s scouting report provides this glowing review of his skill set:

When healthy, Senzel uses a combination of strength and bat speed, along with an advanced approach at the plate, to be an extremely dangerous hitter from the right side. He makes consistent hard contact, doesn’t strike out a lot and draws walks, which points to a future of hitting over .300 and perhaps competing for batting titles.

Senzel will be playing center field because the Reds are in sort of the same situation as the Giants when it comes to the outfield — they ran out of decent options. Senzel is a third baseman or second baseman, so the move to the outfield was expressly for filling the team’s deficit. That might provide an opportunity for the Giants at some point over these next four games — if he winds up playing all four games in center — if the Giants can actually hit a ball into the outfield.

Otherwise, we’re in Cole Tucker / Bryan Reynolds territory where a top prospect is being counted on to buoy a moribund offense in a time of need. The Reds aren’t totally out of this thing — a team with pitching as good as they’ve shown shouldn’t be this bad for an entire season — but they’ll need to get going soon. That could be as soon as this weekend.

Pitcher to watch

Let us gaze upon the magnificence of Saturday’s starter Luis Castillo and not consider that the Giants traded him for Casey McGehee. Although, if you want to do that, let’s take a moment and consider the timeline. The deal was done in December 2014. Bobby Evans was named Giants GM in April 2015. That means the Castillo trade was either Brian Sabean’s parting gift or Bobby Evans’ unofficial first deal.

In any case, it sucks, because whatever evaluation the team had on him didn’t project the level of performance Castillo has put out since leaving the Giants. Otherwise, I’d like to think the team wouldn’t have traded him for Case McGehee.

Since his debut in 2017, Castillo has 313 strikeouts in 302.1 innings pitched, 1.14 WHIP, 122 ERA+, and 3.54/ 3.93 ERA/FIP split. He turned 26 this past September, so he hasn’t even reached what would be considered his physical peak.

Given that his entire career has been captured by Statcast, let’s take a quick look at his pitch arsenal over time. He’s a four-pitch pitcher: 4-seam FB, changeup, sinker, slider. Check out these velocity and whiff (swing-and-miss) rates:

4-seamer: 2017 — 97.4 mph (23.6% whiff) | 2018 — 95.8 mph (19.5%) | 95.8 mph (30.3%)
Changeup: 2017 — 87.2 mph (43.2%) | 2018 — 86.2 mph (43.1%) | 87.0 mph (50.8%)
Sinker: 2017 — 96.9 mph (11.3%) | 2018 — 95.6 mph (12.6%) | 96.1 mph (10.9%)
Slider: 2017 — 84.9 mph (37.6%) | 2018 — 83.6 mph (40.8%) | 85.3 mph (38.9%)

Taken together, he would’ve been the best pitcher on the Giants (by far) since 2017.

Honorable mention: We’ll definitely do a deeper dive into Tyler Beede’s start, however it goes tonight, but if you’re only planning to watch one game of this series, make it Friday night’s. Beede was once the Giants’ top pitching prospect, then hit a real rough patch that threw his professional career into jeopardy, before resetting and regaining the confidence of everyone in the organization. He’s looked great since the spring.

Prediction

It has been extremely difficult for the Giants to win in Cincinnati. I’m going to appeal to magic here, though, and say that Stephen Vogt and Tyler Beede’s presence alters the team’s alchemy just enough, in combination with the front office’s analytics wizardry, to snag the Giants one win in the series.