Player Profiles 2020: Cincinnati Reds Starting Pitchers

Michael Ajeto analyzes the Cincinnati Reds rotation for 2020 with in-depth player profiles.

Throughout the winter months of the offseason, the Pitcher List staff will be creating profiles for every fantasy-relevant player for 2020. Players will be broken up by team and role through starting pitchers, bullpen, lineup, and prospects. You can access every article as it comes out in our Player Profiles 2020 hub here.

 

Reds At A Glance

Headlined by an intriguing trifecta of Luis CastilloTrevor Bauer, and Sonny Gray, this is a complete rotation with several options to come in and pitch in someone’s stead in the event of injury. Wade Miley adds the stability that the Reds didn’t feel they had in Tyler Mahle — or perhaps they wanted more depth — and we’ll hold out hope for an Anthony DeSclafani breakout.

Aside from the starting five, Mahle, Lucas Sims, and Tony Santillan are all interesting for different reasons, which of course I’ll get to.

 

Trevor BauerLocked Starter

Nickname: Tinkerer Bell

 

2019 In Review

After a breakout 2018, Bauer reverted to the 2017 version of himself, as his home run luck not only ended, but the pendulum swung the other way. His strikeouts dipped, his walks went up, and basically became slightly above-average starting pitcher with a lot of strikeouts. He allegedly played hurt in with multiple injuries, so, if you believe him, there are several asterisks surrounding his down 2019.

 

Fastball (39% usage)

While I certainly think Bauer overperformed with his fastball in 2018, I’m not convinced that it’s a bad pitch all of a sudden. This just seems like a combination of the juiced ball and variation in his batted ball numbers. The interesting thing is that his O-Swing%, Contact%, and SwStr% all improved in 2019. He elevated his fastball more than ever, but hitters were more aggressive, resulting in a nearly doubled Barrel%, an increased fly ball percentage, and an almost quadrupled HR/FBLD% (home runs per fly ball and line drive percentage).

Overall, I don’t see a reason Bauer’s heater shouldn’t return to somewhere in between its 2017 and 2018 levels. He added a little arm-side movement to his fastball, but not much, so it shouldn’t have ruined the pitch in the way that it was worse in 2019.

 

Curveball (20% usage)

Hitters don’t chase his curveball out of the zone a ton, but, for the most part, his curveball was intact this past year. His SwStr% declined a touch, but by pVAL, it was improved (0.9 pVAL/C to 0.5 pVAL/C). Across the board, he’s just short of a Money Pitch with this one. His 37.3 O-Swing%, 37.5 Zone%, and 12.9 SwStr% are all a touch short of qualifying.

Regardless, this has been a pitch that Bauer has been able to rely on, even when his others have let him down. I’ll talk about it in a moment, but I’m not sure this should be his most-used secondary pitch.

 

Cutter (16% usage)

Bauer’s cutter continued it’s (literal) downward slide in vertical movement. Although there are several other factors involved, his SwStr% dropped from 21.9% in 2018 to 13.9% in 2019. That sounds bad, but his CSW actually increased from 36.9% to 39.3%. Since 2015, that’s the highest cutter CSW since Kenley Jansen in 2017, which is as high of praise you can say about a pitch.

As I previously mentioned, this is one pitch that he should throw more.

 

Slider (14% usage)

When Bauer broke out in 2018, a large portion of it had to do with his shiny new slider. He increased his horizontal movement on the pitch from 0 inches in 2017 to 14 inches in 2018. However, that increased even further to 19 inches in 2019. That’s probably not good!

I imagine the extra bump in horizontal movement wasn’t purposeful, but the true quality of the pitch didn’t decline as much as one would think. His CSW actually improved on the pitch, but his .203 BABIP from 2018 regressed to .319 in 2019. That may sound it regressed to where it should be, but the league average BABIP is .283, and .365 for wOBAcon. Bauer’s BABIP and .415 wOBAcon are far higher than those marks — especially given his slider’s .328 xwOBAcon.

I think we should see some improvement from this pitch in 2020.

 

Changeup (8% usage)

Despite throwing it in the zone less, this is another pitch that saw an increase in Contact% and decrease in SwStr%. Bauer’s changeup (although seldom thrown) notched a 3.8 pVAL in 2018, but reduced to a -2.7 pVAL in 2019. Probably nothing to worry about here.

 

2020 Outlook

It’s true that Bauer put up an unsustainable performance in 2018 — that was never going to persist — but I think the pendulum swung too far in 2019. His numbers suggest that he should be somewhere in between 2018 and 2019, but perhaps closer to this 2019 than 2018.

Realistic worst-case projection: 4.40 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, 26% K rate in 180 IP

Realistic best-case projection: 3.30 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 31% K rate in 210 IP

 

Nick’s reluctant Trevor Bauer 2020 projection:

3.80 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, 29% K rate in 190 IP

 

Luis CastilloLocked Starter

Nickname: La Piedra

 

2019 In Review

Castillo unleased his changeup like never before and reaped the rewards. Despite a .262 BABIP that screams regression, Castillo flashes three pitches with ground ball percentage above 50% that say: to heck with your regression! Castillo saw an increase in walks, but his strikeout rate rose enough to make up for it.

 

Changeup (32% usage)

If Castillo’s changeup isn’t the best in the league, it’s one of them. He led the league with a 28.9 wCH, and was second with a 2.82 wCH/C. Since 2017, he leads, too with a 48.2 wCH and, ignoring Clayton Kershaw and Rich Hill, ties Zack Greinke with a 2.30 wCH/C.

Castillo hardly throws his changeup in the zone — he has a 24.6 Zone% — but it doesn’t matter, because hitters offer at it a ton, good for a 50.2 O-Swing% that is one of the best marks in the league. His 26.6 SwStr% is the best mark in the league for starters, and so it’s no wonder why a changeup-heavy approach works for him.

 

Fastball (29% usage)

Castillo’s fastball sported one of the highest xwOBA numbers in the league in 2019, despite a respectable SwStr% and the lowest Contact% for a fastball in baseball (minimum 800 thrown). His fastball’s wOBAcon and BABIP are only elevated ever so slightly, so this is basically the true talent level of the pitch. It’s just too hittable and too often thrown for a ball.

If you’ll remember, he started showing better results after tampering his fastball usage in exchange for upped sinker usage. He should probably continue that trend. His fastball has its uses, but I’d rather see him throw his other pitches.

 

Sinker (20% usage)

His sinker doesn’t get swings and misses, but it’s a better pitch than his four-seam fastball. While I think he was fortunate with the pitch in 2019 (low wOBAcon) — and so we may see some regression, it’s an extreme ground ball pitch that doesn’t get barreled up.

With a 9.5 pVAL and 1.5 pVAL/C, 71.3 GB%, and superior results to his fastball, I’d like to see his sinker usurp his fastball in usage.

 

Slider (19% usage)

Castillo’s slider is an underrated pitch that would be of better use to him than his fastball. Since 2017, it has a 34.4 Zone%, 34.9 7-Swing%, 17.6 SwStr%, and 0.4 pVAL/C. This was supposed to be his best secondary pitch, so there’s a chance this improves, but I wouldn’t count on it.

 

2020 Outlook

Really, this can go in either direction. Hitters can try and learn to lay off his changeup, since it’s so infrequently thrown in the zone, but that’s far easier said than done. The danger here is that his walk rate gets out of control, his since his sinker is such an extreme ground ball pitch, it has the ability to bail him out in hitters’ counts. His profile is a little scary, but I think he’s a good bet for a sub-4.00 ERA with a ton of strikeouts, manageable walks, and a pretty standard home run rate.

 

Realistic worst case projection: 4.00 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 24% K rate in 170 IP

Realistic best-case projection: 3.00 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 30% K rate in 200 IP

 

Nick’s reluctant Luis Castillo 2020 projection:

3.50 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 27% K rate in 190 IP

 

Sonny GrayLocked Starter

Nickname: Mr. Delight

 

2019 In Review

Nothing sums up how I feel about Gray’s 2019 more than the article I wrote about him last month. In short, Gray is better, but not this much better. He needs to throw his fastball less, and slider and curveball more, but overall, I think he should regression on all of his secondaries. That doesn’t mean he wasn’t legitimately good, though.

 

Fastball (28% usage)

Over his career, Gray’s fastball has induced (a) fewer whiffs), (b) higher contact, (c) a worse pVAL, and (d) a significantly worse wOBA and xwOBA. If there’s an argument to make that his fastball is a better pitch, I’m unsure of what it is.

Normally, I would say that he should elevate it, due to his 92nd percentile fastball spin, but his active spin is a dreadful 66.7%, which explains his 22nd percentile Rise%, per QOP Baseball. Throw it less, Sonny.

 

Curveball (25% usage)

Since the inception of the Statcast era, Gray has thrown his curveball a touch more than his slider. There’s a reason for this, which is that he throws his curveball in the zone more than his slider, but it’s not his best secondary pitch. Regardless, it garnered a 32.5 O-Swing%, 40.1 Zone%, and 12.1 SwStr% in 2019, with a 16.2 pVAL and 2.2 pVAL/C.

I think all of his secondary pitches were fortunate in 2019, but none more so than his curveball. A .176 BABIP just is not going to hold (his career average curveball BABIP is .256).

 

Slider (24% usage)

Gray re-shaped his slider, but it didn’t necessarily make it any better. Put simply, we just saw a drastic drop in his slider BABIP, wOBAcon, and xwOBAcon that aren’t sustainable. Despite this, it remains the best swing-and-miss pitch in his arsenal by far, which is why I recommended in my article that he threw it more, especially since it pairs well with his sinker.

Overall, his plate discipline numbers looked great. He barely threw it in the zone (27.3 Zone%), but he had an O-Swing% of 37.0% and 18.8 SwStr%.

 

Sinker (19% usage)

As I’ve said, I think he should definitely use his sinker more. Against righties especially, it gets a ton of swing and misses when he throws it inside or down and in, and hitters have issues doing anything with it. Most pitchers would benefit from going away from their sinkers, but Gray is one exception.

Since 2015, his sinker’s .319 wOBA ranks very favorably among other sinkers, while his fastball’s .369 wOBA does not. Swap ’em out!

 

Changeup (5% usage)

 

There’s not much to say about Gray’s changeup, so I won’t. He only throws it 5% of the time because he has a career 26.3 O-Swing%, 47.0 Zone%, and 8.0 SwStr%, with a -0.4 pVAL. Not great, but it’s just to show hitters another pitch.

 

2020 Outlook

I like Sonny Gray, and as I said, I think he’s legitimately improved when it comes to striking hitters out, but he still walks too many hitters and overperformed in 2019. My bet is an ERA at or below 4.00 with a mid-to-high 20s K% and a BB% that nears 10% — perhaps a 16-17% K-BB%. Expect the WHIP to rise too.

 

Realistic worst-case projection: 4.10 ERA, 1.35 WHIP, 21% K rate in 160 IP

Realistic best-case projection: 3.00 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 30% K rate in 190 IP

 

Nick’s reluctant Sonny Gray 2020 projection:

3.60 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, 25% K rate in 170 IP

 

Anthony DeSclafaniLocked Starter

Nickname: Tony Disco

 

2019 In Review

For his fourth straight season, DeSclafani’s K% and K-BB% improved, but his BB% went up for the third straight season, too. He had his second straight season with a bad home run rate, which is in part because his home park Great American Ball Park, which, despite its name, isn’t so great for him.

 

Fastball (37% usage)

For the first time in his career, DeSclafani elevated his fastball. He sat at nearly 95 mph with his fastball, which is up from previous years, but his extension is done. Thus, he should have an increase of two ticks in velocity, but he only gained a tick in velocity. By spin rate, it’s below-average, and by active spin rate, it’s solid, at 90.4%. In any case, his fastball elevation, paired with his increase in velocity, led to a career-high in SwStr% and his best pVAL since 2015, because his fastball plays fairly well at the top of the zone.

I will caution, though, that his fastball’s BABIP was lower than is sustainable.

 

Slider (24% usage)

Took him quite a while to find his slider — which wasn’t a unique issue for pitchers in 2019 — but he found it in the second half. By the end of the year, it ended up about as good as it usually is. It wasn’t quite a Money Pitch, but it basically was. With a 41.2 O-Swing%, 42.6 Zone%, and 14.5 SwStr%, as well as a 7.4 pVAL and 1.1 pVAL/C, it was easily his best pitch.

On the flip side, his .297 wOBA outperformed his .340 xwOBA due to a deflated wOBAcon, so we should maybe expect some regression at the pitch-level for his slider.

 

Sinker (18% usage)

By wOBA and xwOBA, DeSclafani’s sinker was quite good. Again, due to a lowered wOBAcon and BABIP, there’s some regression that is likely to occur, paired with the fact that it was significantly better than in previous years despite no changes being made to it. Not much to see here!

 

Curveball (18% usage)

Over the years, DeSclafani’s curveball has looked good, except for accruing an awful pVAL of -12.4 and pVAL/C of -1.4. This trend continued, as his curveball put up a pVAL of -4.7 and pVAL/C of -1.3. This is despite an O-Swing% of 34.0%, a 31.1 Zone%, and 15.7 SwStr%. Those are all respectable numbers, and yet it was incredibly unlucky. Despite the lowest barrel rate of any of his pitches, he gave up five home runs on the pitch, a 27.8% HR/FBLD (home runs per fly ball and line drives), .606 wOBAcon, and .484 xwOBAcon.

The issue here was as much of small sample size as it gets — even over his career, it has less than 100 batted ball events — but it seems to be his most home run prone pitch.

 

2020 Outlook

DeSclafani is, like, one single smidge better than a league-average starting pitcher. That’s as it pertains to ERA, WHIP, and BB%, but he’s below-average in K% and HR/9. To be honest, I’ve never quite understood the hype and I still don’t.

 

Realistic worst-case projection: 4.75 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, 20% K rate in 130 IP

Realistic best-case projection: 3.90 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 24% K rate in 190 IP

 

Nick’s reluctant Anthony DeSclafani 2020 projection:

4.10 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 23% K rate in 170 IP

 

Wade MileyLocked Starter

Nickname: The Dabbler

2019 In Review

For the second straight year, Miley posted a low xwOBAcon (and thus xwOBA and wOBA), and he also continued to throw his cutter more, as its usage jumped from 14% to 21% to 47%. This has allowed him to tamper the use of his four-seam fastball and sinker — neither of which are good — and allows them both to play up. The end result is a league-average, or slightly better, pitcher — but his profile is fully reliant on contact management.

Cutter (47% usage)

If it wasn’t for this pitch, I’m not sure Miley would still be pitching. His fastball and sinker are both not good pitches, so this one saved him from being a disaster. By FIP-, these past two years have been Miley’s best stretch ever as a starter — although his 2018 was only a partial season.

Over his career, its Contact% has been superior to his fastball and sinker, but it has induced more ground balls than both, and also a low, sustainable BABIP. While he’s used his cutter significantly more in the past two seasons than his fastball and cutter, it’s still produced better results overall.

From 2015 to 2019, Miley’s fastball groupings have been far and away better in 2018 and 2019, and that has to do with Miley’s cutter.

Changeup (21% usage)

With a career 33.5 O-Swing%, 40.2 Zone%, and 14.6 SwStr%, Miley’s change is not quite a Money Pitch, but it’s been incredibly effective for him in the past few years — perhaps the cutter is helping it play up. While he was likely a little fortunate with it, per his wOBAcon and xwOBAcon, it’s still a great pitch, even barring possible regression.

His cutter does a lot for him, and it’s arguably more important than his changeup, but his changeup is what allows him not to be a below-average pitcher. After all, you do need at least one strong secondary.

 

Fastball (16% usage)

As I’ve said, Miley’s fastball isn’t good in isolation. In fact, it’s been his worst pitch over his career. It seems like there’s potentially some regression on the horizon, but his repertoire from the past two years has allowed it to be much better than it actually is.

Given he doesn’t use his sinker very often, I’m not going to talk about it below, but it’s not a good pitch either, and has been worse than his four-seam fastball in the past couple years.

Curveball (9% usage)

With a 29.1 O-Swing%, 28.4 Zone%, and 9.5 SwStr%, Miley’s curveball wasn’t great in 2019, but it’s a consistent, if not mediocre, pitch that helps him fill out his repertoire.

 

2020 Outlook

Overall, you’re looking at a meh IPS, low strikeout rate, and an average walk rate. He may be able to beat his peripherals, but he’s not a sexy option. I think he can maintain his numbers from 2019, but I’d expect an ERA above 4.00 rather than below it.

 

Realistic worst-case projection: 4.80 ERA, 1.40 WHIP, 18% K rate in 100 IP

Realistic best-case projection: 3.80 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 21% K rate in 180 IP

 

Nick’s reluctant Wade Miley 2020 projection:

4.20 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, 19% K rate in 150 IP

 

Tyler MahleFringe Starter

Nickname: The Addiction

 

2020 Outlook

I was disappointed to see the Reds add Miley because I like Mahle. He has plus-plus command and swapped out a slider for a good curveball and added a splitter and cutter. Fascinating! If he brings back his slider, he’d have three solid secondary pitches, but that’s not a guarantee. It’s hard for me not to like command guys who have a good-enough fastball and a few secondaries. He should get some starts at some point in 2020, but apparently he’ll spend most of the season in Triple-A or the bullpen.

 

Lucas SimsFringe Starter

Nickname: OotP

 

2020 Outlook

His 99th percentile fastball spin is misleading because of his active spin rate, but Lucas Sims is interesting. He has three secondary pitches that can induce whiffs, but I’m not certain he should be throwing his fastball 50% of the time. I’m not expecting much from him, but I’ll be watching to see how his repertoire develops. He might start a few times but he’ll be in the bullpen for most of the year again.

 

Tony Santillan – Fringe Starter

Nickname: The Boxer

 

2020 Outlook

He’s just worth mentioning, but despite his nasty stuff, it’s looking more and more like Santillan is going to end up in the bullpen. He doesn’t have a third pitch, and he obviously doesn’t have the necessary command. He struggled in Double-A, but Steamer has him starting two games in 2020. I’d bet the under, but nothing about him says starter to me.

 

 

Featured Image by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm on Twitter)

Michael Ajeto

Michael co-founded Sounding Off Blog, where he wrote about the Mariners. Now he writes Going Deep articles here. You can follow Michael on Twitter @mikeyajetoPL, or you can not.

  • Avatar Lagniappe says:

    Money Pitch is not defined in the glossary. What is it? What readily available data sets are used for CSW?

  • Avatar Jim says:

    As a Reds fan not only is this article exciting but some grade 80 nicknames for Bauer and Sonny.

    • Avatar Michael Ajeto says:

      I wish I could take credit for the nicknames, but I’m a 50-grade nicknamer, while Nick is 70- to 80-grade.

      Thanks for reading!

  • Avatar Jon Mac says:

    Some are billing this starting rotation as one of the best and deepest. Not just in the NL buy all off baseball. From top to bottom you make them sound mediocre at best.

    While you may not be overly impressed with Disco, it was his first full healthy season in what appears to be ages. If he can manage to stay on the field he could improve just by getting the wd-40 out and knocking off some more rust. The top 3 starters have the potential to be top of the rotation of not ace quality. Also factor in the pitching coach that seems to get the best or of most.

    • Avatar Michael Ajeto says:

      That’s certainly not my interpretation of them. At worst, they’re a top ten rotation. At best, they’re nearly top three. I think I’d support the thought that their rotation is the deepest in baseball, though.

      While they’re certainly important and useful, I don’t see any reason to be excited about Miley — I like Mahle more — and Disco is projected for a 4.45 FIP with a 1.6 HR/9. There’s some upside there, but I’m not big on him.

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