Photo via Aaron Doster, USA Today Sports
While every division in Major League Baseball (MLB) will bring excitement in a shortened 2020 season, the National League Central might be the most interesting.
On one hand, you have the St. Louis Cardinals and Milwaukee Brewers. Two different teams, two NL Central winners over the past two seasons and two teams that will look to contend once more.
Then, of course, you have the Chicago Cubs, who broke their century-plus World Series drought in 2016 and have averaged over 94 wins over the past five seasons.
There is the Pittsburgh Pirates who, despite having bottom-of-the-barrel finishes in the NL Central over the past three seasons, still possess numerous young up-and-coming prospects that could collectively play spoiler to teams vying for a postseason spot.
Oh, but there is one more team. A team that, perhaps, might be the most intriguing team of all, even though the Cardinals have unique roster balance, the Brewers have a contending MVP in Christian Yelich, the Cubs have the “Bryzzo” brothers and the Pirates have a crown jewel stadium in PNC Park.
A team that, arguably, has the deepest, filthiest and scariest starting rotation in the division. A team that, with the high-ceiling rotation, might just jump back into legitimate postseason relevancy: the Cincinnati Reds.
The emphasis, of course, comes in what they can muster together in their starting rotation.
To begin, let’s rewind the clocks to 2019 and compare Cincinnati’s overall starter rotation numbers to the rest of the division. Cincinnati’s starter ERA of 4.12 ranked ninth in all of baseball and second among NL Central teams (St. Louis’s 3.78 starter ERA ranked fifth in MLB). When looking at starter innings pitched, Cincinnati’s 883.1 innings ranked 10th in all of baseball and second among NL Central teams (the Cubs’ 888.0 innings pitched was tied for seventh in all of baseball).
When looking into pitching specifics, including that of strikeouts per nine (K/9) and walks per nine (BB/9), Cincinnati begins to show their overall nastiness. Cincinnati’s collective starter K/9 of 9.70 ranked third in MLB, first in the NL Central and first in the National League. While Cincinnati’s 3.06 BB/9 ranked 17th in MLB, it ranked second among NL Central teams (Chicago’s 2.70 BB/9 ranked eighth). However, Cincinnati’s starter strikeout to walk ratio (K/BB) of 3.17 ranked ninth in MLB and second among NL Central teams (Chicago’s 3.33 K/BB ranked seventh).
When putting everything together, you have a collection of starters who put up a decent ERA, pitched a solid amount of innings and struck out a ton of batters. This, in addition to only giving up 1.37 homeruns per nine innings (HR/9), would emphasize that Cincinnati’s rotation last year was respectable when compared to the rest of the NL Central and MLB in its entirety.
However, “respectable” will not cut it for the Reds, especially if their offense goes quiet over the course of the season like it did last season (Cincinnati’s 701 runs ranked 25th in MLB and last among NL Central teams).
Luckily for the Reds, their rotation might be better simply by working together as a unit once more. More experience and chemistry equates to more productive results, so the saying goes.
Let’s look at the individual starter rotation numbers to better explain this. Cincinnati’s top four starters in terms of innings pitched all return to the Reds again this season (Luis Castillo, Sonny Gray, Anthony DeSclafani and Tyler Mahle). While Mahle’s ERA of 5.14 was sub-par, the other three had an ERA of 3.40, 2.87 and 3.89, respectfully. While Cincinnati lost Tanner Roark to the Toronto Blue Jays in the offseason (who ranked fifth on the team in innings pitched (IP) before being traded at the trade deadline last summer), the Reds replaced him with Wade Miley, who started more games (GS) and pitched more innings than Roark did last season (33 GS and 167.1 IP as opposed to 31 GS 165.1 IP), albeit at a microscopic margin.
OK, sure. Cincinnati returns their top starters in terms of innings pitched and replaced the one they lost with a pitcher that should be able to put up relatively similar numbers. The chemistry will be better even with a new face. Where does the big improvement come from, aside from having better chemistry?
Here it is.
Former Cleveland Indians starting pitcher Trevor Bauer.
Bauer, who was acquired at the deadline last season, pitched to a 6.39 ERA in 56.1 innings with Cincinnati through 10 starts. However, while he gave up close to two home runs per nine innings (1.92), his K/9 was a healthy 10.86 and his BB/9 was a manageable 3.04. When coupled with his combined 3.81 ERA, 9.5 K/9, 3.30 BB/9 and 1.00 HR/9 over his previous four seasons (2015-18), it is a fair assumption that he will bounce back nicely. It definitely helps that he has a career 2.55 ERA in interleague games (29 GS in 30 games).
When you roll Bauer in with a group containing Castillo and Gray, you have a potential “Big Three” that can go up against any trio other NL Central teams can put together. When combining the three together, their average age of 28.7 puts them in the heat of their prime. When compared to other starter trios in the division, this begins to stand out. Chicago’s top three rotation starters in terms of innings pitched (Yu Darvish, Kyle Hendricks and Jon Lester) have an average age of 33.0. While St. Louis’s trio of Jack Flaherty, Miles Mikolas and Dakota Hudson bring an average age of 26.3, Flaherty and Hudson are both young (24 and 25, respectively) and are unproven in pitching a high amount of innings two seasons in a row (196.1 and 174.0 IP, respectively). Milwaukee’s rotation, meanwhile, brings a plethora of turnover, as Milwaukee’s top two starters in terms of innings (Zach Davies and Chase Anderson) last season are no longer with the team. While Corbin Burnes, Brandon Woodruff and Josh Lindblom bring an average age of 28.3, they are unproven from an innings and chemistry perspective. Pittsburgh’s top three of Joe Musgrove, Trevor Williams and Chris Archer bring an average age of 28.7. They also bring inning issues in addition to injury ones, as Archer had Tommy John surgery and will be out of action for the 2020 season.
While average age certainly is not the determining factor in putting a starting rotation over the other, when combined with the production Cincinnati’s rotation put up last year, in addition to the chemistry the rotation uniquely possesses on top of it, the Reds could turn heads this year.
The NL Central will have many storylines as the 2020 shortened season unfolds. Cincinnati’s rotation might not only be the biggest, but also the most impactful that could result in a long-awaited division title and deep playoff run.