Struggling Cincinnati Reds Experience an Ugly Skid

The struggling Cincinnati Reds have had a tough week. Since last Sunday when the Reds finished their weekend series against the Houston Astros, they have gone 1-5 ,with losses to Houston, the Texas Rangers, and three straight to the San Diego Padres, who currently sit in last place in the NL West. The Reds had a -24 run differential in their five losses in the past week and Cincinnati has now lost eight of their last ten games since June 15th against the Atlanta Braves. That doesn’t mean their weren’t bright spots during the last seven days and interesting news notes. In this week’s Cincinnati Reds analysis let’s take a look at who struggled, who thrived, and what these individual performances mean as the All-Star weekend and trade deadline approach.

Is J.J. Okay?

J.J. Hoover‘s ERA peaked at 19.50 this season on April 22nd after a o.2 inning, four earned run outing against the Chicago Cubs. After continuing to struggle, he was sent down to Triple-A Louisville with a 14.34 ERA on May 5. He was called back up to the big leagues on June 14, and was able to pitch five straight scoreless innings and get his ERA down to 9.77. This week against the Rangers on Wednesday, Hoover allowed a home run in one inning pitched. That inning actually brought his extremely high ERA down to 9.72.

Then, on Friday against the Padres in Great American Ball Park, Hoover pitched one inning, allowed three hits, two walks, one home run, for a total of five earned runs. So now J.J. Hoover’s ERA sits at 11.72 with a 2.04 WHIP and an incredible eight homers allowed in 17.2 innings pitched. This is coming from a 28 year old reliever who turned in seasons of a 2.05 ERA and 0.98 WHIP in 2012, 2.86 ERA and 1.11 WHIP in 2013, and a 2.94 ERA with a 1.17 WHIP in 2015. It is common knowledge that the Cincinnati bullpen has been terrible this year, but what has gone so horrifically wrong with Hoover?

When you notice how many home runs he has allowed, one would assume that Hoover is allowing too many fly balls in power-friendly Great American Ball Park. He is indeed allowing a lot of fly balls at with a 21:42 ground ball to fly ball ratio. However, this is far from unusual for Hoover. Before this season Hoover had a 207:393 ratio which means over his career he creates 1.91 times more fly balls than grounders. Even with a solid career K/9 of 8.95, Hoover’s style is far from ideal for his home park.

Hoover is a young reliever with a great MLB track record for the Reds, but he seems to be rattled in a crippling way. This isn’t an Alfredo Simon situation where the pitcher is 35 years old and had been on a steady decline for years. Hoover was slated as the clear-cut closer coming into 2016, and now he is allowing an extra base hit in 17% of opponent plate appearances and a home run in 9% of them. He is even walking a career high 5.1 batters per nine innings pitched. According to FanGraphs Hoover’s hard hit ball rate is up from 29.1% to 40.3% while his average fastball velocity is down from 93.2 mph in 2015 to 91.6 mph this season. Whether it is injury related, or a Jon Lester level case of the “yips”, something remains seriously wrong with J.J. Hoover.

Reed Between the Lines

After a promising first start at Minute Maid Park last Saturday, Cody Reed had a bit of a messier start in the Reds 13-4 loss to the typically offensively weak Padres. Reed allowed five earned runs in five innings on the mound which raised his ERA and WHIP from 5.14 and 1.29 to 6.75 and 1.67. However, a closer look at the outing makes the start look much less concerning for the top level Cincinnati prospect. Reed struck out six batters in his five innings which gives him a season total of fifteen strikeouts in twelve innings pitched.

Next, Reed allowed only one home run in improvement from the two he allowed in Houston. That home run was hit by San Diego first baseman Wil Myers who has seventeen home runs, a .533 slugging percentage, and a .937 OPS when facing left-handed pitchers. Reed walked just two batters, but allowed nine hits. Those hits came on a 10:7 ground ball to fly ball ratio. Given that Reed currently has a BABIP of .400 this season on a 51.5% ground ball rate on batted balls, it is safe to conclude that many of the earned runs against him have been largely in part to poor luck. There is certainly no reason to worry about the 23 year old and he has another tough test in front of him this Wednesday as he takes on Kyle Hendricks and the Cubs in Cincinnati.

Quick Hits

Since last Sunday in Arlington, Jay Bruce has continued to look every bit the offensive stud that trade deadline buyers hope that he is. In those six games he went 8-24 with two doubles and a long ball which is good for an XBH percentage of 17% on the week to add to his seasonal total of 14%. Bruce also only struck out four times this week good for the same percentage of 17%. Bruce has a career strikeout rate of 24%, but is striking out far less this year at 20.8%. The decreased K-rate means a higher percentage of balls in play. Combine that with his hard hit ball rate improving from 35.4% to 39% on 41.5% fly balls; and it is no surprise that teams like the Royals, Giants, Indians, and White Sox are willing to pay through the pipeline to add the rejuvenated slugger.

Zack Cozart went 6-24 this week with two doubles, a triple, and a home run. He also had four strikeouts, so besides the .250 batting average, he had exactly the same extra base hit and strikeout percentage that Jay Bruce had. After being atrocious on offense for several years, Cozart had a breakout season in 2015 that was cut short by injury, but he picked up this year right where he left off and in an even bigger way. In 2015 he improved his hard hit ball rate from 22.9% to 25.4%, and this season he has crushed the ball at an even better rate of 33.2%. With a strikeout rate at 13.7%, being in the top four NL shortstops in every major offensive category, and the best defensive range factor of all NL shortstops, Zack Cozart will fetch a bountiful reward if the Reds decide to sell on him this season. If they do, Cozart will be by far the best shortstop on the trade market for potential World Series contenders.

Brandon Phillips went 6-25 this week with one double. His batting average has dropped to .257 and his OPS has dropped to .679. He had a hot start to 2016 with a .288/.321/.425 slash line, one home run, and three steals out of five attempts. In May he managed to hit five home runs; but he had a slash line of just .233/.277/.417 and was caught in all three of his stolen base attempts. This month, he has declined even further with one stolen base, zero home runs, and a .258/.290/.315 slash line. Phillips is going to have to have a hot July at the plate if the Reds were planning on testing his value in the trade market yet again. Adam Duvall hit his 21st home run on Thursday to tie Colorado Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado for the lead in NL homers. Duvall will almost certainly be the lone Cincinnati Red selected to the All-Star Game.

Brandon Finnegan turned in yet another quality start by going 6.2 innings, allowing three earned runs, five hits, three walks, and striking out an impressive eight batters. His ERA and WHIP now stand at 3.83 and 1.32 this season alongside fellow Kansas City Royals exports Cody Reed and John Lamb. After a strange outing against the Braves on June 15, where he allowed four runs, just one earned, in 2.2 innings pitched, Anthony DeSclafani bounced back with another great start. DeSclafani pitched seven innings, allowed two earned runs, five hits, one walk, and six whiffs.

DeSclafani has looked good as new in return from the DL with an improved hard hit ball rate that went from 31.4% in 2015 to 26.4% so far this season with fastball that is averaging 93 mph with a 95.1 mph peak and a slider that is making up 34% of his pitches and is traveling at 87 mph. Last but not least, Josh Smith has been a pleasant surprise out of the Reds bullpen lately. He has a 2.40 ERA and 1.27 WHIP and has been used for extended relief as he has six appearances ranging from 1.1 to 3.1 innings pitched.

With the 28-47 Reds sitting twenty-one games behind the Cubs in the NL Central basement and 12.5 games out of the second wild card spot, it is difficult to get too caught up in day to day wins and losses. The real focus is on who is getting better and who is staying marketable. For the sake of the trade market; it is more important to focus on the day to day wins and losses of teams like Kansas City Royals, Cleveland Indians, San Francisco Giants, the Los Angeles Dodgers, New York Mets, and Toronto Blue Jays. It is important that these teams remain in the playoff race so that they feel pressure to make moves come August 1.

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