Sunday, December 6, 2015

The Future is Now!

On the eve of the Winter Meetings, it's clear that the Reds are about to blow up. Their phones, their 25-man roster, their future, it's all blowing up. There's going to be upheaval and things won't ever be the same. To say that the next few weeks are important is like saying Joey Votto's pants are just a bit snug. That is to say, understatement at its finest.

How the Reds proceed over the next few days and weeks will determine their future. It'll determine how successful the rebuild is and how long it takes. Baseball operations are a decision-making business and some key decisions are on rolling in over the horizon.

Given that the Reds are on the verge of overhauling their roster, it's important that they understand how their home ballpark impacts their players and overall performance.

Way back when the BoSox won their first World Series in the Theo Era, the writers of Baseball Prospectus came out with a book about it called Mind Game. One of the early points they made about Theo's construction of the roster was that they first had to understand the park effects of Fenway. They argued that previous regimes failed to understand the park, as a result they were always overvaluing hitting and undervaluing their pitching. So, when they should have been bolstering their hitting, they were instead adding pitching. The front office's misunderstanding of the way the park played created flawed roster construction.

The BoSox, before building the roster, had to understand the park and how it impacted production and performance level. If you don't understand how the park impacts performance, then you simply can't properly value your players.

I feel like the Reds are now in the same situation. Before the Reds begin the rebuild, they need to understand what they have and what plays well in their home park. We all know that GABP is a hitter friendly park. In fact, everyone knows. All that said, I still don't think we *fully* appreciate what the park does to our hitters. Basically, it makes our mediocre hitters look good. Put another way, our good hitters aren't actually that good (well, except for one!).

Here's a look at the park effects for 2012-2014:

GABPAVGRunsHitsDoublesTriplesHome RunsWalksStrikeouts

Just as a refresher, 100 is neutral. So, given that the index for Home Runs is 140, it is 40% easier to hit a home run in GABP than league average. Given an index of 94 for doubles, it's 6% harder to double in GABP than in the league average park.

That's all well and good, but how does it impact our hitters?

Below are the career splits for all of our main contributors, except for Eugenio Suarez, whose splits below are solely for the 2015 season:

Jay BruceHome.255.330.499.829
Brandon PhillipsHome.274.323.441.764
Todd FrazierHome.270.333.501.834
Devin MesoracoHome.241.317.455.772
Billy HamiltonHome.228.287.319.606
Zach CozartHome.246.285.381.666
Joey VottoHome.301.420.532.952
Eugenio SuarezHome.301.333.452.785

To me, it's fairly shocking how mediocre our hitters actually are. You usually don't see this type of extreme home/road split outside of the Rockies organization. However, the troubling part is that the Reds don't play in Coors Field. Coors is plagued by atmospheric issues, not ballpark dimension issues. They are constantly adjusting from sea-level spin rates and breaking pitches to high-altitude spin rates and breaking pitches and back again. As a result, the "true" performance level of the Rockies hitters falls somewhere between their home and road splits. The splits of the Reds, however, are driven by ballpark dimensions, rather than atmospheric issues. That's troubling because the true performance level of our hitters is the road split.

If you want to know why I've always thought Todd Frazier should be dealt, you're looking at it. He's a GABP creation in the mold of Rich Aurilia and Joe Randa. He's too old, on the verge of getting expensive, and his production is massively inflated by Great American Ballpark.

I really don't know what happened to Jay Bruce, but he desperately needs to be dealt. He needs a change of scenery and it's very difficult to look at his game and see any projection remaining. He seems very much what he is and it's not good enough for what we are or where we're going.

It's probably too early to draw conclusions about Mesoraco or Hamilton, but there are some troubling signs about the former.   

All that said, seriously, how good is Joey Votto?????

If I'm the Reds heading into the Winter Meetings, I'm focused on adding disciplined hitters. Not only is OBP one of the basic statistics most closely correlated to scoring runs, but it's undoubtedly one that plays about as well on the road as it does at home. It would make the offense more consistent and the Reds a tougher team to play on the road. I want players with plus-pitch recognition and something resembling plus-hit tools. I want hitters who fit the same offensive profile as Joey Votto and Jesse Winker. 

As I've written before, Max Kepler is at the top of my list. I'd build my offseason around his acquisition. If you add Kepler to Winker and Votto, then you have a potential core of incredibly disciplined hitters who control the strike zone, grind ABs, and avoid giving away ABs. That's what the team will need to compete with Cubs and Cards and Bucs in the future.   

All that said, here are some names on my offseason wish list for the Reds:

1. Max Kepler - I would center my rebuild around Max Kepler. Kepler, Winker, and Votto is one helluva core of professional hitters. With the announcement that Sano is joining Buxton in the outfield and the signing of the Korean DH, Kepler might be a surplus asset for the Twins.
2. Kevin Gausman - The Orioles are purportedly looking for a lefthanded hitting outfielder. I still think there is some type of deal that could be built around Jay Bruce here.
3. Mac Williamson - This is the outfielder the Reds should have acquired from the Giants in the Mike Leake deal. He's a right handed hitter with a strong walk rate and good athleticism. He could be an ideal fit in leftfield/rightfield for us.
4. Forrest Wall - Second baseman with a pure hit tool and good speed.
5. Brendon Sanger - A second tier prospect that piques my interest for his hit tool and plus pitch recognition, maybe we could get him and a touch more from the Angels for Brandon Phillips or something.

Now that I've gotten my thoughts out, let's see what the Reds do. It seems like Aroldis Chapman to the Dodgers is on the verge of happening. 

Saturday, December 5, 2015

The Key: Max Kepler

The key to the Reds off-season is Max Kepler.

It's that simple.

That simple fact makes the following blurb rather exciting:

Twins general manager Terry Ryan said Wednesday that the plan is for Miguel Sano to play right field in 2016.
Sano mostly served as the designated hitter during his rookie season, but the Twins plan to use the newly-signed Byung-ho Park there in 2016. There has been some speculation that the Twins would trade Trevor Plouffe to make room for Sano at third base, but Ryan said Wednesday that they have talked to the young slugger about playing the outfield and that he's on board with the plan. Byron Buxton is penciled in as the starting center fielder while Eddie Rosario will play left.Dec 2 - 1:14 PM

Just to recap, the Twins are planning on filling out two-thirds of their outfield with potential superstars in Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano. That doesn't leave much room for Max Kepler, especially since face of the franchise Joe Mauer is manning first base and new Korean acquisition Byung-ho Park holding down the DH spot. Add in the fact that the Twins have been impressed enough by Eddie Rosario to hand him the left field job and if you squint hard enough then Max Kepler starts to look like a surplus asset for the Twins.

In short, it's starting to feel like the music has stopped and Kepler is still looking for a chair. Fortunately, the Reds have chairs for days and days. It feels like there might be a legitimate fit here. It doesn't hurt that the Twins and Reds are passing each other on the win-curve, moving in opposite directions. The Twins are ready to add pieces to put them over the top, while the Reds are hoping to slough off win-now pieces for future value. The Reds and Twins lineup nicely for a trade.

Back to Max.

I first noticed Kepler in the 2014 Arizona Fall League, just prior to the 2015 season, and wrote a comment about what I saw on John Sickels' MinorLeagueBall website:

I’ve seen Kepler in a few AFL games this year and came away really impressed with how calm he is at the plate. He seems very comfortable tracking pitches, to the point that it seems like he slows the game down a bit. I was surprised, because I was expecting him to be a bit more raw in his approach, as I would imagine a player born and raised in Germany would have seen far fewer total pitches in his amateur career than the comparable American born prospect. 
It remains to be seen whether he has the swing mechanics to develop into an impact hitter, but he seems like the type of hitter of who can recognize pitches, generate count-leverage, and be disciplined enough to draw a walk. Now, he just needs to learn how to drive the ball when he works the count in his favor.

Maybe he never pans out, but he’s more interesting than I thought he’d be.

by Lark11 on Nov 7, 2014 | 11:47 AM 

Watching Kepler, his comfort level at the plate is astounding. He seems to identify and dismiss pitches faster than his contemporaries. Knowing in advance what the pitches are going to do gives him the appearance of owning the batter's box. Not only is his pitch recognition superb, but he uses it in conjunction with a very patient and disciplined approach. In his first 7 MLB plate appearances in 2015, Kepler saw a total of 37 pitches, good for a 5.3 pitches per PA. Obviously, that's an absurd degree of patience that will regress over more PAs, but that kind of patience in his first MLB stint is fairly remarkable. But, he's much more than just a patient approach.

In 2015, interestingly enough, he learned how to drive the ball after working the count in his favor. In essence, his swing mechanics caught up to his plate approach, making him a complete and dangerous hitter.

There is a tremendous amount to like about Kepler's swing mechanics.

In these photos, you can see how he loads the back shoulder, creating real differential between the rotation of the hips and shoulders. His hips fire first before the shoulders rotate open. He stays compact and upright to maximum the rotational force generated by his body. A key to high level hitting is generating maximum force and delivering it to the point of contact. Kepler's swing mechanics generate the force and his hand-eye coordination helps him deliver it to the point of contact.

I already loved Kepler's pitch recognition and disciplined plate approach. Now, I'm a big fan of his swing mechanics, too. It's all coming together.

For me, I'd do what it takes to land Max Kepler. If the Reds want to shallow out this down cycle, then adding Max Kepler would go a long ways towards accomplishing just that. If you add Max Kepler to Jesse Winker and Joey Votto, then fully 1/3 of your MLB lineup will be made up of hitters with plus-plus pitch recognition skill and very disciplined approaches. These are the types of hitters the Reds need. These are the offensive profiles that they should target.

Over the next half-decade or more, the Reds will have to face a Cubs team featuring Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, Addison Russell, and more. The Cards are never short on disciplined, professional hitters, in fact it's practically part of The Cardinal Way. It would serve the Reds well to build their own core of impact, disciplined hitters to keep pace.

The Reds have a lot of talent (Aroldis, Frazier, Bruce, etc) to dangle in front of those teams looking to make a hot stove splash. If they play their cards right, then they could land the type of talent they need and ensure that the down cycle they are entering is as short as possible.

Max Kepler is the key.