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Here are two things that are true about the 2016 and 2017 Reds. One is that their record is one of the worst in baseball. That’s irrefutable. Through Tuesday, the Reds are 45-66. Their .405 winning percentage is the third-lowest in the National League, better than only the Giants and Phillies. Last year, they were 68-94, tied with the Padres for the worst record in the league.

The second thing that’s true about both the 2016 and 2017 Reds is that their pitching staff is bad. Last year, the Reds had an ERA of 4.91, 13th in the league. Or, if you prefer a pitching statistic that’s more process-driven than output-driven, their DRA was 5.14, also 13th. This year? It’s even worse. They’re last in ERA, 5.22, and last in DRA, 5.80. Their WARP is -4.5, which means that Reds pitchers have cost the club four-and-a-half wins relative to replacement-level hurlers.

So you could look at the Reds and say, “Bad team, bad pitching staff.” And you’d be right. But you’d be missing an interesting part of the story. Well, interesting to you and me, maybe not so much if you’re a Reds player or a Reds fan or part of Reds management. Let me summarize it in a table:

Year

Pitchers

ERA

DRA

2016

Starters

4.79

5.47

2017

Starters

6.02

6.63

2016

Relievers

5.09

4.67

2017

Relievers

4.22

4.72

Last year, you may recall, the Reds' bullpen was really awful. DRA didn’t think they were as terrible as ERA did, and the relief corps was far worse before the All-Star break (5.73 ERA) than after (4.29). But there’s no denying that Reds relievers have posted better results this year than last.

The starters, though … the starters have been pretty brutal. They weren’t great last year, but at least there were three National League teams (Rockies, Braves, and Diamondbacks) with worse ERAs. This year, the Reds’ starting pitcher ERA is nearly a run worse than that of the second-worst NL club, the Mets. They’re really bad.

So the Reds' relievers have shaved 0.87 runs off their ERA so far this year, while the starters have added 1.23. Adding those together, there’s been a 2.10 shift in ERA for the Reds, away from the bullpen, and into the rotation. This got me thinking: Does that set a record? It seems like a lot. I mean, it’s not unusual for a team to have bad pitching for two years in a row. Or good pitching, for that matter. But it does seem unusual for the complexion of the pitching to change so dramatically, for one side of the equation to improve while the other declines.

I looked at every team in the divisional-play era, 1969 to the present, and compared its starter and reliever ERAs from one year to the next. I was looking for teams, like the Reds, that experienced a shift of two or more runs, either the starters getting worse and the relievers getting better, or vice versa.

I made a table, but there are some abbreviations I need to explain. SERA is starter ERA. RERA is reliever ERA. I also used -1 and -2 as suffixes indicating the first and second years. So for this year’s Reds, SERA-1 is the starter ERA last year. SERA-2 is the starter ERA this year. Same with RERA-1 and RERA-2. Got it? Here are the teams that experienced the largest change in ERA distribution between its starters and relievers (note that I excluded the strike-shortened 1994 season):

Team

Years

SERA-1

SERA-2

Diff

RERA-1

RERA-2

Diff

Total

Angels

1979-80

4.06

5.13

+1.07

4.99

3.60

-1.39

+2.46

Yankees

1970-71

3.55

3.19

-0.36

2.47

4.50

+2.03

-2.39

Mariners

1996-97

5.70

4.47

-1.23

4.46

5.47

+1.01

-2.24

Red Sox

1989-90

4.29

3.32

-0.97

3.46

4.62

+1.16

-2.13

Reds

2016-17

4.79

6.02

+1.23

5.09

4.22

-0.87

+2.10

Giants

1997-98

4.25

4.73

+0.48

4.75

3.16

-1.59

+2.07

Phillies

2015-16

5.23

4.41

-0.82

3.81

5.05

+1.24

-2.06

In the last column, a positive value means that the team’s relievers improved and the starters got worse, like this year’s Reds. A negative number in the last column means that the relievers got worse and the starters got better.

There are only seven teams that saw earned runs slosh over between starters and relievers to the tune of 2.00 or more. Do you remember any of them? Don’t feel bad if you don’t. Some were good enough, but none were particularly memorable. Let’s go through the list:

  • 1979-80 Angels: First in the seven-team AL West 1979 (88-84), finished last the next year (65-95)
  • 1970-71 Yankees: Second in the six-team AL East in 1970 (93-69), fourth the next year (82-80)
  • 1996-97 Mariners: Second in the four-team AL West in 1996 (85-76), first in 1997 (89-73)
  • 1989-90 Red Sox: Third in the seven-team AL East in 1989 (83-79), first in 1990 (88-74)
  • I’ve already introduced the 2016-17 Reds.
  • 1997-98 Giants: First in the four-team NL West in 1997 (90-72), second in 1998 (89-74)
  • 2015-16 Phillies: Last in the five-team NL East in 2015 (63-99), fourth in 2016 (71-91)

The four teams that won their divisions were bounced in their first round of playoffs; their combined postseason record was 2-13. I also noticed that the two teams with the biggest increase in starter ERA, the 1980 Angels and the current Reds, are the worst teams on the list. On the other hand, the 1990 Red Sox and 1997 Mariners weathered an increase in their reliever ERA of over a run and each of them won their division. So maybe starter ERA is more important than reliever ERA. I’m guessing that’s not news to you.

Here’s a similar table for DRA.

Team

Years

SDRA-1

SDRA-2

Diff

RDRA-1

RDRA-2

Diff

Total

Orioles

2007-08

4.77

6.18

+1.41

5.83

4.73

-1.10

+2.51

Yankees

1999-00

5.20

4.27

-0.93

4.29

5.64

+1.35

-2.28

Twins

2013-14

5.76

4.41

-1.35

3.92

4.79

+0.87

-2.22

Phillies

2007-08

4.87

5.30

+0.43

5.79

4.12

-1.67

+2.10

Mariners

1996-97

5.94

4.08

-1.86

5.15

5.37

+0.22

-2.08

Yankees

2007-08

4.27

4.62

+0.35

5.63

3.90

-1.73

+2.08

Some of these teams were very good. The 1999 Yankees, 2000 Yankees, and 2008 Phillies won the World Series. The 2007 Phillies won their division. The 2007 Yankees were a Wild Card team. And we’ve already discussed the division-winning 1997 Mariners. This isn’t a large sample size—six teams over 1,348 team seasons—but it doesn’t seem as if a large shift in DRA between starters and relievers, by itself, has a big impact on a team’s success.

You may be wondering what my point is in doing this exercise. I got interested in the Reds and the way their relief corps has improved nicely while the rotation was falling apart. I wanted to discover how frequently something like this happens, and what it does to a team’s outlook. I think the answers are:

  • A large shift in run prevention from starting pitchers to relievers, or from relief pitchers to starters, is a fairly rare event.
  • When it occurs, it doesn’t appear to have a significant impact on a team’s success …
  • … as long as a component of the change isn’t a large rise in starting pitcher ERA. Teams experiencing a big jump in starter ERA from one year to the next are probably going to have a tough year, regardless of how good the bullpen becomes.
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