The Twins (35-22) and Reds (29-28) close the 2020 regular season with an important three-game set in Minnesota. Both teams enter the weekend with a myriad of playoff seeding possibilities in play and watching the out of town scoreboard might garner as much attention as the action on the Target Field diamond. The Twins come in having won four out of five to win their last two series against the Cubs and Tigers. That stretch, coupled with the rival White Sox being swept in four games in Cleveland, has bounced the Twins back to first place in the AL Central for the first time since August 26. For their part, Cincinnati is 8-2 in their last ten games and has won four series in a row to draw closer to a wild card playoff berth. If the season ended today, the Reds would be the 7th-seed in the National League. The team’s magic number for a playoff berth remains at 3. There’s a lot on the line for both clubs.
The third place Reds are led by their pitching staff, an underrated and often dominant bunch that is fronted by Max Kepler’s favorite hurler, Trevor Bauer. After several years out of contention the Reds are back in the hunt this season, the second for manager David Bell. In many ways the current iteration of the Reds has been built in the tradition of Moneyball – they lead MLB in walks taken offensively and in strikeouts per nine from the mound.
Behind Bauer the Reds starting rotation includes young right-hander Luis Castillo, whose fastball-changeup combination is about as good as you’ll find in the game today. Veteran Sonny Gray has experienced a return to form in Cincinnati after some nomadic years. Right-hander Tyler Mahle rounds out the Reds four-man rotation and will start the series opener on Friday. The four-man rotation is made possible by the Reds decision to throw Bauer on short rest the remainder of the season. Bauer has long been a proponent of this arrangement and delivered 8 innings of one-run ball on 3 days’ rest earlier this week. If the standings still require, Bauer will likely go on three days’ rest again on Sunday. Collectively, Reds starters have compiled a 3.42 ERA (4th) that is supported by a 3.50 FIP (1st) and the second most fWAR (7.8). The group leads MLB with 11.08 K/9.
The Reds fortified their bullpen at the trade deadline with the acquisition of right-hander Archie Bradley from Arizona. Bradley most often sets up closer Raisel Iglesias. Amir Garrett is the only high-leverage lefty in the Cincinnati pen, and Bell will frequently use hard-throwing right-handers Michael Lorenzen and Lucas Sims for multiple innings in middle relief. The stuff in this bullpen is top of the line (average 94.6 mph fastball velocity, 3rd highest), but control can often be elusive (4.57 BB/9, 23rd).
As a staff, the Reds lead all of baseball in expected outcome statistics per Statcast, allowing just a .221 xBA, .377 xSLG, and .302 xwOBA. Much like the Twins, Cincinnati relies heavily on breaking balls, throwing sliders 25.3% of the time. Those sliders have proven highly effective and trail only the Twins in value per Fangraphs.
Offensively, 2020 has been a struggle. Despite having some recognizable names like first basemen Joey Votto, third basemen Eugenio Suarez, outfielder Nicholas Castellanos, and second basemen Mike Moustakas the Reds rank just 28th in runs scored per game. Despite the league leading walk totals, the Reds have struggled to get on base (.312, 22nd) and have MLB’s lowest batting average (.211). Designated Hitter Jesse Winker has had a breakout campaign, leading the team in OBP, Slugging, wOBA, and fWAR. In the rest of the lineup spots the Reds platoon as much as possible. Tucker Barnhart and Curt Casali share the catching duties, and both have had strong seasons. International free agent outfielder Shogo Akiyama and trade acquisition Brian Goodwin man the outfield spots next to Castellanos against right-handers. Former top prospect Nick Senzel and Aristides Aquino handle those positions against lefties. Uber-defender Freddy Galvis handles most of the shortstop action and he is spelled against lefties occasionally by Jose Garcia or utilityman Kyle Farmer. Cincinnati’s poor offensive performance has been made possible in part by miserable batted ball luck – the team’s .242 BABIP is easily lowest in MLB, 21 points below the next lowest figure. Nonetheless, the group has dangerous power (87 homers, 7th).
★ ★ ★
Nicholas Castellanos’ bad luck
Despite a career-high in home run rate (14 homers, 1 every 16.5 PA) and average exit velocity (91.1 mph), familiar foe Nicholas Castellanos has just a .226 / .299 / .500 line in 231 plate appearances in 2020. Obviously, the power is there, but the average and on-base results have declined. Castellanos has suffered through a season of bad batted ball luck. His .254 BABIP is easily a career-worst and well-below his .329 career average. In large part because of that, Castellanos has baseball’s 6th largest gap between his actual batting average and his Statcast expected batting average (.285).
What to look for:
His suppressed results are not all the doing of bad luck. He appears to have taken to Cincinnati’s patient offensive approach, seeing the highest numbers of pitches per plate appearance of his career. But that selectivity has also come with a higher swing and miss rate (34.7%, career-high), especially against changeups (43.2%). Always vulnerable to breaking balls, look for Twins pitchers to attack Castellanos with soft stuff before trying to make him chase fastballs up or in on his hands.
★ ★ ★
Scouting Luis Castillo
27 years old and standing 6’2 and 200 pounds, right hander Luis Castillo has established himself as one of the game’s best young hurlers. Featuring two powerful fastballs and a devastating changeup and slider combination, Castillo ranks among MLB’s leaders in exit velocity allowed, strikeout rate, and swing and miss rate. The changeup is his most frequent offering (30.1%), followed by his four-seamer (27%), sinker (25.1%), and slider (17.8%). The fastballs average 97.5 mph (97th percentile), with the changeup around 88 mph and the slider around 86 mph. For the season, Castillo is 4-5 with a 2.86 ERA and 85 strikeouts in 66 innings. The ERA is supported by a 2.73 FIP, despite allowing an uncharacteristically high .321 BABIP. Castillo gets a ton of groundballs (58.5%, 2nd most) and strikeouts (31%, 14th).
What to look for:
Castillo is a handful for opposes offenses and he uses his pitches around the zone just as you would expect given their movement profiles.
He uses the fastballs most often early in counts – either the four seamer up or the sinker down. The sinker gets strikes and early contact (usually on the ground), whereas the four-seamer is more of a swing and miss pitch (38.8% whiff). As counts progress, he turns increasingly to the changeup and slider as his primary out pitches (29.3% and 34.2% putaway, respectively).
★ ★ ★
The underrated Jesse Winker
Reds outfielder / designated hitter Jesse Winker was lauded for his plate discipline and approach as a prospect. Finally given a chance to play mostly every day in 2020, he’s delivered on that promise, posting a .385 OBP and .552 slugging percentage in 174 PA that works out to a 147 wRC+. It’s a power and patience profile that should be familiar to Reds fans who have enjoyed fourteen seasons of Joey Votto’s career. Winker has a long way to go before he can approach Votto’s success, but the two share several similar traits, especially a penchant for working the count and destruction of right-handed pitching. In 843 career PA against right-handed pitching, Winker has put up a .299 / .393 / .518 line that is good for 138 wRC+.
What to look for:
Unlike Votto, who has been a threat against left-handed pitching throughout his career, Winker has largely been shielded by the Reds from facing lefties in his young career. Just 18% of Winker’s career plate appearances have come against lefties. And for good reason as his .197 / .319 / .306 career line against southpaws is 27% below league average. The Reds have loosened the reins a bit in 2020 in response to Winker improving against lefties. In a very small sample size of 39 PA, Winker has hit .281 / .410 / .531 (153 wRC+). If those gains are real, Winker will have closed a major remaining gap in his skillset. Nonetheless, look for the Twins to try to match Winker up against their lefty-neutralizing bullpen arms late in games – Tyler Clippard, Caleb Thielbar, or Taylor Rogers.
★ ★ ★
Max Kepler has owned Trevor Bauer
For his career, Twins outfielder Max Kepler has 37 at-bats against Reds’ probable Sunday starter Trevor Bauer. Kepler has hit .351 / .400 / .811 against Bauer, including five homeruns in five consecutive at-bats last season between two games in Cleveland in June and July. In anticipation of a possible matchup of the two again this weekend, I’ll just leave these here:
Remember when Max Kepler took Trevor Bauer deep in 5 straight at-bats last year?— Do-Hyoung Park (@dohyoungpark) April 2, 2020
The internet hasn't let Bauer forget, and he responded with a fantastic breakdown on YouTube of the historic homer streak, from his perspective:https://t.co/Py9RL7WVjt
John is a contributor to Twinkie Town with an emphasis on analytics. He is a lifelong Twins fan and former college pitcher.