When the Cincinnati Reds went about assembling a better ballclub last off-season, there were suggestions that the team’s best acquisition was not a player but a coach.
This season is showing that that may very well have been the case.
Apart from acquiring pitchers such as Sonny Gray, Tanner Roark and Alex Wood, the first coach hired under new manager David Bell was the pitching coach of the Milwaukee Brewers. Derek Johnson, a former Vanderbilt pitching coach and a coordinator for the Cubs’ minor league pitchers, left the Brewers and joined the Reds.
Johnson had done a splendid job in improving the Milwaukee pitching staff, and the Brewers tried to keep him. But Johnson, who lives in Nashville, decided to become part of the building process in Cincinnati. One of the players who dropped into his lap was Gray, who had pitched under Johnson at Vanderbilt. But the Reds were a team that needed a lot of help in the pitching department, not just right the ship of Gray.
Today, the Reds have the best earned run average of any team in the National League at 3.36. The only team in the major leagues with a better club ERA is the Tampa Bay Rays, who have become something of a phenomenon and have a current 2.96 mark. The second best team ERA in the National League is the Chicago Cubs at 3.53. The Reds are tied for second in the majors behind the Cubs in shutouts. The Cubs have six, and the Reds five, along with the surprising Minnesota Twins.
The Reds’ pitching prowess, to be sure, is a bit puzzling. The club was 67-95 last season and ranked 24th among the 30 big-league teams in ERA. The assumption became that the strength of the team this year would come from hitters, including veterans Yasiel Puig and Joey Votto and youngsters Jesse Winker and Nick Senzel, a former University of Tennessee star. The off-season moves for pitchers was supposed to be a boost. But even at that, expectations were limited given that the staff had to pitch in hitter-friendly Great American Ball Park.
But there it is, plain as day. The Reds have the most effective pitching staff in the league. And for all the dazzling analytics that help evaluate talent these days, the age-old earned run average is still the best measure of a pitcher’s performance. So the Reds’ ERA is a stunner that could be out-stunned only by the fact that the Cincinnati batters are currently dead last in the majors in team batting average, at .216.
The club has played on the road a lot, with 24 of 41 games away from Great American Ball Park. Generally speaking, it’s fair to assume pitchers will suffer once the team plays more games at home. The Reds are last in the National League Central Division, seven games behind first place Chicago. Had the hitting lived up to expectations, Cincinnati would be in much better position now.
Johnson’s strength as a pitching coach seems to be his willingness to see what pitchers do well already, then work to improve what they do, as opposed to forcing a single philosophy upon an entire staff.
It is hard to argue with Johnson’s track record. He was pitching coach at Vanderbilt from 2002-2012. Among the pitchers he worked with there were Gray, David Price, Mike Minor and Jeremy Sowers. Johnson was on the staff at Vanderbilt a year before current head coach Tim Corbin took over. Corbin kept Johnson on, and Vanderbilt gradually became a remarkable college program, turning into a perennial power. During that time, Johnson wrote a book, “The Complete Guide to Pitching.”
Johnson left Vanderbilt when he got the opportunity in 2012 to join the Cubs as a minor-league pitching coordinator. The Milwaukee Brewers hired him in October 2015 to become their pitching coach, and they made gradual climb into becoming NL Central champions last season.
Johnson was a successful left-handed pitcher at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, but that was as far as his playing days went. He never pitched in the majors or minors.
A lot was made of the fact that Gray knew Johnson when Gray agreed to a contract extension in order to complete a trade from the Yankees to the Reds last year. Gray said it was just one factor in his thinking. Thus far, Gray is 0-4 and if there is any magic between the two of them, it hasn’t happened yet. But there are some remarkable accomplishments on the staff, most notably the emerging stardom of Luis Castillo.
Castillo is currently 4-1 with a 1.76 earned run average. The 26-year-old right-hander from the Dominican Republic was in the Giants and Marlins organizations before joining the Reds in 2017. He got the opening-day starting assignment this year, and he has 70 strikeouts in 56 1/3 innings. He recorded 165 strikeouts last season with a 10-12 record. His ERA currently ranks third in the majors. Hitters have a .168 batting average against Castillo, ranking him second behind Justin Verlander of Houston at .163.
Under Johnson, the Brewers’ earned run average over the three years he coached there was 3.94, which ranked fourth in the National League in that span behind the Dodgers (3.49), Cubs (3.58) and the Nationals (3.81).
Before his time at Vanderbilt, Johnson coached at Eastern Illinois, Southern Illinois and Stetson. His record is one of improving pitchers. This is only the second month of the first season for Johnson handling the staff in Cincinnati, but if anyone was looking for results from the Reds’ off-season moves, they need look no further than that team earned run average. After Cincinnati’s showing the last few years, just saying the Reds are second-best in baseball in any meaningful measure is saying a lot.