GOODYEAR, Arizona – There were plenty of issues with the Cincinnati Reds’ offense last season:
They relied too much on home runs to score. They had the league’s lowest batting average. They scored two or fewer runs in 18 of their 29 losses. Their season ended with a 22-inning scoreless streak in the postseason.
“We’ve got to find ways to extend innings, create more hits, more opportunities,” Reds Hitting Coach Alan Zinter said. “We were not bad with men on third base. We were not bad with men on base. Our trouble was getting the guys on there, sustaining innings and giving ourselves a chance to do that.”
There will be an emphasis this season on hitting down through the ball. When the Reds spent the offseason studying what went wrong with the offense, they felt they eliminated their margin for error with how many balls were hit into the air.
The Reds were encouraged by the quality of contact they made, and they were tied for third in the league in walks. They ranked eighth in barrels per plate appearance, according to Statcast. The top five teams in that category were the best offenses: the Los Angeles Dodgers, San Diego Padres, Atlanta Braves, Chicago White Sox and Toronto Blue Jays.
“You can see that we walked, we had great swing decisions last year, but our guys never scored,” Zinter said. “We were missing the variety of hits, so we didn’t really work in that spectrum where that high hit probability is. We hit a lot of home runs when we were on, but when we did miss it, we were in the air too much. We’re trying to bring down that focus a little bit, so we open up that spectrum.”
The Reds essentially doubled down on their offense this offseason. They are returning virtually the same starting lineup as the group that struggled last year with their only change among starters at shortstop. They felt they had a good offense entering last season, but they didn’t have 162 games to prove it.
“In the 60-game season with everything going on last year – and every team was part of it – I think guys were trying a little bit too hard to get things going,” Zinter said. “I think if you talked to these guys individually, they were trying to get on track, and it took them a few weeks to a month or so, and when we did get on track, the season is almost over. It would be nice to see what would have happened if our big guys would’ve got 400 more plate appearances to see what would have happened, but they didn’t and that was the season.”
The Reds have introduced a virtual-reality training program to some hitters during spring training. Players can use it for pitch recognition, timing or to see a certain pitcher’s delivery. They tried different things with how they conducted batting practice at the end of last season.
The way the season ended last year left a bitter taste for hitters. In Game 1 of their National League Wild Card Series, the Reds left 13 runners on base and hit 1 for 12 with runners in scoring position. The Reds had their first two hitters reach base in the first inning and stranded them both.
“We’re returning the core group of guys,” Zinter said. “What I like about the core I see is everybody is on a mission. Everybody’s got a chip on their shoulder. And that’s great.”
ROLL IT: During the first two weeks of spring training, teams have the option to end an inning without recording three outs if a pitcher throws at least 20 pitches.
The Reds didn’t have any instances of it in their Cactus League opener against Cleveland, but Reds Manager David Bell said there were a couple of times when they were one batter away.
“I think everyone was hesitant to roll an inning, which is probably good,” Bell said. “It can be a tool if we need it, not just as soon as we get to 20 pitches we’re rolling it. I think it’s nice to know. The big benefit is not having to get anyone up in the bullpen. That’s huge.”
Rolling an inning is popular in “B” games on the backfields when rules are much more relaxed.
“Not really knowing the etiquette for sure, I was just letting the third base coach know,” Bell said of when he almost rolled an inning in Sunday’s game. “I think that’s what you’re supposed to do. That way he can send the runner, knowing it’s his last chance.”
UTILITY MAN: Dee Strange-Gordon started his first spring training game at second base on Monday. He will spend time at shortstop, and the Reds want to give him a look in center field, too.
Strange-Gordon, a non-roster invitee to camp, was a Gold Glove winner at second base in 2015.
“The best shot to make the team, and he was told this,” Bell said, “is to make it as a guy who can play all over. We are excited to see him play shortstop. I have seen him as a younger player play there and he was really a good shortstop. Looking forward to seeing him play and giving him that opportunity while keeping him sharp at the other positions that we know he can play, including center field.
“He’s mostly been an infielder since he’s been in camp, but we want to keep his outfield skills sharp as well and make sure that factors into what he can do overall.”
Strange-Gordon started 50 games in center field for the Seattle Mariners in 2018, but he did not play there afterward. He made 10 starts in left field last season.
WINKER SCRATCHED: Jesse Winker was scratched from Monday’s spring training game with a sore right hip. Mark Payton replaced him in the outfield.