The Moneyball Reds?

Cincinnati needs to zig while everyone else is zagging

The Reds got a bit of good news this week, when outfielder Nick Castellanos decided not to opt out of his contract. In the unique deal he signed with the club last year, Castellanos could have elected to become a free agent this winter (he’ll have the same option next off-season). His performance in 2020 was uneven and, what with all of the unknowns facing teams and players in this most unprecedented of winters, it was not surprising in the least that Castellanos would decide to return and take his chances in the Queen City.

In other news, the Reds officially offered pitcher Trevor Bauer — the subject of last week’s newsletter — a qualifying offer. Bauer is a free agent, but he can choose to accept Cincinnati’s offer, which would mean that he would return to the Reds for $18.9 million on a one-year deal for 2021. If he declines, he’ll hit the free agent market and the Reds will get a draft pick if Bauer ultimately signs with another club.

Will we get another season of Bauer? Who knows? This off-season is likely to be the strangest in a couple of generations. MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred is already claiming that teams are poor and in debt and unable to spend any of their shiny nickels. Reds general manager Nick Krall has made similar rumblings about Cincinnati’s potential lack of funds to expend this winter.

Certainly, the pandemic and lack of game-day revenue in the 2020 season has depressed the bottom line of most teams. The uncertainty that hangs over the 2021 campaign is already causing many teams to shed payroll, as a flurry of arbitration-eligible players were cut loose this week, their teams unwilling to give them the raises that they were likely due. Whether there will be much of a market for the services of any free agents — even big names like Bauer — remains to be seen.

And this is where the Reds need to play Moneyball. They should zig while everyone else is zagging.

First, let me explain what I mean by Moneyball. Many of you have read the best-seller of that title by Michael Lewis; perhaps more of you have seen the film version starring Brad Pitt. Let’s simplify things:

The Moneyball thesis is simple: Using statistical analysis, small-market teams can compete by buying assets that are undervalued by other teams and selling ones that are overvalued by other teams….

The best-known Moneyball theory was that on-base percentage was an undervalued asset and sluggers were overvalued. At the time, protagonist Billy Beane was correct. Jahn Hakes and Skip Sauer showed this in a very good economics paper. From 1999 to 2003, on-base percentage was a significant predictor of wins, but not a very significant predictor of individual player salaries. That means players who draw a lot of walks were really cheap on the market, just as the movie narrates.

The Reds were one of the very last teams in baseball to join the analytics revolution; under GM Walt Jocketty, the Reds laughed heartily at the idea that they should find market inefficiencies to exploit. Jocketty was too busy signing former Cardinals, you know. (Where’s Skip Schumaker when you need him?)

No, the Reds didn’t play Moneyball back then. But the Reds absolutely need to be the Moneyball team of 2021.

When I say that, I don’t mean that they need to find high-OBP guys like the A’s did in the early 2000s. That’s not a market inefficiency anymore. Which is unfortunate, since the Reds, under Krall and former President of Baseball Operations Dick Williams, have revolutionized the baseball operations department, finally bringing the team into the 21st century when it comes to analytics. They’re competitive with everyone else on that front these days.

No, what I mean is that the Reds need to find the market inefficiency like Billy Beane’s A’s did. This winter, teams all over baseball are going to be tucking their checkbooks away, waiting for revenues to return before they spend money on free agents. Everywhere you look, teams are non-tendering their players and laying off employees, cutting costs at every turn.

The market inefficiency this off-season just may be a willingness to actually engage in the market. Free agents are going to be undervalued, just like OBP was two decades ago. While everyone else is refusing to spend, the Reds should jump into the market with both feet.

As I noted on Twitter, I fully believe that some MLB team is going to zig while everyone else is zagging this winter. The team that decides to spend money while everyone else is cutting could really fill all their holes in one fell swoop. Why shouldn’t that be the Reds?

Players are going to be available as free agents and in trade, and the cost to acquire them might be lower than they’ll ever be again. I don’t know what the Reds finances are — they don’t open their books to the public — so we can’t be sure what owner Bob Castellini’s financial situation is. Cincinnati hasn’t been cutting employees like many other organizations, but there’s no question that they’ve felt the pinch of the 2020 disaster.

But that’s all the more reason why they should zig while everyone else is zagging this winter. The Reds should take their shot, trying to fill as many holes as possible. They should be proactive, spending money while everyone else is cutting. This may be the best chance they’ll ever have to close the gap on the big-spending teams in the league.

Imagine if the Reds were aggressive, and put the finishing touches on a team that showed some real promise in 2020. What if they can put together a championship contender this winter while other teams are panicking and refusing to spend dollars? Then, if things return to normal at some point…well, the Reds will have a winner. And you know what happens when they put a winner on the field in Cincinnati?

The fans come out to the park in droves. Game-day revenue will rise, with the potential for the increased revenue that comes with post-season series’ at Great American Ball Park. It’s simple: the Reds can be proactive now and reap the rewards later.

Sure, it’s easy for me to spend Castellini’s money, and I really don’t know whether the financial situation is actually dire inside the business office. Perhaps it is.

But you can’t deny that an opportunity exists this off-season for whichever team decides to pursue it. Why not the Reds?

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Blast From The Past

From the 1973 Topps series, depicting the 1972 World Series:

The Reds defeated the Athletics 8-1 in that Game Six at Riverfront Stadium to even the World Series at three games apiece. Depicted above is Cesar Geronimo’s two-run single in the seventh inning that scored Johnny Bench and Bobby Tolan and gave the Reds a 6-1 lead. The following day, Oakland secured a 3-2 win, dropping the Reds to their second Series loss in three years. Would they ever win one???

If you have a Cincinnati sports-related picture you’d like to share here, send it my way (dotsonc@gmail.com). Only rule: it has to be a picture from before 2000.

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Grant Freking: FC Cincinnati waves goodbye to Nippert Stadium (and the playoffs)

Justin Williams: Cincinnati wins redemption over Memphis, remains force in college football ($)

Xavier hoops: Where does Danny Ramsey fit?

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What Chad’s Watching

Not exactly a banner week for The Dotson Cinephile Project. “Goldfinger” and “Rocky II” are two more for the Background Canon of movies that are so rewatchable you can just put them on when you’re doing other things.

I had to watch “Goldfinger,” of course, because the original James Bond, Sean Connery, passed away this week at the age of 90. “Goldfinger” is the best Bond film or, at any rate, it’s my favorite. It features my favorite Bond scene ever:

“Rocky II” is another delightfully rewatchable film. Balboa/Creed 2!!! “Sandy Wexler” is completely forgettable, but contains a bunch of laughs for Adam Sandler fans.

On the television front, I’ve finally been talked into starting “The Boys,” an Amazon Prime series that almost defies description. I’ll hold off on any further comment until I’m further along, but it’s…different so far.

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Another wild discussion this week about the off-season that faces the Cincinnati Reds. Even better: a spooky edition of Viewer Mail!

We talk about the Cincinnati Reds — for better or for worse — every single week on RNR. Join us for free by subscribing everywhere you find dangerous podcasts. Or any other podcast, really. And you can support the podcast here.

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