The Most Disappointing Season For … The Cincinnati Reds
The 1996 Cincinnati Reds
Record: 81-81 (3nd NL Central, 8th out of 15 in NL)
Pythagorean Record: 81-81
Runs Scored: 778 (2nd in the NL)
Runs Allowed: 773 (8th in the NL)
Prior Season Record: 85-59
Manager: Ray Knight
Hype: Meet the new boss. Ray Knight replaced Davey Johnson as manager is a pre-ordained Marge Schott move. Most of the core team is back, and the NL Central is weak. Playoffs, baby!
The Gory Details: Because Marge Schott is Marge Schott, even though Davey Johnson led the Reds to the NLCS in 1995, he was going to be axed in favor or Knight, come hell or high water.
So Knight, who was the ‘assistant manager’ to Johnson in 1995 (bet THAT went over well in the clubhouse) took over a team that lost power source Ron Gant, but still had most of the pitching staff that got them to the playoffs.
Knight was going to be scrutinized – not just by Schott but by the fans, everyone in the baseball press, you name it. And it was OK to start, at least until Tax Day. They were 8-5 and tied for first. Pretty nice beginning.
By May 1st they were 9-17, in last place and the buzzards and vultures had put on their bibs.
It wasn’t a secret what the deal was. The staff gave up 6 ½ runs per game in April, and had a 5.63 staff ERA and a staff WHIP of 1.74. It was everyone. John Smiley, Pete Schourek, Dave Burba and Mark Portugal, key cogs to the playoff run, were all pitching like garbage. Closer Jeff Brantley struggled as well. Losing Gant wasn’t the problem – getting people out was.
So the staff got them in this hole; it was up to them to get them out of it if the offense kept up its production.
Reds batters didn’t have a great month of May, and their pitching was still shaky (too much Johnny Ruffin and Roger Salkeld for anyone’s tastes). The rotation was slowly getting better, except Schourek, who by the end of May had 10 starts, three quality starts, and a 5.90 ERA. Oh, and then he went on the DL. Nice.
With a 19-28 record at the end of May, somehow the Reds were still in the race. They were in third, just three games out. Thankfully, the entire NL Central decided that winning baseball was optional during May.
Soon, they dropped to last. Still close, but in last, thanks to the moribund Giants kicking Kevin Jarvis and Ruffin all over Cinergy Field in a 15-4 drubbing. Bottoming out at six games behind, they started to show signs of life, sweeping the Padres in San Diego, winning four of seven on a road trip.
A home sweep of the Phillies got them to fourth, and two wins against the Cubs got them to third and 1 ½ back on June 29th. Even former pitching punching bag Kevin Jarvis got his act together.
July was a decent month, but the Reds lost ground to the Cardinals. They lost five of six to St. Louis during the month. Cincinnati took care of business the rest of July against the other NL teams, and the Cards started to flounder a bit. The Reds even got back over .500, and were just two games behind after a win over Montreal on August 1.
This team won the pennant last year. Yes, one pitcher is out, but the offense is doing well and the other starters seem OK. So, sure, the Reds are in it.
Of course, around the corner is another lamppost to smack into. Jarvis, Portugal and Burba were trounced by Montreal. Jarvis was lit up again by the horrible Giants, and Burba, Salkeld and Smiley all were pasted by the Dodgers. It was getting ugly again. Spot starts were given to Giovanni Carrara and Mike Remlinger. That didn’t help. The pitching was getting run down.
They kept plugging away, trying to get and stay over .500. Houston and St. Louis were definitely in striking distance. But they struggled at Florida, ran through the staff in Colorado (as one does), and then salvaged a split against the Marlins at home to enter September at 67-68, in fourth place, but just six games behind.
There was hope for optimism. The Reds won six out of eight to start September, and absolutely scalded the ball all over Cinergy. They outscored the Giants 29-9 in a three game set that put them just four games behind.
Then they went on the road, to the west coast, and the first two starters were Jarvis and Salkeld. They both were blitzed and the Reds were toast in both games, then the Dodgers beat Smiley. They lost two of three to the Padres, then were swept by Pittsburgh. After the Pirates series, there was no more hope. At 74-78, and 8 ½ back, it was curtains.
Oh, they kicked a little bit, sweeping a doubleheader against the Cardinals. But Cincinnati was destined to finish even steven, at .500.
The offense didn’t miss Gant. Eric Davis came back and was sensational. Barry Larkin had 33 homers and 36 steals. They finished second in runs, again. And on the face of it Smiley, Burba and Portugal did OK with good ERA+ factors.
They really missed Schourek, who pitched twice more after May but was shut down for good in August. Jarvis’s ERA was almost six, and Salkeld ‘s was 5.20. This really tired out the back end of the pen as Ruffin was rotten most of the year, and Lee Smith, Remlinger, Hector Carrasco and Marcus Moore were all found wanting due to overuse.
Never take April for granted. The Reds seemingly did and had to play catchup all season long, and it was just too much. Knight, for some reason, didn’t have his team, and especially the rotation, ready to go. He was fired halfway through 1997 and never had a real chance to manage again.
Chicken Wolf All-Stars: Barry Freakin’ Larkin. He had a 7.2 WAR, scored 117 runs, slugged .567 and was just a stud among studs. He was seventh in WAR in the NL and that earned him 12th in the MVP balloting.
Honorable Mention Team: Cincinnati had the best record in the NL in 1981, but thanks to the screwy split season didn’t make the playoffs. They traded away Ken Griffey to make room for youngster Paul Householder. They traded Ray Knight away to make room for Johnny Bench – at third base.
Householder was an unmitigated flop (64 OPS+. -1.2 WAR), everyone else forgot how to hit and Tom Seaver was lit up to the tune of a 5.50 ERA. They finished 61-101, and wasted a great season from Mario Soto and a good season (except for W-L record) from Bruce Berenyi.
Bad Blast from the Past: Some argue that the 1919 Reds could have beaten the Black Sox fair and square. They’d have put up a great fight at any rate. But in 1920 they couldn’t repeat as their pitching staff went from best to fourth best and their offense slipped just enough so they couldn’t pick up the slack.
Thus a slide from first and 96 wins to a distant third and 82 victories. (BTW, this team has some great baseball names: Hod Eller, Slim Sallee, Jimmy Ring, Dutch Ruether, Ivey Wingo, Morrie Rath, Heinie Groh, Greasy Neal, Rube Bressler, and Buddy Napier. Oh, the olden days)