18 Games at a Time - Capsule 1

Welcome to my recurring gimmick, in which I track the Reds at 18 game intervals as a means to get my nom-de-net onto the Red Reporter masthead (Woo anonymous notoriety!).  Past iterations of this spot have focused heavily on numbers in a bullet point driven format; this year I’m aiming towards a diminished reliance on the numbers (some will still hang around), while introducing an essay-ish vibe, with inspirations generally coming from recent Reds activity.  Or other stuff that rattles around my brain.  We’ll see how it goes; there are no guarantees that the writing will be any good, or that there I will own nine distinct ideas from which to spring several hundred words per.  Legal disclaimers thus pronounced, let’s begin.  All stats through Wednesday’s games…

2011 Reds, Capsule 1

Overview:

Wins/Losses: 9 - 9

Strength of Schedule: .458 (16th most difficult in NL; 27th most difficult in ML)

RPI (ESPN): .469 (13th best in NL; 22nd best in ML)

Baseball Prospectus playoff odds: 19.8%

 

Offense:

  • .272/.341/.440 (AVG/OBP/SLG) for the team, compares to NL average of .256/.325/.392
  • The team was good for 5.56 runs scored per game, despite a team RC/G stat of just 5.14.  The League averaged just 4.33 runs per game.  MVP threw down an RC/G of over 10.
  • 17 steals, three times caught.
  • Four players already have hit double digits in RBI, and MVP ain't even one of them.  Two of those four (Jonny Gomes and Chris Heisey) have more RBI than they do base hits, which suggests some sort of Clutch Vortex taking residence somewhere in left field.
  • Paul Janish is here to teach us about the relative unimportance of batting average.  Sporting the 3rd highest average across the various regulars (.291), Janish has put up just 2.8 RC/G, which would comes in last among the starting 8 by a healthy margin.

Pitching:

  • There's a relatively obscure stat known as Strand Rate, which generally measure how many of a pitcher's non-homer baserunners are kept from scoring.  League average is usually between 70%-75%.  Three of the Reds starting rotation have strand rates under 65%.  One of them (Volquez) would have sucked with or without a good strand rate, but the other two (Wood & Leake) have pitched much better than their 5+ ERAs suggest.  Wood, in particular, has probably been the best pitcher on staff, but has an unheard of 55% strand rate.
  • The staff is averaging 8.6 K/9, compared to the league average of 7.3.  The lowest strikeout rate on the team belongs to Francisco Cordero, who still owns a very respectable 6.4 K/9 rate.  On paper, the Reds have a very good defense, and combined with a staff that misses bats, the team might be this close to clicking.
  • Speaking of defense, the team DER is just .688 (10th best NL; 19th best ML).  The 2010 team's defensive numbers started low last year as well, before ending the season near the top.
  • I have a note from last year's first period write-up commenting on Nick Masset's slow start.  Maybe he should just join the team in May from now on?
  • This is not pitching-specific, but there's something enjoyable about "watching" Dusty Baker's usage methods from a distance.  Over the first 18 games, consider:
    • Hanigan and Hernandez were within 4 plate appearances of each other
    • If you combine Francisco and Hermida into one bench player, all non-catcher reserves had between 24-29 PA.
    • All seven relief pitchers were between four innings pitched of one another.

The next 18:

  • 7 games at home, 11 on the road
  • 14 of the 18 against divisional opponents
  • 0 of the 18 against 2010 playoff teams
  • .490 average winning percentage (2011) for the teams in the next 18 games.
  • The presumable return of Johnny Cueto and Homer Bailey, bringing two very interesting roster decisions with them.  How many assumptions about the pitching staff are you willing to write in stone?  I can think of just two that seem ‘guaranteed'.  One, Bronson Arroyo is staying put.  Two, Matt Maloney will be demoted.  The latter means that one of the current starters, soon to be displaced, will be a candidate for bullpen duty.  Sam LeCure perhaps, despite having the lowest starter ERA on the team?  What to do with Volquez and his first inning struggles?  Are Travis Wood's strand rate struggles completely random and independent?  Will he get the chance to prove otherwise?  This could go on, but I'll spare you.  Trades seem unlikely at this stage in the season, and barring injury, team management will have some crucial decisions that will go a long way in determining the fate of the club.  At the very least, here's hoping that Cueto and Bailey are indeed the ones we've been waiting for.
  • On that note, Cueto and Bailey were the two starters I would have predicted to be the team's best coming in to the year.  That by itself means very, very little, but let's pretend it's an accurate prediction.  Does a .500 record against generally weak competition constitute a failure, or is it a success because of the short-handed pitching?  In a vacuum, I might be willing to suggest the optimistic view; in light of the great offense and the blown leads that actually occurred, I'm leaning toward the gloomy end of the spectrum.  On the other hand, the 2011 season has been re-set, 144 games to go, the team is in pretty good health, MVP is rolling, and we're all square with the other division hopefuls.  The good luck goblins will pay the team back at some opportune point in the future.

 

Loquacity (or, Why Jay Bruce may still be the 2011 MVP favorite):

There are lucid, intelligent thoughts, heretofore unthunk by a person, which are spoken or written by another and they instantly crystallize and integrate themselves into the former's worldview as though they had been lodged in a brain nook since conception.  Case in point: Bill James once theorized that baseball fans internalize how the game exists at age 10, then project that era's stylized components as a perfect ideal throughout the remainder of the fan's lifetime.  It's a theory, of course.  Certainly there must exist one baby boomer who came of age in the late ‘60s and doesn't mark a 90 minute 2-1 pitcher's duel as the epitome of a day at the park, but the notion makes sense.  It's a kid's game, slowly ruined by our knowledge of organized youth leagues and collective bargaining disputes and even of other time-robbing interests.  Gone are the slow summer days where we can throw countless tennis balls against the garage wall, working our way through the imaginary lineups of that day's crucial matchup.

My tenth birthday came in October, 1986, the same month as one of the more dramatic and storied World Series contests in the game's history.  As a life-long Midwesterner, I had no affinity or connection to either team, save for some general thoughts that Dwight Gooden carried with him a terror that was surely felt by any and all opposing hitters.  The following month, my father took a job in Connecticut, perfectly sandwiched between these conquering teams.  In leaving Minnesota, we said good-bye to a bad home team, with sad little heroes and a pathetic indoor stadium.  Eleven months later, the Twinkies grew up, and Kirby Puckett and Kent Hrbek became household names of a sort, and the Homer Dome suddenly became the coolest place on earth.  1,300 miles away, a 10-year-old boy noted the cruel irony of his baseball fandom vis-à-vis his geographic location, and took it for granted that the universe was taunting him.

One of the key constants in that transition from Midwest to New England was the annual family trip to visit grandparents in southwest Ohio.  Long summers of infrequent cable telecasts and 30-second highlight clips were interrupted by a weeklong indulgence of trips to Riverfront and live games on channel 5.  Baseball binges, consumed with fury and delight.  Growing up, I was always semi-baffled by attempts to rank the various MLB stadia, uniformly negative in their assessments of the Cincinnati entry.  How, I wondered, could the writers not have known the thrill of approaching that perfectly round stage of idols and enemies, acting out the unscripted comedy or tragedy in deliciously uneven meter?  To focus on inanities such as aesthetic appeal or concessionary fare rather than the simple fact that the home team was the Cincinnati Reds appeared short-sighted and willfully obtuse.  No matter, the ten-year-old shrugged.  This place may have been ugly to the artist's eye, but it was the most magical place on earth.

1987 was my ten-year-old season, and my vision of the perfect ballplayer shifted dramatically.  I was dutifully raised as a Pete Rose disciple, taught to switch-hit by age three.  I was fluent in the mythology: the unheralded nobody with a body to match hustles and claws his way to his throne in the Pantheon.  It was a great model, until it came face to face with the ten-year-old boy's discovery of two sudden realities.  First, an introduction to organized Little League baseball, as a scrawny newcomer to the age 10-12 division.  No amount of switch-hitting, scrappy hustling, or in-depth game knowledge would change the fact that I managed one solitary hit for the year.  Talent mattered so very much more than the intangibles I carried in spades.  Second, Eric Davis.

Watching an old man lacing well placed line drives is fun.  Watching a superhero hit 450 foot missiles and outrace wild pumas is better.  The newest star was an enigma: gingerly constructed out of toothpicks, Davis could nevertheless perform feats that were absolutely impossible to nearly all players before or since. 

And so a ten-year-old unwittingly locked in the model of baseball perfection.  It would matter little that Davis was prone to manic peaks and dizzying slumps, nor that missing a month's worth of games was an outright inevitability.  His play oozed coolness, and the essence was bolstered by numbers which still don't make any sense: 37 home runs, 50 stolen bases, 129 games played.

Nearly twenty-five years later, I am cognizant of the overall disappointment of Davis's career; of how potholes swallowed up the path to baseball immortality.  He had teammates that year who went on to have better careers, despite deficits in athleticism.  It does not matter.  I remain bound to the child's ideal, and it peppers every single season with its irrational outlook on the game.

Obviously, the uniform is paramount, worn by equals who begin each day with a clean stat line.  By the end of each day, it is clear that some are more equal than others.  And even though the numbers paint clear and distinctive pictures that leave little to interpretation, my expectations and perceptions are not easily swayed, as I am again and again drawn to the players who carry a piece of the Davis legacy.  Certain patterns emerge: I am instinctively pessimistic about players who played college ball, or those who were drafted in later rounds of the amateur draft, or those who no longer carry the infinite potential of youth.  These are characteristics which carry the hint of baseball being a difficult game, which only serves to remind that successes are temporary.  I want the illusion of permanency.

Two players on this year's team carry a trace.  Jay Bruce and Aroldis Chapman-in semi-brief glimpses-make the game look so effortlessly easy, that they seem capable of nearly anything.  Both are young, accomplished, and perched to make impossibilities a daily norm, so I leave little room for suggestions that either will do anything but excel, now and for as long as I care to peer into the future.  They are naturals.

The Reds, through their first 18 games, have done well enough to call it survival.  The team is tied for first place, winning most of the games that need to be won.  There have been missed opportunities, of course, but the great thing about April is that it's early enough to not know whether we need to be concerned about the missed opportunities.    You can't win a pennant in April goes the saying, but you can lose it. The Reds have not lost it.  And, by and large, the team has tread water without any superhuman accomplishments from Bruce or Chapman.  The former has struck out a sickening 21 times in 68 times to plate.  The latter has better numbers, but has thrown like an ordinary mortal, while walking nearly a batter per inning. 

The team has, instead, been led by veteran presences, by crafty pitchers, by redeemed nobodies, and by a robot specifically crafted to always hit a ball hard somewhere.  It's a likeable team, utterly capable of winning with or without The Naturals playing to their potential.  After each game or set of games, I (and countless other Reds fans) will update my internal assumptions and arrive at new expectations for the various players on the team.  For some, my estimations will rise; for others they'll fall.  But for two specific players, regardless of what the numbers say, I'll carry a buoyant optimism that Their Next Great Exploit is right around the corner.  It's what ten-year-olds do.

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