18 Games at a Time - Capsule 3

The good news, if you’re even interested in such a thing anymore, is that the Reds were *this* close to playing the latest stretch of games at a favorable clip.  A baserunning blunder, a blown call at the plate, a couple of timely hits, etc.; if things turn ever so slightly in the Reds’ direction, we’re singing the team’s praises through a brutal turn in the schedule.  Instead, the team appears to be nearing desperation, both in terms of needing a win and in needing some healthy bodies.  The other good news is that things will get better, provided the pitching really isn’t quite this bad.  It can’t be this bad.  It can’t be this bad.  It can’t be this bad.  Somebody hold me.  (All stats and miscellanea through Sunday’s games.)

2011 Reds, Capsule 3

Overview:

Wins/Losses: 7 - 11

Strength of Schedule: .505 (4th most difficult in NL; 6th most difficult in ML)

[Prev: .469 , 16th most difficult in NL; 29th most difficult in ML]

RPI (ESPN): .504 (6th best in NL; 12th best in ML)

[Prev: .491, 10th best in NL; 18th best in ML]

Baseball Prospectus playoff odds: 10.4% [Prev: 25.9%]

Offense:

  • .258/.329/.387 (AVG/OBP/SLG) for the team, compares to NL average of .252/.320/.385
  • Take is as a given that the Reds faced outstanding pitching over the last three weeks.  That their offense held up as league average is an indicator that the hitting is for real.  Be even more encouraged by the three standouts: Votto (900 OPS for the period), Hernandez (1021 OPS), and Bruce (1092 OPS).
  • More on Jay Bruce: 20 RBI, 50 total bases.
  • For every force there is an equal force in opposition, therefore Paul Janish: 4-for-48, no extra bases, two walks.  His offense was equivalent to scoring -1.26 runs per game.
  • Left fielders Fred Lewis and Jonny Gomes combined for 78 plate appearances and five RBI.
  • Reserves Heisey & Cairo both submitted 900+ OPS marks.
  • Drew Stubbs has misplaced some of the leadoff-worthy competencies he displayed earlier, striking out 24 times this period, and getting on base 29% of the time.
  • Conversely, Joey Votto was issued a free pass in over 20% of his plate appearances.

Pitching:

  • Team ERA of 4.71 for the period, compared against a league average of 3.76.
  • 18 different pitchers appeared for the Reds in these 18 games, including a fellow named Jeremy Horst, who may or may not have been an innocent and unassuming customer at the team hotel prior to being placed on the team roster.
  • The struggles of Edinson Volquez are well documented, and it would be hard to be worse, but Bronson Arroyo managed: 0-2, 10.59 ERA, .368 batting average against.
  • Much of the bullpen did yeoman's work over this stretch, but worthy of extra shout-out are four pitchers who pitched at least 8 innings with ERAs under 1.2: LeCure, Cordero, Ondrusek, and Masset.  Others (Bray, Arredondo, Fisher) pitched pretty well, too. 
  • Johnny Cueto pitched the team's first complete game of the year, in part because he was pitching well, in part because the bullpen was in need of rest.  He's the best pitcher on the team right now, and if the team had a couple more like him, they'd be in first place.
  • The starters own most of this blame: the pitching staff's K/9 rate was just 5.9 and the BB/9 rate was 4.2.  Both marks were well off the league averages, and both represent the most fundamental aspect of pitching a baseball.  Not good.
  • The team's DER shot up 10 points (.695 to .705), and now ranks as the 4th best in the NL.  At least part of this may attributed to increases in Scott Rolen's playing time, and decreases in Jonny Gomes's.

The next 18:

  • 11 games at home, 7 on the road
  • 6 of the 18 against divisional opponents
  • 4 of the 18 against 2010 playoff teams
  • 2 of the 18 against American League opponents
  • .490 average winning percentage (2011) for the teams in the next 18 games.
  • A seven game road stretch against California-based teams.
  • A reminder that the season is long.  The Reds are 5 games back of St. Louis, who had been swept by the Reds in this past 18 game stretch.  Remember that?  Anyways, the Reds need to end the year at least one game up on the Cards, which works out to be one game gained per 18 games left on the schedule.  A long, slow burn.  If the team wants to make it all up in a week, however, who am I to oppose?
  • There remains talk about the Reds being active on the trade market.  I must say I'm a little skeptical that they will be, especially for a shortstop.  Make no mistake, a top-tier shortstop would be a huge gain on the margins for this club, but pitching injuries and ineffectiveness have unveiled the deepest needs for this team.  The team has supposedly deep pitching, but is short on ace-level talent.  There are no aces for sale in the marketplace, so the team will continue to piece together internal options.  If they get hot...then a trade for shortstop may very well be imminent, but why burn your trade chits now when so many balls are up in the air?

 Loquacity (or, He could hit a baseball like he was holding a bell):

I am fascinated by the team construction aspect in the NBA and NFL.  I am not, however, fascinated by the games in either league.  It's been a few years since I've watched a full NBA game...hell, it's been a few years since I've watched a full game's worth of action in a whole season.  In the NFL, I maybe watch three or four games a year, including the Super Bowl.  Point being, I'm not exactly a hard-core fan.  But I'm a mortal lock to follow the amateur draft in both leagues every single year.

Part of the intrigue is in linking players I watched play college ball to the professional teams I nominally cheer for or against, and part of it is observing-year after year-that I truly have no idea what I am watching.

Football, in particular, is a flaming ball of mystery.  I've never played the sport in any organized manner, and I don't know what it means to be a four technique lineman or what good hips on a cover corner look like.  I watch quite a bit of college football, mind, but these are subtleties completely out of grasp.  My predictive skills are also poor, having previously foreseen Michael Vick as an outright bust and Teddy Ginn as a mortal lock to be a star in the NFL.  So I watch the draft as a deaf man might watch a parade: keen to the spectacle of it all, lost to what's coming around the corner.

The NBA is different, in that I played that sport for many years and have a technical knowledge of some of the game's intricacies.  Again, however, I don't know which players are truly going to succeed, or how to translate a player's numbers from a bad team to a good team, or why a team can't play with five guys taller than 6'10", or why role players can seem as important as the team's stars.  Some GMs clearly know what they're doing, many others do not, and I like watching the process from afar to see if I can glean any patterns.

In one sense, baseball is equally elusive.  I recently watched a video of Alex Gordon on a scouting-heavy website, with the intent of the clip being to point out how Gordon's hands were too forward too early to drive the ball at the major league level.  Or something like that.  The point is that it was a minute detail I would never have picked up myself, despite having wondered why a former college superstar and minor league player of the year could never produce at an adequate rate for the Royals.

It's an important counterweight to the fact that we, collectively, have a pretty good idea who will play well from year to year, even if we never leave Mom's basement.  Some, like Gordon, will disappoint our expectations developed on past performances.  Others, such as Jose Bautista, can seemingly transform overnight, from likely washout to best hitter in the game.  We don't have perfect foreknowledge, thankfully, and there will always be room in this game for surprises.

Baseball projections are a great source of amusement for me in a love/hate sort of way.  I'm a numbers guy by trade, and the very concept of model construction and refinement so as to have a high level of confidence around near future events appeals to my core instincts.  On the other hand, there's a great deal of silliness around baseball forecasting, in which modelers boast about microscopic gains in correlation coefficients.  It's been said that baseball projections are less about forecasting the numbers and more about forecasting what a typical projection model will produce.  There's a kernel of truth in there; the first principles are so well established that a simple weighted model (e.g. Tango's Marcel projections) can get pretty close to what the most sophisticated forecasting models will achieve in accuracy.

And it is amazing: for all the talk about how baseball is a game of matchups and adjustments and streaks and slumps, there are computer programs which get pretty dang close on a pretty high number of player projections, all before spring training's first pitch is thrown.  Baseball, or more accurately 80% of baseball (or some fairly high percentage), is governed by an Invisible Hand.

The Reds, by my count, have had seven different players in the discussion for their left field spot, either now, or since the beginning of spring training: Alonso, Frazier, Gomes, Heisey, Hermida, Lewis, and Sappelt.  The very discussion is instructive; the old college football saw is that if you have two starting quarterbacks then you don't have any, and I expect the same thing applies to baseball teams with seven left fielders, especially those teams with division title aspirations. 

We know which of those seven has been regarded as the regular, and we know how poorly he has played.  An informal poll of Reds fans today asking which currently-rostered player should receive the lion's share of LF playing time would be heavily split, but would almost certainly rank Jonny Gomes no higher than 3rd, and perhaps as low as 5th or 6th.  What's interesting to me is that I suspect he would not have finished atop a similar poll held two months ago.  That might be poor perception on my part, or might reveal a disproportionate exposure to the Red Reporter crew.

I have sitting in front of me two sets of pre-season baseball projections.  One is a highly regarded and freely available version, the other is less well known and is subscription-based.  Both ranked Gomes near the top of likely Cincinnati left field options, as least as far as hitting is concerned: #1 in one projection, #2 to Fred Lewis in the other.

Two obvious footnotes should be delivered in bold print.  First is that defense matters, even in left field, and Gomes has never fared well on that front.  Second is that the whole lot of left fielder projections fared somewhere below what might be a mean level of expectation for LF hitting on a playoff-level team.  Whoever was chosen was likely to be operating at a net deficit to the key opposition.

I've already touched on the defense issue.  There are other problems with picking Gomes to be the primary left fielder: he's the oldest of the group (age 30) and thereby offers a projection without much hint of upside; also, the quality of his 2010 season was greatly masked by a high number of at-bats: his Isolated Power and walk rate were considerably lower than any previous season.

This is analysis bolstered by two months of additional data, but is hardly out of character with what I may have written during the offseason.  A new thought, however, is spurred by these two months: What if projections were continuous, or if they weren't constructed using seasonal endpoints as definitive boundaries?  In other words, one of the key assumptions (at least as best as I can tell) in these projection models is that more recent seasons are weighted more heavily than less recent ones.  Part of what that means is that the first few weeks of 2010 are given equal footing with the last few of 2010, but are given substantially more weight than the last few weeks of 2009.  This appears to be selective endpoint bias, built in to the projection framework.

Applying this specifically to Jonny Gomes, we can easily see that his 2010 stat line was 266/327/431.  His 2011 projections put him somewhere in the neighborhood of being a league average hitter.  Through the end of May (or pretty close to it), Gomes is a 191/317/390 hitter, for an OPS+ of 94.  And here's the kicker: over the last full season (i.e. June 2010 through May 2011), Gomes is hitting 235/317/391.  The Invisible Hand may not have missed the boat; it's just working off a better set of data.

Running a ball club is, of course, infinitely more complex than piecing together projected stat lines.  Walt Jocketty is an accomplished baseball executive, with a long history of successes to point to.  But on this issue, I'm having trouble seeing the forest or the trees.  At the beginning of the year, the "most-likely" scenario on Gomes was marginally better offensive production than his in-house alternatives and considerably worse defense, all tied to a weightier paycheck.  With two months of additional data, there is little reason to believe that a bounce-back is in store.  Dusty Baker, bless his heart, has finally put the lineup (mostly) out of its misery, by exercising veto power re: Gomes's starting role.  It's too soon to tell if the first two months of pro-Gomes championing will have a vital effect on the Reds' season.  It certainly cannot have helped.  I suppose the roster usages will haunt the team and its fans should the Reds finish a game or two back of the division champs.  Even more haunting to me, at least at this moment, is the question of why he was on the roster in the first place.  And what does that mean for future rosters?

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