18 Games at a Time - Capsule 4

 

If the recent speculation is to be believed, we may be less than a season away from massive realignment, with one of the outcomes being perpetual inter-league play.  I would imagine the Reds would be well served to fold the franchise if this is the case.  Inter-league disappointments aside, this was a positive stretch for the home team.  Games picked up on the division leaders are always cause for a Coke and a smile, and there has been an actual starting pitching sighting.  As we’ll see later, just staying close for now is key.  All the numbers are through Saturday’s games…

2011 Reds, Capsule 4

 

Overview:

Wins/Losses: 10 - 8

Strength of Schedule: .496 (8th most difficult in NL; 21st most difficult in ML)

[Prev: .505 , 4th most difficult in NL; 6th most difficult in ML]

RPI (ESPN): .500 (8th best in NL; 16th best in ML)

[Prev: .504, 6th best in NL; 12th best in ML]

Baseball Prospectus playoff odds: 17.6% [Prev: 10.4%]

Offense:

  • .260/.335/.371 (AVG/OBP/SLG) for the team, compares to NL average of .252/.319/.391
  • The regular eight were as Dusty drew ‘em up in February, with Hanigan getting a few more opportunities then Hernandez.  Of the primary starters, the leading hitters were Jonny Gomes (!) and Drew Stubbs, each with an OPS of 862.  Gomes's BABIP for the period was .500.
  • Neither catcher hit for any power: just one double between them, but they both continue to impress with OBPs over .400 for the period.
  • Much has been made of the strikeout struggles of Drew Stubbs (30 for the period), but Joey Votto was fairly close behind in the category with 24.
  • With the hitters they have, and the park in which they play, 12 home runs in 18 games is pretty ugly.
  • The shortstops: Janish with a 608 OPS, Renteria at 472.  For the year, both are in the mid-500s.  Janish, in particular, is good for 2.0 RC/G.
  • MVP and Future MVP played well enough to not embarrass themselves, but not well enough to distinguish.  There's a sense in which putting together a winning record without a hitting Superman is a good sign.  More on this later, too.
  • One thing to keep an eye on as the season progresses is that GABP is playing as a big-time hitter's park...much more so than in past years.  The Reds are leading the league in runs scored, but have an OPS+ of just 100.  Because of the constructs of the National League, 100 is actually better than average, but there's an inherent inflation at work in the current Cincy numbers.

Pitching:

  • Team ERA of 3.40 for the period, compared against a league average of 3.88.
  • Whatever was told to Edinson Volquez in Louisville needs to be bottled up and preserved for future meltdowns: 18 IP, 7 BB, 1 HR.  Now the baserunning...
  • I'm guilty (if you want to call it that) of not really paying attention to the national media narrative.  I don't watch SportsCenter or Baseball Tonight, nor do I read much of the major websites' baseball coverage.  So I don't really know: is Johnny Cueto getting his just due?  This past period, Cueto allowed just two earned runs in 21 innings, and is now at a 1.68 ERA for the year.  His xERA is 2.08, so most of the performance is real.  I'm particularly fond of the opponent's batting average: .202.
  • CoCo was supposed to be a bust by now.  In response, CoCo gave up two hits in 8 innings during this past stretch.
  • Vintage Arroyo: 20 innings, 6 strikeouts, 2 walks.
  • Mike Leake (Mike Leake!) with a K/BB ratio of 17 to 2.

The next 18:

  • 7 games at home, 11 on the road
  • 5 of the 18 against divisional opponents
  • 6 of the 18 against 2010 playoff teams
  • 13 (!) of the 18 against American League opponents
  • .534 average winning percentage (2011) for the teams in the next 18 games.
  • There's the rest of June, all against the formidable AL East.  Then July: in-state rivals, the two teams leading the NL Central, and the defending World Series champs.  The point is that the schedule will be relatively difficult for another six weeks or so.  This is fact.  Also factual is that the Reds haven't pieced together a great stretch of games in which bats and arms are effectively synchronized.  Conjecture 1: The offense is due for a streak of Votto + Bruce + someone else to really put things together.  Conjecture 2: The team will have one stretch where the bats do their thing and have five reliable starting pitchers in rhythm.  Conjecture 3: There is a trade to be made.  There has been plenty of chatter linking the Reds with the Mets' Jose Reyes.  This would be a massive and obvious upgrade.  It would be interesting to see Drew Stubbs be allowed to hit 6th or 7th, no?  My question, without a knowable answer, is what would it take to land both Reyes and Carlos Beltran?  Both are in their walk years, and the Mets are supposedly having cashflow issues.  What would be the trade package if the Reds absorbed the salary of both through the rest of the year?  How big would the offer have to be for the Reds to turn down a potential lineup of:

Reyes

Phillips

Votto

Beltran

Bruce

Rolen

Stubbs

Hanigan

The trade, of course, is the ultimate conjecture, based on the assumption that Uncle Walt will do something.  The point, for now, is that if the Reds stay within striking distance through July, there is a stretch of wins to be had.  With an improved roster and a weakened schedule, the ingredients are there for one of those mythical finishing kicks.  By making up ground, even just a little, over these last 18 games, the Reds are piecing together the ingredients for another memorable season.  The fan in me will agonize over the inevitable ups and downs coming over the next few weeks.  The analyst will keep an even keel, knowing that the best is yet to come.

Loquacity (or, Why doing everything right the first time is a good strategy):

On August 15, 1996, Andruw Jones made his major league debut with the Atlanta Braves.  He had a hit and an RBI; also an error.  He played out the rest of the season without much fanfare: a few home runs, a ton of strikeouts, and a rather low batting average.  He really could have gotten used to Reds' pitching: three of his five major league dingers that year were against Cincinnati hurlers, despite appearing in just three games against the Reds. 

Jones received a good chunk of the national spotlight in October, hitting two long balls against the Yankees in the World Series.  That's generally enough to garner a little attention; what made Jones's play all the more noticeable was that he was nineteen years old.

The internet makes all these details available for research; what makes them personally relevant-slightly relevant, anyway-is that the '96 World Series took place early in my sophomore year in college.  I was studying Calculus, Jones was crushing bombs.  More to the point, Jones was the first player in my lifetime to play in a big-league uniform despite being born after me.  The audacity.  I was officially no longer a kid.

It was not until August, 1998 until the same fate intersected my life as a Reds fan.  Dennys Reyes was a precocious left-hander, 21 years old and packaged with Paul Konerko from the Dodgers in the Jeff Shaw trade.  I was living in relative squalor, sleeping on a friend's couch that summer, while learning the woodworking trade and playing in a local bar band.  The cabinetry shop went under, the band didn't receive much attention, and Reyes barely produced more than replacement-level numbers in his time as a Redleg.  Konerko would later get swapped for Mike Cameron, who begat Junior Griffey.  Reyes would eventually net Gabe White.  Not all paths lead to greatness, as the saying goes.

Six years ago, Andruw Jones hit 51 home runs, and appeared to be a mortal lock for the Hall of Fame.  Now, of course, Jones is a backup outfielder for the Yankees; a barely used reserve on his fifth different team in five years.  Reyes earned himself a DFA from the Red Sox in April.  The zero-sum game continues to swallow without prejudice.

The road never changes, but our place on the road constantly does.  Just entering the on-ramp now is Robert Stephenson, the Reds' first-round selection in the recent amateur draft.  Stephenson, by the way, was not yet 3½ years of age when Jones debuted.  The pitcher's pre-school scouting reports were a bit iffy, but the kid seems to have really put it together of late.  In the midst of graduating from high school, Stephenson will first decide whether to go to college or to become part of the working class.  Should he choose correctly, and assuming no injury, we will perhaps see him in 4 or 5 years.  Maybe more; even as we race along the highway, extreme patience is required.  When he does don the Wishbone C for the first time, some youngster will be faced with his own existential pause.

This year's draft was a bit curious for Reds fans.  We are used to the team picking in the first half of the first round.   Picking 27th is better because of what it represents from the prior year, but picking 27th as the team struggles to break free of the gravitational pull of the .500 mark is rather frustrating.  No one speaks well of history's one hit wonders.

There's an interesting, if imperfect, parallel between the 2011 season and the 1991 season.  The Reds were reigning World Champs, of course, but began the month of June with a 23-23 record.  Third place in the NL West, three and a half games back of the Dodgers.  Days later, the Reds would select Pokey Reese in the '91 draft's first round.  Months later, the team would finish 14 games below .500.

The Reds picked 52 players in that June's draft; Reese was the only one to accumulate positive Wins Above Replacement (WAR) over his career.  Poor drafting/development was not an anomaly: from 1991 through 2005, the Reds picked and picked and picked: the average career (so far) WAR for the team's first picks in each draft is currently 2.1.  For the immediate five picks following these selections, the career WAR averages are: N+1: 5.5; N+2: 4.0; N+3: 6.7; N+4: 3.4; N+5: 5.4.

There are two storylines that emerge.  One is that the Reds' picks were often complete wastes: four of the fifteen picks never played in the bigs, although by definition they were more valuable than the six who did play but racked up negative WAR.  That leaves five who contributed: Reese, Brett Tomko (1995), Austin Kearns (1998), Jeremy Sowers (2001), and Jay Bruce (2005).  Sowers chose college over the Reds, so he doesn't count.  By all expectations, 2004's first round pick (Homer Bailey) should cross to the positive side of the ledger before long, but he's not there yet.

The second narrative is constructed around the good players that the Reds missed on.  I'm not a big fan of the meme that's based on a great player being drafted in a later round.  Yes, Mike Piazza was passed over 1,000-odd times before being chosen.  That's because he wasn't that good at the time.  Late bloomers happen, and add to the game's charm.  But it seems reasonable to conclude that players taken immediately after a given pick were both: a) on the team's radar; and b) generally considered to be "of value" at that draft slot. 

Using a WAR > 10 threshold (perhaps a level for which a player could be considered all-star worthy at least once in his career), here are the players chosen in the first five picks after the Reds first pick from 1991-2005, heretofore known as The Misses:

Aaron Sele

Derek Jeter

Michael Tucker

Nomar Garciaparra

Paul Konerko

Jason Varitek

Lance Berkman

Carlos Pena

Alexis Rios

Zack Greinke

Prince Fielder

Jered Weaver

Austin Kearns has 15.8 career WAR to date, and stands as the only exception to Schottzie's Revenge.  Now, it appears, the curse is over.  Bailey, Bruce, and Stubbs were first round picks from '04-'06.  They may not have been perfect picks, but sometimes a merely good pick is enough to turn the tide.  Subsequent first-rounders continue to evoke optimism.

Robert Stephenson, it is to be hoped, will be one of a long string of first-round successes.  It will be a decade or more before we know for sure.  Even better would be a long string of first round successes noted for the improbability of picking so well despite constantly having to wait until the end of the round.  There's quite a long to go for sure, this season and beyond.

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