Point/Counterpoint: Why you should be hopeful for the Reds' second half, and why you'd be a dope for doing so

I know it just as well as you do. I'm not any happier about it than you are. When we found out in last night's episode of Franklin and Bash that Franklin keeps a bunch of lame-o stuff in his safe-deposit box (worst secret-reveal ever), it was easy to lose hope and turn the channel. But you know what? That's exactly how Franklin and Bash were hoping you'd react. Franklin showed us he's not the total rock star/superman we thought he was; he's just a guy. Just like you and me. Just like...you and me. So you can't give up on them. Franklin and Bash will sure as hell never give up on you.

Oh yeah, and baseball. I know it just as well as you do. I'm not any happier about it than you are. It's the All-Star break and our Redlegs are in 4th place, two games under .500 and four games out of first place (and three games behind the Pirates if you can even believe that). There really is no equivocating about it. This first half of the season has been a disappointment. Brendan is going to try to tell you that it's bad. Real bad. The last week has been particularly grueling, as they faced off with the Cardinals and Brewers and hung with them pretty well, getting outscored only 38-32 but only winning two of the seven games. But I'm going to tell you it's not that bad. In fact, there are a number of reasons to believe this is still the best baseball team in the NL Central and that they will start to play like it very soon. There are a number of reasons to believe that not only will this team start playing like the best, but they will actually pull this out and prove they are the best. Jomp it:

  • Scott Rolen is going to hit better. So far this year, Rolen has been a weak link in the lineup, posting a .295 wOBA in just 62 games. Even worse, he's done so from the 4th and 5th spots in the lineup. But there is reason to believe that this is not the inevitable decline of a Hall of Famer. His walk rate is a career-low 3.5%, down from his career average of 10.6%. This could mean one of two things: either Scott Rolen has, at 36 years old, completely forgotten what the strike zone looks like, or this is the result of a small sample size of 250 plate appearances. ZiPS rest-of-season projections think Rolen will boost that Juan Franciscan walk rate up to a more respectable 7%. That seems much more reasonable.

    Also of note, he's been the on the short-end of the BABIP-luck-spectrum, hitting just .260 on balls in play. His batted-ball rates are all pretty much in line with his career averages, as he's still lacing line drives at a healthy 20% clip. His HR/fly ball rate is half what it usually is, so it seems the luck dragon has decided to drop a dump right in the spot in the dugout where Rolen usually stands.

    Sure, he's getting old and he'll probably never replicate the excellent numbers from the first half of last season. But he's not done yet.
  • Shortstop is going to improve. Paul Janish and Edgar Renteria have teamed up to make SS the worst position on this Reds team so far this year. According to FanGraphs, they have combined for -0.1 WAR (B-Ref has them at exactly 0), so pretty much the very definition of a replacement player. Lucky for us, the Reds called up Zack Cozart. He will never reproduce the .365 wOBA he put up in AAA this year, but he almost assuredly beat Janish's .238 and Renteria's .269. Oh yeah, and he sports a solidly above-average glove at the position, too. Whatever Zack Cozart does from here on out, it will be better than what Janteria have done so far. Not to take anything away from Zack, but just about anyone would be better than they have been.
  • Bronson Arroyo is a notoriously strong finisher. As predictable as the return of the salmon of Capistrano, the calls bemoaning the presence of Bronson Arroyo in the Reds' rotation are in full throat this time of year. At this time in '09, he had an ERA near 6 and the word was that the Reds were thinking of trading him. Problem was, few teams wanted a pitcher making them kinda bones and putting up them kinda numbers. At this time in '10 he was a bit better off, but many still believed his presence was just clogging up the rotation. Young pitchers like Homer Bailey, Mike Leake, Travis Wood, and Edinson Volquez were big-league ready and full of potential and there didn't seem to be much use for an old and expensive pitcher like Arroyo. His long-time rotation mate Aaron Harang had one foot out the door and more than a few were ready to see Arroyo follow him.

    This year, of course, is no different. Well, actually it is because he has a new contract that will keep him here another two years after this, but the calls bemoaning his presence are yet again in full throat. And it's not at all unwarranted. BroYo has been bad this year, posting a 5.58 ERA (70 ERA+) and a 5.52 FIP. That's baaaad. He's given up a league-leading 25 home runs. That's baaaaaaaaaad.

    But there is reason for hope. His home run rate is sure to regress to normal, as he's given up more than two home runs per nine innings. His career rate is just a shade over 1/9. His BB rate is actually down this year, and it hasn't effected his K rate at all. All of this is reflected in his xFIP, which is a much more palatable 4.14 (his career xFIP is 4.43). There is also the matter of his 1st half/2nd half splits. His 2nd half ERA over his career is more than a run better than his 1st half ERA. For whatever reason, the late summer is when Arroyo performs the best. I guess it's just better boat weather or something.
  • The schedule will get easier. The rest of July is, to borrow an off-color metaphor from Marty, a Bataan Death March. Over the next two-plus weeks, they will face the Cardinals, the Pirates, the Braves, the Mets, and the Giants. All of those teams are above .500, and the Cards, Braves, and Giants all have serious post-season aspirations. There is no dressing these windows: this is going to be a pivotal stretch for our Reds heading to the trade deadline.

    But once the calendar turns to August things will get better. The only +.500 teams the Reds will face for the entire month are the Pirates and the Phillies. Even if the team goes into the month four or five games back, they will have ample opportunity to make up ground here. September is a very favorable month as well, with 10 games against the Cubs and Astros. As long as this team can tread water until the trade deadline, they will have a chance at the division.
  • Speaking of the trade deadline, they have the pieces to make some tremendous moves. There is no team in the majors right now that can boast the kind of young, cheap, and tradeable talent that the Reds can. Yonder Alonso, Juan Francisco, Todd Frazier, Travis Wood, Devin Mesoraco, Dave Sappelt, and Brad Boxberger are all performing well in Louisville and could be deemed expendable. And that's just the guys in AAA. Homer Bailey, Mike Leake, and Chris Heisey are on the big league club and could also be shipped out in the right deal. Suffice to say, the Reds are limited only in what other teams are willing to make available. In the candy shoppe that is the July trading season, the Reds are the fat little rich kid with a sticky twenty dollar bill in his pocket. They can get anything they want.
  • The rest of the Central contenders have their fair share of warts, too. As JinAZ has so deftly illustrated in his series preview posts, the Reds have, at a component level, played just as well or better than both the division leaders thus far (you can check back at the Brewers preview here, and the Cardinals preview here). Both teams have problems in the bullpen, and the Brewers have attempted to address this by adding Francisco Rodriguez. Unfortunately for them, this move likely cost them the ability to upgrade where they really do need it, which is the left side of the infield. Yuniesky two-pitch at-Batencourt and Casey McGehee have been brutal so far and they could use an upgrade in the worst way. But after the Greinke and Marcum trades this winter, the cupboard is positively bare for the Brewers. They likely don't have the prospects necessary to make any more moves.
  • The Cardinals are in a better position, prospect-wise. They have a top arm in Shelby Miller but likely will be too reluctant to give him up. They could look to add a starter, some relief help, or perhaps a middle infielder, but the fact remains that Adam Wainwright isn't walking through that door.

    The Pirates, as refreshing it is to see such a sad-sack franchise making good, are going to fail down the stretch. Their offense is non-existent outside of Andrew McCutcheon. Their rotation is getting by on smoke and mirrors. I hate to be so summarily dismissive of them, as it seems like all I'm saying is "these are are the same Pirates". I can assure you that they are not. This is a good team. They just aren't good enough to hang with the big dogs just yet.

    So there you have it. Six good reasons to be optimistic about this Reds team right now. Oh, and a seventh: Pythag says they should be in a tie for 1st place right now. They've been really unlucky in one-run games, as nearly half their losses have come in that heart-rending fashion. Oh, and an eighth: we have Joey Votto and they don't. So don't lose hope. You can't give up on them. The Reds will sure as hell never give up on you.

And now, the rebuttal. Courtesy of Brendanukkah

In the movie Croupier, Clive Owen's then-girlfriend Marion recoils from his seemingly nihilistic worldview. "Without hope," she says, "there's no point to anything." But Marion's a romantic. It's not that Clive doesn't believe in hope. He just believes in the inexorable grind of pragmatism and reality. "The world breaks everyone," he reminds us. "And afterwards, many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break, it kills - it kills the very good, and the very gentle, and the very brave, impartially. If you are none of these, you can be sure it will kill you, too, but there will be no special hurry."

The Reds are not making the playoffs this year. I've accepted this notion. It's very easy to admire those of you that still have hope, and if the Reds do make it to the postseason, then your sense of satisfaction and vicarious accomplishment will be all the greater. But they're not, and so the disappointment you feel will be so much greater, too. Give up your dreams of glory now, and find satisfaction in these glorious summer days, an engrossing book, the company of loved ones and friends, or dressing up to go to the midnight showing of Harry Potter.Why won't the Reds win?

  • The odds are against them. Coolstandings gives the Reds a 19.4% chance of making the playoffs. Which means there's a greater than 80% chance they miss out entirely. Four out of every five scenarios in which this season plays out results in failure for our favorites. And even that number is low, because the 19.4% chance includes the 2.9% chance the Reds have of winning the Wild Card. The two best teams in the National League right now, by a wide margin, are Philadelphia and Atlanta. The Wild Card winner is going to come out of the NL East. That means the Reds have to win their division outright, and they only have a 16.6% chance of doing that. The Pirates, by contrast, have a 28.6% chance to win.
  • We suck against the American League. The Reds are actually pretty good against their division. They are 14-14 against the three teams ahead of them (13-9 against the Brewers and Cardinals), and even better against the dregs of the division, the Cubs and Astros. That all sounds like a pretty good recipe for getting to the playoffs, but interleague has thrown a massive spanner in that plan. The Reds finished interleague play just 6-12 after playing the Indians, Orioles, Yankees, Rays, and Blue Jays. None of the other relevant teams in the Central (MIL: 6-9, PIT: 8-7, STL: 8-7) crumbled as spectacularly as the Reds did. Had the Reds gone even 8-10 against the AL, they'd be only two games out and my outlook would be much rosier. But even in the All-Star Game, the four Reds representatives managed to go 0-6 with four strikeouts.
  • We've exhausted our injury and luck karma. At the beginning of the season, it looked like the Reds, Cardinals, and Brewers would be in a three team race. Then Adam Wainwright went down for the season. Then Albert Pujols broke his forearm for about a day. Then we played a series in which Ryan Braun did nothing but sit on the bench and use up a roster spot. Chris Carpenter and Zack Greinke collectively won about 3 games in the first half of the year. And the Reds were unable to capitalize. More injuries could happen in the second half, but that's traditionally when Jay Bruce makes his annual wrist-breaking dive. The other teams have spun the chamber, stuck the barrel in their mouths and pulled the trigger. It's our turn now. Di di mau!
  • The Reds don't handle pressure well. I don't have any stats to back it up, but it sure seems like whenever the Reds play on national TV, they come out smelling like Pete Rose (Gold Bond and skanks; not good). I do know that they went 0-3 in their astoundingly brief playoff run last year, and in two must-win series against their main rivals for the Central crown heading into the break, they went 2-5. Sure, they were competitive in all those series, but they didn't win. Perhaps the breaks will start going our way, or the team will learn to manufacture its own luck, but I'm not counting on it.
  • The team is lifeless. Again, no way to quantify this, but the resilient spirit of last year's team just isn't there. Their awful 13-21 record in one run games is a good enough number as any to show that they like the heart to finish off comebacks or hold on to late leads. I might believe in this team again if a great trade or two could reinvigorate the team. Walt Jocketty isn't necessarily one for splashy trade deadline deals. In 2008, he traded away Ken Griffey, Jr. and the team had a worse winning percentage in the second half (.479-.424). In 2009, he traded for Scott Rolen and the team had a worse winning percentage in the second half (.483-.480). In 2010, he traded for Jim Edmonds and the team had a better winning percentage in the second half (.544-.583). So under Jocketty, the team is one for three in improving in the second half. Like their actual record, I'm not looking for it to reach .500 this year.
  • Too many games out and too many teams to leapfrog. If the Reds were four games out, but in second place, I wouldn't be worried. If the Reds were in fourth place, but less than four games out, I wouldn't be worried. But the combination is a bad one. They not only have to improve their own play, they have to hope that three teams start playing worse. And they do this in the light that Milwaukee has already strengthened its bullpen, the Cardinals have two of the best hitters in the league - and that doesn't even count Albert Pujols, Andrew McCutchen is having an MVP season, and the impact trade targets (Jose Reyes, Ubaldo Jimenez, etc.) seem to be out of reach, so far. There's little undervaluing just how important the series in St. Louis and Milwaukee just were. A win in both series puts the Reds among the division leaders, possibly in first place. Instead, they remain in fourth and their chance to make up ground has been dashed. I won't deny that the division is mediocre and could be had, but not by the Reds. They've lost six of their last seven series, and their next 16 games are all against winning teams. They're only four games out now, but unless they start sweeping some series, that will become 5, 6, 7 games out, and before you know it, the team's out of contention. Some of us know it already.

But hey, Johnny Cueto's pitching well. So are Mike Leake and Aroldis Chapman after stints in Louisville. Joey Votto could start playing like an MVP again. A nicely timed acquisition of Hiroki Kuroda could stabilize the rotation. Zack Cozart might give us some production from shortstop, and hey, Yonder Alonso might just be the answer in left field. That seems like a lot of gambles that have to go right, long odds. But as Clive Owen says, "Gambling's about not facing reality, ignoring the odds."

And despite my admonitions to do something better with your time, I know that I'll find myself back here again and again, night after night. And I'll love it.

"A wave of elation came over him; he was hooked again... watching people lose."

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