18 Games at a Time - Capsule 6

It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there.

 

The norm in this space is to wait until after the jump to get into the numbers, but let’s get weird, eh?  The Reds finished off the toughest 18 game stretch they’ve ever faced in my tenure here, and I’ll posit I won’t see a more difficult one.  As mentioned last time, heading into these 18 contests, each of the scheduled opponents had a winning record, averaging out at a .539 winning percentage.  The Reds responded big-time: the offense was almost a half-run better than league average, component-wise, and the pitching was in a similar camp: about half a run better than mean.  At this point, Alanis Morissette’s irony meter is taking off, because the Reds managed to win just 9 of the last 18.  Some real hard luck losses in there, too.  Despite the injuries and the inconsistent performance, it’s a decent team, playing decently.  Just can’t get the wins.  It’s like raaaaaiiiinnnnn….

 

All stats through Sunday’s games, presented after the jump.

 

2011 Reds, Capsule 6

Overview:

Wins/Losses: 9 - 9

Strength of Schedule: .500 (7th most difficult in NL; 15st most difficult in ML)

[Prev: .495, 9h most difficult in NL; 21st most difficult in ML]

RPI (ESPN): .498 (8th best in NL; 16th best in ML)

[Prev: .493, 11th best in NL; 20th best in ML]

Baseball Prospectus playoff odds: 4.6% [Prev: 10.5%]

Offense:

  • .261/.330/.415 (AVG/OBP/SLG) for the team, compares to NL average of .252/.318/.389
  • The regulars: Hernandez, Votto, Phillips, Renteria, Cairo, Heisey, Stubbs, Bruce
  • None stood out: Votto rubber-stamped another 900+ OPS period (309/385/544), but no one else bested the 900 mark.
  • Jay Bruce made a turn towards seeing the ball well: 12 walks and a 420 OBP.
  • Chris Heisey, for the second consecutive year, appears to have gakked an opportunity to lock down a full-time role: 188/245/354.
  • The two left-side vets (Cairo and Renteria) both posted 800+ OPS levels, going a long way towards counter-balancing the lack of star performance.
  • Also of great help were Lewis, Cozart, and Frazier, each of whom topped an 800 OPS in a combined 86 plate appearances.
  • Jonny Gomes said good-bye meekly: 2-for-16, 1 walk, no extra base hits, no RBI, no runs scored.

Pitching:

  • Team ERA of 3.23 for the period, compared against a league average of 3.74.
  • In the season of Cueto, it seems almost profane to say this, but Mike Leake (Mike Leake!) was the team's best starter, compiling 14 strikeouts against 4 walks and 4 earned runs in 18.2 innings.  He was credited with one victory and two losses in this period.
  • Cueto was OK, too: 1.62 ERA over 33.1 innings, with an impressive home runs allowed count of zero.  He gave up seven unearned runs, of which we will never again speak.
  • Aroldis Chapman yielded one hit over 11.1 innings, meaning his batting average against was .030.  The same figure on a YTD basis is .096.  Since his one hit allowed was a ding-dong, his BABIP for the period was .000.  I don't know what that means as future events go, but it sounds pretty cool.
  • With respect to the above bullet, go ahead and use the guy in key lock-down situations whenever you feel like it, Dusty.
  • Since it feels like these two are having an improbable showdown, Sam LeCure matched the Cuban Missile by also giving up just one hit over seven innings.  Unlike Chapman, LeCure also managed to keep the ball in the yard.  Point awarded to Sudden Sammy.

The next 18:

  • 7 games at home, 11 on the road
  • 8 of the 18 against divisional opponents
  • 0 of the 18 against projected 2011 playoff teams
  • .433 average winning percentage (2011) for the teams in the next 18 games.
  • Part of the reason you feel so bad about this season right now is that the Brewers just ripped off 12 of their last 18.  Their schedule gets tougher, but not really tough enough, so don't count on any lay-down-and-die routines.  They play the Cards a lot from here ‘til October, so maybe, just maybe...
  • This isn't exactly looking forwards, but as you know, the Reds were bed-shatting as the trade deadline beckoned, which meant all hands were firmly planted under the thighs so as not to make any sudden movements.  In the long run, it's probably the right call, but I can't say I'm thrilled to still see Clutch Man Monie on the roster.  Just a wasted opportunity (for now), although part time catchers tend not to bring loaded returns.  We'll officially label the situation mildly disappointing, with a slight chance of mild satisfaction for August.

Loquacity (or, Swap meat):

Can something seem more ubiquitous than it really is?  Or, perhaps the better question is this: can a thing, a phenomenon, be semi-ubiquitous?  I bring it up in relation to the topic of summertime baseball trades, defined in this space as any trade which takes place between June 1 and August 31.

Tradegraph_medium

The above graph depicts the number of annual summer trades made by the Reds since the advent of free agency, with the overlaid red line representing a 5-year rolling average.  The trend is one of increasing volume, as you can see, and it's easy to conclude summer trades as a given, since it's been 25 years since the franchise spent the dog days completely sitting on its hands. 

It seems to me (note: completely unsupportable conjecture ahead) that we fans view the summertime swaps as more inevitable and more impactful than they really are, perhaps consistent with the omnipresent parallel realities that MLB affords: fantasy baseball and internet rumor mills.  I'm not here to criticize either.  I've enjoyed many a roto/sim season, most of which see a flurry of implausible deals every year, and sifting the trade wheat from the chaff on the basis of a handful of anonymous whispers is wholly part of the fan experience.  It's all well and good, but I think it overstates the importance of the mid-year trade. 

2009 serves as a decent example: the Reds made five summer trades, and in four of them the sum of activity was to deal Norris Hopper, Robert Manuel, Jerry Hairston, and Alex Gonzalez for Corky Miller, Vladimir Balentien, Chase Weems, and Kris Negron.  Feeling tingly yet?  The fifth deal, of course was the Scott Rolen trade, which had virtually no impact on 2009, left a significant footprint on 2010, and--so far--is in danger of completely fizzling in terms of long-term consequence.

The 2011 summer is still ongoing, of course, and Walt Jocketty is always a threat to pull off an August surprise.  If and when he does, we the faithful will parse and dissect and critique at great length.  We will almost certainly overstate the importance, but it's kinda' what we do.  Deal with it.

One of the great qualities of a baseball trade is that they can hold your interest in the moment and several years later as well.  Here then, are ten notes on some of the Reds summer deals of the last 35 years.  Presented in completely random order:

1)     The Reds have traded away precious few young impact players via the summer trade over the years.  To some degree, it's difficult to track back and know if these were "prospects" at the time, but I was looking for youngish players who went on to have a career somewhere north of useful.  I count five: Charlie Leibrandt (1983), Jeff Russell (1985), Reggie Jefferson (1991), BJ Ryan (1999), and Pedro Feliciano (2002).  I've probably missed one or two, but that's not a terrible track record...certainly not one to keep a GM up at night.  Of course, data sometimes points more to the iceberg below the surface than it does to the visible peak.  A team would log few such regrets if they were more frequently sellers than buyers, or if their prospects were rarely likely to pan out, or if the GM in charge were overly conservative on dealing the youngsters.  Or, in the case of the Reds, some combination thereof. 

2)     One of the best known summer trades in Reds history came in 1984, when hometown hero Pete Rose was brought back as a player-manager, thus marking Tom Lawless as an infamous punch line to the trivial question: who is the only player ever traded for the Hit King?  Anyways, that trade happened on August 16 of that year.  Let's back up a month: The Reds endured an 8-game losing streak in mid-July, were deep in the standings and heading nowhere.  The starting first baseman was 32 year old Dan Driessen, who wasn't a great hitter by 1B standards, but at a 125 OPS+ was not the source of the team's struggles either.  Driessen, nonetheless, was traded to the Expos on July 26.  In other words, the Reds traded their starting first baseman to Montreal, then received their new first baseman from the same team three weeks later. 

The plan, as best as I can tell, was for Nick Esasky to be the man, despite his .208 batting average at the time of Driessen's departure.  The 24-year-old Esasky hit just .190 over the next three weeks, and in came C. Hustle.  Rose, of course, went nuts: 365/430/458 (147 OPS+) in 26 games.  43 years old, producing somewhere close to Joey Votto, circa 2011.  Given the production rate, and the manager's pen, and the lack of a platoon disadvantage, do you find it odd that Rose started just 23 of the 41 games he was a Redleg that year?  I wonder if he may have inserted himself in the games where he expected not to be overmatched by the opposing pitcher. 

3)     Speaking of Rose, perhaps no player better epitomized the latter-day Rose era than Buddy Bell.  Bell, already the owner of 2,000 hits and 150 home runs, arrived in Cincy to great fanfare in July, 1985.  The son of a previous Redleg hero, and raised in the Queen City, Bell stirred up the memories of better days.  Bell played hard and played well, but not as well as he once had.  His gold glove days were long past, and his bat was decent but not strong enough to cover for other lineup deficiencies on the perpetual 2nd place team.  In 1988, he struggled mightily out of the starting gate, and was sent packing as part of another summertime trade, for the infamous Player To Be Named Later. 

Bell's price was steep: Jeff Russell was part of the trade package to acquire the third baseman, and the opportunity cost may have been a factor, with Chris Sabo toiling in the minors.  Like with his manager, the long-term costs of employing Bell called the benefits into severe question.

4)     The greatest trade deadline flurry in Reds history came in 2003.  In a two-day span covering the final two days of July, the Reds unloaded the veterans, and did so in textbook fashion.  Gone were Aaron Boone, Scott Williamson, and Jose Guillen; the former two having served out their tours of duty as organizational soldiers, and the latter existing as the lottery ticket that teams like the Reds seem to revel in.  Brought in their stead were seven players (plus cash!) from the Athletics, Red Sox, and Yankees; three American League teams residing in the curious land of Relevance.  Only one of the returns (Aaron Harang) ever turned out to be worth a damn, baseball-wise, but perhaps that says more about our collective expectations on these deadline day dump deals than it does about the fellas who pulled the trigger. 

Two tangential notes of incidence: First, the received player I was most excited about at the time was Brandon Claussen, ex of the Yankees.  This was a bona fide prospect, said the bona fide prospect makers, and why not?  Dominating the various levels, and left-handed, to boot.  In retrospect, there were warning signs, chiefly a rapidly dropping strikeout rate, but at the time, I'm sure I kept the faith.  Needless to say, he did not make anyone forget Whitey Ford, nor even Hod Ford.  Somewhere, there's a doctoral thesis to be written on failed New York prospects.  The trick, I suppose is having them fail on someone else's team rather than your own, and there's the difference between the Yankees and Mets in a nutshell. 

Tangential note of incidence #2: I was in Jamaica when these trades occurred, and not the part of Jamaica they show in brochures.  I was deep in the hill country, several miles beyond remote, and was not aware of the trades in Real Time, as I might otherwise be.  August 1st was my re-entry date into more modern civilization, somewhere in Tourist-Land.  Turn on the TV in most American hotels, and you'll get the Information channel, completely useless and void of information save to remind you that you are not home.  I flipped on the TV in my Jamaican hotel, greeted by hard core pornography.  Welcome to Jamaica, mon.  Various genitalia thus burned into my cerebral cortex, I found my way to ESPN where the second televised shock of the morning slowly scrolled along the crawl: A. Boone to the Yankees.  I'm sure it was a couple days later that I even learned of the other two deals, and I've not been so far removed from the grid since.  It's a sensation both refreshing and jarring, if you know what I mean (the disconnectedness, not the porn).

5)     From our semi-arbitrary start date of 1977, the Reds made 34 summertime deals before making one that actually fell on the July 31 deadline.  The ground-breaking 1993 deal was kind of a blah one: Tim Belcher to the White Sox for Jeff Pierce and Johnny Ruffin.  The trade continued the ongoing decline of a transaction tree started when the clearly-breaking-down Eric Davis was sent to Los Angeles.  Coming back to Cincy was Belcher, a native Ohioan who had been lights out over his career, and John Wetteland was included too.  Good trade, but: Wetteland was re-directed to Montreal without ever throwing a pitch for the Good Guys.  Instead, we got Willie Greene and David Martinez and Scott Ruskin.  Yo.  Lest I forget to make a point: I had to go back and check if the Wetteland deals were made by Jim Bowden.  Alas, they were not, coming a full year before Bowden was hired.  But because of the rapid-fire decapitated-chicken-like pattern, they felt like Bowden moves.  That, my digital comrades, is a legacy.

6)     To the elders, foolish and wise alike, baseball becomes a metaphor for so many things.  Long before that, however, baseball is a worldview shaper to the initiated youth.  The structure and order that is Just So on a baseball diamond is assumed to be a model for all things off the diamond.  The discovery that not all things have purpose or reason can be another jarring loop on the adolescent roller coaster.  The game appeals to our idealistic nature, and thus holds our attention long after we are bombarded with the shape-shifting nature of Real Life. 

Another disconnect: when I was young, I would romanticize the very notion of a trade.  How exciting! to be transported from this city to that, pulling out the present-day moorings all because somebody out there really, really likes you.  Most of us, of course, are not vocational athletes.  We are permanent free agents, able to choose our city and employer, subject to the health of the job market.  And most of us choose to take root than take flight, choosing a buy-and-hold investment strategy in our neighborhood over day-trading the world.  Like many decisions, it's probably a morally neutral one, but certainly reflects the human proclivity towards stability and comfort.  This little non sequitur was inspired by looking at the details of the July, 2000 Denny Neagle trade, which netted a handful of Yankees farmhands, including Drew Henson.  Henson lived the dream childhood, and was a two-sport star; a sure thing in football and baseball, who turned out to be neither: nine career Major League plate appearances (one hit) and twenty career NFL pass attempts (one touchdown).  Potential and promise are loaded words, but that's perhaps the source of a different essay.  For now, I look at the places Drew Henson called home in 2000 due to forces both in and out of his control--Tampa, Florida; Norwich, Connecticut; Chattanooga, Tennessee; Ann Arbor, Michigan--and while I don't feel pity for the young man of 11 years ago, I also do not reminisce his journey with starry eyes.

7)     We know the summertime trade pattern so well (stars for prospects), that when a deal doesn't fit the mold, it stands out quite a bit.  The 7/18/89 trade with the Dodgers was not an earth-shaker: both teams were buried in the standings, and none of the traded players were in any danger of winning big time awards.  But a two-for-two swap of real big leaguers is different enough to stand out.  It's the only such trade I can find in the last 35 summers.  To recap: out the door were Kal Daniels, a former wunderkind (despite still only being just 24 years old) whose power and speed had evaporated all too quickly, and Lenny Harris, also young but with 77 games of utility-playing meh-ness already under his belt.  In return: Mariano Duncan, a weak-hitting shortstop nearing the mythical peak age of 27, and Tim Leary, your garden variety average inning-eating starting pitcher.  In the aftermath, the trade probably didn't matter much: Duncan filled a hole for the 1990 Champs at second base, but the vacated left field spot was a semi-struggle throughout the year as well. 

8)     The gold standard, as these trades go, came quite a few years ago when the Reds pillaged the NY Metropolitans.  June 15, 1977: Doug Flynn, Steve Henderson, Dan Norman, and Pat Zachary for a guy on the short list of best pitchers of all time.  The Tom Terrific deal is one of the Big Three trades in franchise history, along with Robby and Little Joe.  Did you know, however, that the Seaver swap was one of four unique trades made by the Reds that day?  In deals with the Angels, Cardinals, and Brewers, the Reds said good-bye to pitchers Gary Nolan, Rawly Eastwick, and Mike Caldwell, respectively.  Nolan and Eastwick were links to the Big Red Machine but were nearing the end, despite the relatively young ages of each.  Caldwell was merely stopping through: he had arrived in Cincy just 2 and a half months prior, via a trade with St. Louis.  He appeared in fourteen games as a reliever, and I would be surprised if any but the most ardent of fanatics remembered him in the hometown uni.  The Brewers tried him as a starter, and success: 2nd place in AL Cy Young voting in 1978, and a solid, albeit less spectacular, 1979 campaign. 

In all, it was a good day for the Redlegs.  Seaver acquitted himself well, and long-time Mets fans are still bitter about the deal, which carries additional value.  And while what-if scenarios rarely come with guarantees, especially when dealing with such drastically differing player usage roles, the day is tinged with one of the great what-ifs in franchise history.  The Reds finished 2.5 games back of the division lead in 1978, and fizzled in the '79 playoffs.  The Big Red Machine very well might have rolled through the end of the decade with just one deal left undone.

9)     We are addicted to the future, partly becomes it comes so quickly now, partly because we are currently either optimistic or depressed.  What's coming next will be great, or at least better than today.  The rise of the baseball prospecting industry, the pundits and scribes who are constantly revising the list of top 1000 farmhands, is a byproduct of these tenets of the times.  It gets so it can feel more satisfying to be a seller than a buyer.  The unknown is always a mysterious lure.

And so it was in 2005, when the Reds traded Joe Randa for Travis Chick and Justin Germano.  I was not familiar with the Padres' prospects, but there is always a canyon of experts ready to share what they know.  I strolled into the bookstore in the town we were vacationing in, flipped through one of the mega prospect handbooks, and was elated to find one of the two new Reds described in direct comparison to Curt Schilling.  I can't remember which one...it didn't matter then and it certainly doesn't matter now.  And how absurd: Joe Randa?!?  Curt Schilling?!?  Regardless, there was the expert selling bite sized nuggets of improbable hope, and there I was, chugging the snake oil like it was in short supply.

10)  A brief study in comparison: The Reds' two most recent postseason appearances have come in 1995 and 2010.  In '95, they loaded up in July, gaining outfielder Darren Lewis, and pitchers Dave Burba, Mark Portugal, and David Wells.  All saw significant playing time over the remainder of the season, and saw at least a bit of action in the playoffs.  The 2010 vintage carried just one trade, and it was a study in minimalism: Chris Dickerson for Jim Edmonds, who wasn't going to have a full time role. 

It's worth pointing out that in both instances, the trades probably ended up being immaterial.  The '95 Reds won the division by 9 games and while Wells threw a nice game against the Dodgers in the opening round of the playoffs, the team likely would have rolled without him; certainly the presence of the new guys did not strike fear into the Braves during round 2. 

In 2010, Edmonds got hurt and didn't make the postseason roster.

Two vastly different approaches with very similar endings, and perhaps a reminder that the scope of the summer trading frenzy is often quite small, in a big picture sort of way.

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