Off Night Topic: Explaining Underachievement

The Reds Are Underachievers horse is glue. Good thing, because it was a terrible name for a horse. It's already started ruining a photograph in someone's scrapbook. People don't really make scrapbooks anymore, but you get the point. 

Meanwhile, in the minds of many, the Reds have put the last nail in the coffin of meaningful baseball for 2011. But why the Reds have played below expectations - statistical and otherwise - is still an open question. At least for an off night. The Reds' record is 54-57. They've scored 520 runs and allowed 478, which works out to a Pythagorean record of 60-51. Other than giving Geometry teachers have something to say when some snotty kid asks "Why are we learning this?," it tells us that, based on the Reds' run differential, they probably shouldn't be a below-.500 team. The first time I learned about Phythag, it was explained to me as a way to measure a team's luck. But that explanation is incomplete.

The Reds have the run distribution to be as good as one game back of the Brewers (and leading the division when you consider one of those counterfactual wins could have come against Milwaukee). But where did those surplus runs go, if not toward wins? Did they just beat up on the dregs on the National League, while playing sub-par, but not terribly, against everyone else? It's hard for a few blowouts to skew the results too much after 111 games, but it would fit with a team that "deserves" to be middle-of the-pack in a league where there's a big gap between an elite handful of clubs and everyone else. With winning records against Milwaukee, St. Louis, Tampa, San Francisco and a .500 split against the Braves, I don't think this explanation gets very far. Sure, the Reds aren't as good as the Phillies, but no one else is in the National League is either. The Reds were convincing enough against good teams to suggest that they could have been better than simply "best of the worst."

It's more convincing to me that it's simply bad run distribution at work. One part bad luck, one part something else. We've seen this in miniature in countless series, not the least of which was the most recent set against the Astros. The Reds "won" 12-10 in runs, but lost two games. Part of how the chips fall is just rotten luck that defies explanation. But some of it, I think, can be linked to performance. Most importantly, performance in close games - which can magnify a team's faults. Losing one-run games can throw your Pythag out of whack by giving you the maximum number of runs in a game without a win.  The Reds are now 16-25 in one-run games, where they finished an even 27-27 last year. Compare to the Cardinals at 15-17 and the Brewers at a full nine games OVER: 24-15. Conservatively granting the Reds victories on 3 of those 1-run losses would put them 4.5 back and 1 back of the Cards.

Why do the Reds keep low-balling it? Here's are a few possible explanations.

High-leverage hitting failures

The Reds composite batting line in 2011 is  .260/.329/.406. And they hit better than that with RISP. But they underperform in other "clutch" situations, including "late and close" (defined by BBRef as "seventh inning or later with the batting team tied, ahead by one, or the tying run at least on deck"): .236/.311/.359 and in tie games: .248/.317/.374. This doesn't mean they forgot how to "win." It probably has something to do with BABIP luck in each case - their BABIP in high-leverage situations this season is .267 compared to .299 overall and 13 points lower "late and close." But it does help to explain the close losses.

Offense-heavy teams underachieve their run differentials

This is just a hunch. I'll be honest, I haven't looked at the body of research. But good offenses can put up a lot of runs and run cold the next night. And good pitching can beat good hitting, so they say. The Reds have had plenty of offensive breakouts, but when the run-scoring isn't there, pitching hasn't been able to float them, so that might be causing them to line up lower scoring/close losses next to convincing wins.

Starting pitching prone to early runs

Related to that is, unfortunately, the pitching. Getting behind early in the game not only decreases your win expectancy, but might also have a psychological effect on the team, causing them to press. The Reds averaged .47 runs in the first inning in 2010, which works out to 3.72 per 9. This season, it's up to .67, which is 6.03 per 9. Trailing early could contribute to the Reds coming up short in close games, though it's tough to prove.

 

HIgh-leverage pitching failures

With the exception of Nick Masset and pre-DL Aroldis Chapman, the Reds have gotten adequate-or-better performance from their relievers. But have they broken down more than consistently in close-game situations? Masset is in the bottom 5 of NL relievers in WPA, while Cordero suffered three high profile blown saves against the division-leading Brewers. This overlaps with Dusty's influence, but the bullpen has also thrown a lion's share of innings and a lot of that is due to bad starting pitching and bad timing of extra-inning throw-downs.

 

Poor managerial decisions

I won't try to chronicle them here. I've said this before, but since it's impossible to prove a counterfactual it's also impossible to identify the most "correct" in-game decision for a manager to take. Without knowledge of the future, there's no optimal point to remove a pitcher and it's hard to know who the best sub would be in a given situation, especially without ground-level intel. That said, combining erratic starting pitching with a overtaxed bullpen makes sound managerial decisions more important in close game situations. The Reds may not end up playing more 1-run games in 2011 than 2010, but the decision-making may carry more weight this season.

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