"The good is not beating the bad." -- Betty Francis, Mad Men
(I guess that quote doesn't really apply. In fact, it's the opposite of what everyone is saying about the Reds. But it is topical.)
With the Reds floundering out West against some playoff contenders, this whole "they're bad against good teams" narrative is really picking up steam. Jay Jaffee just wrote something yesterday at SI titled "Reds struggling against quality competition":
(W)hen facing teams who currently have records of .500 or better, the Pirates have the best record of the trio at 18-14 (.563), which by winning percentage ranks fifth in the majors. The Cardinals are 14-13 (.519) against such teams, which ranks ninth. The Reds are a dismal 14-24 (.368) against those teams, the sixth-worst record in the majors...
The above-.500/below-.500 split gets cited a lot. And it's hard to argue that the Reds have been anything but bad against teams in the upper half. But it's a bit of an oversimplification.
You could imagine, using an absurd example, that the Reds played only teams with a record one game below .500 and teams with a 1.000 winning percentage. Those splits would look a lot better knowing how the groups were distributed.
Then there's the issue of ignoring wins the Reds have racked up against inferior competition that their rivals haven't. Their record against above-.500 teams is dismal, but they get credit for a 26-10 (.722) record against teams they should beat, where the Pirates are 30-16 (.652). The Reds don't have the same magnitude of advantage the Pirates having playing the First Division, but logic should work both ways: the Pirates aren't as good as the Reds against bad teams.
And also, there's the baseball truism that "it's not who you play, it's when you play them." The corollary to this is that it also matters when in the opponent's rotation you find yourself. Missing Yu Darvish this weekend would be nice, but unfortunately the Reds are going to run right into him.
There are some better ways to look at the question of whether the Reds' record against "good teams" means that their actual record is hollow:
Baseball Prospectus' Adjusted Standings
The Reds actually come out looking pretty good using BP's various methods of re-assigning wins based on runs scored, projected runs and quality of competition. The Reds' Pythag - which uses runs scored and allowed to project wins - says the they're playing almost exactly to their level.
This doesn't incorporate quality of competition, but it does suggest they're not "getting lucky" with wins based on their ability to prevent and score runs, which is a pretty good measure of whether a team is overachieving. And their projected runs - which tries to predict wins based on talent level - give them about an extra win based on runs they should be scoring.
Quality of competition is used by BP in their "third order win percentage," which "projects winning percentage based on underlying statistics and adjusted for quality of opponents." The Reds also come out with almost an extra win (.578 wining percentage) using this adjustment.
In all three scenarios, the Reds move into second place.
Baseball Reference's strength of schedule
BBRef takes the average number of runs better or worse a team's opponents are than than league average and uses it to say how hard a schedule your team has played. Using the SOS calculation, the Reds (along with the Pirates, Nats, Giants and Dodgers) have played the third-hardest schedule in the NL so far. This is convenient, because it lets us say that the Reds and Pirates have played basically the same schedule to date, measuring each of their opponents' distance from "league average," rather than sorting every team arbitrarily into two groups.
So you can say the Pirates are 3.5 games better than the Reds, but that's probably within the margin of luck.
Another way to see this, rather than taking an obscure calculation on faith, would be to chop up the opponents into more groups than two. Say, five, because it's a round number.
Here's how the Reds have done against all opponents, as ranked by groups of six teams, according to winning percentage:
|Group||Teams*||Reds' record against|
|Top 6||STL, PIT, OAK, ATL||8-16 (.333)|
|Next 6||ARI||1-2 (.333)|
|Middle 6||CLE, WSN, COL||6-8 (.429)|
|Second-lowest||PHI, LAA, NYM||9-3 (.750)|
|Bottom 6||CHC, MIL, MIA||21-5 (.808)|
*Those actually played by Reds to date
What really stands out is the high and low end. The Reds have destroyed the sub-basement dwellers, but almost invert that record when playing the league's best.
The question is: what do you expect? The Reds should be taking it to the Marlins of the worlds - and so they are. The Cardinals' record against those teams is 13-6 (.684), the Pirates are 12-7 (.632). We should be critical of the Cardinals losing a series to the Marlins or the Pirates playing just above .500-ball against the Brewers, just as we look sideways at the Reds' record against those four teams in the "Top Six."
Also, the Reds have only played one series against that second-best group, which they came a blown save away from taking. Their record against "good teams" is a little top heavy and we can see that they're a game off .500 against the decent-to-mediocre bunch (CLE, WSN, COL).
So that record against "good teams" is top-heavy, probably moreso than the Reds' record against below-.500 teams record is bottom heavy. Along with the advantage the Reds have against the Pirates and Cards against the dregs of the league, it helps even things out a little.
It's really hard to say that the Reds are any worse than their record. They've been underperforming against the very best handful of teams in baseball. But that doesn't mean you throw out the season with the bathwater.