18 Games at a Time - Capsule 8

Rob Leifheit-USA TODAY Sports

Timing is everything, especially in September.

I had a fairly long piece sketched out originally, walking through a brief history of league and divisional late-season races involving the Reds. The problems with the article were at least two-fold: one, it was boring; and two, there wasn't really a story. What I mean by that is in all the cases I looked at (maybe there was one exception), the Reds didn't finish the year much different from where they were 18 games prior or so. Which makes sense, I suppose. I don't know that you'd necessarily say that 162 games of data tells you a whole lot more than 144 does. Even a 2 game deficit is difficult to make up over just 18 games when the two or three teams in question are fairly evenly matched. You have to hope for your own team to go nuts (i.e., winning 13 or 14 out of 18), or for the other team to fall apart.

At any rate, the odds are pretty long against the Reds winning the division, despite how close they are. And, frankly, there's probably nothing in the numbers to indicate that the odds will or will not be beaten. The good news is that they've put themselves in position to make a splash, just in case.

All numbers through Sunday's games.

2013 Reds, Capsule 8

Overview:

Wins/Losses: 11 - 7

Strength of Schedule: .503 (2nd most difficult in NL; 9th most difficult in ML) [Prev: .502, 1st most difficult in NL; 9th most difficult in ML]

RPI (ESPN): .519 (2nd best in NL; 4h best in ML)

[Prev: .517, 3rd best in NL; 7th best in ML]

Baseball Prospectus postseason odds: 99.8% [Prev: 93.3%]

Baseball Prospectus division odds: 27.9% [Prev: 20.9%]

Offense:

  • .281/.356/.451 (AVG/OBP/SLG) for the team, compares to NL average of .256/.321/.390
  • Regulars, as defined by plate appearances: Mesoraco, Votto, Phillips, Cozart, Frazier, Ludwick, Choo, Bruce.
  • It was an up period for the offense, and a down one for Votto, who hit just .222, but his OPS (877) was still 3rd best among the regulars. He's good, even when he's not.
  • Shin-Soo Choo played the part of Votto this stretch, with a .391/.506/.667 line to go with his 17 runs and 11 RBI.
  • The definition of struggling was found in Mr. Mesoraco, who hit .179 with one walk and 0 extra base hits. Hanigan hit .320 in reduced time, so the playing time tables might flip a bit.
  • Jay Bruce tends to be a bit of an X-factor for this offense, and maybe never more so than when he's seeing the ball well. The five HR and five doubles are great, and help fuel the value, but it's the 11 walks to lift his .269 average to a .372 OBP that sets this period up as special. That kind of walk rate from Bruce is nearly unheard of, and I don't expect it to last indefinitely (also of note: 3 of his 11 walks were intentional), but Bruce being a complete player is a difference maker to this team.

Pitching:

  • Team ERA of 3.63, compared to league average of 3.93
  • There was a little thing I wrote much earlier in the year regarding the best rotations in franchise history, and I speculated that this current vintage had an outside shot of topping the list. With 8/9ths of the season complete, that seems unlikely, save for a long string of shutout victories. Slot them 4th, provisionally, just ahead of the 2012 group, and behind 1919, 1967, and 1940. Two of those were championship years, for what it's worth. At any rate, the Reds are a near lock to have their top six starters all post better than average ERAs. That's rare, and impressive.
  • Mike Leake and Bronson Arroyo, unfortunately, are fading in the stretch run, showing ERAs of 6.30 and 5.56, respectively. Neither was quite as bad as that number suggests, but for Leake especially, who would have been considered a playoff roster lock 4 weeks ago, this is not a quality career move.
  • Homer Bailey took the Big Hoss title from Latos for this stretch. 27.3 IP, 5 BB, 29 K, 5 ER. Coupla' hit batsmen thrown in too, just to keep guys from getting comfortable.
  • Chapman and LeCure (and the revelation that is Zach Duke) all posted shutouts for the period, covering for what was otherwise a downright embarrassing bullpen. Simon, Ondrusek, and Parra showed their flaws in a multiple-runs-allowed sort of way, thereby revealing one of the key differences between the Reds and the Cards, who apparently are not baffled by the opportunity to home-grow a relief corps.
  • The Reds rose to #1 (MLB) in Defensive Efficiency (.712, YTD). This is perhaps equally baffling in Year 1 AD (After Drew), but pleasing nonetheless.

The next 18:

  • 9 games at home, 9 on the road
  • 12 of the 18 against divisional opponents
  • 6 of the 18 against projected 2013 playoff teams
  • 3 of the 18 against American League teams, all of which will involve the DH
  • .464 average winning percentage (2013) for the teams in the next 18 games
  • .454 average winning percentage over 19 remaining games for the Cardinals
  • .496 average winning percentage over 20 remaining games for the Pirates

As I said at the top, I had spent some time digging into past pennant races, without producing a whole lot of edible fruit. I did, however, stumble on what I've perceived to be a poignant and bittersweet tale.

Imagine, if you will, that you are a 17 year old kid from California. The high school games in which you pitched have been the playground of scouts from amateur and professional teams, alike. You live in a Los Angeles suburb. You are valedictorian of your class. It is 1975. Life is good. You are Frank Pastore.

It is June, and you receive a phone call from the Cincinnati Reds organization, congratulating on being drafted in the 2nd round, and welcoming you to the franchise. You look at the newspaper. The Reds are in first place, even ahead of the hometown and defending NL champion Dodgers. Life is still good.

You report to Montana to begin your professional career, among a host of other talented high schoolers who have also never been to Montana before. You are not worried, because you expect to not be here long. You are correct, throwing 88 Montanan innings, and boasting a 2.56 ERA. Your adoptive team wins the greatest World Series anyone has ever seen. That'll be you soon, you figure.

Promoted in 1976, and again in '77, you begin 1978 as a 20 year old in AA. Nashville's a cooler town than Billings, but an even better change has taken place. Having graduated from your teenage years, you now possess a man's fastball and the results are impossible to ignore. Your strikeout rate jumped from 4.1 K/9 in 1977 to 8.2 K/9 in 1978, against a more advanced level, to boot.

You report to Spring Training in 1979, and you belong. Not just a prospect, you are rosterable, man. You are selected to travel north with The Machine. You look around and your colleagues are Johnny, Little Joe, Davey. A bit older, and two years removed from the last crown, but legends through and through. And you are part of a pitching staff headed by Tom Terrific, himself. Royalty.

You are tabbed as a reliever, which, hey...any way into the bigs, right? Opening Day, you get to show your stuff. Three innings of relief. One hit allowed, zero runs, no big deal. Pitching is pitching. Even relief pitching. A week and a half into the season, and you have five appearances, two saves, and a 2.00 ERA. You belong.

Then, seriously: What the hell, skip? You don't get into a game for, like, ten days, and then you're asked to start, out of the blue? You are shelled, predictably. Manager's fault, strictly.

Back to relief afterwards, with good results, until a game in late May where you got to take one for the team. Two-plus innings of relief, ten runs surrendered, someone put this kid out of his misery. One week later, owner of a 7.48 ERA, you are optioned to Indianapolis. Saddest words imaginable.

But others have struggled in your exact predicament, and you keep your head up. You turn heads in Indy, and you are back to the bright lights before you know it. You're called up to start the nightcap of a twinbill, and let's just say that your skyscraping ERA added a couple of new floors. You start some games, relieve in others, but this disaster of a start kicks off eight straight appearances where you let at least one guy score.

What you can't understand is the manager. Keeps dicking you around like you're forgotten and useless one minute, the key to the season the next. Here you are, getting the start in late August in Philadelphia, the Reds half a game back of Houston. This is the Machine. They don't need you, but they want you for some reason. And it works, how about that? A win over the Phils, and you guys are in first place. You're welcome, Johnny.

It got better. About a week before the final game of the season, just ½ game ahead of the Astros, and you scatter 9 hits over 9 innings for a 7-1 victory. Five days later, a complete game shutout over the Braves. It took you five months or so, but you figured out the majors just in time to continue the Big Red Machine's legacy.

You were going to the playoffs, you were getting the start in Game 2, and life was always going to be awesome, and the Reds were going to be great forever.

***

Today, I'm aware of Pastore through a few avenues. I know he died way too young from a motorcycle accident, I know that he was a popular radio host in his post-baseball career, and that he was involved with various Christian ministries. My first interaction with Pastore was as a kid, since I always seemed to get his baseball card in the early 80's, and Pastore unwittingly became the emblem of a very bad baseball team. I had no idea prior to this week that he was once a rising star on the last iteration of a dynastic ball club.

The baseball season can seem to last forever, whether your favored team is any good or not. The day to day rhythm takes its toll, until you are unsure if either the postseason will ever get here, like Christmas to a 5 year old, or alternatively if the damned season will ever just end already. In a pennant race, however, minutes tick by in wildly volatile patterns, wholly dependent on whether the pendulum of the standings is for or against you at this very second. When you're chasing a rival, time becomes your enemy, and the once slow season suddenly and inexplicably finds the gas pedal.

And so with a career. Frank Pastore toed the rubber in Game 2, taking on the resurgent Pirates, confident in his position of caretaker of the next phase of the Big Red Machine. I can't imagine he even once considered it would be the only postseason appearance he'd make. Sometimes, good things fall apart quickly, and completely.

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