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46 games in, is there more reason for optimism about this year's Reds?

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*First, a disclaimer: The site has a ton of original content today, and I'd love to have bumped this, but given the time-sensitive nature of it I'm going ahead and posting it.  Sorry JinAZ and RSC!

I've been seeing a lot of chatter (both here and elsewhere) about people not believing in this team just yet, and how fans want to see them winning in July or August before they will buy in to this club being a contender.  Given the Reds recent history of starting strong and fading in the summer, it is a reasonable position to take.  Just last year, the Reds were flying high after 46 games, with a record of 26-20, good for 1.5 games out of first.  It was at this time that Jay Bruce made the famous quote about coming back from the upcoming road trip "in first place."  Obviously it didn't work out that way, as they went 2-5 on the road trip as part of losing 11 of their next 16.  And despite what some wanted to believe, they were never in contention after that.

After 46 games this year, the team looks remarkably similar to last year's group on the surface:

Batting

2009

2010

Batting Average .258 .266
On Base Percentage .332 .338
Slugging .415 .439
Runs Scored 213 225

Pitching

E.R.A. 3.97 4.61
Strikeouts 314 332
Walks 181 147
Home runs 47 50

Runs Allowed

199 219
Actual Record 26-20 26-20
Pythagorean Record 24-22 24-22

 

Obviously the offense has been a bit better this year and the pitching a bit worse.  Otherwise, the teams don't look terribly different.  One thing to note is that, despite the higher ERA and runs allowed, this year's pitching staff has more strikeouts and fewer walks than last year's group.  That bodes well for the future, and can probably be explained by the slightly higher home run rate, as well as worse defense.  (For all their offensive ineptitude, last year's team could really pick it) 

So, we stand almost identical to where we were last season.  Is there any more reason for hope this year, or should we prepare ourselves for another long summer?  Let's see if we can get any clues from individual players.

Batters

Instead of going into the gory details about what went wrong last year, let me summarize:  Poor play and, to a lesser extent, injuries.  Willy Taveras' OPS dropped 100 points from game 46 to the end of the season.  Both catchers regressed substantially.  Jerry Hairston was at .801 but dropped like a rock.  Jay Bruce was OPSing .851 after 46 games, but was .700 the rest of the way.  Brandon Phillips was OPSing .827 at this point but only put up .758 during the remainder.  No major player significantly improved on their numbers from game 46 'til the end.  (Of course, the additions of Gomes and Rolen helped significantly) 

Then there were the injuries, the most significant of which was Joey Votto.  It was in game 47 that Votto left early with "dizziness", and wouldn't return until almost a month later.  When he did return his numbers actually dropped significantly as well.  His OPS was 1.099 after 46 games, and he ended the year at .981.  (Remember how Votto completely carried the team for the first month?)  All in all, the team was averaging 4.6 runs/game after 46, but only averaged 4.0 the rest of the year.

The point of all of this is that injuries happen, and can't really be predicted, but we probably could've seen most of the performance drops coming.  As good as Votto is, he wasn't going to OPS that high all year.  Neither was Phillips.  So what does that mean for this year?  Who can be expected to improve?  Regress? Maintain?

Here are this year's main players' current wOBA (a better indication of performance than OPS) as well as what ZiPS projects them to put up for the rest of the season (ROS). 

Player
Current wOBA
R.O.S. wOBA
Ryan Hanigan .399 .353
Ramon Hernandez .340 .322
Joey Votto .416 .391
Brandon Phillips .342 .342
Scott Rolen .372 .355
Orlando Cabrera .315 .329
Laynce Nix .366 .335
Johnny Gomes .353 .352
Drew Stubbs .312 .300
Jay Bruce .360 .343

So according to projections the catching tandem should get significantly worse, as should Nix.  It's reasonable to assume the catchers will regress a bit, and that's alright.  They've played out of their minds so far.  Nix is most definitely going to drop, but hopefully he has few enough PAs that the impact on the team is minimal.  I can also see the Rolen drop.  He's currently slugging higher than he has since 2004 (pre shoulder surgery) and is on pace to hit his most homers since that year too.  I think the average and OBP hold up, but not the power. 

Stubbs is a bit puzzling to me.  Obviously he has struggled this year, but ZiPS thinks he'll actually get worse, mainly based on less walking and less power.  I'm not sold that he'll ever be even an average hitter, but to assume he'll continue to strike out a ton, walk less, not raise his low BABIP (.276 currently) and stop hitting homers seems needlessly pessimistic.  My guess is he hovers in the .310-.325 range all year.  (Of course, Heisey could take his job at some point too).

ZiPS also has Joey Votto coming down a bit, mainly based on BABIP, but they also think he'll walk less and hit for less power.  I have to disagree there.  His BABIP is actually lower than it was last year, he's walking more, and he put up a .418 wOBA last year, so .416 is not unrealistic.  As far as power, it's not unprecedented for a 26 year old top tier hitter to experience a bit of a power surge.  Also, I'd like to think Joey is the kind of player that consistently outperforms BABIP expectations. 

Brandon Phillips and Johnny Gomes project to be almost exactly the same the rest of the year.  I'd take that for both of them, but watching BP in the 2 spot gives me hope he can improve on his current numbers.

Next, there's Orlando Cabrera.  I'm baffled by his projections, which have him walking more, striking out less, improving his BABIP, and hitting for more power.  All from a 35 year old.  Color me cynical.  Still, I feel pretty confident he can maintain his current level of mediocrity.

Finally, I don't agree with the Jay Bruce projection.  ZiPS thinks he's going to stop walking so much and his BABIP will go down, while only gaining a bit of power.  As Slyde will point out tomorrow, Bruce is doing a tremendous job laying off of pitches outside of the zone, and the wrist injury is still likely zapping some of his power.  I truly think Bruce can maintain his current wOBA, and if the power really returns, he could end up at superstar level.  This, to me, is the great question and variable surrounding the rest of the season. (just like it was before the season!)

So basically, I can see 2 positions getting worse (C, 3B) and 6 either sustaining or getting slightly better (the rest).  How about the pitching?

Pitching

Here is where injuries played more of a factor in 2009.  Edinson Volquez had made 8 of his 9 starts last year by this point, and had been reasonably effective.  For the most part, his replacements (Justin Lehr, Kip Wells, Homer Bailey, etc) were quite the opposite.  Aaron Harang and Johnny Cueto had both been pretty good to excellent through 46 team games, but both were much worse for the rest of the year.  Same with Micah Owings.  The only pitcher that got demonstrably better after 46 games was Bronson Arroyo.  The bullpen was a mixed bag, but more guys got worse (Weathers) than got better (Burton). 

What are the prospects for this year's group?  Here are the current FIP (fielding independent pitching) numbers for the current staff, as well as their projection for the rest of the season.

Player Current FIP Proj. FIP (ROS)
Aaron Harang 4.73 4.19
Johnny Cueto 3.93 4.09
Bronson Arroyo 4.83 4.63
Homer Bailey 4.71 4.44
Mike Leake 3.68 N/A
Francisco Cordero 4.46 3.51
Arthur Rhodes 2.44 3.49
Nick Masset 4.25 3.86
Mike Lincoln 4.54 4.79
Micah Owings 3.73 4.87
Daniel Ray Herrera 3.11 4.01

The pitching has a lot more volatility, and for me, a lot more reason to temper expectations.  For one, Mike Leake doesn't even have a projection because he doesn't have minors numbers to use, and no projection systems expected him to make the rotation.  It's pretty reasonable to assume his ERA and FIP aren't going to stay this low all season, though.  The starter expected to make the most improvement is Aaron Harang.  As much as I'd like to believe that, I'm going to wait and see.  I love the guy, but he's looked so darn hittable....

Bronson Arroyo is going to do his thing, as should Cueto, unless he gets hurt or tired.  And here's where the volatility comes in.  You have to expect some missed starts from some guys, and if/when that happens, who will replace them?  We still don't know who will make Homer Bailey's start on Friday, but whomever it is, can he be effective for 2 MLB starts?  How about 6 or 7?  When Bailey comes back, will he improve on his current numbers? (I think so.  And I also think one reason to be positive about the pitching this year is that there are no Kip Wells or Justin Lehrs first in line to take starts.  Instead we have Matt Maloney, Travis Wood, and that Aroldis Chapman guy)

In the bullpen, it's scary to say that most guys (except Cordero and Masset) are expected to be worse for the remainder of the year.  I think that's probably pretty realistic.  Again, though, so many players cycle through a bullpen during the course of a season it's difficult to say what kind of impact that will have on the team.  I do think substantial improvement in luck and performance from CoCo and Masset will go a long way. 

Essentially what I see with the pitching is that guys need to stay healthy.  If they do, and if these projections hold, the pitching should be ok.  Then again there is the possibility of a trade, in which case the AAA pitching depth will really help.

Fielding

Finally, a quick word about fielding.  It's tough to compare fielding with such small sample sizes so far, but both my eye and the numbers tell me the defense hasn't been as good this year.  Last year's team Defensive Efficiency Rating (DER) was .705, good for 4th best in baseball.  This year it is only .690, good for middle of the pack.  I don't think the disparity is really quite that big, and a larger sample size will even things out, but a better defensive performance will go a long way towards helping the pitching play up.

 Conclusions

I'm not sure what I expected to find when I started this.  I was hoping to see that the offense will continue to click while the pitching will improve.  I'm not sure that's going to be the case now.  If I had to pick the 2 most crucial factors (other than staying healthy) I'd choose Jay Bruce and team defense.  If Bruce can maintain or even improve his numbers, and the team can play better defense to support the pitchers, this team could go places.  Then, if the team is still in it in July, you've gotta think Walt will make some moves to improve the team.  What do you think?  Do you feel more or less optimistic after seeing this?  What do you feel is the crucial factor for contending the rest of the year?