Cheer up, it's a 30-30 season. If I remember correctly, that's a good thing in baseball. Unless we're talking about the record of a team in its follow-up a division championship - or the ratio of innings pitched between Homer Bailey and Logan Ondrusek. In the case of the tire-spinning Reds, I think the latter stat has a lot to say about the former.
30-30 is not a terrible place to be, especially since it also means that a team has 102 games left to play. There have been plenty of mitigating factors that partially explain the mediocrity. The last 30 days have been marked by bad luck, injuries and roster madness. But at least some of this misfortune is happening around the margins.
One indicator is the way the team has performed against theoretically inferior competition so far. 2-7 against PIttsburgh and LA and just a few games above .500 against .500-and-below teams they dominated last year. But this is an imperfect explanation. The Reds are also 11-4 against the Cardinals and Brewers, both of which are ahead of them in the standings. And they've performed well against some of the elite pitchers in the NL - Halladay, Marcum and Kershaw.
The reason for the seizing should be painfully obvious - there's a pretty massive gap between the quality of the pitching and quality of the offense. The Reds are tied for first in the NL in runs scored (with St. Louis) and second MLB-wide to the Yankees. A scan of offensive leaders has Votto or Bruce in the Top 5 in AVG, HR, RBI, OBP and SLG, with Stubbs knocking on the door in SBs. Meanwhile, the team is 3rd last in the NL (which is also 3rd last in the Central) in runs allowed, which is good for 5th last in the majors. The Reds are also allowing the 4th-most base runners in the NL, with a team WHIP of 1.384, and leading the NL in walks. When you wash the run scoring with the run prevention, it's not at all surprising the team is sitting at .500.
But the pitching has not been uniformly bad, which gives rise to the hope that this is a fixable problem. Trim the fat, wait for a positive regression, and the pitching will get to a tolerable level. This seems like a plausible strategy in the bullpen, which has been at least a little worse than it seems. The 'pen's 3.53 ERA (vs. 3.41 NL average) is just above league average and so is the 1.366 WHIP (1.307 NL average). Periodic blow-ups notwithstanding, the top 4 - Cordero, Ondrusek, Bray and Arredondo - have been great. But they've only pitched 92.1 of 209.1 relief innings. The Reds have pitched full 33 more innings than the league average bullpen load (176.1).
Meanwhile, they've gotten 51 mediocre-to-terrible innings from Masset, Maloney, Smith, Chapman and Thompson. I have to think regression will be helpful here, mostly as a function of recovering from a bruising May. We don't know how deep Chapman's issues run; regardless, the team never expected to throw this many relief innings or crew up in June with Horst Reineke and Fisher. Masset, meanwhile, has been bad. But he's also pitched 7 more innings this season than he had on this date last year. And on June 6th of last year, he entered a game with a 6.94 ERA. He ended the season at a respectable 3.40. He may need to step down the leverage ladder a little, but I still think he's going to be OK.
The larger point is that bullpen will only reduce its workload with better starting pitching. And the team will win more averaging nearly 5 runs/g by not starting out 3 runs in the hole (whether literally, in the 1st inning, or statistically). The food is bad here - and such large portions. The Reds two best pitchers to date, Cueto and Bailey, have pitched the fewest number of innings out of the Top Six starters. And one of them is injured. Cueto and Bailey, combined, are allowed about 2.5 runs per 9 innings, one runner and inning and less than a HR/9. The rest of the rotation is all north of a 5.00 ERA, with Mike Leake boasting the highest ERA+ at 77.
The biggest lift the staff is likely to get in the immediate future is simply having Cueto, Bailey and Volquez take a greater share of innings. This assumes Bailey gets healthy and Volquez returns to at least a 2010 version of himself. If they combined to average just 6.0 per start and a 3.50 ERA, with the bullpen holding steady at its current 3.50 ERA and the other two starters down to a plausible 5.00 ERA, the Reds could start allowing almost one less run per game. Which would put them right back into the thick of the race, winning at least as often as the Cardinals. Reducing runs allowed in the first inning alone, from a 7.35 ERA to 4.65 (the more modest 6th inning ERA), would - according to Pythag - give the Reds another two wins.
These are all big leaps to make. But the Reds have only to get Bailey back, start meditating before games and watch what happens. Hopefully, they get at least a month to data before the July trade deadline.