And now, as a therapeutical service to the Red Reporter community, five reasons for optimism:
1) When trying to predict/remember the Reds’ record over this 18 game stretch, which ended with Friday’s gut-punch of a loss, my guess was 5-13, missing the mark by two games. Reason for optimism: They seem worse than they really are!
2) With Scott Rolen being selected as an All-Star replacement, the Reds now have four all-stars on the team, with the only thing keeping the Reds from having an all-all-star infield being Zack Cosart’s delayed call-up. Reason for optimism: The team is jam packed with certified stars!
3) For the first time this year, the capsule recap includes no new pitcher debuts, and just one new position player. Reason for optimism: The roster is settled and beginning to gel!
4) With the looming All-Star break, the local heroes get four days to rest, regroup, and render a plan to retaliate on the league. Reason for optimism: The Reds won their first five games of the season this year, and if I’m understanding the ‘Principles of Correlation’ class at the local community college correctly, these next few games should be a lock.
5) Just three weeks until the team escapes the schedule stretch of death! Always darkest before the dawn, etc.
Glass half full yet? Either way, let’s take a stroll through the latest cache of numbers, presented through Friday’s games…
2011 Reds, Capsule 5
Wins/Losses: 7 - 11
Strength of Schedule: .495 (9th most difficult in NL; 21st most difficult in ML)
[Prev: .496, 8h most difficult in NL; 21st most difficult in ML]
RPI (ESPN): .493 (11th best in NL; 20th best in ML)
[Prev: .500, 8th best in NL; 16th best in ML]
Baseball Prospectus playoff odds: 10.5% [Prev: 17.6%]
- .255/.311/.428 (AVG/OBP/SLG) for the team, compares to NL average of .253/.314/.391
- This was more of a mix-n-match offense than usual, but the most regular lineup-as measured by plate appearances over the period-would include Hanigan, Votto, Phillips, Renteria, Rolen, Heisey, Stubbs, and Bruce.
- Of those 8, only three had an OPS above 625: Votto (938), Phillips (935), and Heisey (831). And only Votto and Phillips reached base at least 29% of the time.
- Chris Heisey was an interesting case, in that he had a 300 point gap between his on-base percentage (265) and his slugging percentage (565). Most of the value was contained in one game, and pound-for-pound, he struck out more frequently than Drew Stubbs. Heisey's .208 BABIP for the period looks out of place given how hard he swings.
- The team is having major contact/pitch recognition issues right now. The team's "batting eye", as calculated by walks divided by strikeouts was just 33%, in sharp contrast to the YTD 48% they had coming in to this stretch.
- Only 6 out of 15 steal attempts were successful.
- His batting average continues to suck, but Jonny Gomes had a second consecutive strong stretch (914 OPS). Hernandez and Cairo added excellent support as well (OPSs of 1025 and 962, respectively)
- Team ERA of 4.37 for the period, compared against a league average of 3.92.
- I made a point in the last capsule of commenting on Volquez's new-found success. Well. 14 runs in 16 innings. My bad.
- Most of the other starters made sure to keep Volquez from looking too bad: all non-Cuetonian starts this period: 6.12 ERA. Cueto: 1.99 ERA.
- Regarding Cueto, the numbers probably say that this level of performance is unsustainable, but it's been fun thus far: YTD 1.77 ERA, .190 batting average against, 0.96 WHIP. Allowed 15 ER in 11 starts. His record is 5-3.
- We've come to semi-expect this kind of ridiculous outburst from Aroldis Chapman: 1 walk, 12 punch-outs. Were you expecting this from Sam LeCure, however? 11 K's, one walk...intentionally issued. Your move, Mauer.
- On the opposite end of the spectrum, Francisco Cordero: 5.2 IP, 4 walks, no strikeouts. 6.32 ERA, and for the purposes of this write-up, the Saturday and Sunday beauties don't even exist yet
- The team's DER of .710 (YTD) now ranks as tops in the NL.
The next 18:
- 13 games at home, 5 on the road
- 8 of the 18 against divisional opponents
- 8 of the 18 against projected 2011 playoff teams
- 18 (!) of the 18 against teams with a winning record
- .539 average winning percentage (2011) for the teams in the next 18 games.
- The quickest way to look the fool with respect to the Reds has to be to predict Jocketty's next move, no? He's certainly caught me off guard a few times, anyway. But all signs would seem to cause us to not expect a major trade in the next three weeks, correct? Has a sub-.500 team ever been a buyer at the deadline? That's not a concrete roadblock, of course, since the team is still just four games back of the division lead. Now, however, the question becomes one of timing. Can the team build enough of a charge before the initial trade deadline to convince management to make a splash? Right now, I'm tilting towards doubtful.
- On a semi-related note, the Reds appear to be holding one of the greatest hands a small-market team can be dealt (do people still use the "small-market" term? Do they still use poker lingo?): a positional surplus. It's nowhere near revelation to remark that the Reds have more MLB-ready catchers than can be used at one time. However, I can't remember the team being in a similar spot in recent memory. The Bowden-era outfielder stockpile never had the intended effect, but this one just might, since Mesoraco and Grandal continue to earn rave reviews, and Hernandez is marching towards a 900 OPS. Hanigan may not end up being the diamond in the rough we were hoping for, but he's an outstanding backup, at worst. That said, Hernandez is 35 years old, a free agent at year's end, and in the middle of an offensive season completely out of whack with his past career results. There are notable contenders who would welcome an upgrade behind the plate. Could you stomach being a seller a year after winning the division, while just being a few games back this year? In a year where the promised land is not promised, and would require a steep climb to reach it, is it irresponsible not to maximize such an obvious and redundant asset?
Loquacity (or, Rounding third and headed for home):
Everything, it becomes increasingly clear, is the sum of many parts, only some of which truly matter.
Examples abound. The stock market's annual performance is said to hinge on just ten days a year, though that number is likely elevated in these volatile times. National elections often seem to come down to a relative handful of states, which are themselves subject to the voting whims of a handful of districts. The difference between a great film and standard boilerplate fare may be the inclusion of a few memorable lines, delivered with a deft touch.
The same can easily be said about baseball. An every day player may see upwards of 2,500 pitches in a standard season, most of which will not matter. Or will appear not to matter. There is a legacy effect in baseball, whereby past pitches influence future ones. A pitcher will not intentionally throw dead red down the heart of the plate to Joey Votto, because Votto has proven himself capable of depositing said pitch into the cheap seats. Were the same pitcher facing the humble and slow-batted author of this piece, it would be a different story. Past performance may not guarantee future results, but there's definitely a connection. And so, we might say, even the parts that don't matter...still matter.
Of course, this is true in real life as well. The acclaimed screenplay doesn't get written in a day, and the electoral outcomes are influenced by events now a generation or more old. We learn, often slowly, that the way to make the few moments matter is to treat many moments as though they do.
Back to Joey Votto. It's hardly an insightful statement to say that the reigning MVP is not having as good a season as last year. But why? 2011 looks a lot like 2010 in a First Principles sort of way, perhaps even better. He's striking out (slightly) less, walking (slightly) more, line-driving a (slightly) higher percentage of batted balls. But the lock without a key is found in the percentage of fly balls hit by Votto that land on the opposite side of the outfield fence. In 2010: 16.3%, in 2011: 9.3%. It's entirely possible, even likely, that 16.3% is an unsustainable percentage. But what if Votto's 2011 rate looked more like 2009's (11.8%)? Then Votto would have three or four more homers to his credit, his slugging percentage might be 40-odd points higher, and his OPS+ would be in the same neighborhood as it was during the MVP campaign. Four additional home runs might not sound like a lot, but how much better would you feel about this season if just two one-run losses were flipped to the positive side of the ledger?
From a 30,000 foot view, it would appear that Votto is doing everything right. The process and approach are there, the results are not yet. Perhaps there's something else at play: a loss of musculature, perhaps; or a minute flaw in his swing. For now, we'll assume all is still right with the man. We assume that for the team to do what they want them to do, Votto will need to be Votto-tacular, and not simply Votto-riffic. We assume because we still cling to hope.
In my younger days, I used to imagine being a Major League ballplayer, as many do. Gripped with my own unique neuroses, however, I would envision being a good player with a long history of success, now finding myself in the midst of a terrible season. I could feel the sense of dread come over me as the calendar showed the end of summer drawing nigh, my paltry batting average displayed in mega-watt fashion in ballparks across the country. The palpable fear: I don't have enough time left to make this right. The failure, expressed in three simple integers preceded by a decimal point, would be forever commemorated in a truly irreversible way.
In a contemplative mood lately, I've been mulling two memorable lines from America's pre-eminent philosopher, which appear to be contradictory at first glance.
He not busy being born is busy dying.
Ah, but I was so much older then, I'm younger than that now.
They're not paired anywhere but in my own head, coming from two different songs on separate albums. One appeals to a greater sense of personal responsibility; the other appears to shrug the weight off his shoulders.
Another possible meaning occurs, however, as I reflect on the birth of my fourth child, now just several days past. The blank canvas of a newborn is a mysterious wonder: out of the basest physical instinct comes the most complex machine the most creative species on earth can generate. So complex, in fact, that even in the hours and days when the child has almost no voluntary capacity he or she still volunteers the opening notes of a life-long personality. My children have all been born in the morning, and the ensuing day is filled with visitors and various forms of kinetic activity. At night, an exhausted mom and dad unwind and prepare for their first night with the newborn. Four separate times now, the same thought has sprung up: ‘I already know this person; tomorrow his age will double.'
It's a humbling thought. The shorter the past, the more unknown the future, which means it might not be pretty. This child's life may involve violent crime or crippling disease; or what if he becomes a career politician? Unsettling outcomes all, and yet there's the persistent belief that this decision to parent will be worth it. Maybe that's a conviction born of some selfish need to validate my choices, or maybe it's connected to a primordial instinct that drives the perpetuation of the species. Either way, I come back to Dylan. Here's a child literally being born, and he has no capacity to do anything but live in the moment. No worries about tomorrow, about retirement plans, tuition payments, or swimming lessons. As one of the adults in the equation, it would be unwise to neglect the future the way this baby will. But to live along side this child and his siblings means an ongoing commitment to the here and now. This acceptance counter-acts the youthful worry from the ongoing nightmare: I will always have enough time to make the next moment right.
I suppose all conscientious baseball fans wonder at some point or another why they care about the sport. We cannot affect the outcome, we don't receive a paycheck from the club, and we don't ride in the parade when the team wins it all. OK, we probably do affect the outcome, as evidenced by the time I switched seats on the couch moments before that one 9th inning rally. But the other two realities still hold.
I've seen various explanations for why we care as much as we do. They mostly ring hollow. Some things exceed rational logic. We care because we do. Res ipsa loquitor. I've come to think of baseball, especially Reds baseball, as an old friend. I like having it around, and the team winning games is a means to that end.
On August 11, 2002, the Reds were 2 games behind the division-leading Cardinals. They finished disastrously: 19 games back of first, even falling six games below .500. At some point in September, a co-worker partial to the Redbirds commented that it was almost a fun season for the Reds. I argued, perhaps unconvincingly, that the team made it interesting for longer than I expected, which did in fact make it a fun season, albeit with a horrible ending. This season is less fun, due to the expectations, but it's still been interesting. Or attention-holding, anyway.
Most baseball fans (everyone but Yankees fans, perhaps) would, I think, sign on for a promised scenario in which the favored team was always nominally in the pennant race, but didn't necessarily win it all every year. Over most of my adult life, the Reds have been that old friend who didn't really like to hang out that much. This season, we're in early July, and the Reds are still present. It's better than the alternative, even if I'm not on the payroll. I don't mean to suggest that I'm not frustrated with the current mediocre play, nor that I will refrain from a high-volume whine should team management prove to be feckless.
However, I'm taking the long view, in the midst of the malaise. The team will get hot, there will be a roster move or three, and there will be meaningful games left to play. (author's note: the previous sentence was written before the promotion of Cozart and Willis and before the injury to Jose Reyes. I'm pleading agnosticism on any future moves.) The marathon doesn't cease to be a marathon just because it's halfway over.
The day after he was born, he came home to live. Dad and son settled in for the second night of a long relationship, and Dad's favorite player left the yard three times, and for a moment the old friend and the new friend were both perfect.