The Reds' bats sputtered in the Pirates' series, scoring just 9 runs in 4 games (which works out to an average of 2.25 runs per game). At home. In mid-June. Against a weaker 4/5ths of the Pirates' rotation than usual.
Since they were able to split a 4-game series against one of the best teams in baseball (at least by record), it's easy to look for a quick wave of the hands. Was this just a blip? Is the Pirates run prevention better than we give it credit for, even in an injury-weakened state? Can we ever really know truth?
It's usally better to put things in perspective of the season. Even after this series, the Reds have the third highest-scoring offense in the NL, behind the Cardinals and Rockies, at 4.5 runs per game. But that's a little deceiving. Using park-adjusted measures, here's how they rank:
Team OPS+: 95 (8th in NL, 1 pt above league average)
Team wRC+: 97 (7th in NL)
That's looking more like a dead-average offense than an elite one. Which, seriously, is perfectly fine given the pitching staff the Reds have. Last season, the team finished 10th in wRC+ and 9th in runs/game with a similar cast of characters and similar performance from the pitchers.
There are some important differences this season:
1. This is a better offense
2. The pitching success is more tenuous. The bullpen isn't nearly as good and the injury luck won't be either.
3. The Reds are in a three-way race with two teams that aren't going away.
These are all assumptions I'm making with varying degrees of confidence. Maybe the Pirates fall off again or the pitching holds up or the bullpen gets it together. Any or all of these would give the Reds a pretty major boost.
Other than saying the offense is better than last year, largely thanks to Choo, I'm still not sure what their level is. Answering that would go a long way to answering whether the team needs to sit and wait out a few slumps or try and swing something at the deadline.
Looking over the lineup:
C: it's been a pretty big step down over 2012 - from a touch below league average to a 67 OPS+ compared to all catchers. Mesoraco's slash line actually matches last year's line for all Reds' catchers, but Hanigan still hasn't started hitting again.
1B: Votto is Vottoing, for the most part. The position is pretty much on the pace Votto and Frazier set last season.
2B: Despite his recent injury and slump, BP has been about league average - which is a bit above the Valdez-adjusted line from last year.
SS: Cozart has struggled, but it looks like he's at least clawing back up to where he was last season. Well below average, even for a SS, but tolerable.
3B: Third base, like first, is almost exactly where it was over last season.
Outfield: The step down the team has taken by missing Ludwick's 2012 production has been overwhelmingly compensated for by Choo.
In a nutshell, I'd say the Reds are underachieving at catcher and SS and possibly overachieving very slightly at LF and CF. I don't think Choo is going to keep a .426 OBP all season, but I don't think he's going to fall much further. I think it nets out to a small bump in overall offense once Hanigan and Cozart are hitting a little more.
They can turn this into another 97 win season without changing anything (they're currently on pace for 96, with a Pythag that matches their actual record). I don't see things getting much better on their own, but the trend should be upward.
It's weird to think about "settling" for 96-97 wins, but this is a brave new world.