The off-day seems like a reasonable time to take a detailed look at where the Reds stand with one-sixth of the 2013 season in the record books. Sample sizes remain too small to offer meaningful extrapolation forward, but we can certainly make comparisons of the situation now to that of a month ago. And a month-long view offers more insight than an over-emphasis of recent games. In baseball, we know that what’s happened the last few days, good or bad, isn’t going to keep happening forever.
The Reds are 15-13. The April schedule was supposed to be tough, but it turns out the Reds have played only three series (Cardinals, Pirates and Cardinals again) against teams that finished the month with a winning record. All of those games were on the road. The Reds won their five series at GABP. While the overall winning percentage won’t assure qualifying for the post-season, an above-.500 record in April is a solid, positive accomplishment.
At the moment, the battle for the NL Central is more than the expected two-team race. The Pirates and Brewers are bunched tightly with the pre-season favorite Cardinals and Reds. Based on early evidence, the Cardinals may have the best starting pitching in the league and plenty of hitting. If they can stabilize their bullpen, it’s hard to see them fading. While the Pirates and Brewers have decent lineups, their pitching continues to be mired in the bottom tier of the NL. From the vantage point of May 2, it still seems likely the division will end up as a race between an ever-better St. Louis and the Reds.
The Good Sean Marshall, who, it bears repeating, is one of the best relief pitchers in baseball, missed most of April but is back and apparently healthy. After a shaky first week caused by overuse, J.J. Hoover has returned to his spring training promise. In his last seven appearances Hoover has given up no runs, with 6 strikeouts and one walk. Sam LeCure has been solid. So far, Logan Ondrusek’s strikeout rate is up and walk rate is down – baby steps forward.
The Not-so Good Jonathan Broxton has been assigned the eighth inning role. Like Aroldis Chapman, he hasn’t pitched more than one inning in any appearance. Broxton’s ERA was blown-up that terrible Sunday in Pittsburgh (in large part due to having not pitched for a week). But other troubling signs linger, notably his lagging K/9. Alfredo Simon has been mediocre, surrendering runs in five of his eleven appearances. Hopefully the Reds have seen the last of Manny Parra.
The Spectacular The virtue of assigning your most talented pitcher to the bullpen is that it makes your bullpen better. Indeed, Aroldis Chapman has dominated in his limited role. He’s made 14 appearances and converted all six save opportunities. Yet, the Reds’ best pitcher has thrown just one meaningful inning out of the 117 the Reds have played in compiling a 3-10 record on the road. #misallocation_of_resources
Going Forward With Marshall’s return to health, Hoover’s return to form and Chapman being Chapman, the Reds have their share of ultra-talented bullpen arms. If Simon and Ondrusek are the weak links, that’s not too bad. Broxton’s role exceeds his performance to date, which bears watching.
The Aces Remember when Mat Latos couldn’t pitch in April? Remember when Homer Bailey couldn’t pitch at home? Remember when Tony Cingrani couldn’t pitch in the majors at all?
Welcome to May, 2013. Latos was Cy Young in April. Bailey has given up 2 earned runs in 20 innings at GABP. And Cingrani has struck out 28 (!) major league hitters in 18 innings. And don’t forget Johnny Cueto, who was second among NL starters in swinging-strike percentage (Homer is seventh) before his injury.
The Solid (Senior) Citizen Bronson Arroyo pitched six innings or more in each of his starts. In four of those games, he gave up three or fewer runs. Bad Bronson has appeared only once and even then gave up just five runs. Sign of decline? Nope. His fastball velocity has even been a bit higher this year than in 2011 and 2012.
The Wild Card Mike Leake continues his enigmatic ways on the mound. His ERA, FIP and K/9 are in line with last season. His BB/9 is up a bit, but his HR/9 is down. Overall, Leake has been pretty much the same pitcher as last year. Keep in mind that last year Leake was 4.58 ERA/4.42 FIP.
Going Forward The rotation has actually surpassed their lofty expectations. It’s hard not to be excited about every start by Cueto, Latos and Bailey. Bronson Arroyo continues as a more-than-able #4. The crucial, lingering question is what will the Reds do with the #5 slot once Cueto returns. Mike Leake is perfectly acceptable in a resigned, party-like-it’s-2012 way. But Tony Cingrani, at least from the early returns, looks like he possesses a much higher ceiling. Sistene Chapel high.
Shin-Soo Choo was acquired to fuel the offense with more OBP at the top of the order. As of yesterday, Choo led the major leagues in that statistic. He’s also on pace to hit more than 20 home runs. And for the most part, his defense in centerfield has been satisfactory. Check. Check. Check.
But in the same way the backs of their baseball cards mean the Reds’ underachieving hitters should eventually return to their career levels, Shin-Soo Choo will see his OBP decline. It should still be elite, just not other-worldly.
It’s also worth noting the profound split in Choo’s L/R batting. Against LHP, he is hitting just .200/.349/.257 while vs. RHP he’s mashed at .409/.541/.712.
Versus lefties, Choo hasn’t been the equal of even Willie Taveras in hitting or power (Taveras slugged .285 for the Reds in 2009). Yet, by keeping his walk-rate up and getting in the way of enough pitches, Choo’s OBP remains quite valuable, even against lefties. That walking business works. Against RHP, Choo is simply killing it. You read that slash-line right. Choo is slugging .712 against righties. Joey Votto slugged .600 his MVP season. More Choo, please.
Other than Choo, the Reds’ offense is pretty much what we thought it would be, minus their projected clean-up hitter.
Joey Votto constantly clogs the bases and has four home runs. Jay Bruce has struggled vs. RHP, but we know he’ll eventually heat up and carry the team for long stretches. His new approach against LHP has been successful at .341/.357/.512 and possibly indicates a higher trajectory for his overall batting average. Brandon Phillips has been inconsistent, though good enough to drive in 26 runs. Todd Frazier has slumped lately, but does have six home runs. While Frazier’s batting average is decidedly un-Super, his walk-rate is up. Devin Mesoraco, filling in for an injured and terribly slumping Ryan Hanigan, has an OBP of .364 and has proven capable behind the plate.
Zack Cozart is hitting .200/.225/.343 with four home runs. That’s below what his career minor league and major league numbers tell you he should hit, but on the other hand, he’s above expectations if you cherry-pick his AB in the #2 spot. Anyone with Cozart’s dreadful walk-rate has no business batting ahead of Joey Votto. Although an analysis of Dusty Baker’s lineup cards in the Votto Era would surely conclude that an abysmal walk-rate must be an official criteria for hitting second.
Ryan Ludwick, who slugged .531 last year (26 homers), was hurt on Opening Day on a hustle play and will be out until late July/early August at best. He has been replaced by a collective that is batting .190/.240/.275. Again, Willy Taveras slugged .285 in 2009. The in-house alternatives are not cutting it for LF. Exactly one month ago, I wrote that the Reds should fix this with a trade and I’m sticking to it. Cingrani can replace Leake.
Going Forward For perspective, remember that the Reds weren’t an elite hitting team last season. They finished ninth in the NL in runs scored and twelfth in on-base-percentage. More was expected in 2013 with a healthy Joey Votto and Shin-Soo Choo at the top of the lineup. Ludwick’s injury has set that optimism back for now. Yet as April turned to May, the Reds found themselves second in the NL in runs scored and third in on-base-percentage. And the runs aren’t all from a handful of games. The Reds have scored five or more runs in 13 of their games – which exceeds the performance of the Cardinals (10), Giants (10), Dodgers (7), Pirates (12), Phillies (8), Braves (12), and Nationals (10) in that category.
The bullpen enters May at peak strength, the starting rotation is deep and excellent, and the hitting will come around because that’s what hitting does.
Deep breaths, yes. But… The Cardinals can pitch and hit, too. Winning the NL Central will be a huge challenge. A wild card slot must come at the expense of Atlanta, Washington, San Francisco, the Dodgers and/or whomever the surprise team is for 2013. With the margin of error razor thin, you have to wonder if the Reds’ aspirations can survive the suboptimal lineups, head-scratching playing time decisions and bullpen mismanagement.
Beyond better day-to-day decision making, fateful roster decisions lie ahead. They call for bold, hard — World-Series-winning — thinking by the Reds.
April’s record is no cause for panic, but it’s also not a prescription for the tranquilizing drug of complacency.