Thinking Inside the Box

Linden: Coming to Life

The first week and a half of the season was terrifying. It was terrifying because the Reds looked like our worst fears. Plenty of pitching, but good luck finding enough runs to win. Since then, however, things have turned around a bit. As I write this, the Reds have scored at least four runs eight games in a row. Unsurprisingly, they are 5-3 in those games.

And indeed, the lineup does look suddenly formidable. Let’s take a quick look at the primary players using wRC+, which is an all-encompassing offensive stat.

1. Billy Hamilton – 38 wRC+
2. Joey Votto – 161 wRC+
3. Brandon Phillips – 85 wRC+
4. Jay Bruce – 120 wRC+
5. Ryan Ludwick – 108 wRC+
6. Todd Frazier – 122 wRC+
7. Devin Mesoraco – 310 wRC+
8. Zack Cozart – 6 wRC+

There’s a lot to digest there. Let’s take it in chunks.

Nothing to See Here

Joey Votto and Jay Bruce, step on up. You are both doing what we expect you to do. You both have a BABIP that’s a bit below your career norm, but overall, you’re looking good. We expect that you’ll keep it up as the season progresses.

Too Good to Be True?

Todd Frazier, Ryan Ludwick, and Devin Mesoraco, come on down. Mes is not going to hit like this. He just isn’t. However, this sustained period of excellence to start the season does bode fairly well. Friend of the Nation Joel Luckhaupt had a string of tweets recently identifying other Reds who have had stretches like this, and nearly all of them ended up with pretty good numbers at the end of the year. I have to say that, thus far, Frazier also looks pretty good. The power numbers are better than I’d expect in the long run, but he’s taking walks and there’s no weird BABIP voodoo enhancing his numbers.

And then there’s Ludwick. I don’t want to be a downer. I really don’t. He’s been above average and I hope he keeps it up, but his .351 BABIP is unlikely to last. Worse, his Isolated Power of .135 is well below his career norm. It’s early, certainly, but he’s a player I wouldn’t be surprised to see fall.

Is It Going to Get Better?

This is mostly about Zack Cozart and Billy Hamilton, though we’ll also address Brandon Phillips here since he’s a bit below average right now. With Hamilton and Cozart, the short, easy answer is probably. Hamilton’s BABIP of .260 is lower than it should be for someone with his speed. It’s also been pointed out in several places that his numbers have been on the rise lately. The jury will, however, continue to be out on Hamilton until he show he can keep his OBP over .300

With Cozart, it’s just bad luck. Plain and simple. His .154 BABIP is team-worst and impossible to sustain. He’ll come around. He won’t hit much because he’s Zack Cozart, but he will likely hit as well as he always has before.

Phillips, I am scared about. His 85 wRC+ is not terrible. But his BABIP of .373 indicates at least some of that number is GOOD luck. Further, his power is down and he isn’t walking at all (2.4%). It’s possible this is simply an early season slump, but Phillips is probably the best candidate on the roster for a sudden and steep decline. We’ll have to keep a close eye on him.

A Word about the Lineup

A lot of ranting has been going on about the lineup lately. The science of lineup construction tells us two things:

1. It doesn’t matter that much.

2. To the extent it does matter, your best hitters should hit 2nd and 4th, with everyone else lined up in descending order of OBP.

Price has, rather subtly, managed to get his two best hitters into the correct slots. As much as it bothers some to not have Votto and Bruce hitting back-to-back, they are positioned to do the most damage for now. After them, I’m uncomfortable ranking any of Phillips, Ludwick, Frazier, and Mesoraco as better than the others. Hamilton and Cozart clearly bring up the rear.

If I were to set the lineup, I’d likely go with something like this:

Hamilton, Votto, Frazier, Bruce, Mesoraco, Ludwick, Phillips, Cozart

I think Hamilton will keep his OBP high enough to have value out of the first spot in the order. Votto and Bruce are where they should be, and everyone else is in descending order by how good I think their numbers will be by the end of the season. You could swap Mes and Frazier and also swap Ludwick and BP and I wouldn’t argue.

Really, though, the lineup shenanigans don’t matter very much, fun as they are to talk about.

Stat of the Week: wRC+

Also known as the stat Joey Votto would most like to lead the league in, wRC+ is compiled by FanGraphs. It attempts to quantify all offensive contributions which means it includes baserunning as well as hitting. It is adjusted for park and league. This means that you don’t need to look at any Reds wRC+ numbers and wonder what it would be like if they weren’t in hitter-friendly GABP.

wRC+ is indexed to 100. 100 is, roughly, league average. Every point above 100 means that player was one percent better than league average. Every point below 100 means the player is one percent below the league average. So, right now, Devin Mesoraco is 210 percent better than league average, where as Zack Cozart is 94 percent worse. Yes, you can have a negative wRC+.

For context, there were 204 players with at least 400 PAs last year. In that group, the lowest wRC+ was 49 (Alcides Escobar). The highest was 192 (Miguel Cabrera). Only 12 players in that group managed a wRC+ of at least 150 (including Votto and Choo). A 120 wRC+ (typical Jay Bruce season), puts a player in the top 25 percent of hitters. A wRC+ around or below 90 puts a player in the bottom quarter of those accumulating at least 400 PAs. There are, of course, a lot of hitters well below that, they just don’t play enough to be part of this sample.

Shameless Self-Promotion

If you missed it, the newest chapter in my baseball novel When the Sparrow Sings went up over at The Hardball Times yesterday. I encourage everyone to read it (and to buy a copy when it comes out as a book later this year).

 

30 thoughts on “Linden: Coming to Life

  1. I know we’ve talked about the standard setup of 2 and 4 and descending OBP from there, but I’m starting to wonder what the numbers say about there being some value to having one of your better hitters in the bottom third of the lineup. Dusty did it with Hanigan because he was a catcher, which is a silly reason to do it, and Price did it with Mes because he was coming off the DL and is kind of a redshirt rookie, which is a much better reason, but both moves have had a similar effect – They give you a reliable bat at the bottom of the order to both ensure the opposing pitcher never has an inning where he doesn’t have to face a legitimate bat and also to help keep rallies alive. If you just stack your weakest hitters just ahead of the pitcher, odds are pretty good any rally the middle of your lineup might get started is going to run into a brick wall as soon as it hits the 7 spot. Having Mes in that spot means there’s at least one thumper of a bat in every third of the lineup. Pretty tough for a pitcher or a manager to negotiate their way through that, which is partly why we’ve seen such an offensive surge with Mes doing what he’s doing even though we’re getting virtually nothing from our leadoff spot and 8 spot.

    P.S. Love these posts. I’ve been banging the drum on Cozart’s ridiculous BABIP for the last week.

    • My understanding is that it is always better to have your best hitters stacked close together because it increases the odds that they will come up with men on base. It’s much better, for instance, to have three or four hits in a row than to have one or two hits every three outs. It’s not about having every inning be a little hard for the pitcher. It’s about having some innings be as close to impossible as you can manage.

      • That totally makes sense, and on an average team that might only have 3 dangerous hitters then yeah you have to make sure they’re clustered to do the most damage. But on a team like this, that arguably has 6 dangerous hitters and a 7th guy who will kill you whenever he gets on base I kind of like having a power bat at the back of the order. How many times already this season have we seen Mes keep a rally alive with a big hit out of that spot.

        Just spitballing.

        • The other consideration is that batting 7th, Mesoraco will get fewer at-bats in general, which lessens his relative effect. If it’s the bottom of the 9th, it’s more likely that Frazier or Ludwick (given the current lineups) is going to be the one getting the huge AB, and Mesoraco never even gets a chance. To me, that’s the biggest reason why you don’t want to bat good hitters low in the lineup.

          I totally get your point, though. It sure seems nice to have a good hitter coming up every inning. That’s exactly how I ordered my lineups in Ken Griffey Jr. Presents Major League Baseball on Super Nintendo!

  2. Jason, I’ve read Tom Tango’s articles that says your best 2 hitters should bat #2 and #4, but it’s been awhile since I read my copy of The Book (actually, lent it out and never got it back). But wasn’t the assumption that your three best hitters should bat (1), (2), and (4)? In addition, wasn’t there other assumptions? One, that you had a league average #3 hitter (who would be BP) and a league average #1 hitter (who would be Hamilton in this scenario.

    The Reds don’t actually appear to applying the formula correctly. They have probably the worst leadoff hitter in baseball, followed by a below average #3 hitter. The reasoning behind the whole Votto as the #2 hitter relies on the Reds getting more value from his extra at bats than the runs he would help generate from having guys on base. The Reds, by surrounding him with B-Ham and BP, are actually placing him a worst-case scenario where he neither has runners on base in front of him, and aren’t getting max value of Votto’s high OBP.

    Hamilton at #1 is far more egregious than BP at #3, but I don’t see how the Reds have gained anything from Votto batting second. The Reds current hitting surge is a result of hitting efforts by Frazier, Mesoraco, & Bruce.

    Of course, I don’t think the lineup order is all that important, but us sabermetric-types shouldn’t pat ourselves on the back just yet. In my opinion, the Reds are like Bruce Banner, who tried to recreate the Captain America super soldier serum, and ended up creating a monster.

    • If he’s healthy, I expect BP to be exactly a league average hitter. His career numbers as a Red for OPS+ and wRC+ are both exactly 100. He has been remarkably consistent except for one very good year in 2011 and one very bad year in 2013 which most attribute to injury. Hopefully nothing’s actually wrong with his back and he’ll get back to being the same hitter he’s always been. But I agree that #3 probably still isn’t the best place for him even in that scenario. I love the idea of Votto-Mes-Bruce in the middle of the order and BP could probably be one of the best #7 hitters in the league.

      • Yeah, I think BP is a mistake, but a smallish one. Maybe I’m wrong. I naturally think of BP as a #2 hitter in old school terms. I think he is probably slightly below average compared to ALL hitters, and below average compared to the average #2 hitter across baseball. But there are still some Dusty Baker’s out there in the league (cough cough Jim Leyland ) who believe in letting terrible players hit #2 so perhaps BP is better versus his peers than I thought.

        I also made a error in my original post…probably easier just to show old school v. new school thinking:

        old school
        #1 high OBP guy (not just the fastest guy on the team)
        #2 contact, bunty mcbunterson. should still be decent at getting on base
        #3 best hitter on the team. Best hitter implied best average/power combo
        #4 homerun hitter
        #5 homerun hitter. maybe less power than #4, but also perhaps slightly

        new school
        #1 high OBP guy. speed+ power isn’t necessary
        #2 best average/power combo, #3 hitter in old school lineup
        #3 ?. I think this might actually end up being the #2 hitter for most MLB teams, so maybe BP is actually the right call after all.
        #4 second best hitter on the team. Usually the guy with more power if #2 and #4 are equal.
        #5 Third best power/average hitter

        I’d probably just simply things and says #1, #2, and #4 are should have the highest wRC+, with #1 being the guy with the least amount of power. #3 and #5 should have the next highest wRC+. I doubt it matters much how you juggle #3 and #5 around. BP doesn’t really appear to be in the top 5, but it’s not like he is a disaster.

        Hamilton might be though.

        • Price won’t stick with Hamilton in that spot indefinitely if he can’t get his OBP up. He might stick with him longer than a lot of us or even other professional baseball minds might like, but it won’t be forever unless he improves. The debate at that point will be whether to move him back in the order or send him to AAA to continue to work and give his AB’s up here to Heisey.

  3. Regarding the ability to cluster hits, I recall last year when the Reds were going to face Ian Kennedy of the Padres, who was having a terrible time with lefty hitters. The Padres announcers said in effect that the Reds were giving Kennedy a breather by having Choo, Votto and Bruce at 1, 3 and 5. There was a “breather” between each pair of lefties. I’d prefer not to save anybody for down in the order. The harder a pitcher has to work on the top 6 in the order, the less likely he will be around to “enjoy” the bottom-of-the-order innings anyway.

    I am also really concerned how BP would take the news if he were moved down to 7th in the order.

    • I had the same concern in a similar conversation regarding BP taking the news of being moved down. As far as I know he’s never hit below #4 with the Reds unless it was VERY briefly when he first came here. Wondered how much he had batted lower in his career so I took a look. Surprisingly, the spot he’s spent FAR AND AWAY the most of his time is #4. He’s had almost 3 times the number of AB’s in that spot than any other spot in the lineup. He did spend a good amount of time in the bottom of the order with Cleveland, actually spending a good amount of time at #9.

      As much as I hate to admit it because I like BP and I’m always defending him here, I think it’s a legitimate concern. If moving him down distracts him and makes him a worse hitter, I’d rather live with him in the top of the order as an average hitter and lose a tick of efficiency in the lineup. It would probably even out.

  4. You know, some of us (myself included) kept pointing out in the offseason that the Reds were 3rd in the NL in runs scored last year with virtually no production from LF.

    Losing Choo isn’t going to make THAT big of a difference, and getting some production from LF with a healthy Ludwick should just about make up for BHam’s dropoff from Choo (to say nothing of BHam’s ability to generate runs almost singlehandedly, something Choo definitely couldn’t do)

    To this day, I’m still baffled why anyone thought this wasn’t going to be a good offensive club.

    • I think it’s because this team seems to year after year be terrible at hitting for average. They rely more heavily on the HR ball than almost any other team in baseball and are aided by their home park in that department. We’ve seen the last few years what happens if you just don’t happen to have that power surge in a given game or short series. It’s a dangerous way to live and it hasn’t worked out for us when it counts.

      • The Reds are aided by their small ball park in hitting HR…Why then are the Braves not able to hit them in Cincy, but the Reds hit them in Atlanta? This argument does not really hold water as Cueto has a low ERA, Latos has a low ERA, Leake is pretty good, Cingrani and Bailey give up homers, but not that many. I agree that the Reds swing for the fences a lot, but the Reds have been scoring a lot of runs this year by stringing together hits.

        • Well it holds water in the sense that more homeruns are hit in GABP year after year than in most other ballparks. I’m not sure if it’s #1 in that category but it’s up there. I don’t think anyone anywhere denies that GABP is a hitter friendly park.

        • As for Cueto (and Bailey for that matter), he’s evolved to become a ground ball pitcher precisely because of the park he plays in. Over the years there have been plenty of guys come through the system that couldn’t make the adjustment – Harang and Volquez jump to mind.

      • another piece was Hannigan. Like him as a catcher, but last year was not good and even in good years, he didn’t have the slugging that Meso has. Meso is a huge upgrade in that hole because they have to drive in runs at 7

        8 doesn’t get a chance. Ryan was not a great RBI guy. He did give great ab’s and would work the walk.

        I am really happy with Meso because of his plate approach. Frazier’s approach is slightly improved.

        you can really see improvements in Billy in such a short time. He will still have the pitcher learning curve as he goes thru the league a few times. His stroke looked good yesterday.

        I like Price talking like Pete Rose and not giving ab’s away.

    • The Reds look like a team that can do some damage, but they also clearly can go through sustained periods of futility. Votto is the only really consistent (as in not very streaky) hitter. Bruce runs hot and very cold, and everyone else runs less hot and very cold (not talking about Mes, and won’t, for fear of some sort of jinx).

    • They were 3rd in the NL in scoring, but they had 30 games where they scored 1 run or less, and 53 games where they scored 2 runs or less.

      Though they did have like 13 games where they scored 10 or more runs though, and 29 games where they scored 7 or more runs.

      I don’t think most people think a feast or famine (with more famine than feast) offense is really confidence inspiring. Regardless of the final ranking.

      • I did a “Feast or Famine” study last year and they weren’t as bad as people thought. The Reds had 54 total games where they scored 2 runs or less. Here is how that compared to the rest of the NL for 2013 (Regular season)

        Team/Games < 2 runs/ record in those games)

        St. Louis: 47 (6-41)
        Atlanta: 53 (12-41)
        Arizona: 53 (8-45)
        Milwaukee: 53 (7-46)
        REDS: 54 (10-44)
        Pittsburgh: 56 (12-44)
        Colorado: 56 (7-49)
        Philadelphia: 56 (6-50)
        Los Angeles: 57 (14-43)
        New York: 59 (9-50)
        Chicago: 59 (5-54)
        San Francisco: 64 (11-53)
        Washington: 65 (8-57)
        San Diego: 70 (13-57)
        Miami: 76 (13-63)

        So, they weren't much more "feast or famine" than other NL teams. Aside from the Cards, the teams with fewer games of scoring 2 runs or less did it only 1 less time per team. I did the same thing for 3 runs or less and it looks even better for the Reds:

        Team / Games < 3 runs / record in those games

        St. Louis: 65 (14-51)
        REDS: 72 (19-53)
        Milwaukee: 73 (13-60)
        Pittsburgh: 76 (25-51)
        Colorado: 76 (12-64)
        Atlanta: 78 (25-53)
        Arizona: 78 (22-56)
        Chicago: 82 (17-65)
        New York: 83 (18-65)
        Los Angeles: 85 (28-57)
        Washington: 85 (18-67)
        San Diego: 86 (21-65)
        Philadelphia: 86 (19-67)
        San Francisco: 89 (20-69)
        Miami: 103 (22-81)

        They posted the article here at RLN but I can't find the darn thing now.

        • Always good to keep things in perspective.

          I think part of the reason fans around here are so hard on the Reds is simply because they don’t see what other teams are doing….Except when they play the Reds.

          I think that’s part of the reason the Reds are underappreciated.

  5. As I write this, the Reds have scored at least four runs eight games in a row. Unsurprisingly, they are 5-3 in those games.

    I like the Royals efficiency. They are 10-0 when they score 4 runs or more. Do we think that the Reds are as good as the Royals? I think most here would. Our numbers would most definitely be better if the bullpen hadn’t let us down.

  6. Jason,

    wRC+ no longer measures baserunning. In 2012, the formula for wOBA was modified and baserunning was removed.

    • Ack! Thanks for the correction. I remember that now, actually. Obviously I forgot about it in the interim.

  7. Just wondering if Hamilton’s BABIP of .260 is lower than it should be for someone with his speed is because of his failed bunt attempts?

    • .260 is low for anyone, but not by that much for someone with absolutely zero power. Pretty much anything he hits in the air is going to be an out, so his BABIP should be expected to come in a little low. Call me skeptical but I don’t see his speed making THAT much of a difference in terms of his BABIP. So far this season I’ve seen him run out 2 balls that would normally be outs – one was a bunt single and the other was basically an error on Anthony Rizzo for not making more of an effort to get to the bag in time. I think Hamilton’s speed will turn some singles into doubles and doubles into triples, and obviously it’s a game changer once he’s already on base, but I just don’t think we’re going to see him legging out insane infield singles all that regularly.Bottom line is he’s going to have to learn to be a BB machine to really make the most of his skillset.

      • “Bottom line is he’s going to have to learn to be a BB machine to really make the most of his skillset.” If Hamilton can extend his AB’s by realing learning the strike zone and fouling off tough pitches (see Votto, Joey), he may be increase his walk rate, he may be able to increase his BB%, but pitchers are going to pitch to the strike zone against Hamilton rather than fearing his bat and pitching around the strike zone (see Votto, Joey). Hamilton is going to have to increase his line drive % to increase his BAbip to a reasonable level against the drawn in infield and outfield alignments he will face. Weak ground balls and weak popups are simply not going to cut it.

        • Well I mean he’s going to have to find a way to improve his AB’s. He simply may never have the power to be a reliable line drive hitter, but what he can do (and what he can learn from Joey) is spoil pitches in the zone like you suggest and hopefully with a developed eye that will force pitchers to throw more balls. Never said it would be easy, but I think it would be easier than learning to be a gap to gap line drive hitter.

  8. IMHO, the Reds lineup is fine right now. Although, BP worries me a bit. I feel he’d be a great fit at #6. I would like to see this lineup eventually.

    Hamilton, Votto, Mesoraco, Bruce, Frazier, Phillips, Ludwick, Cozart

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