Just over a week ago, the Reds’ record sat at 15-30. While dropping two out of every three is terrible no matter how you spin it, another team recently began their season with the same 45-game split yet managed to not only score a Wild Card postseason berth, but make it all the way to the World Series.
The Houston Astros went into the 2005 season with high expectations. The previous year, the team finished 18 games over .500 to capture the NL Wild Card. From there, the Astros won the first postseason series of the franchise’s 43-year history, besting the NL East champion Atlanta Braves 3 games to 2 before falling to division rival St. Louis in a seven-game NLCS.
The Astros had been flirting with success for years. Since finishing .500 in 1992, the team won fewer than 50 percent of its games only once over the next dozen years. That season was unquestionably an outlier, however, as from 1993 to 2004, Houston went an incredible 1,020-857 (.543), highlighted by a 102-win 1998 (one of five postseason appearances during this stretch, during which they failed to finish first or second in the NL Central only twice).
That stretch of success seemed destined to end ignominiously in 2005, though. After a 4-1 start that included a home sweep of the Dave Miley-led Reds, the Astros dropped six of seven, five games of which were decided by just one run. After appearing to rebound by winning three straight, the team then dropped six in a row, including three shutouts. None of those losses were blowouts, though, so Astros fans likely weren’t terribly discouraged by the team’s 9-13 record as April came to a close.
The wheels came off in May, however. From the 3rd of that month through the 14th, the Astros won just one game. The losses, meanwhile, got uglier, with a 16-0 drubbing by the Braves on May 8 serving as exhibit A. A subsequent seven-game losing streak from May 18-24 — which included an 18-3 shellacking by the Rangers — was no easier to swallow. At that point, the Astros had managed to win only two road games all season long, and just 15 of 45 overall.
The following week, the team’s hometown paper, the Houston Chronicle, printed a picture of a tombstone on the front page of its sports section and declared the Astros’ 2005 season dead. “The Astros might as well start thinking about next year,” read the sub-headline. Lower on the page, another graphic cited “one goal” for the remainder of the year — avoiding the franchise’s first 100-loss season. Elsewhere, under the heading “Grounds For Burial,” the paper cited several reasons why the team “won’t resurrect their playoff hopes in 2005.” The team was scoring an MLB-worst 3.6 runs per game; no player was hitting better than .284; the bullpen had a 5.34 ERA. Even though the 2004 Astros had won 36 of their final 46, the paper dismissed the likelihood of a similar finish in 2005, noting that such a hot streak “happens once every 43 years.”
Following offseason knee surgery, LF/1B Lance Berkman missed the first month of the season and then struggled mightily upon being activated on May 6. After the Astros dropped their 30th game of the year, the three-time All-Star was hitting .179/.292/.268, with just three extra-base hits over 65 plate appearances — a stark drop off from his career line at the time of .303/.416/.563. If Houston had any hopes of turning its season around, Berkman — who’d hit an average of 33 home runs over the previous four seasons — would need to shoulder a heavier load.
It’s probably no coincidence that Berkman’s first two-hit game of 2005 took place on May 25, when Houston defeated the Cubs at Wrigley Field to pick up their 16th win of the season, and just their third road victory. From there, the Astros headed to Milwaukee and dropped the series opener, but rebounded to win the next two games to collect their first road series win of the season. (Berkman went 4-for-10 with two walks during the three games.)
The Astros ended May by splitting a pair of games against the Reds, which brought their record to 19-32. They were 14 games out of first place; they had given up 47 more runs than they had scored; and unless Biff Tannen took Grays Sports Almanac to 2005 rather than 1955, no one in their right mind would have bet on Houston to reach the postseason.
Since the point of this isn’t to write a dissertation about the Astros, but to inspire optimism (or at least, beg the question “what if?”) about the 2018 Reds, I’ll fast-forward a bit by saying that the Astros won 70 of their final 111 games that year (.631), including a July that saw them go a ridiculous 22-7 (meaning, they won three out of every four games they played that month). As you’d expect, their run differential flipped completely over the season’s final four months (plus a pair of games in October), as they scored 511 runs while giving up only 380, which meant the Astros outscored their opponents during that stretch by an average of 1.2 runs per game. Berkman, meanwhile, ended up with a solid slash line of .293/.411/.524, with 24 homers over 132 games — stats good enough to earn him a handful of lower-ballot MVP votes.
Yes, the 2005 Astros proved that it’s possible to achieve postseason glory after a nasty 15-30 start. Whether the 2018 Reds can do so, however, is another question entirely. So, what would it take for history to repeat itself? At its core, baseball isn’t complicated. If you score more runs than the other guys, you win. Sometimes, that happens through great hitting; other times, through great pitching; and more often than not, through some combination of the two.
As you’d expect, during the Reds’ 3-15 start, they gave up far more runs per game (5.6) than they scored (3.0). Things have improved considerably during the Jim Riggleman era, as the team has scored an average of 4.6 runs over the 37 games going into May 29 while yielding 5.2 – still a negative differential, yes, but a step in the right direction in that scoring more typically leads to winning more. But is that sustainable? And more important, how can they score even more and/or give up even less?
For the sake of this column, I’m not going to focus on the latter notion of run prevention, whether via defense or pitching. In regard to maximizing the team’s offensive potential, though, I would suggest that the Reds do the following if they wanted to attempt to follow in Houston’s footsteps. To be clear, this is a win-now approach that doesn’t account for making room for prospects or giving playing time to potential trade chips — which is to say, it’s completely unrealistic. If you’ve read this far, though, you’re probably wishing that the Reds would…
1. Think outside the box.
The Tampa Bay Rays recently made headlines by having reliever Sergio Romo start four games. The idea behind such a move is that it prolonged the amount of time it took a traditional starting pitcher (who subsequently relieved Romo) to face the most potent part of the opponent’s batting order for the third time, when starters traditionally fare more poorly than on their first two times through an opposing lineup. The results were mixed – Romo’s first two starts saw him strike out six over 2.1 innings while yielding no hits and two walks, while his second two starts saw him give up a combined four runs while recording just three outs. While it remains to be seen whether such a move is replicated elsewhere, it showed a willingness to experiment, to flout tradition and to consider new ideas.
There’s no easy solution to the Reds’ current middle infield logjam. Meanwhile, the team continues to try to insert four square pegs into three round outfield holes. What if the team simply started the eight players that would provide the best chance of winning a particular game? Fans love to bicker over lineup construction, but it’s far more important who’s in the lineup than who hits where. While I wouldn’t suggest starting Billy Hamilton at catcher or Joey Votto in center, a more position-agnostic approach would allow more flexibility. On that note…
2. As long as he remains a Red, and as long as he keeps hitting like this, Scooter Gennett should play, even if it’s not at 2B.
For the past year, many Reds fans have expected Gennett to regress. Similarly, MLB Trade Rumors just took a stab at trying to figure him out, presenting cases for both the optimistic view (he’s “honed in on being the best version of himself”) and the long-standing belief that he still “hasn’t provided good reason to believe it’s sustainable.”
Here’s my solution: Let the front office figure out what to do with him in the long term. In the meantime, as long as he’s wearing red, he should be in the starting lineup if the goal is to win.
3. Stop batting Jose Peraza leadoff.
As of the time I’m writing these words, Peraza has more plate appearances than any other Red. His OBP (.289), however, is lower than Billy Hamilton’s (.290), meaning that the team has essentially downgraded its leadoff hitter.
Who should bat first instead? It depends on who’s playing on a given day. I’d argue, however, that it be someone with a minimum OBP of .350 – which today would mean Joey Votto, Scooter Gennett, Eugenio Suarez, Jesse Winker or Alex Blandino. I realize Brandon Dixon only has 12 major-league plate appearances to date, but considering how well he hit during spring training and with Louisville, he’s another candidate to consider.
4. Rotate starters more strategically.
On May 26, the Reds started Tony Cruz, Adam Duvall and Hamilton – meaning that on that particular day, three of their starting eight were hitting less than .200. Yes, they won, but that was thanks largely to the heroics of Gennett, who went 5-for-5 and made a game-saving catch in the 9th inning. Still, why start three below-average hitters on the same day rather than giving yourself the best possible chance at winning? If Tucker Barnhart needs a day off, make sure that Duvall and Hamilton aren’t both in your starting lineup.
5. Free Alex Blandino (or Brandon Dixon, or any other player who’s actually producing).
Here’s a rundown of the Reds’ position players not named Brandon Dixon or Tony Cruz:
- Eugenio Suarez: 2nd in BA, 3rd in OBP, 1st in OPS, tied for 1st in OPS+, 2nd in WAR
- Scooter Gennett: 1st in BA, 2nd in OBP, 2nd in OPS, tied for 1st in OPS+, 1st in WAR
- Joey Votto: 3rd in BA, 1st in OBP, 3rd in OPS, 3rd in OPS+, tied for 3rd in WAR
- Tucker Barnhart: 5th in BA, 6th in OBP, 4th in OPS, 4th in OPS+, tied for 3rd in WAR
- Alex Blandino: 4th in BA, 5th in OBP, 6th in OPS, 6th in OPS+, tied for 6th in WAR
- Jesse Winker: 7th in BA, 4th in OBP, 7th in OPS, 7th in OPS+, 10th in WAR
- Scott Schebler: 8th in BA, 7th in OBP, 5th in OPS, 5th in OPS+, tied for 6th in WAR
- Jose Peraza: 6th in BA, 9th in OBP, 9th in OPS, 9th in OPS+, 8th in WAR
- Billy Hamilton: 9th in BA, 8th in OBP, 10th in OPS, 10th in OPS+, 9th in WAR
- Adam Duvall: 10th in BA, 10th in OBP, 8th in OPS, 8th in OPS+, 5th in WAR
A good player’s WAR value will rise the more they play, so it’s not exactly a great gauge for comparing starters and part-time players – but still, it’s interesting to note that Dixon’s dozen plate appearances already make him a more valuable player by this stat (0.1) than full seasons of Peraza (0.0), Hamilton (-0.1) or Winker (-1.1 – yes, his defense is apparently that bad).
Much as I suggested that Hamilton and Duvall should not both start on the days where Barnhart rests, I would argue the above numbers prove that no starting lineup should include the trio of Duvall, Hamilton and Peraza. The starting eight on any given day would therefore be a series of if/then-type assessments predicated by the following three questions:
- Is Tucker Barnhart playing today?
- Is Joey Votto playing today?
- Is Eugenio Suarez playing today? (As long as they’re both healthy, there should be no reason to rest Votto and Suarez on the same day.)
The answers will help to fill in the remaining lineup blanks. For example, if Tony Cruz starts a particular game, some sort of “counter-move” should be made to attempt to replace as much of Barnhart’s value as possible (e.g., starting Blandino over Peraza and/or Schebler over Hamilton). I gave up trying to construct a flow chart since there are numerous factors to consider – think days off, LHP/RHP splits and the benefit of starting Hamilton in a larger park with more territory to cover. If the goal is to win, though, it does the team no good if Blandino, Dixon and Schebler ride the pine on the same day, for example.
As I type this, the Reds’ record is 19-36, so they’re already behind pace of the 2005 Astros. To reach the 89-win mark – which is the average number of regular-season victories of the second Wild Card qualifier over the past six years – they’d need to go 70-37 (.654) from here on out. That’s a tall order, considering that their current winning percentage is almost the exact inverse (.345). Plus, as proven by Monday’s game – which saw the team smack 16 hits and still lose by 7 runs – they’ll need more than a potent offense if they want to win two of every three.
To be clear, I don’t expect the Reds to reach the postseason this year. Before the season began, I predicted that they’d win 71 games this year, and at this point, I think even that is going to be easier said than done. Still, stranger things have happened. (Just ask the Houston Chronicle.)