Friday, July 23, 2010

A Year Too Early?

John Fay reported today that Dusty Baker and the Reds would discuss his contract status in early August.  This leaves me with some mixed emotions.  On the one hand, Baker has done a pretty good job this year, I think.  He's made some very good moves (like dropping Stubbs in the lineup and moving Phillips up), but also some not-so-good ones (like sticking with Orlando Cabrera and failing to get Chris Heisey in the lineup more).  Prior to the season, my big complaint about Baker was a fear that he would overwork the talented young pitchers that the Reds have.  He's done a good job there, seemingly having learned something from his past transgressions.  I suspect he'll get an extension, and I think it's probably a good move.

That said, this runs in contrast to how I saw the season playing out.  At the beginning of the season, I thought the Reds would need one more year before they could become a contender.  I felt the Reds needed this year to do the following things:
  • Fire Dusty Baker,
  • Move on from the fixation with Johnny Gomes and let Chris Heisey or Todd Frazier become the everyday LF,
  • Trade Aaron Harang and Bronson Arroyo at the deadline for a few more quality prospects, and
  • Get rid of Orlando Cabrera in anticipation of Zack Cozart being ready for 2011.
The Reds success this season has changed things a bit.  First, as I said, Dusty Baker has had a good year, so I'm cautiously optimistic that extending is a good thing.  It seems to me that we'd still be better off with Chris Heisey in LF than Johnny Gomes (although Todd Frazier isn't looking so hot right now).  Skipping the pitchers for a second, Orlando Cabrera has been a train wreck, and Cozart and Paul Janish ought to have a decent battle for the shortstop spot next spring. 

The pitching is the interesting item.  The Reds position as contenders would seem to make dealing Harang and/or Arroyo extremely unlikely despite the starting pitching depth that the team possesses.  Although I still suspect that the team would be better off in the long run dealing at least one of their "innings eaters", moving a prominent veteran player at the trade deadline suggests that the team is throwing in the towel on the season.  This tends to negatively impact both team and fan morale, and for a team in contention, the short-term win or two that could be lost may well be the difference between going to the playoffs or not. 

On the other hand, the Reds are a team currently constructed for the rigors of the regular season, not for playoff baseball.  They lack the top of the rotation starters that teams need to rely on in the postseason.  I've written plenty about them having plenty of pitching depth but little in the way of an ace, so I won't belabor that here.  The point is, in a short series, the Reds don't have the pitching to match up with a team like the Cardinals who can throw Carpenter and Wainwright at you for four games.  On top of that, the Reds don't seem to hit good pitching all that well.  Maybe that's just my perception, but the Reds have been shut out  a lot for a team among the best in the NL in hitting.  They've been shut down by Johan Santana, Cliff Lee, Felix Hernandez, Roy Halladay, and Cole Hamels (among others) over the last month or so.  That's the kind of pitching the Reds will face in the playoffs.

I'm loving the Reds resurgence this season.  I'm hoping that they catch lightning in a bottle and tear through the playoffs.  Deep in the back of my mind though, I'm wondering if exercising a bit of patience and grabbing a few more prospects at the deadline could ultimately lead to a greater number of playoff appearances in the coming years, and greater success once they get there.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Crowded in the Middle

I can't really recall a situation like the Reds face right now with their starting rotation.  In my mind, they've got ten decent starters, both for the remainder of this year and in future years, but none of those guys really stand out as top of the rotation kind of guys.  What should they do?  Let's look at what they've got to work with.  Several of the pitchers have some striking similarities, which, in my opinion, only makes it more difficult to figure out what to do.

The Veterans

Bronson Arroyo and Aaron Harang are the first guys to discuss.  They've been around the block, and we know pretty well what we're getting with them.  Both are free agents after this year, provided the Reds don't pick up their $13M options.  (Cot's Baseball Contracts has some nice salary information which helped me put this together.)  To this point, Arroyo has been worth 1.2 WAR and Harang 1.0 WAR this season, so they're not exactly living up to their current contracts at the moment.  Despite that, they continue to give the Reds more or less average production, as they have for several years.  They don't overpower guys; their stuff is basically average.  In fact, Arroyo's fastball only clocks in at 88.0, which is faster than only a dozen or so qualified starters in the majors.  Harang's is a more respectable, but still below average, 90.5.  

I've always thought of each of them as "innings-eaters", but after looking at the stats, I can see that's only really true of one of them.  Arroyo is working on a streak of five straight 200+ inning seasons and appears likely to get there this year as well.  In looking at the stats, I was surprised to find that Harang hasn't been so reliable these last few years.  Depending on how long his current back injury keeps him out, he could be looking at his third straight year of failing to hit 200 innings.  I tend to think that Harang is more likely to give you a big game, while Arroyo is more consistent and less likely to throw out a stinker.  The bottom line is, of all the guys on the staff, these two are the known quantities.  They're basically average pitchers who are going to give you six innings and keep you in the game more often than not.  Harang's inability to stay healthy at this stage of his career appears to make Arroyo the better bet going forward, both this year and in the future.  I think it is pretty safe to say that Harang's option will be declined next year.  I wouldn't be surprised to see the Reds try to bring Arroyo back on a two-year $16-18M contract or something like that.

I'm Back...

I've been out of town for while at my brother's wedding, so I haven't posted anything in a while.  I missed the atrocious string of heartbreaking losses to the Phillies, the near-perfect game by Travis Wood, the Cliff Lee trade, the All-Star Game, all the second-half previews and first-half reviews, and the seemingly endless break where nothing was going on.  There were a few posts worth making there, but it didn't happen.  I'm back now though.

To kick things off after the break, Bronson Arroyo pitched a great game, leading the Reds to a 3-2 victory over the Rockies.  Arroyo was dominating early, giving up only a single that Brandon Phillips usually fields cleanly through the first 6 innings.  He allowed a run in the seventh on a Jason Giambi RBI double (that I'd bet Chris Heisey would have caught if he'd been in for Gomes), but the wheels didn't come off until the eighth.  Miguel Olivo led off with a homer, but it was questionable enough to require a replay.  That could have been it for Arroyo.  At that point in the game, the Rockies were starting to get a read on Arroyo, and the break for review may have had an impact too.  In any case, Baker left Arroyo in, allowing him to walk Ian Stewart and give up a single to Clint Barmes.  If not for another awesome performance by Arthur Rhodes, Arroyo could well have been saddled with a loss in this game.  Baker could have prevented that possibility from ever coming up, but Arroyo only threw 93 pitches.  Even though the situation probably dictated that it was time for a change, I understand why Baker would have wanted to give him a chance to keep going.

Of course, Arroyo did get the win, and he can think Arthur Rhodes for that.  Rhodes walked the first batter he faced to load the bases with no one out and a one run lead.  He got Dexter Fowler (who earlier in the game robbed Jay Bruce of a three-run homer that would have made this situation moot) to fly out to Jay Bruce.  Ian Stewart wasn't about to try to run on Bruce.  Rhodes then struck out Jonathan Herrera and Carlos Gonzalez to end the threat and lead the Reds to victory.

On the offensive side, the Reds scored two of their three runs in the third inning.  I was watching the game on the iPod Touch, and I was amused by the Reds TV crew's description of what happened.  Brandon Phillips doubled to lead off the inning, and then "stole" third when he was caught going too far on Orlando Cabrera's bunt attempt.  (Why bunt in that situation?  It's the third inning!  The leadoff man is on second, the heart of your lineup is coming up, and you play in Great American Ball Park!  Start a rally, don't play for a single run.  But I want to rant on the TV guys, not Dusty, so back to it...)  With Phillips on third and no one out, Cabrera grounded out weakly to second.  The TV guys lauded Cabrera for professional hitting and making sure to get the run in, as if he shouldn't even have tried to get a hit in that situation.  What a load of bull.  Joey Votto doubled just after that play, and later came around to score on a Johnny Gomes single.  Had Cabrera got a hit, instead of a weak ground out, perhaps the Reds would have scored more.  With the recent power outage against the Phillies, giving away outs at the top of the lineup ought to be a definite no-no.  When you keep penciling Cabrera in up there though, you can't really avoid it.  (I don't even care that he had a RBI double later.  He needs to be moved down in the lineup, if he plays at all.)

OK, venting done, let's turn the page.  Edinson Volquez makes his first 2010 start tonight against the Rockies.  Here's hoping that he becomes the ace we need, especially after losing out on Cliff Lee.  The Reds have a bunch of good but not great pitchers right now.  They've got to figure out who their starting five will be going forward, and they'll need to figure out who they should be counting on if the playoffs roll around.  I'll work on getting my thoughts together about what they should do, but I've been struggling with it all week, and really have no idea what they should do.  It's a good problem to have right now.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The One That Got Away

The Reds got back on the horse tonight with a 3-1 victory over the Mets.  Bronson Arroyo threw eight innings of one-run ball.  Brandon Phillips homered and drove in two runs.  Chris Heisey hit the go-ahead-homer in the seventh.  (He should really play more!)  This was a welcome change after Johan Santana shut the Reds down last night.  Of course, it could have been worse...

When I went to bed last night, the Reds had lost, and the Cardinals were winning 9-3 in the ninth inning.  I was resigned to the Reds' lead in the Central shrinking to a game, and just hoped that things turned around tonight.  Well, I was stunned to wake up this morning to find out that the Cards had lost in an epic meltdown (or "Meltdown", for the fangraphs followers in the audience) by Ryan Franklin.  The Cardinals have to be kicking themselves over that loss, and if they fall a game short of making the playoffs, they'll certainly look back to the game and wonder what could have been.

Of course, this just makes all of us Reds fans that much happier.  Not only did this loss by the Cardinals keep the Reds atop their perch in the NL Central by two full games (three if the Cardinals choke away tonight's game, which is currently tied 7-7 in the 8th.), but it also provides some psychological relief for the Reds own meltdown at the hands of the Braves back in May.  If my memory serves me correctly, the score of that game was also 9-3 going into the bottom of the ninth.  Mike Leake had pitched a solid game and was in line for the win.  Seven runs later, the Reds had been handed a shocking defeat. 

It all happened so quick too.  I remember where I was.  I had spent the day downtown in DC for work, and I came home on the Metro.  I got in my car just in time to hear the sports report on WTOP radio at 15 after the hour.  They announced that the Reds had a 9-3 lead going into the ninth inning.  I was thrilled.  The next WTOP sports report came just as I was pulling into my garage at 45 after the hour.  They announced that the Reds had lost 10-9.  I was disappointed to be sure.  Still, even though it was very early in the season, I had high hopes for the Reds this year.  I thought the Wild Card was not out of the question, although I really didn't think we could hang with the Cardinals like we have in the division.  I just couldn't shake the feeling that the Reds were really going to want that game back come September. 

Now?  I'm not so sure.  The Cardinals have their own game that they flushed down the toilet, and the Reds are serious threats (if not favorites at this point) to win the division now.  In fact, suggests that the Reds have better than a 60% chance of winning the division at this point.  The chart below (from shows how the Reds division, wild card, and playoff chances have changed over the season.  On June 12, I posted that I was concerned about the disparity between the Reds and Cardinals upcoming schedules through the All-Star break.  I was just hoping the Reds would stay within hailing distance over this stretch, but they've really turned it on, particularly over this road trip.

I wouldn't go so far as to label the Reds front-runners, but the longer this lasts the more legitimate the Reds appear to be.  I'm still not to the point that I expect the Reds to win the division, but I'm definitely expecting them to be playing for it right up to the last week of the season.  If they lose the division by a game to the Cardinals, I'll no doubt be crushed.  At the same time, I'll probably be less inclined to dwell on that collapse against the Braves now, knowing that the Cardinals had to overcome a very similar meltdown just a couple of months later.  On the other hand, if the Reds come up a game short of the Wild Card it will be very tough to swallow.  Hopefully they'll keep putting "W"s in the books, and we won't have to worry about it!

Monday, July 5, 2010

Drew Stubbs Big Day

Drew Stubbs set off some 4th of July fireworks on Sunday against the Cubs, hitting three home runs in the Reds 14-3 romp.  The three home runs broke Stubbs out of a big slump.  The slump was so bad, in fact, that Dusty Baker met with Stubbs on Saturday morning and sat him out of the game that afternoon according to Mark Sheldon, basically saying that Stubbs needed to be more aggressive at the plate.  So, did Dusty's pep talk do the trick?  Obviously, he's not going to hit three home runs every game, but did Stubbs suddenly learn something that will push his game to a new level?

I suspect that this is all just a combination of lucky timing and bad Cubs pitching.  If you recall, a couple of weeks ago, I posted about the relationship between Contact %, Z-Swing%, wOBA, and ISO.  The impetus for that post was the frequency with which Stubbs strikes out.  I ultimately concluded that while Stubbs really struggles to make contact, he'd be better served by simply swinging at more pitches in the strike zone, echoing what Baker would later tell him.  When Stubbs went off yesterday, I wondered if he had changed his approach to be more aggressive.

Take a look at these charts from  First, here are the pitches that Stubbs has swung at this season.

Maybe it's me, but this chart looks fairly sparsely populated on the outside corner (the right side).  Now, take a look at the pitches Stubbs has taken.

It appears to me that Stubbs rarely swings at pitches down and away.  The called strike picture tells a similar story.

The red points on this chart (the called strikes) certainly appear to be much more prevalent down and away in the zone.  It appears that Stubbs has trouble pulling the trigger on those down and away strikes.  I imagine teams would look to take advantage of that.  The Cubs?  Not so much.

Here are the same three charts from Stubbs game yesterday.  First, here are the pitches that Stubbs swung at.

Stubbs took eight swings in five trips to the plate, three of which ended up as home runs.  All eight of the pitches that Stubbs swung at were up and in the zone.  The home runs came on the two sliders and the curve ball.  I guess he was really on the breaking pitches.  What did he take?

It looks like Stubbs took eight pitches as well, five of them fastballs, and two of those down and away at the edge of the zone.  Go back and look at the first chart above.  See any red points down and away in the zone?  Not really.  Here, Stubbs got a couple, and just like the rest of the season, he didn't swing at them. 

If you ask me, the Cubs either didn't do their homework or executed their pitches very poorly.  Stubbs won't swing at fastballs down and away, and the Cubs pitched him up and in.  I doubt that Stubbs really did anything all that different yesterday.  He was a little more aggressive than usual on pitches in the zone, swinging at eight of ten strikes while his Z-Swing % on the year is just 63.2% (according to   Ultimately though, the pitches he saw were not the ones he struggles to swing at, so with such a small sample size, it's pretty hard to conclude that Stubbs had some kind of epiphany and will suddenly begin playing at a whole new level.  I hope he proves me wrong.