Friday, June 25, 2010

Back on Top!

It was a great night for the Reds.  A commanding 10-3 win over the Indians coupled with a 4-2 loss for the Cardinals puts the Reds back in first place by a half game.  Aaron Harang didn't pitch the cleanest game, but he got through seven innings on just 108 pitches despite walking five and giving up two home runs.  Logan Ondrusek and Micah Owings each threw a clean inning of relief.  Offensively, the Reds were paced by Drew Stubbs with a homer and 4 RBIs.  Scott Rolen added a homer, and Joey Votto extended his reached base streak to a MLB season high 33 games by drawing two walks.  Besides Harang, Votto was the only Reds starter without a hit.

By itself, taking first place back from the Cardinals would be a big night, but it was a great night for nearly the whole organization.  In AAA, Louisville's Travis Wood shut out Norfolk 7-0, striking out 9 in eight efficient innings.  At the AA level, the Carolina Mudcats had a solid 11-4 win behind the hitting of Kris Negron (2 for 4 with a 2B, HR, BB and 4 RBI) and David Sappelt (a double short of the cycle) and a solid start from Tom Cochran.  (If there was one down-side to the night, it is that Brad Boxberger gave up 3 runs in one inning of relief in his AA debut.)  At high A Lynchburg, James Avery struck out 7 in five innings as Lynchburg beat Kinston 9-1.  Brodie Greene had 4 hits, and Josh Fellhauer added 3 for the Hillcats.  Then there's Dayton.  They lost to Lansing 7-6 in 11 innings.  I guess you can't win them all.  On the plus side, Cameron Satterwhite continued his torrid hitting with 3 doubles and Tim Crabbe threw five one-hit innings (although he did walk six).

After a rough first half of the season for the Reds minor league teams - all four top teams were in last place in their respective divisions when Dayton and Lynchburg went to their All-Star breaks - it is good to turn the page and look ahead to the second half of the season.  Louisville has a 10 game deficit to make up on Columbus for the division and a 7 game deficit to Scranton for the wild card.  Unlike the other three minor league teams, they don't get to start with a clean slate for the second half.  Hopefully Carolina, Lynchburg, and Dayton will take advantage of this opportunity and put together a strong showing in the second half.  There is a lot of talent in the system.  They've just got to convert that into wins.  Tonight was a step forward for the organization.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

A Move to Be Made?

The Reds signed Gary Matthews, Jr. to a minor league contract today to play center field for Louisville.  Somehow, I don't think that's the move that's going to push the Reds past the Cardinals (who they only trail by a half game after the Cards loss tonight).  That being the case, what should the Reds do?

The Bullpen

Obviously the bullpen has been horrible this season, but they've looked better since calling up Jordan Smith from AA Carolina.  The Smith call-up was a surprise move, but the 24-year-old righty has looked very good, striking out four and walking no one in 4 2/3 innings of work.  His 4.20 FIP suggests his 1.93 ERA isn't likely to last, but that wasn't going to happen anyway.  Besides Smith, Logan Ondrusek and Nick Masset have shown signs of life lately.  Throw in the amazing season Arthur Rhodes is having, and the bullpen may not be as bad as they looked in the first half of June.

Of course, the Reds also have an embarrassment of pitching riches down on the farm, although they seem to be grooming all the top talent to join the rotation.   It was big news this week when Aroldis Chapman was allowed to pitch in relief during Edinson Volquez's rehab start for Louisville.  Chapman seems to me to be an ideal candidate to log some innings in the bullpen this season.  He's young, so the Reds will look to limit his innings.  To this point, he hasn't shown the pitch efficiency to be able to work deep into games.  His electric fastball would play a tick faster coming out of the pen.  Letting him throw every few days and get his feet wet in the bullpen seems like the right move to me.  Oddly enough, the other starter I would consider moving to the bullpen for the season is Edinson Volquez. He's been outstanding in his rehab starts, and the Reds appear to be intent on giving him a spot in the rotation.  It seems to me that Volquez could be better served by more cautious use coming out of the pen this season.  Plus, like Volquez, his electric stuff would play well from the pen.

Shortstop and Leadoff Hitter

Besides the bullpen, shortstop seems to be the glaring hole.  It's not just that Orlando Cabrera is having a rough year; it's also that Dusty Baker keeps running him out there as the leadoff man.  I'd give Paul Janish a shot to see what he can do, batting eighth (or ninth, if you want to use your lineup more efficiently).  We know his glove is better that Cabrera, and he's got more upside.  If you play Janish though, who should hit leadoff then?  Honestly, I don't care.  There are plenty of options that are better than Cabrera.  I'd suggest letting Chris Heisey give it a shot.  If you're not willing to push either Stubbs or Gomes aside, let him play in place of Bruce once every week or two, in place of Gomes once a series, and in place of Stubbs once a series.  His OBP is trails only Votto and Hanigan, and while that isn't likely to last, he's done all you can ask of him given the time he's been getting.  Plus, he's been solid in the field.  Gomes is terrible out in left, so the pitching staff would welcome that move.  Even playing him in center ahead of Stubbs might not be so bad.  Everything I've heard suggests that Stubbs is a great defender, but his UZR certainly doesn't suggest that he's anything more than average so far this year.  (Granted, half a season is a small sample size for UZR.)  Personally, I'd rather see Heisey and Janish get a shot now, and shift Cabrera and Stubbs to the bench.

Starting Rotation

So, is that it?  Call up a few pitchers and shuffle the lineup, and the Reds are good to go?  I don't think so.  I think there's still one hole that needs to be addressed.  I think the Reds need an elite top-of-the-rotation pitcher.  Forget St. Louis.  If the Reds do get past the Cardinals or claim the Wild Card, do you really want to go into the post-season with Harang-Cueto-Arroyo as your starting rotation?  I think not.  The funny thing is, the rotation has been solid.  Plus, there's great depth.  The Reds are planning to skip Mike Leake a few times as the season wears on in order to limit his innings, but they've still got Sam Lecure pitching OK and Homer Bailey and Edinson Volquez coming back from injury at some point.  Throw in Travis Wood and Matt Maloney in Louisville, and you could make a case that the Reds have nine decent starting pitchers.  If I was Walt Jocketty, I'd be looking to swap some of those decent starting pitchers for a big-time ace.  I'd seriously consider a half-year Cliff Lee rental.  If he likes playing for the Reds, they could sign him long-term.  If not, let him go, take two additional first-round picks in next year's draft, and hope Chapman is ready to take his spot in the rotation next year.

What might it take to acquire Lee?  His contract is favorable, so he'll command some top prospects.  Of course, he would just be a half-year rental, so that lessens the cost a little bit.  Supposedly the Mariners want a significant catching prospect included in the package of prospects.  Devin Mesoraco has had an excellent season so far, even showing some pop with a .567 SLG (although just a .267 OBP) for AA Carolina.  Plus, the Reds just drafted Yasmani Grandal in the first round, so they wouldn't have to look far to find their replacement.  If Mesoraco and Grandal are too green for the Mariners liking, perhaps they could be interested in Ryan Hanigan.  He's not going to be a star, but he's been solid splitting time with Ramon Hernandez.  (I'd hate to lose Hanigan, but for Cliff Lee, you'd do it in a heartbeat.)  The Mariners probably would want a couple of other good prospects too.  Yonder Alonso is blocked at first base here, but he would easily top Casey Kotchman's horrendous .254 OPS thus far.  I imagine he'd make a great trade chip.   Throw in Matt Maloney (or Travis Wood or Sam LeCure, although I'd prefer to see Maloney be the one to go) to take Lee's place in Seattle's rotation, and we ought to be pretty close to a deal.  I'm not a prospect evaluator, but it sounds pretty fair to me.  The Reds would be giving up a lot of talent if they lost Mesoraco, Alonso, and Maloney, but they'd be getting Cliff Lee for the rest of this year, and two new draft picks to re-stock the farm with for next season.


I really like where the Reds are positioned right now.  They've got a tough schedule coming up, but they're playing well with just a few exceptions.  The bullpen has shown signs of life, and the Reds have more than enough pitching depth in the organization to cure any problems that creep up there from within.  Orlando Cabrera is a bad shortstop and an awful leadoff man.  I don't really see any appealing shortstop options on the trade market, so I'd move Janish to short and give Heisey a shot to see if he can hold down an outfield spot while hitting leadoff.  Other than that, I think this team has what it takes to be a contender.

Of course, being a contender simply gets you into the discussion.  It takes more to put you over the top.  I think what the Reds will need in September is a front-of-the-rotation starter, and I'd like to see the Reds try to put a package together to go out and get the best one on the market.  I'm not sure if a package of Mesoraco, Alonso, and Maloney is enough to pry Cliff Lee away from the Mariners, but I sure would like to see the Reds try to offer something like that.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Reds Look to Recover vs. A's

Seattle was a disaster.  The Reds offense, so reliable this year, was non-existent.  On the plus side, the bullpen looked very good.  Add it all up though, and the Reds were swept by a very bad (but very AL) team.  I suggested in a post a couple of weeks ago that the Reds upcoming schedule was not favorable for keeping up with the Cardinals.  At the time, the Reds held a half-game lead over the Cardinals.  They're down one and a half now, and the schedule isn't getting any easier (especially since the Reds have already played the Royals and Mariners - and badly, I might add).  According to, the Reds have seen their playoff chances decrease from 42.6% to 27.8% since that post.  It's time to right the ship, and with Mike Leake on the mound, let's hope the Reds can get it done tonight! 

To K or Not to K?

A few days ago (before the Reds' absolutely dreadful performance against the Mariners), I was wondering what to make of Drew Stubbs.  He strikes out a ton, and Adam Dunn showed that Reds' fans have little tolerance for strikeouts - even from good players.  It's pretty easy to see why Stubbs strikes out so much.  According to fangraphs, only five qualified players have lower Contact %.  While Stubbs struggles to make contact, his judgment of the strike zone is adequate enough.  His O-Swing % of 24.5 is good, and his Z-Swing % of 62.4 isn't that bad.  His struggles really do just come down to being unable to make consistent contact.

This prompted me to wonder whether understanding the strike zone or being able to make contact is the more important skill to possess.  I've done some digging, and I propose that "what separates the men from the boys" is being able to swing with authority at pitches inside the strike zone.  (Everything I'm about to present is the result of pulling data from fangraphs on May 18 for the 2010 season only.)

Batters who make contact at a high rate tend to swing at fewer pitches inside the strike zone.  In the chart below, I've plotted two series.  Each data point is a player, with the Reds players as the red series and all other players as the blue series. The x-axis is Contact % and the y-axis is Z-Swing %, both from fangraphs.  I've included a trendline which shows that Z-Swing % decreases as Contact % increases.  For what it is worth, the Reds players in this exercise are Johnny Gomes, Jay Bruce, Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips, Orlando Cabrera, Scott Rolen, and Drew Stubbs.  Cabrera, Rolen, and Stubbs swing at roughly 60% of the pitches inside the strike zone, while everyone else is closer to 70-75%.  Cabrera and Rolen make contact at a high rate, while Stubbs' 71% contact rate makes him the lower-left red dot.

At first, I thought this suggested that batters who are more confident in their ability to make contact are more likely to "wait for their pitch."  In effect, I thought that high contact rate led to a low Z-Swing %.  After looking into it further, I now think something else is at work.  Before I get there though, some more findings...

Contact % has little effect on whether batters swing at pitches outside the strike zone.  Again, I'll use a similar chart to illustrate, this time with O-Swing % on the y-axis.

There is still a very slight downward trend, but it is nothing like the previous chart.  So, we've established that hitters who make good contact are less likely to swing at pitches inside the strike zone, but not really any less likely to swing at pitches outside the strike zone.  If good contact hitters were "waiting for their pitch", they'd be swinging at fewer pitches outside the zone than their more aggressive (inside the zone) counterparts.  What's the explanation then?

Better hitters swing at more pitches inside the strike zone.  This time, I'm comparing the Z-Swing % to wOBA, again from fangraphs.  I've moved the Z-Swing % to the x-axis and put wOBA on the y-axis.

There is a fair amount of variation in this chart, so the trendline isn't a great fit, but you can see that the trendline does tend to rise as Z-Swing % increases.  As for the Reds, we can see that Scott Rolen bucks the trend here, putting up a high wOBA despite a low Z Swing %.  Only Stubbs and Cabrera produce a lower wOBA than their Z Swing % suggests among the Reds. 

We've now established that batters with higher wOBAs tend to swing at more pitches inside the strike zone, that batters who swing at more pitches inside the strike zone tend to make contact less frequently, and that how often a batter makes contact doesn't really influence how often the batter swings at pitches out of the zone.  This all suggests that better hitters (as measured by wOBA) take a more aggressive approach on pitches inside the strike zone.  They swing at pitches in the zone more frequently, and they have a higher wOBA, so they must hit them with more authority, right?

Hitters who swing at a lot of pitches inside the strike zone also hit the ball with more power.   This chart shows ISO from fangraphs on the y-axis.

Again, there's a lot of spread here, but there's also a definite trend.  The Reds story is much the same, with Rolen significantly outperforming the typical player with his Z-Swing %, Cabrera underperforming - is there no spot on the bench for him?!  Brandon Philips actually has a lower ISO than the typical player with his Z Swing %, but I suspect the change from batting cleanup to batting second has something to do with that, as he's clearly changed his approach at the plate. 

The difference in ISO between a typical batter who swings at 60% of the pitches in the zone and a batter who swings at 70% of the pitches in the zone is .050.  This suggests that batters who swing at more pitches in the zone also swing harder.  Batters who swing harder also miss more, which explains the first chart above.  Batters who swing at more pitches inside the strike zone miss more pitches too.

To summarize, while major leaguers need to be able to make contact with regularity and lay off pitches outside the strike zone, really good hitters swing harder and more often at pitches that are in the strike zone.  One final chart to drive the point home...  In this chart, I grouped players based on their wOBA, then plotted their Contact % vs. their Z Swing %.  There is a clear tendency for the dark blue and pink points (higher wOBA) to fall on the upper left and the yellow and light blue points (lower wOBA) to fall on the lower right.  Better hitters swing at more good pitches and hit fewer of them.

Drew Stubbs may very well strike out a lot because he swings and misses a lot.  As opposed to worrying about making contact more though, if Stubbs is like most players, he'd be better served by swinging (and swinging hard) at more of the strikes that he's watching go by.