2013 Preview: Cincinnati Reds | Disciples of Uecker

Disciples of Uecker

We'd like to go to the Playoffs, that would be cool.

“The Reds have a two-tiered best case scenario, just like almost everyone else in the NL Central. Although they can expect to be one of the frontrunners for that wide-open 2012 division crown, a successful 2012 season for the organization also will feature some resolution with the future of Phillips, Votto, and Rolen. The Reds are in an interesting spot because they can put a competitive team on the field in 2012, while taking some time to find room for their top young prospects. Time will tell if those prospects become trades as the club extends some of its key players, or whether those prospects become the Reds’ next wave.”

Almost exactly a year ago, I wrote about the Cincinnati Reds’ best case scenario for the 2012 season. In retrospect, if the Cubs had a successful rebuilding season in terms of their organizational accomplishments (if not their big league club), the Reds accomplished the most in terms of on-field and organizational development. Rather than rebuilding, the Reds made their decisions about veterans Joey Votto and Brandon Phillips, solidifying the right side of two of the NL Central’s stars. Any questions about Scott Rolen were answered by Todd Frazier, who filled in adroitly for both Rolen and Votto, seizing his future roster spot with the club. Within a month and a half of previewing the Reds, the Cincinnati front office already made a set of moves to solidify their future; as their division championship season unfolded, the other pieces of their future fell into place.

Writing about the 2013 Reds is going to be tough in a way. The Reds arguably have the strongest roster going into the 2013 NL Central season, especially given their balance between their top pitchers, bullpen, and top bats. Even though they outplayed their run differential by six wins in 2012, they changed around elements of their roster in a way that accounts for a return-to-reality; their biggest criticism is that they were good and lucky in 2012.

This shouldn’t be a problem for a “best case scenario” preview, but I also want to look at the characteristics of the Reds’ roster to see their likely areas of improvement, or some areas where they might not be able to rely on the same production as 2012. While that might sound more critical than a best-case scenario, the Reds are probably the only team in the division that is a hands-down favorite, or an obvious choice, for a first place projection (indeed, BaseballProspectus heavily favors the Reds). In a division where other clubs are trying out younger or less experienced rotations, or at various stages of rebuilding or introducing new players to the field, the Reds’ core looks strongest. Now, it’s a matter of understanding why or how their club works.

Intervention: Reds’ Park Environment
Great American Ballpark served as a home-run haven for much of the last decade. Despite its reputation for encouraging home runs, its overall impact on the league run environment was not always as extreme as the longball totals it produced. In this regard, Great American is similar to Miller Park, which has regularly encouraged home runs without always encouraging more runs scored than league average. Of course, other park factors can intervene, and if other elements of a ballpark suppress run scoring, higher home run percentages do not always mean more runs scored.

2003-2012 NL Batting (R/G):
2012: 4.22 (.254 / .318 / .400; 7.64 K, 3.01 BB, 0.94 HR)
2011: 4.13
2010: 4.33
2009: 4.43
2008: 4.54
2007: 4.71
2006: 4.76
2005: 4.45
2004: 4.64
2003: 4.61 (.262 / .332 / .417; 6.56 K, 3.35 BB, 1.05 HR)

Great American Three-Year Park Factors
2012: 107 B / 107 P
2011: 104 B / 103 P
2010: 102 B / 101 P
2009: 100 B / 100 P
2008: 102 B / 102 P
2007: 104 B / 104 P
2006:104 B / 104 P
2005: 100 B / 101 P
2004: 97 B / 98 P
2003: 95 B / 96 P

Suddenly, the home run splits at Great American increased notably over the last three years. According to the Bill James Handbook, from 2007-2009, the Reds and their opponents hit home runs 25% more frequently at Great American than elsewhere; from 2010-2012, that number jumped to 34%. While a split between home and road games (for home and road teams alike) is not the same as a park factor, we can use those basic splits as a road map for what happened at Great American. Simply stated, a great home run park became an even greater home run park, and the run environment shifted accordingly.

Revamping Runs Scored
Despite their increased run environment, the 2012 Reds did not score an average number of runs. In fact, not only did they fall short of their league/park environment by more than 60 runs, they also fell short of the basic 4.22 R/G marker in the National League. The Reds simply did not score many runs; their total of 669 runs in 2012 decreased nearly 9% from their 2011 total of 735 runs scored.

Not only did the Reds receive below-average production from their CF, SS, and C, but they also poorly distributed their runs throughout their batting order. Specifically, the Reds received two of their least productive seasons from their first and second position in their batting orders. In terms of basic AVG/OBP/SLG, here’s how the top of their batting order compared to their middle order:

Batting First: .208/.254/.327;
Batting Second: .257/.310/.390;

Batting Third: .319/.425/.521;
Batting Fourth: .267/.333/.432;
Batting Fifth: .255/.323/.499;
Batting Sixth: .263/.325/.471;

The lack of production from the first two spots decreased the third and fourth batters’ abilities to produce runs. While there is certainly a threshold beyond which runs created estimates do not correspond with actual runs’ scored, some of the Reds’ middle order spots fell way short of producing runs according to their actual batting results. Comparing R and RBI (“runs produced”) to basic runs created estimates:

Third: 130.2 est. runs created; 87.8 runs produced
Fourth: 88.6 est. runs created; 94.4 runs produced
Fifth: 98.1 est. runs created; 99.3 runs produced
Sixth: 90.4 est. runs created; 73.9 runs produced

The lack of production from the third and sixth spots shows the impact of an early order that failed to produce. The Reds were able to maximize the production of Phillips in the middle order, but their strong season from Votto did not correspond to runs produced. Even when other middle order batters produce runs at a level that corresponds to their actual batting line, receiving approximately 88 runs from the most powerful spot in the batting order (featuring their most powerful bat) hurt the Reds’ chances of producing an average number of runs.

Fortunately for the Reds, they were able to win the division despite scoring so few runs. Furthermore, they acquired Shin-Soo Choo in an offseason trade, dumping Drew Stubbs. — one of the culprits of their top order lack of production. Along with Stubbs — who batted first or second 103 times — Reds' manager Dusty Baker most frequently placed Zack Cozart (128), Chris Heisey (34), Phillips (28), and Wilson Valdez (23) in the first and second spots. Simply exchanging Choo for Stubbs should give the Reds reason to believe that their offense will improve, and a season of full-health for Votto should allow Baker to solidify his top batting order (instead of moving around a batter like Phillips, or even Frazier).

Meet Shin-Soo Choo
NL Central fans might know Choo’s name — he was the Cleveland Indians’ regular right fielder for several seasons — but they might not know of his batting ability. Choo produced two 20 HR / 20 SB seasons for the Indians in the last handful of years, batting .291/.384/.471 since becoming a regular contributor for the Tribe in 2008. While his overall power/speed total might not place him among the elite power/speed players in the MLB, his moderate HR and SB combination matches his moderate contact approach.

2010 (646 PA): .183 K / .128 BB / .034 HR
2011 (358 PA): .218 K / .101 BB / .022 HR
2012 (686 PA): .219 K / .106 BB / .023 HR

Overall, Choo combines a number of elements to regularly produce solid seasons. The question in 2013 will be whether his move to centerfield causes problems for his ability to produce at the plate. One might ask whether Choo will be able to make a seamless transition into the middle of the Reds’ outfield mix. If his defense does not cause problems, Choo presents the Reds with a more balanced top-of-the-order approach than any bat they had in 2012 (with the exception of Phillips’ trip to the top-of-the-order).

Veteran Reprise
Continuing this trend, one of the reasons the 2012 Reds were supposed to be good was their core of veteran bats. However, Rolen wasn’t as effective as Frazier (causing an interesting story line among Reds fans who disagreed with the playing time policies of Baker), Votto missed a notable amount of playing time, and Phillips produced arguably his worst season since 2008. While strong seasons from Jay Bruce and Ryan Ludwick helped move the team along, the Reds’ veterans arguably underplayed their expected role in the Reds’ division championship run.

Ludwick is quite an unassuming left fielder, but his disciplined approach can yield notable power in his best seasons:

Ryan Ludwick:
2010 (553 PA): .219 K / .087 BB / .031 HR
2011 (558 PA): .222 K / .091 BB / .024 HR
2012 (472 PA): .206 K / .089 BB / .055 HR

Moving beyond their 2009-2011 profiles I provided last year, here’s an update on the Reds’ veteran core. While the runs scored decreased, the profiles of their veterans did not change notably:

Joey Votto:
2009 (544 PA): .195 K / .129 BB / .046 HR
2010 (648 PA): .193 K / .140 BB / .057 HR
2011 (719 PA): .179 K / .153 BB / .040 HR
2012 (475 PA): .179 K / .198 BB / .029 HR

Brandon Phillips:
2009 (644 PA): .116 K / .068 BB / .031 HR
2010 (687 PA): .121 K / .067 BB / .026 HR
2011 (675 PA): .126 K / .065 BB / .027 HR
2012 (623 PA): .127 K / .045 BB / .029 HR

Jay Bruce:
2009 (387 PA): .194 K / .098 BB / .056 HR
2010 (573 PA): .237 K / .101 BB / .044 HR
2011 (664 PA): .238 K / .107 BB / .048 HR
2012 (633 PA): .245 K / .098 BB / .054 HR

Unfortunately for the 2013 NL Central, the Reds’ veteran batting approaches hardly shifted in 2012. Perhaps the most notable changes were positive, including Bruce’s HR rate, Votto’s walk rate, and Ludwick’s K and HR improvements. Phillips lost a valuable aspect of his disciplined contact hitting approach, and will need to walk more frequently to continue to draw value from his batted-ball-in-play approach.

Overall, the greatest question in 2013 might be whether Ludwick and Votto maintain their home run rates; Votto might be expected to improve, while Ludwick might be expected to decline. Yet, in the midst of consistent veteran batting approaches, those questions are not as severe as one might think. Perhaps the greatest issue is health: if the Reds’ core remains healthy, they should be able to produce significantly more runs than in 2012.

Homer Bailey Arrives?
There’s a narrative where Homer Bailey was allowed to fully develop in the minor leagues by the Reds, facing fewer injuries, and fewer trips on the shuttle between AAA and Cincinnati. Perhaps this is revisionist history; perhaps Bailey was ready to debut at age 21 in 2007, but even by the 2008 season, the righty prospect did not yet earn 30 starts above A-ball. After struggling with some injuries, ineffectiveness, truncated seasons, and basically serving as a 3rd / 4th starter during his first three 100+ IP seasons, Bailey cracked the Top 20 for NL starters with 100+ IP in 2012.

Bailey’s first great shift in his career occurred in 2010, when he increased his strike out rate and stabilized his walks allowed; he allowed approximately four more runs than one might have expected in 2010. In 2011, Bailey continued that shift by walking fewer batters; again, he allowed approximately four more runs than one might have expected that season. Finally, in 2012, Bailey stabilized that K/BB/HR ratio while working a full season, and he also finally received strong defensive support. Bailey’s total of 97 runs allowed were 10 better than his league and park in 2012.

In October, while working on my pitching rankings, I surveyed Bailey’s season as one of the success stories among pitchers that transitioned from moderate-to-full workloads. Bailey’s specific factors for success were his groundball rate and his left-on-base percentage, both of which increased for the righty in 2012 (and, probably, were linked to one another). Bailey accomplished this feat while focusing more on his fastball, which gives him an approach that he can build on for 2013.

In some ways, Bailey could turn out to be the key to the Reds’ rotation. Johnny Cueto emerged as an ace in 2012, solidifying his 2011 improvements, but even if he has an above average season, he could allow more runs than his #1 season in 2012 (well, that’s not really fair; almost ANYONE could allow more runs than Cueto in 2012). Mat Latos made a successful move to Great American, but he also has a young and somewhat unproven history, at the very least shifting between great-and-average seasons between 2010-2012. There’s the looming question about how Aroldis Chapman transitions to the rotation, and there’s always a question about which season Bronson Arroyo turns from a top-to-mid rotation veteran to a replacement-level veteran (see 2011 versus 2012, and 2008 against 2009 and 2010). Bailey’s steady walk and home run ratios could help anchor the Reds’ rotation. Even if Bailey is not yet an ace, that’s okay — 2012 served as some kind of vindication for the rushed prospect, and he finally delivered on that promise so many saw.

Preventing Hits: Bronson Arroyo’s Trends
Speaking of Bronson Arroyo, the maddening “Hit Preventer” did it again in 2012. However, one might note that over the last two years, Arroyo has not limited hits to the extent that he was able to limit them earlier in his career. This might not be a problem for other pitchers, but Arroyo gets by on preventing hits; he is one of the very best damage-limiters in the NL, so much so that one wonders why he ever strikes anyone out. His ability to limit walks and sometimes limit home runs allows him to defy logic and stick around the National League. He should have a fanclub, as one of the greatest examples of the shortcomings of the predictive powers of FIP. In fact, during his time in Cincinnati, the righty allowed nearly 100 fewer runs than one might expect from his K/BB/HR:

2006: 240.7 IP / 98 R (122 expected)
2007: 210.7 IP / 109 R (112 expected)
2008: 200 IP / 116 R (108 expected) (#54 in runs prevented)
2009: 220.3 IP / 101 R (124 expected) (#20 in runs prevented)
2010: 215.7 IP / 95 R (121 expected) (#23 in runs prevented)
2011: 199 IP / 119 R (134 expected) (#70 in runs prevented)
2012: 202 IP / 86 R (101 expected) (#13 in runs prevented)

Yet, here is the troubling trend with Arroyo:

2006 (706 BIP): 191 H / 217 team / 212 league
2007 (654 BIP): 204 H / 206 team / 198 league
2008 (599 BIP): 190 H / 190 team / 180 league
2009 (686 BIP): 183 H / 197 team / 204 league
2010 (660 BIP): 159 H / 193 team / 198 league
2011 (645BIP): 181 H / 185 team /191 league
2012 (633 BIP): 183 H / 184 team / 190 league
81 hits better than his team; 83 hits better than his league

This anti-hit factory used to prevent hits in the double digits, compared to his team defense. Even when his team defense was worse than the league in 2006-2008, he prevented 28 total hits. However, despite playing in front of an efficient defense over the last few years, his 2011 and 2012 hit totals have increasingly moved towards average. Not surprisingly, his line drive rate increased both seasons, while his groundball rate stayed below the levels he produced a few seasons earlier.

One might always wonder about how long a pitcher such as Arroyo will be able to retire batters. That question becomes particularly pressing as one of his main trends — preventing hits — changes. This question is especially important when considering a club that relied heavily on its pitching staff in 2012. Perhaps Arroyo’s shifting identity foreshadows a shifting identity for the 2013 Reds; perhaps this roster will once again lean more toward batting than pitching.

Best-Case Scenario
I’m not inclined to give the Reds a two-tiered projection in 2013. While the Reds’ arguably have more organizational developments to unfold — including their future CF prospect Billy Hamilton, as well as Chapman in their starting rotation — those developments no longer serve as a silver-lining to a season that does not result in a playoff appearance. While their roster might reasonably be even stronger in 2014, depending on their organizational developments, their roster is also built for competition in 2013. In many ways, the division is theirs to lose, which moves a “best-case scenario” deeper into the playoffs. With an offensive core that could be more balanced across the batting order, a pitching rotation that could have more power, and a bullpen with a gang of strong arms, one is inclined to believe that the Reds’ front office now measures success in an playoff series victory (or more).

One only needs to ask, following a season in which so much went right for the Reds, who will step up on their roster to continue their improvement as an organization?

2012 Preview

BaseballAmerica. BaseballAmerica, Inc., 1999-2013.
Baseball-Reference. Sports Reference, LLC. 2000-2013.
MLB Advanced Media, 2001-2013.

John Dewan & Ben Jedlovec. The Fielding Bible III. Chicago: Acta Sports, 2012.
Bill James. The Bill James Handbook. 2010, 2013 consulted. Chicago: Acta Sports; 2009, 2012.

IMAGE (USA Today Sports): http://cincinnati.com/blogs/reds/2012/12/11/jocketty-on-the-trade-3/

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