Thursday, May 24, 2012

Cincinnati Reds: Performance That Defies Expectations

The Cincinnati Reds have been all over the place over the last 4 years as a franchise. Without really overhauling the team, they have managed to place 4th, 1st, 3rd, and are now 2nd in the NL Central. Their rotation is full of youth, and some of it fairly productive, though with Aroldis Chapman in the ‘pen there was a potential to upgrade the rotation but that fell through with the Ryan Madson injury during spring training.

Mike Leake has not put together the start he may have wanted to this season, after a pair of league average seasons he’s looking at an ugly season in the early going, and has failed to make it to through the 4th inning twice so far. He’s got 4 Quality starts, his last 2 being perhaps the most promising all season, having given up 3 walks over the 14 combined innings with 11 strikeouts against only 2 earned (4 total) runs to show for it. Leake has overall been ineffective, though the last 2 starts could signal a bit of a turn around there. He’s getting fewer ground balls than he has before and is giving up more line drives (22% of balls in play) so far than ever before, and that’s not exactly going to help him. He’s not doing anything better this year than he did last year, and that will probably not benefit him. If Leake can build on his last 2 strong starts he could turn in a good year and be content with that. If he happens to regress to the generally ineffective behavior from his first 6 starts, Leake will get burned and likely turn in a worse year than his rookie season. Perhaps the biggest thing to keep in mind for Leake is that he’s only 24 years old, and has plenty of learning to do as a pitcher.

Homer Bailey has looked like he’s regressing a bit on just about all the wrong ways, but he’s been lucky to get away with overall comparable results. He’s getting fewer strikeouts than he has since really getting himself entrenched in the rotation, and is walking more batters than last year. He’s also giving up more hits, and more home runs than he has since ‘08. Bailey has 6 quality starts in 8 attempts, but only 2 of them have really been “good” games for the pitcher, going 6 and ⅔ and 7 innings and giving up 1 earned run in each. He has been effective in soaking up innings if nothing else, he has made it into the 7th 4 times, and has failed to make it into the 6th only once. Overall we’re seeing just a little bit of regression out of Bailey everywhere, and the biggest thing that stands out to me is that 26% of balls in play are line drives, he’s probably missing over the center of the plate, and that’s going to continue to translate into extra base hits. Bailey could make a few adjustments and probably be better than he has been in the past, but right now all he amounts to for Cincy is a below average innings eater.

Mat Latos looks to be a bit less comfortable in Cincy than he did with the Padres having only managed 3 quality starts in his first 9 attempts, and having been generally unimpressive  overall. He’s doing pretty well in terms of strikeouts, but he’s giving up more hits, and walks than he has over the past 2 years, which are turning into runs, and that’s certainly not what he wants. Latos is a fly ball pitcher, and has taken that to the extreme so far this season while giving up more line drives (21%) than one would expect of him (carreer 16%). so while he’s still effectively striking out over 20% of opposing batters, he’s also walking near 10% and when he’s not striking ‘em out or walking them, they’ve been able to put good wood on the ball. Latos would need to make some pretty big corrections to salvage this year, but they’re necessary adjustments for him to make. He is, like Leake only 24 years old, but he was expected to contribute much more than this for the Reds.

Bronson Arroyo has only once looked quite this effective in his career, 7 years ago in his first season in Cincinnati. So far, despite giving up a lot of hits the 35 year old obligatory staff veteran has turned back the clock and is striking out near 7 batters per 9 while walking only 8 batters over 58 & ⅔ innings so far. I don’t know how sustainable either of those numbers are for a pitcher who has never been quite so accurate with his walk numbers (never really been terrible either for what it’s worth) and has been seeing a decline in his strikeout rate over the past few years. Arroyo has been effective in eating innings so far, and has managed to not give up more than 4 earned runs in any given start this season, and aside from those 3 rougher starts has managed 5 quality starts, and has overall looked like he’s turned back the clock after a serious down year. Arroyo has however become quite the flyball pitcher this season, though that’s not exactly new and has been giving up line drives at a 22% clip, which isn’t exactly good news. I’d expect Arroyo to start to taper off after a hot start. His peripheral stats just don’t support the kind of results he’s managed to achieve so far and if his walk and strikeout rates normalize the high hit total will start to bite him in the ass.

Johnny Cueto has been the staff ace for the Reds so far, which is right in line with his performance over the last two seasons. He’s not an overwhelming strikeout pitcher, but he also doesn’t give up a lot of walks. He’s managed to shrink his walk rate to less than 2 per 9 so far while he’s holding onto last year’s strikeout rate pretty well. He has 7 quality starts so far in 9 attempts and has the only complete game so far on the staff. He is giving up more hits than last year, but has avoided the long ball better than most having given up 4 home runs over his 59 & ⅓ innings so far. I don’t know that Cueto’s as good as his ERA would make one believe, a lot of his success last year came from keeping away from line drives, and keeping batters on top of pitches. He’s generating less than 50% ground balls and is giving up 20% of balls in play as line drives, so he may start to see rallies when opposing batters catch on to this trend. He is getting ahead of batters well, 60% of plate appearances have started off with a strike, and that will help him keep batters off the base paths. Overall Cueto is probably the best pitcher in the Reds rotation, but is likely due to regress some much like Arroyo.

I can’t see the Reds, despite their relatively effective pitching staff (5th best ERA in the NL) competing late into the season, they have a pretty weak lineup, having so far amassed the 12th most runs and 14th best OBP in the NL. They could desperately use an impact bat, which could come with more production from Ryan Ludwick or by trade, but as they’re currently composed it looks to me like the Reds are in line to start falling off, though they may be on the cusp of playoff contention they don’t look poised to make any type of deep run if they happen to find themselves in the postseason.

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