Building a Lineup
Optimism is unusually high in the Cincinnati baseball world with the bulk of their personnel returning off a season when the Reds captured their second division crown in three years. Unlike after their previous post season appearance, this time they were not content to stick with status quo during the offseason. That looks like a good idea because the Nationals, Braves, and Dodgers have brought in some high-profile players and the Giants are the defending champs. Since competition has sought to improve their rosters standing pat might result in falling back. In the MLB world there is an ocean of statistics that seemingly continues to grow. One of interest is baseball's "Pythagorean Theorem" which is formula that is similar to its namesake in trigonometry. Without going into details, it calculates an expected winning percentage based upon how many runs a team scores and allows. Now everyone knows a formula crunches numbers and wins are achieved on the field, however last year over half of the teams' final win totals fell within two of its calculation and only three were more than five away. The reason it's explained here is because Cincinnati's 97 wins were six above the Pythagorean estimate which was the second most generous differential in the majors. Depending on what stock is placed in that, a case could be made that the Reds benefitted from some fortunate breaks over the course of the season. When looking at the Reds season it's easy to tell that the main contributor to their success was pitching. They tied for the lowest ERA in the NL despite one of the more hitter-friendly home venues. Remarkably their opening day rotation provided 161 starts and four of them threw over 200 innings with sub-four ernies. They kept the team in contention while the offense was overly reliant upon Joey Votto and struggled around the bottom of the league in scoring runs in the first half of the season. Impressively the bats rallied together when he went down to injury and finished the season around the middle of the pack. The staff was splendid for the Reds last year and should continue to be strong in the upcoming season. Still, they probably overachieved and it might be a bit much to ask them to duplicate those efforts after bringing the team ERA down 0.82 runs from 2011. Everything points to a need to upgrade the lineup for continued success and upgrade they did. The gorilla on their back was a .254 on-base pct. from the leadoff spot which was almost .040' lower than the second worst team in the NL. Reds #1 hitters were setting the table only .028' better than their #9 hitters who were often pitchers. First impression may be that winning so many games in spite of that might mean its importance is overrated. Still, there's no denying it has some importance and the Cincinnati got its elusive leadoff hitter in the form of Shin-Soo Choo. There may be concerns over his move to center field, but there are no questions offensively as he's gotten on base at a .370 clip or better in five seasons since 06. That single move will ripple throughout the rest of the lineup. Ryan Ludwick came on strong at the end of the year and re-signing him will continue to provide a right-handed bat at cleanup freeing Brandon Phillips to go into his optimal spot hitting second. Lefty sluggers Joey Votto and Jay Bruce will return to complete the heart of the order. Even though the Reds were successful when Votto went on the DL last year, they would obviously prefer his services for a full season. When the 2010 MVP returned his power was compromised but he still managed to get on base at a rate over 50% with an unsound knee. 26 year-old Bruce has increased HR/RBI totals each season over his five year MLB career. Rookie Todd Frazier provided an invaluable contribution filling in for injuries after starting last season at Louisville, but the rookie's bat cooled off over the last month of the season. Sometimes second-year players can be as unpredictable, but avoiding a sophomore jinx will provide good offense from the sixth spot while manning third base regularly. The collateral benefits from Choo's arrival will continue to trickle down. Before Zach Cozart's .288 OBP hindered the top of the lineup. Now he's a fifteen-HR man batting in the bottom of it. Veteran Ryan Hanigan will return with good on-base skills and look for Devin Mesoraco's bat to improve closer to expected levels as he takes over more action behind the plate. That's eight positions and they've even replaced the utility infielders on their bench. Should no unexpected holes materialize they will be effective at pushing runs across the plate. It was only a few years ago when Cincinnati led the NL in runs scored. That season they didn't give opposing pitchers many breaks while navigating through a lineup with all eight regulars batting above .250 and six of them hitting 18 or more homers. In spite of the upgrades, it will be difficult to win 97 again. Historically teams that have a large jump in wins from one season to the next have a low rate of maintaining it and the Reds were +18 from 2011-12. Of course a low rate is not a no-rate, but they lose Houston from their division against whom they won 10/15 in 2012. That's not necessarily a handicap because the Astros lost 107 games from other teams beating up on them too. The interleague schedule gets tougher when they pick up Oakland, Texas, and Anaheim who all won 89 or more games last year. On the other hand they lost Detroit and even though Minnesota had their problems they still beat the Reds 2/3. The good news is that they don't have to win 97 to accomplish their goal of a world series championship, just enough to make it to postseason. The pitching is there and the rebuilt lineup should ascend into the top half of the league. There's a lot of excitement for a franchise that hasn't won a postseason series in seventeen years. The pieces are in place for the Reds to change that in 2013.