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2012 Preview: Cincinnati Reds


Cincinnati Reds

What They Did:      79-83, 3rd Place NL Central.

     Actual Runs:      Scored 735 runs, Allowed 720.

                              Expected wins based on RS and RA:  82.0 (3.0 above actual )

          Restated:     Scored 728 runs, Allowed 728.

                              Exp. wins based on restated RS and RA:  81.0 (2.0 above actual)

Last month, the New York Giants earned the distinction of being the first team to win the Super Bowl despite a certain regular season deficiency.  The anomaly didn’t get a lot of play among football commentators and mainstream columnists, but data analysts took note of this fact: The Giants were the first team to get to the Super Bowl, let alone win it, having been outscored by its opponents during the regular season.

Run differential in baseball does a better job of predicting a team’s final record than any other metric one can use to measure a team’s performance during the year.  (Football researchers, piggy-backing this decade off the work of baseball’s sabermetric community, determined this relationship applies to point differential in the NFL as well, with somewhat less statistical significance; compared to 162 regular season games in baseball, just 16 football games can lead to some distortions.) Understanding that relationship prevents a rational observer from spouting clichés such as “pitching is 90% of the game” or "preventing runs is more important than scoring runs."  It should also prevent, but didn't in 2011, statements like this: “Without Justin Verlander, the Tigers wouldn’t even be a .500 team.”  This was an argument put forth often last August and into September by those touting Justin Verlander’s candidacy for the Most Valuable Player award.  I won’t dispute his candidacy but that argument is flat out wrong.  The Tigers scored 787 runs last year.  The only team in baseball that allowed more than 787 run in 2011 was the Houston Astros.  Therefore it’s a near 100% lock that the Tigers wouldn’t have been an under .500 team unless they batted in front of the worst pitching staff in baseball.  There were a lot of reasons Justin Verlander deserved the AL MVP award he won last year, but the belief that the Tigers were an under .500 team without him wasn’t one of them.

This is why the backbone of every team essay I write and every underlying projection within, is an attempt to determine how many runs a particular team will score and allow.  I bring that up here because the Cincinnati Reds were the only team in 2011 with a losing record but a positive run differential, and a double-digit differential at that.  (Incidentally, there were no teams with a negative run differential but a winning record.)  It doesn’t happen often, but a team with a double-digit positive run differential but a losing record often shows significant improvement the following year.  Here are the MLB teams over the last decade that, despite finishing with a losing record, outscored its opponents by at least ten runs, along with its performance the next season:

Year      Team             Wins      Run Differential        Wins Next Year          Increase

2009    Toronto             75                  +27                              85                        10

2006    Cleveland          78                  +88                              97                        19

2005    Toronto             80                  +87                              87                          7

2004    Baltimore          78                  +13                              74                         -4

It’s a very small sample, but at the very least is suggestive of a return to playoff contention for the Reds in 2012.

After leading the NL in runs scored in 2010, Cincinnati followed up with a second place standing in runs scored in 2011.  Realizing scoring runs isn’t a problem, the Reds' front office took steps this off-season to address the other side of the ledger.  Cincinnati’s signature move this off-season didn’t garner as much attention as the Yankees swapping its highly-touted offensive prospect, Jesus Montero, for Michael Pineda, an established young pitcher with ace-potential.  However, in trading Yonder Alonso to the San Diego Padres for Mat Latos the Reds made essentially the same trade.  I love when teams make trades from a position of strength for another team’s area of strength.  The Reds didn’t need more offense nearly as much as they needed a young ace to anchor the rotation for the next few years and Latos satisfies that requirement.  When evaluating any pitcher who plays half his games in San Diego (or Seattle) it’s wise to check his home/away splits to see if he’s less effective on the road.  Except for the fact that Latos walks slightly more batters on the road (as a group, all pitchers do) his results are identical.

Even without adding Alonso to the line-up the Reds may have improved themselves offensively at three different positions while still managing to promote two potential rookie-of-the-year candidates in catcher Devin Mesoraco and shortstop Zack Cozart to the starting line up.  Speaking of escaping the effects of San Diego’s PETCO field, I wouldn’t be surprised to see free-agent left fielder Ryan Ludwick produce at the plate like he did when he played for the Cardinals a few seasons ago.

Latos is probably a year or two away from contending for a Cy Young Award, but he became the ace of the Reds’ rotation as soon as management completed the trade.  That’s because no one else in the rotation is any better than an average league starter, and in the case of Bronson Arroyo probably well-below average.  With the exception of Arroyo who looks to be on his last legs (but unfortunately for Reds’ fans, not on the last year of a contract that will pay him $23.5 million over the next two seasons) the rest of the staff is in its mid-20s and possesses plenty of upside.  There is also the potential that a plan to gradually convert reliever Aroldis Chapman and his 100+ mph fastball to the starting rotation could pay dividends.

I stand by all of the conclusions at the end of these write-ups and all interim and final report cards will be based on the finalized projections I’ll publish on the eve of Opening Day.  However, if you asked me which team do I think has the best chance to outperform its projection, I’d say the Cincinnati Reds.  As it does with any player who puts up an MVP-type performance in the prior year, the model tends to assume more of an All-Star level of play the next year rather than a repeat of such an elite performance.  To a lesser extent, that’s also true of players coming off of career years.  Joey Votto and Brandon Phillips fall into those categories, respectively, but based on their ages and exceptional skills, I think they are as likely to match their 2011 offensive production as not.

Oddsmakers’ expectations:  Over/under wagers don’t pay off like options contracts, so it doesn’t do the holder any good to win an over/under bet by eight games as opposed to one game.  So while I understand why the oddsmakers have set the Reds market at 87 wins, thanks to the question marks in Cincinnati’s rotation outside of Latos, I think there are a lot more ways the Reds could finish with 80 wins instead of 90, and the prediction below is really a weighted-average call on total wins.  Therefore, an 83-win outlook doesn’t necessarily make the under a good play, because 88 wins certainly isn’t out of the question.  There are better under values out there. 

2012 Outlook:

83-79 – Third in NL Central

708 Runs Scored       691 Runs Allowed


Mop Up Duty:

Joe Peta is the author of Trading Bases, the Newsletter, a companion piece to Trading Bases, A Story about Wall Street, Gambling, and Baseball*  (*) Not necessarily in that order, a Dutton Books/Penguin (U.S.A.) February, 2013 release.

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