What They Did: 97-65, 1st Place NL Central. Lost in NLDS 3-2.
Actual Runs: Scored 669 runs, Allowed 588.
Expected wins based on RS and RA: 90.5 (6.5 below actual)
Restated: Scored 692 runs, Allowed 632.
Exp. wins based on restated RS and RA: 87.7 (9.3 below actual)
(Glossary: Expected wins, based on a modification of Bill James’ Pythagorean Theorem, are the amount of wins a team should win in any season based on the amount of runs it actually scored and allowed. Deviations will be explained in the appropriate team capsules.
Restated Runs Scored and Runs Allowed are the amount of runs a team should have tallied based on its actual components of batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging achieved/allowed. In the case of the Reds, if they posted exactly the same stats in 2013 as 2012, they should expect to win 88 games.)
161 games. A lot went right for Cincinnati in a lot of different ways but the most obvious element is represented by 161 games. That’s the number of starts made by the Reds starting rotation. How rare is that in this day and age? 272 pitchers started an MLB game in 2012 which means each team had an average of a little more than 9 different pitchers start a game. There were only 73 pitchers in all of baseball who started at least 30 games and the Reds had 5 of them. Stated another way, the average team’s 5th starting pitcher only started 14 games and the top 5 averaged 27.5 For the Reds, that means they got 25 more starts from the Opening Day rotation than the average MLB team. That’s incredibly fortunate health for a team’s pitching staff, and it’s also incredibly valuable because 25 starts from replacement level pitchers are <.500 propositions. (Note that the one game the core rotation didn’t start came from Todd Redmond and he gave up 4 runs in three and one-third innings pitched, taking the loss.)
Not only did they start every game they were asked to, as a group, they were extremely effective all season – and their results (ERA of 3.64, 5th in all of baseball) were produced playing half of their games in a traditionally very hitter-friendly park. Here’s the thing: At first glance, I don’t know how they did it.
It turns out there were a lot of little reasons, many of which look unrepeatable, and all of them benefited Cincinnati in 2012. They stranded runners on base at an MLB leading 75.2%. In other words the rotation seemed to develop an ability to pitch better “in the clutch.” Lest Reds fans think that’s going to continue. I’d remind them of this: The 2011 Phillies rotation had the highest strand rate in the majors. In 2012, it dropped 4% and the Phillies ERA jumped a full point. If you do think pitching in “the clutch” is skill-based who do you think would have a better chance of repeating that “skill”: Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels or Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos, and Homer Bailey?
There’s another factor related to an offshoot of cluster luck. Cincinnati gave up an abnormally high percentage of their home runs with the bases empty. They weren’t particularly good at preventing home runs (7th in the NL in total home runs allowed, consistent with their rate at inducing groundballs) but they were very fortunate in that they gave up so many of them with the bases empty. That’s another example of sequencing that isn’t likely to be repeated from year to year. (The Arizona Diamondbacks pitching staff suffered this fate from 2011 to 2012.)
The entire Reds staff was very good last year, especially the bullpen, but they had a very large gap between expected ERA, based on the staff’s skill sets, and their actual runs allowed. Some of that can normally be explained by defensive support but the Reds defense was barely above average. Even if all five starters made every one of their starts this year and pitched as well this year as last, I’d expect a material increase in runs allowed – something in the ballpark of 35 runs. But no one should expect or project any team to need only 1 start from a replacement-level long-relievers or minor leaguers. If the Reds revert to league-average and need at least a dozen or so of those starts, there will be even more runs allowed from the rotation. Add in some bullpen regression, (no bullpen is 2.65 ERA good over 400+ innings) plus a significant change in the defense – Drew Stubbs’s outstanding glove in centerfield is being replaced by the poor-fielding right fielder Shin Soo-Choo – and when you put it all together, the Reds project to give up an additional 100 runs this year, even with the same Opening Day pitching personnel.
Then there’s the offense. Reds fans will surely point out that, thanks to injury, the team lost a little more than 200 plate appearances from the National League’s best hitter, Joey Votto. That’s very true (note that I’ve got them scoring more runs this year) but, believe it or not, his injury didn’t hamper the team’s ability to get to 97 wins. (Rewriting this section brings back horrible memories because it has a lot to do with why my fund’s second-half performance last season was so disappointing – see the book’s epilogue for details.) From July 16 to September 4, Votto was on the disabled list while he underwent minor knee surgery.
Through July 15 – 88 games in all – the Reds scored 370 runs, an average of 4.2 runs per game. During that time, Votto was simply the best hitter in baseball hitting .342/.465/.604 – all figures which would have led the NL at the end of the year. Joey Votto doesn’t just lead the league in on-base percentage plus slugging, he leads it in on-base percentage and slugging. Over the next 49 games when they were without the services of the best hitter in baseball, Cincinnati scored 226 runs, an average of 4.6 runs per game. I still get mad just typing this, because it absolutely crushed my performance and cost me and my investors substantial money. It was a deadly combination.
I had the Reds as a weaker team overall than the oddsmakers, but when it came to a marginal change in the lineup, I definitely had Votto as more valuable than they did. So once he was injured, the model called for material plays against the Reds on nearly a daily basis. And somehow, the Reds offense got even better! This can happen in basketball – the inherent interdependence of teammates can mask the fact that a “star” player can actually be inhibiting the team as a whole. Not in baseball – or at least no way that I can model. Along with all that went right for the Reds last year, it’s just another piece of evidence that suggests the performance can’t be replicated this year.
Fans in Cincinnati will be sure to point out that not everything went right for the Reds in 2012, and they’re absolutely right. When they were up two games to none against the Giants in the best-of-five NLDS, coming home for three games, and in the midst of getting a one-hit, nine inning performance from Homer Bailey and two relievers in Game 3, there was no way to expect their season would end 48 hours later. That’s the cruelty, and to my mind the beauty about baseball; it is unpredictable and all the modeling and probability-based decisions in the world don’t change the fact that virtually any outcome is possible. Reds fans should view this projection the same way; I think Cincinnati is going to be on the different end of regression and mean reversion this year, but maybe it will take until October for it to happen, and this time they’ll come back from a seemingly insurmountable deficit to advance in the playoffs.
Oddsmakers’ expectations: The Reds have been installed as the solid favorite to win the NL Central this year. I wouldn’t quibble too much with that market if it were close to a pick-‘em with St. Louis, but it’s not. That’s also reflected in the total wins market. The Reds opened at 91 ½, five games higher than St. Louis. I’m already on record as backing the Cardinals “over” so I’ll take the Reds “under” here. I don’t have quite as much conviction as I do in a similar inter-divisional pairs trade in the AL East (under Toronto/over Tampa) but this still ranks as a solid play.
84-78 – Second in NL Central
737 Runs Scored 703 Runs Allowed
Mop Up Duty:
Joe Peta is the author of Trading Bases, A Story About Wall Street, Gambling, and Baseball* (*) Not necessarily in that order, a Dutton Books/Penguin (U.S.A.) publication currently available wherever books are sold. Here are three on-line booksellers you can currently choose from:
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