The keys: Pitching and luck
By John Erardi • email@example.com
• April 3, 2009
The Reds need 17 more wins victories than last year’s 74 to get to 91 and have a good chance for contention.
The expected defense and pitching improvements could provide the Reds half of that, and luck could provide the rest.
The “more runs they score than they allow” – known as “Run Differential” - means the less luck that will be necessary.
Here’s what we mean:
In baseball, the “Pythagorean Theorem” provides that for every 10 runs more that you score than you allow, you will finish one more game above .500 (81-81).
So, if you score 100 more runs than you allow, that’s 10 victories over .500, or 91-71. Old-fashioned baseball calls 91-71 “20 games over,” but it really is 10 games over.
OK, here we go, category by category.
The fifth starter
If the Reds are solidly in the fourth quartile of 5-hole ERA, it’s a 2-game improvement; Upgrading to a mere “league average” fifth starter would be another 1-2 game improvement.
Put another way: In 2008, the Reds’ fifth starters combined for 36 starts, a 4-21 record and gave up 150 runs in 168 2/3 innings during their starts (8.00 runs per 9 innings).
Cutting that to 6.00 runs per 9 innings would drop the total runs allowed to 112 runs (38-run difference, i.e. about 4 wins, because for every 10 runs, a team usually gets another win – that’s the Pythagorean Theorem).
Cut it to 5.00 runs per game, and that would take it down to 94 runs -- 56 fewer (5.5 to 6 wins) better than last year.
That is how the Reds did it in 1961.
They were second in the league in “ERA+” and all 5 starters had ERA+ above 100.
Catcher Ramon Hernandez
The statistical analysts project that Hernandez could be a 2-win improvement over the Reds’ 2008 catchers, and that’s no small thing.
Here’s why. The Reds need to make up for the loss of Adam Dunn’s offense. Factoring in his defense, Dunn was only a three-win player for the Reds in 2008.
Hernandez is only one win away from that, which means Hernandez means more to this team than what he gives it behind the plate. By the way, the Reds new catcher in 1961 -- Johnny Edwards -- was much more a Paul Bako-type than a Hernandez-type that season. Edwards gave the Reds almost nothing with the bat.
A relatively new category of objective analysis is called Defensive Effiiciency Ratio, or DER.
It is the percentage of batted balls that stay within the ballpark that the defense turns into outs. The Reds' DER last year was 67.4 percent, worst in the league. If – and this is a big if – the corner outfield play improves as much as we suspect and shortstop Alex Gonzalez is healthy, the Reds could get close to the league average of 69.2 percent in 2008.
The 1961 Reds traded away their aging, but longtime slick-fielding shortstop Roy McMillan after the 1960 season, and moved second baseman Eddie Kasko to short, who was a nice offensive upgrade and not too much worse defensively than an aging McMillan.
Even mere league average defense at shortstop would be a one-two win upgrade for the Reds, even if all Gonzalez does is field well, and doesn't hit much.
The improved outfield defense is probably worth three-four games as long as Chris Dickerson gets a lot of time in left field, Willy Taveras is comparable to Corey Patterson in center, and Jay Bruce is solid in right.
The ’61 club did it with defense. They improved themselves defensively by trading their shortstop, moving their second baseman to short and acquiring a good fielding second baseman in Don Blasingame.
Their newly acquired average-fielding third baseman Gene Freese had the best fielding year of his career. The ’61 team’s DER was 71.1 percent , ranking No. 2 in the NL. In 1960, their DER was 699, which was in a 3 way tie for fifth.
The speed and base-running factors
In 2008, the Reds' total baserunning - including stolen bases, advancing first-to-third, and not getting thrown out at the plate, etc - was 13 runs below average, which was the third worst in MLB.
Only Washington and Baltimore were worse.
Edwin Encarnacion was the best on the team with a net of +1.2 runs above average. Joey Votto was by far the worst at minus 6.6 runs. He’s no basestealer, and he’s not much at advancing on hits and wild pitches, either.
But also at the bottom of the list were Adam Dunn, Ken Griffey Jr., and David Ross - at minus 2 runs each - all of whom are gone.
So, the Reds’ baserunning should be better this year. How much better we don’t know. But it will be as good as the players make it. This truly is one area in which there is room for the sort of visible, tangible upgrade one hopes to see in the Reds on a day-to-day basis.
Taveras was second best in baseball last year at +12 baserunning runs above average, thanks largely to his outstanding stolen base total and ratio. If he can repeat that success - it’s a big if: in 2007 he was "just" +1.4 runs - his addition, plus the departures of Dunn and Griffey, and improvement by Votto, could net the Reds 1-2 wins.
Two wins has got to be the best case scenario ceiling, but it’s a difference-maker.
Statistical analysts Greg Gajus, Joel Luckhaupt and Justin Inaz, contributed to this piece.