Posted by johnerardi at 1/27/2009 3:39 PM EST on Cincinnati.com
Another interlude, this one not quite so brief...
First, though, check out Fay's most recent post from his teleconference call with Sean Casey.
I'm looking forward to the Hot Stove League tonight being hosted on WLW-AM by Thom Brennaman at 6 p.m., and Walt Jocketty with Doc at 7 p.m. It should be a lively couple of hours, coming as it does right after the winter caravan, and Bob Castellini's clarifications about the Reds plans and what Reds fans can expect this season.
I believe it would take quite an alignment of the planets for the Reds to contend this year, but I don't believe it would be mathematically impossible.
Among the necessary alignments would be Chris Dickerson and Jerrry Hairston Jr. repeating what they did last year (when they both played above expectations) over a full season...and shortstop Alex Gonzalez having at least an "average" year by his standards...and Jay Bruce showing significant improvement (very feasible, given his age)...and the Reds finding a consistent fifth starter. (Last year, Matt Belisle, Homer Bailey and Josh Fogg were 3-17; that is practically GiVING away every fifth game).
One question I've been hit with from some of my colleagues is, "How many pundits correctly predicted going into last year that the Tampa Bay Rays would make the World Series --and why can't the 2009 Reds be the 2008 Rays?"
LAST winter, Nate Silver of Baseball Prospectus correctly forecast a dramatic turnaround by the Rays:
"Baseball Prospectus is not prepared to call the 2008...Rays the best team in the AL, but (the) projection system (we used)...forecasts an 88-74 finish for baseball's perennial bottom-feeders, a 22-win jump from 2007."
And, now, the key passage from Silver, because I believe it has relevance for answering the question, "Can the 2009 Reds be the 2008 Rays?" (After all, isn't that what Reds management is selling us, with all the "speed and defense" talk?)
"It's in the field, though, that the Rays will make their biggest gains. According to (Baseball Prospectus)...the Rays gave up 72 more runs than an average defense last season. Of that total, 56 resulted from poor middle-infield play...
"(The Rays moved second baseman B.J. Upton to center field and acquired) slick-fielding shortstop Jason Bartlett (in trade, and moved) sure-handed Aki Iwamura from third to second (to make room for Evan Longoria to stablize) the infield.
"As a result, the Rays' defense projects to be 10 runs above average this year, an 82-run improvement, which will allow the improved rotation to work through its innings more efficiently."
Therein, I believe lies your answer.
I believe the Reds are two years away. Right now, the Reds don't have the young talent of the 2008 Rays. But I also believe that IF the Reds make good long-term decisions, the short term will care of itself.
Tampa Bay had more room for defensive improvement than the 2009 Reds do. The 2008 Rays changed players in five positions, everywhere but catcher, first base and left field.
So far, the 2009 Reds have changed four positions: left field, shortstop, catcher and center field. The lattter two cannot be viewed as defensive upgrades. Having Bruce in right field for a full season, and Dickerson/Hairston in left field, and Gonzalez at short, are upgrades. But it's not quite the upgrades the 2008 Rays made.
I am a huge believer in the contribution that defense makes in run-differential. How well your team -- in this case, the Reds -- turns batted balls that stay in the park into outs is one of the most accurate barometers for team success.
A great defensive team (like the 2008 Rays) turns 71 percent of batted balls in play into outs (best in major league baseball). A bad defensive team turns only 67 percent of batted balls in play into outs (the 2008 Reds, worst in the National League)..
Poor defense has been a huge problem for the Reds since Ken Griffey Jr.'s second year here (2001). Going backward from 2008, here's the Reds' defensive acumen: 68%, 69%, 68%, 70%, 70%, 70%, 70%, 71% (2000) and 73% (1999).
It's no coincidence that the 2000 Reds were the last Cincinnati team with an above average defense (and the last with a winning record). The 1999 Reds were the second-best defensive team in major league baseall in the last decade (exceeded only by the 2001 Seattle Mariners, who won 116 games).
The 2007 Rays turned only 66% of the balls that stayed in the ballpark into outs. That they were able to raise it to 72% last year had a huge impact on their success.
The Reds don't have as much room for defense improvement as did the Rays, but unless the Reds, too, can make a dramatic improvement defensively, I don't believe they can contend -- because their offiense is so suspect.
Keep that in mind when you listen to tonight's disccussions...and maybe even raise the question yourself. "Will the 2009 Reds' defense be 2008 Rays' good?"
It's a hard-core number, that 71%.
It basically requires that everybody to be able to "go get it."
I have my doubts about the Reds defensively at catcher, third base and -- to only a slightly lesser degree -- center fielder and shortstop (mainly because of questions about Gonzalez' endurance coming off his injury; the fielding services say he's merely an average shortstop defensively, albeit better than Jeff Keppinger and Hairston Jr.).
Yes, for the Reds to duplicate the Rays' turnaround, everybody must be able to "go get it," not just four or five of the nine guys. And that is what makes me question the "speed and defense" claim. I don't think the Reds are as good in that department as we're being told.
What do you think?
MORE ON RUN DIFFERENTIAL:
Unless the Reds are incredibly lucky (see Arizona Diamondbacks, 2007), they will need to score more runs than they allow in order to contend this year.
Typically, for every 10 runs more a team scores than it allows, that's one victory (82-80) above a .500 season. So, to win 88-90 games, the Reds probably need to score 70 or so more runs than they allow.
Run differential is usually within three games of being dead on. But it's not an exact predictor. Last year, for example, the Tampa Bay Rays won five more games that their run differential wouldl have predicted.
Going back even farther, the unlikely 1961 National League champion Reds won 93 games (and like the Rays made it to the World Series), even though the Reds' run differential would have normally projected them as an 83-win team.
So, yes, things can happen.
For a team to contend while scoring only 700 runs (which is based on a fairly generous assumption that the Reds can match their runs scored from last year) requires leading the league in pitching/defense. It worked last year for the Dodgers (winning a really weak division with 84 wins, although they projected for 87). The Blue Jays finished 4th but projected to 93 wins, but they led the league in pitching/defense. The Reds would have to chop another 150 runs from their 2008 total to lead the league. That requires everything going right with the rotation, bullpen and defense. And as noted, the defense may be better, but it still isn't great.
Still, the 2009 Reds could be an entertaining team to watch. But, as presently constituted, the offensive composition of this club suggests that anything more than about a .500 season is unlikely.