The Reds are now 16-26 in one-run games this season. If we had reversed that win-loss differential and were currently 26-16 in one-run games for 2011, we'd be atop the NL Central, sporting a sweet 64-48 record. If we want to improve in 2012, we must identify what's causing us to fall short in so many close games and move decisively to correct the problems.
I'm sure all of you have different ideas for why this is happening. Here are the two chief culprits, as I see things.
On the offensive side of the ledger, the 2011 team has shown a tendency to choke in high-pressure situations. All of our team batting stats (OBP, SLG, RISP, etc.) are fine overall, but when the games get close, especially in late or extra-inning affairs, we often see hitters going cold, pressing, striking out, aiming for the fences, grounding out or popping out on first pitches, in other words, the antithesis of patient, productive "clutch" hitting. This has led to stranding many base runners, even when our lead-off batter reaches scoring position, or we load the bases, with zero or one out.
Not everyone can be Reggie Jackson or Kirk Gibson, but we need to find a few players for 2012 who can dial up their level of performance when games are on the line. We must seek out more professional hitters who know how to work counts, execute hit-and-runs, deliver sac flies -- all the crucial skills, in addition to hitting a home run, that can turn the tide when it matters the most.
I'm encouraged by what I've seen so far from Cozart, Alonso and Frazier --for being newbie prospects, they have already demonstrated valuable plate discipline and a mature, offense-oriented skillset. But Jocketty has to supplement them and also give Votto some flanking support. At the minimum, we need at least one more productive vet, preferably a position player, but if our budget limitations won't allow us to add one through trade or the free-agent pool, then Walt should at least grab a seasoned, reliable batsman for the bench.
Now, the second broad area we have to address: the failings of our bullpen. This is the one area that's been more frustrating to watch as it plays out in 2011 because the chief source of the problem isn't owing to a lack of talent on the part of our individual relievers. Check out the respective ERAs of our guys -- Lecure, 2.42; Arredondo, 3.45; Bray, 2.04; Chapman, 3.62; Cordero, 2.56; Masset, 3.71; Ondrusek, 2.12. Collectively, they're as tough and efficient as any bullpen in the NL.
As can be expected, these relievers run hot and cold, but I submit that the biggest shortcoming doesn't relate to individual swings in performance, but rather stems from the seriously flawed and inefficient manner in which our bullpen is being used. We now have three relievers who have already appeared in 55 or more games -- Ondrusek and Masset, at 55 apiece, and Bray, with 57 appearances. All three are among the ten most used relievers in the NL. No other squad comes close to matching that level of use, except the Braves, who have ridden the arms of Kimbrel, Venters and O'Flaherty just as hard. That much use, I would argue, amounts to abuse, leading to unnecessary wear-and-tear and increasingly flagging results as the season enters the dog days of summer.
As proof, ponder these stats: Ondrusek's ERA has ballooned from 1.64 to 2.12 because of a 4.91 ERA over his last 10 appearances. Masset has a 8.53 ERA over his last 10 appearances, pushing his season total from 3.03 to 3.71. Cordero's ERA is 6.10 over his last 10 appearances, altering his once-stellar 1.49 ERA to a less eye-popping 2.56. There are exceptions to this trend, notably Chapman, who has pitched a lights-out 1.69 ERA since rediscovering his groove and returning from his exile in Louisville. Still, there's ample evidence that our relievers as a group are tired and not currently operating at the peak of their game.
They didn't have to be rendered this impotent this early in the season. But it happened because our manager and coaches:
* Failed to designate anyone in the pen as a long man to save the arms of everyone else in slop games. Since July 1, no one has pitched more than a two-inning stint out of the pen. In my book, that's crazy and verging on the criminal. Even the Braves recognize that, holding Proctor and Martinez in reserve, who've both gone 3-6 innings when needed. Or look at the Diamondbacks, who are charging hard now and challenging the Giants for supremacy in the NL West. Their effective pen is one of the reasons why, a pen made all the more dominant and refreshed by our discard, Micah Owings, who has twice pitched five-inning stints over the last two weeks. Originally, it looked like Lecure would be our long man, but he's not been handed that assignment, and neither has anyone else in his stead. That's an inexplicable oversight.
* Besides not having a clearcut long man, we often don't even trust our relievers to pitch a complete inning. In close games where our opponents might use 2-3 relievers, we sometimes haul 4-5 into the action. That's not only inefficient, it's risky business, like playing Russian roulette, leaving us vulnerable to the performance of our weakest link. We can have four guys come out of the pen and hold the opposition scoreless, but if the fifth guy surrenders 1-2 runs in his partial inning: Guess what, we can expect to lose a heart-breaking, nail-biting cliffhanger.
This has happened time and time again in 2011 and goes a long way toward explaining our 16-26 record in one-run games. There are different goats different nights, so it's not ultimately the fault of the individual reliever who gets tagged. Instead, it's an outgrowth of an over-orchestrated and agitated bullpen management strategy.
I don't know who's the mastermind behind this micro-managing of the pen (whether it's Dusty doing or pitching coach Bryan Price or bullpen coach Juan Lopez), but it has to stop if we're ever going to increase our odds of winning close games. There are LOOGY situations where it's justified, or cases where you want to yank a pitcher after they have faced one tough batter, say a Pujols or a Fielder. But these kinds of situations should be rarities, the exceptions and not the rule. To the extent that the Reds go against the rule, they are gambling against the house and playing with fire. We have done that a lot this season and we've been burned.
So, there you have it, my theories behind our collapse in close, one-run games. Would be interested to hear what other fault lines other RedsZoners might have spotted. All losses are frustrating, but these losses are the ones that sting the most and stick in one's craw the longest.