May 28, 2004
Even after losing their last two games to the Florida Marlins, the Cincinnati Reds still have the best record in the National League, now tied with those same Marlins. They hold a half-game lead over the Astros in an NL Central that is separated by just 4.5 games from top to bottom.
If that sounds familiar, it's because we've been here before. The six teams in the Central have been playing this game almost since realignment. For example, a year ago today, the top four teams were just 3.5 games apart, with the whole division showing just a nine-game spread. It took until the second week of June, when the Reds and Brewers started collapsing, for the division to separate. On May 27, 2001, the top four teams in the division were within four games of each other.
The NL Central just hasn't had exceptional teams, so the early part of the season has often been spent beating up each other, and getting beat up by whichever of the East or West is up in a particular year.
The Reds are, for the moment, the primary beneficiary of the parity. They make for a nice story, but they've been outscored by their opponents so far, which is just the first indication that a fall is on the way. Put blithely, if you want to know how a team has done, look at their record. But if you want to know how they're going to do, check their run differential.
By Record By Run Differential Reds 27-20 -- Astros +61 Astros 26-20 .5 Cubs +38 Cubs 25-20 1.0 Cardinals +17 Brewers 24-21 2.0 Brewers -1 Cardinals 24-22 2.5 Reds -3 Pirates 20-22 4.5 Pirates -3Which of those looks more like the National League Central to you? I'll wager Will Carroll's hair-care budget that the division standings look a lot more like column B come football season.
I don't mean to be so dismissive. After all, I thought the Reds had the talent to win the division a year ago, and this is basically the same roster that was supposed to play last year. Injuries decimated the 2003 version, while the 2004 team has been better just by managing to avoid placing an entire starting lineup on the DL. All things considered, though, it's a .500 roster, with good offensive core and a rotation of six-inning guys who will keep you in four games out of five.
The Reds' run differential reflects that. In fact, when you look at their performance record beyond the standings, you see that this has been a .500 team.
For example, the Reds have scored 218 runs, good for sixth in the National League. As a team, though, they're hitting an unimpressive .244/.339/.399, totalling a 738 OPS that's 11th in the NL. Their team EqA of .255 is 13th in the league. According to Clay Davenport's projections, the Reds have scored 10 more runs than you would predict from their offensive events; only the Padres, at +12, have done better in the senior circuit. The Reds have been a better with runners on base than with the bases empty, but that difference is almost entirely due to their performance with a runner on first base only. In other words, the overperformance doesn't appear to be due to something sustainable. (I even looked for Productive Outs, but was unable to find them at ESPN.com. Strange.)
The Reds have basically relied on three guys all year, as only Sean Casey, Adam Dunn and Ken Griffey Jr. have been above average with the stick. Austin Kearns hasn't been able to get on track following last summer's shoulder surgery, while D'Angelo Jimenez has been a big disappointment atop the lineup. When Casey stops hitting in the high .300s, the Reds are going to have real problems sustaining an offense.
The pitching staff has provided the same caliber of performance, with a different shape. While the Reds' offense is two guys having big years, a couple of other contributors, and a Caltrans crew, the pitching staff has nearly no one who's been worth more than a win. Paul Wilson has been their best hurler, but his 7-0 record has more to do with his run support-6.12 R/G, 13th in the NL-than his run prevention. Their rotation has been slightly below average in the aggregate, which is misleading; with Jimmy Haynes' contract no longer going to the mound every fifth day, the Reds now sport an above-average rotation, and that might get better still with the addition of Matt Belisle and Brandon Claussen by midsummer. It's not a sexy staff, as only Jose Acevedo has impressive peripherals or a real chance to be more than an innings guy. It is enough to keep a team in a race provided a good offense and a deep bullpen.
Unfortunately, the Reds' pen is a lot like their lineup. John Riedling has been lights-out all season, and everyone else-even global saves leader Danny Graves--has been cashing their checks. Ryan Wagner, who I thought was going to be a great story this year, has been the second-worst reliever in the game. Collectively, this bullpen ranks 29th in MLB, saved from the cellar only by the Cleveland Indians' pursuit of history (-50.9 runs, per Michael Wolverton. In less than two months? What the heck is that?). I can see a path to improvement--Mike Matthews gets a bigger role as spot lefty, Wagner starts missing bats, someone like Jung Bong comes up and bridges the gap from the rotation to Riedling--but right now, the Reds' pen isn't an asset.
You have to understand: I want to believe that the Reds can keep this up. They were my uncle's favorite team, for one, and while the city's blind spot for Pete Rose is a mark against it, it is a great baseball town, one that will fill the park if given any reason to do so.
I just can't see it happening. Their record doesn't reflect their talent or their work in scoring and preventing runs, and there's nothing hidden in the data that indicates that however they're doing it is sustainable. They have a bizarre split by differential--7-7 in one-run games, 10-1 in two-run games, 7-3 in three-run games, that both explains how they got to 27-20 and provides no information on how they can keep it up.
Like the 2003 Royals, the Reds can probably hang around the fringe of a race thanks to their early-season over-performance. However, they're not contenders in any real sense of the term.