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June 28, 2009

Prospectus Idol Entry

Prospectus Game of the Week: Cincinnati Reds @ Toronto Blue Jays

by Brian Oakchunas

The Reds (34-36) and Jays (40-33) find themselves in the same place despite very different records. While the Jays are 7 games over .500, they still lag five games behind the Red Sox in the challenging AL East. Rather than trying to gain some ground on the Red Sox directly, they will be playing the Sox' National League doppelganger-the team formerly known as the Red Stockings-the Cincinnati Reds.

The Reds have a losing record, but still manage to keep pace at just four and a half games behind the Cards in the consistently mediocre NL Central. Interestingly, the Cards were leading the NL East with the same exact record as the Jays at the start of the day, but so far, the Reds have failed to make any kind of a statement here as they dropped the first two of this series. Both teams are at a point in the standings where they can't much afford a loss (PECOTA gives each around a 10% chance of making the playoffs) so tonight's battle should be a tough one.

The pitching match-up doesn't lack drama either. Despite my warnings about Brett Cecil's fatigue issues, the Jays let him throw 104 pitches in his last start so today could be a big test of his stamina. On the bright side, he's made quality starts in four of his five Major League games and has walked only seven batters in 31.2 innings. He also would have only given up three home runs were it not for his meltdown in the fifth inning of his May 20th game against those pesky Red Sox. Cecil is likely to be sent down with the return of Roy Halladay next week so he'll have to make a strong case for his inclusion in future incarnations of the Jays' rotation.

Cecil will be challenged by Johnny Cueto, who has managed to compile a 2.55 ERA despite league average strikeout, walk, home run, and groundball rates. He is helped by the Reds defense, which is third in defensive efficiency, but he has a .736 personal DER, 28 points higher than the team rate of .708. In other words, a reckoning is coming, and today could be the day.

Let's take a look at the starting lineups:


Cincinnati                        Toronto
                          EQA   
Willy Taveras, CF        .205     Marco Scutaro, SS   .299
Jerry Hairston Jr., 3B   .247     Aaron Hill, 2B      .288
Brandon Phillips, 2B     .280     Vernon Wells, CF    .258
Joey Votto, 1B           .345     Scott Rolen, 3B     .308
Jonny Gomes, DH          .346     Adam Lind, LF       .316
Ramon Hernandez, C       .235     Alex Rios, RF       .273
Jay Bruce, RF            .254     Lyle Overbay, 1B    .318
Paul Janish, SS          .227     Rod Barajas, C      .258
Chris Dickerson, LF      .277     Russ Adams, DH      .306

It is hard to make any kind of sense out of Cincy's lineup. Taveras is fast, but there is nothing about his production to suggest he is an effective leadoff hitter except that he isn't clogging up the bases. Gomes' .346 looks nice in the middle of the lineup, but he has almost no chance of keeping that up in a larger sample. They are happy to have Joey Votto return as his replacement in the lineup has been back-up catcher Ryan Hanigan, though Hanigan does happen to have a .286 EqA, which is actually better than most of the team.

One look at Toronto's lineup tells us that Dusty Baker had nothing to do with its architecture. Scutaro has been ridiculously effective in the leadoff spot and has a .397 OBP. Yes, that's 129 points better than Taveras' .269. Wells looks a little out of place in the middle, but it's hard to fault the Jays for thinking he'll improve.

Brett Cecil starts off the game against Taveras. Cecil throws a few pitches in the mid-eighties, which is neither his change-up nor fastball speed, and there is already have some question as to whether he'll even come close to his top velocity. Taveras refuses to be my punching bag and hits a double into the right field corner, only his eighth double of the year. Hairston lines out to first, and Cecil still has yet to reach as high as 88 mph on the radar gun. Brandon Phillips has been plagued by a hairline fracture in his thumb, but he is still on top of his game, and he moves the runner over in this at bat. Joey Votto hasn't missed a beat in his time away from the team as we can see when he plates the runner with a double for the first run.

Jonny Gomes manages one of the most unusual of feats in baseball when he hits a ball off the top of the outfield wall and sees it bounce back into the field of play. This curiosity of physics allows him a double and now the Reds lead 2-0. He actually does this on the first Cecil ball to reach 90 on the radar gun. Hernandez walks before Jay Bruce smokes a double to make it 4-0.

Paul Janish finally ends the inning with a strikeout swinging, but Cecil looks like he doesn't have much and certainly isn't over his problems with fatigue, as he only managed to throw one ball as fast as 90, nowhere near the 95 he normally tops out at. Additionally, his trademark is the ability to get groundballs and nothing was on the ground in this inning. All of that and only a half inning has passed.

In the bottom, Marco Scutaro makes an out in a hurry, but Aaron Hill continues a tremendous year with a home run, which is demonstrative of the fact that Cueto has little ability to prevent them. 4-1 Reds. Vernon Wells follows with a single and then Rolen hits into a fielder's choice to Janish who has to make an Olympic leap to avoid Wells' Ty Cobb slide into second. Cueto, apparently intent on showing that he isn't worthy of his stupendous ERA, then walks Adam Lind. Alex Rios finally strikes out to end the inning, but three men reached base, and this one has all the makings of a classic hitters' match-up.

In the top of the second, Brett Cecil gets to start out all over again as the Reds are back to the top of the order after a single from Chris Dickerson, who really has no business in the number nine slot. Taveras strikes out this time, but Cecil hasn't solved his velocity issues in any appreciable way, and Hairston smashes a slow fastball for a base hit. A popup by Phillips, and then Votto hits a single for another RBI. 5-1. A walk to Gomes loads the bases. Another pop-up ends it, but Cecil probably isn't long for this game.

In the next inning, the Reds' broadcast gets us excited by showing us that Lyle Overbay's batting average is .414! It turns out that this is his career line against Cincinnati, a team he has only seldom played against since he was in the National League in 2005. If the guys in the truck don't have anything else to do, maybe they can make an effort to learn about more meaningful stats. A few quick outs, in the second, including a nice catch by Taveras, and Cueto looks a lot better this time around.

In the top of the third, Jay Bruce sees pitch speeds of 78, 89, and 89, grounding out to first on the last of them. Cecil has failed to effectively change speeds or keep the ball on the ground up until now. He will have to do more of that if he doesn't want to get hit out of this game. Cecil has some bad luck with a couple of groundball base hits, including one to Taveras who will have a respectable OBP if Brett Cecil has anything to say about it. Before you can say, "The bases are loaded again," Hairston walks, and Toronto GM JP Ricciardi is shown in his box, looking appropriately insane, but another groundball ends it.

Cueto gets through his half of the inning with some outs on balls in play, and in the fourth we learn that Cecil has left the game, presumably because the bus back to Triple-A was departing, and Shawn Camp comes in carrying with him the mediocre skills we expect to see from a long reliever who comes in during losing causes. Joey Votto gets a hit past Aaron Hill who almost makes a brilliant play, and Votto is now 3-for-3. Camp gets a double play and another groundball and in general pitches the way Brett Cecil was expected to.

In the bottom of the fourth, Hairston lets a ball get by him, but Janish makes a brilliant play while backing him up. Hairston seems to have a hole in his glove and hasn't posted a positive UZR at third base since 2004. Can we expect much more from a guy who posts a hundred innings at every position around the diamond each year? The lesson here is that if you expect a guy to fill in at every position, it is too much to expect him to man them effectively too. A hit-by-a-pitch before a double play ends the inning for Cueto.

In the fifth, we find that the scoring in this game continues to be reigned in with solid defense. This time it's Alex Rios who is playing to the left in right field and makes it all the way across to the foul territory and snatches a ball almost in the stands. His defense in left is both consistently good and better than his defense in center, but center is a problem for the Jays as Vernon Wells is getting progressively worse according to both UZR and plus/minus. Lind isn't terribly good in left so this once fearsome Toronto outfield is really only held up by some decent play from Rios. A line out and a strikeout follow. Camp brought his A stuff today.

In the Blue Jays half, Overbay leads off, and I'm sort of disappointed that we don't get a stat on how he fared on days in which he ate a meatball sub for lunch. He walks, continuing a campaign in which he tries to prove that guys with modest power can be an asset at first base. His .318 EqA accounts for a great OBP, but ignores another aspect of his game: solid defense.

Cueto manages two outs, but allows another hit and a walk to load the bases before Wells hits a two-run double. Rolen follows by singling in two more and we suddenly have a 5-5 tie. This highlights what is so important about a good strikeout rate for pitchers. Wells is the fourth batter to reach base in the inning. If Cueto had managed to K any of them, no runs would have scored. With all of two strikeouts in the game, it is difficult for him to maintain any semblance of the spectacular ERA he had coming into the game.

In the sixth, Willy Taveras strikes out again and sets the table for a futile Cincinnati inning. Next up, Hairston slides into first and gets thrown out by Scott Rolen in a play that Hairston never would have made at third base himself. Rolen makes another play and hands Camp two-thirds of his inning. Cueto gets a couple of Ks in the bottom, but he really needed this kind of stuff last inning.

Joey Votto comes up in the seventh, apparently dissatisfied with his 3-for-3 performance up to this point. He hammers the first pitch he sees to left for a home run. Gomes follows with a single but Camp ends the inning with two groundballs to complete an unusual game for him, one where he got eight groundouts and only two fly outs.

Cueto departs as the pitcher of record and is in line for a win despite five runs and more mediocre peripherals. Nick Masset takes over, carrying a 1.88 ERA despite a morbid PECOTA forecast at the start of the season. He's certainly not this good, but he's performed at a level somewhere between his real ERA and his PECOTA. His home run rate is downright virtuous with only one home run in 29.2 innings. It is supported by a groundball rate that resembles what he's done in the past. PECOTA most likely thought his groundball rate was fluky due to the small sample it came packaged in, but this year is, once again, proving it to be real. A lazy flyball, a strikeout, and a groundball here get him the kind of results he is used to.

Masset's alter ego, Brandon League, comes in for Toronto in the eighth. His ERA of 5.85 is much worse than his PECOTA. He's pitched well but he tends to run into unlucky problems like he does in this inning when a softly lined double is followed by a sacrifice, and a run knocked in by a speedster who legs out an infield single. 7-5 Cincinnati. Taveras, the speedster, gets a seal and then advances to third before League gets a strikeout and a groundball to end the inning. Nevertheless, always being sure to give the devils their due, Willy Taveras and Dusty Baker worked together to create some effective small ball here without purposely giving away any outs, and while it's not advisable to use Taveras as a lead-off hitter, he's a squirrel; every now and then he's going to get a nut.

David Weathers, who looks old, red-faced, and generally unhealthy, comes in and gets outs on three balls in play to set-up the save. He still has almost as many strikeouts as walks so the end is probably a lot closer than his 2.66 ERA would lead you to believe.

The first batter of the ninth is Joey Votto and even the Jays fans in the stands are all on the edges of their seats, but this time it wasn't meant to be and Votto gets a swinging strikeout. Jesse Carlson is the pitcher and like League he's better than his half-season ERA suggests. He gives up a double to Ramon Hernandez, but two strikeouts and some tremendous defensive effort from Scutaro end the inning.

Francisco Cordero is in for the save. Coco tends to do much better in years when his name doesn't appear on my fantasy roster, and Reds fans can rejoice that this is one such year. He allows a walk to Overbay but gets three outs on balls in play, and the game ends in less than dramatic fashion.

What do we learn, finally, after a game such as this? Does one game tell us anything about the teams going forward? The Jays have a good lineup that plays good defense. Their relief pitchers have underperformed, which should behoove them going forward. Their only problem is evident in this game: injuries to their pitching staff have forced guys like Brett Cecil to pitch when they aren't yet ready. The staff needs Halladay, and it needs everyone else to get and stay healthy. Only then will they have a chance to cut their deficit in the AL East.

This game exemplifies how much the Reds need Joey Votto. When you combine him with some grinding play, you can find wins on days when your pitching isn't so good. The Reds took advantage of a weak Brett Cecil and then played great defense and manufactured a run fairly effectively to take the win. I don't generally believe that teams win games on work ethic alone, but work ethic can show up in the stats, and if these guys continue to play hard they're going to look better and have better numbers than we might have thought at the beginning of the season. In a weak NL Central, it could be enough.

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