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September 17, 2010

Joe's Blog

Cardinals vs. Reds?

by Joe Sheehan

The thing about September that makes finishing a book hard -- one reason why my original deadline was September 1, to be honest -- is that there are so many storylines in play that you can write all week and not get to all of them. In just the last six days I've written a Sports Illustrated piece on Carlos Gonzalez, an SI.com piece about home-field advantage, a book blog entry about the Yankees/Rays series and newsletters about key games in the NL West race, the Twins' second-half surge, similarities among some AL teams, a wrap of Tuesday night's games, and, if you can believe it, Wilson Betemit. I'm working on an AL Cy Young piece for tomorrow, while also plowing through copy on Bud Selig for the book.

I know this sounds funny coming from the guy who just wrote about the struggles of dealing with volume, and I won't pretend it's like this for everyone, but sometimes I can get into a rhythm and everything just comes easily. This week has been like that. It's a great feeling, especially on the heels of the recent struggles. I am well aware that one reason I write is because I want to be liked, and I need that approval, that e-mail, that comment, that Retweet. When I'm cranking out the bylines, I get that. Make no mistake about it: I'm addicted to that rush, that ego boost.

One thing I haven't written up and will do here is the weirdness in the NL Central. The Cardinals won last night to cut the Reds' lead to seven games, which isn't insurmountable but will be a big hill to climb. The Cards beat the Padres, which isn't unusual for them at all. The Cardinals have had the strangest run over the last two months that I can ever remember seeing. Cleave the NL into the teams chasing postseason berths -- seven teams -- and the ones playing out the string, the other nine. Since the All-Star break, the Cards are 13-5 against the first group and 15-24 against the other. The Cardinals haven't won a series against one of the NL's non-contenders since just before the break, when they took two of three at Houston. In that same time, they've owned the few good teams that they've played, including a 5-1 mark against the Reds, which is the only thing keeping them close in the division.

Do that same calculus for the entire season, and you find that the Cardinals are 26-20 against the six best teams on their schedule, the ones stil in some kin of contention: the Braves, Reds, Rockies, Phillies, Padres and Giants. (As an aside, that seems like a very low number of "good teams" for any team to have played.) Against what you might call the middle ground, the Jays, A's, Angels, Marlins, Mets and Dodgers, all around .500, the Cardinals are 15-11. Against everyone else, which includes heaping doses of a lousy NL Central, the Cards are 34-39. The Cardinals are 9-18 against the Cubs and Astros, which doesn't seem possible.

The Reds, on the other hand, are in first place the way that Virginia Tech tries to get to the NCAAs each year: by winning a lot of games against unimpressive competition. Against the contenders on its schedule, the Reds are 16-31. The Reds have lost the season series to all six of the teams still in races that they have played. Against the middle of the pack, the teams around .500, the Reds are 17-8. Against the dregs of the league? 50-24.

The Cardinals have played .565 ball against playoff-caliber teams, but sub.-500 against bad teams. The Reds have lost nearly two of every three games against playoff-caliber competition, while crushing everyone else to the tune of 67-32.

All the games count. I'm not passing judgment on the Reds. You win more games than all the other guys, they call you division champs and send you to the tournament. If we're trying to objectively determine which team is better, though, should we take into consideration that one of these teams has held its own against good competition, while the other one has gotten crushed? Does parsing a season into these categories add information that looking just at record, or runs scored and allowed, or third-order record, doesn't? Is it at least possible that a team whose overall performance is seven games worse overall has a claim to some kind of superiority because it's dramatically better in games against postseason-caliber competition?

Tonight, I have questions but no answers. I'm fascinated by the contrast, though, and I'm certain it's factoring into my overall opinion of the Reds. I can't help but think that their stay in October may be short, because they have shown absolutely no ability -- none, not over even one team -- to beat playoff-caliber competition.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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22 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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Very interesting finding.
As to ranking the teams, one could put more weight on beating good teams than on losing to bad ones, or vice versa. Offhand I don't see a strong reason to lean either way. A team can get to X wins the easy way, or the hard way, but it doesn't matter which. Except: it certainly does raise the question of which might fare better in the post-season.

Sep 16, 2010 22:19 PM
rating: 0

Nice college hoops reference there. I hate major conference teams that try to pad their schedules to skate into the field of 65, so by all means, call 'em out whenever you get the chance, in whatever forum!

Sep 17, 2010 05:33 AM
rating: 0

Would love to see a historical view of this (paging Mr. Goldman), since the dynasty Yankee teams, for example, had the rep of fattening up on the league's dross.

Sep 17, 2010 07:34 AM
rating: 1

Seems like an easily researchable question. I'm going to presume the 'Secret Sauce' guys looked at it, and apparently found no relationship to postseason success.

Sep 17, 2010 08:19 AM
rating: 1

One reason for this is that the Cardinals have actively tried to "set their rotation for big series". They've juggled around to the point of giving Suppan starts against weak competition just so they can put their big 3 against the Reds. In fact, during that 5-1 stretch against Cincinnati, the Reds faced Carp twice, Wainwright twice, and Garcia twice.

Of course in doing this, the weaker teams get to feast on the likes of Lohse, Suppan, and Westbrook.

Sep 17, 2010 08:25 AM
rating: 7
W. Clark

isn't this the type of thing the hit list number is supposed to account for? Reds still better there

Sep 17, 2010 10:35 AM
rating: 0

This article is the kind of stuff I look forward to reading as part of my subscription. Please feel free to continue with your ad hoc submissions.

Sep 17, 2010 10:40 AM
rating: 0

Well NO ONE on this website liked the Reds chances at the start of the season - and you all had well crafted statistics to back your choice of the Cardinals over everyone else. I wouldn't expect anyone here to back the Reds now, and I'm hoping your precognition is just as accurate.

Sep 17, 2010 11:24 AM
rating: -2
BP staff member Joe Sheehan
BP staff

Speaking only for myself, I have a long-standing history of picking the Reds as an up-and-coming team, only to be wrong in that direction.

I believe I had them going 83-79 or thereabouts this year.

Sep 17, 2010 11:51 AM
Lou Doench

I actually asked Joe to say bad things about the Reds at the beginning of the year to try and break that curse. Thanx Joe!

Sep 21, 2010 15:08 PM
rating: 0

I do find it interesting that we have a tendency to want to give the Cardinals credit for their success against good teams while minimizing how pathetic it is to have lost against the bad teams.

Splits can be deceiving. They allow us to tell stories that are interesting and then to extrapolate based on those revealed characteristics. But the question is, do we really have reason to believe that the Cardinals will continue to beat up good teams? Maybe you say yes. But why? If they are truly that good, why do they struggle against bad teams? Or put another way, if the Cards are really a team who will continue to beat the rest of the good teams more often than not (call them a .600 team), what are the odds they'd play so poorly against the bad ones?

They aren't one or the other, they're both. At least at that level of analysis, we can't say much of anything -- particularly not that the Cardinals are a better team than the Reds.

That said, I think Clonod has the key point. The Cards are an extremely top heavy team and LaRussa has been very careful at making sure his best players, pitchers in particular, are on the field against the good teams. The Reds have faced Carp 5x, Wainright 4x, Garcia 3x, Penny 3x, Lohse 1x, Walters 1x.

The Reds by contrast are a very flat team, particularly on the pitcher staff. There's essentially no way for them to manipulate the rotation to put them at an advantage.

60% of the time, the Cardinals are a little better than the Reds. 40% of the time, they're much worse. It's sort of unfortunate (though part of the fun) that baseball "teams" change so drastically from day to day. From the perspective of a Reds fan, it's quite frustrating that the playoffs are structured to put top heavy teams at a massive advantage.

With baseball structured such that the full team is very rarely used in single game, the best change MLB could make to the playoffs in my mind is to run them like long series instead of compilations of single games. The playoffs should be there to let the best teams battle it out. The current system would be like playing 4v4 basketball or 8v8 football in the playoffs. It's silly on the face of it to so drastically alter the game for those sports. But baseball has no problems changing things up such that teams only have to use half their roster.

Sep 17, 2010 11:34 AM
rating: 2

Some great points, Rick, but I'm not sure I agree with all of them.

1. I'm not certain Joe was saying that the Reds are better than the Cardinals -- merely that we should consider their records against elite competition when assessing their true talent. (But like you, I agree that if you're going to dock the Reds for underperforming against top teams, you also have to dock the Cards for underperforming against lousy teams. It's a misconception that teams prove their greatness by beating top teams. More often, great teams hold their own against top teams and destroy the bottom feeders, which is exactly what the Reds have done.)

2. I only partly agree with Clonod's point. Yes, TLR has lined up his best pitchers to face the Reds, but those same pitchers are also facing the poor teams. Since the ASB, the Cards' "big 3" (Wainwright, Carpenter, and Garcia) have faced the Astros 3x, the Nats 3x, the Pirates 3x, and the Cubs 5x. Collectively they're 5-9 vs. those teams. So Clonod's description of what ails the Cards isn't entirely accurate.

3. I agree that the playoffs favor top-heavy teams, but I don't think they favor them as much as you'd think. A few years back I did an extensive study that showed that teams with one or more ace pitchers on the roster did no better in the postseason than they did in the regular season. And for all the talk of "Secret Sauce" in the playoffs, analysts are finding it very difficult to find things that reliably work in short series rather than long. In other words, your Reds may well be fine.

Sep 17, 2010 13:26 PM
rating: 2

I can't imagine the Reds making it out of round one. They have no ace; just a bunch of number three starters.

Sep 17, 2010 13:05 PM
rating: 0
Dan W.

it's sort of like the NL Central is the Delaware republican primary. If "electability" were a concern, the Cards would be a better division-winning representative than the Reds any day.

Sep 17, 2010 13:14 PM
rating: 0

The Secret Sauce, designed to predict playoff success, looks at factors other than starting pitching, namely normalized strikeout rates, relief pitching, and team defense. But the news there is any better for Reds fans. They currently rank 17th.

Sep 17, 2010 15:26 PM
rating: 0

Well, in your defense Joe, you weren't part of the article that raised my ire in the first place (or, at that time, even part of BP) : http://www.baseballprospectus.com/article.php?articleid=10451. Not one person could step out on a limb (even as a lark) and pick against the pack (Forget the Reds… no one picked the Cubs?)

And RedsManRick is better at writing critique than I. He gets a “Well said” out of me for what he said here and a major thumbs up for what you wrote after Perrotto preseason write up of the Reds included the Reds won’t win “because they never win anymore” (http://www.baseballprospectus.com/article.php?articleid=10085 )

I guess the problem is mine - I'm a fan first. I love the stats and even enjoy trying to keep up when the site disguises itself as an advanced stats class. But I guess I’m getting burned out of years of this site giving me a myriad of mathematical reasons why my favorite team wasn’t good, isn’t good, and won’t be good. Now the Reds finally put a season together, and your blog post immediately sets up the “Why the Reds won’t win the playoffs” articles.

I get that BP is NOT supposed to be a fan-zine and it’s not your job to blow sunshine up my team’s ___. It’s a blog post not an article – so you’re just passing a thought along – and it’s a valid thought at that. . The Cards own the Reds and I’ve no answers about the sweeps in Philly (july) or Denver (sep). But calling us the V Tech of baseball – like we were ducking teams or sneaking in is a little harsh.

11 of the 32 losses you refer to were by one run (8 of those were on the road). They are 3-4 against the West leading Giants – including some ridiculous slugfests in San Fran as the Giants stated to make their push. They had a fluke loss after a near perfect game v the Phillies and are one of the few teams to at least *taste* success against Halladay (a win and a ND in the aforementioned Travis Wood game). They’ve yet to finish against the struggling Padres. AND - thanks to doing their work against the poorer teams – won’t have to worry about any possible match up with the Cardinals.

Am I betting the mortgage on another Reds title – no. But I don’t fear the playoff contenders despite the regular season results. Cueto/Wood/Arroyo gives us a rotation to keep us in it. And having one of the leagues best offenses, led by the league MVP, gives us better than a punchers chance. That’s not sneaking in.

P.S. – Like Perrotto fine, but his NL Central preview wasn’t his best.

P.P.S. – having said all this I am completely TERRIFIED I’ve jinxed my team.

Sep 17, 2010 14:12 PM
rating: -3

cut and paste disaster - sigh

Sep 17, 2010 14:13 PM
rating: 0

If TLR has lined up his best pitchers for the good teams, wouldn't he have also seen to it that his best position players also made those games? While then resting then some against the Astros of the world? Just wonderin'.

Sep 17, 2010 14:32 PM
rating: 0

The Reds are 0-10 at Colorado, Philadelphia, and Atlanta. That includes 7 one run losses, 4 extra inning losses, and two blown 6 run leads in the ninth.

Sep 21, 2010 10:04 AM
rating: 1

There's your problem.

Sep 23, 2010 09:21 AM
rating: 0

Any serious rating system already takes into account quality of opposition. Various studies in other sports have shown that trying to underweight performances against poor teams (thus emphasizing performances against good teams) reduces the accuracy of forecasted team strength. I.e., teams, on average, don't have a special skill to perform well/poorly against good/bad teams.

Sep 21, 2010 22:34 PM
rating: 0

With all the stats at our disposal, its easy to think we know more then we really do or can explain anything. Most likely its just random chance that the Cards have a better record against good oponents then bad.

Sep 28, 2010 10:01 AM
rating: 0
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2011-06-22 - The BP Wayback Machine: Bi-Coastal Silliness
2010-10-11 - Joe's Blog: Rain Delay
2010-09-22 - Joe's Blog: A Taste
2010-09-17 - Joe's Blog: Cardinals vs. Reds?
2010-09-13 - Joe's Blog: Yankees/Rays
2010-09-07 - Joe's Blog: Crazy
2010-08-26 - Joe's Blog: A Night in Brooklyn

2010-10-11 - Joe's Blog: Rain Delay
2010-09-22 - Joe's Blog: A Taste
2010-09-17 - Joe's Blog: Cardinals vs. Reds?
2010-09-13 - Joe's Blog: Yankees/Rays
2010-09-07 - Joe's Blog: Crazy
2010-08-26 - Joe's Blog: A Night in Brooklyn