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Measuring the Reds at Midseason

We’re officially at the midway point of the MLB season, and if you thought this Reds season was already bumpy, well, I have some bad news for ya – it doesn’t look like that state of affairs is changing any time soon.  This rollercoaster has just gotten started.

Nothing exemplifies this better than the Reds 1 - 0  loss to the St. Louis Cardinals last night.  One day after a shorthanded lineup put up eleven runs, that same lineup came crashing back to Earth on Friday.  Once again, Cardinals starter Andre Pallante mystified Reds hitters.  In 11.1 innings pitched against the Reds, Pallante has yet to allow a run.  This is the same player who had a 6.30 ERA in March and April.  Incredulously, he has a spotless 0.00 ERA against the Reds and a 6.41 ERA against everybody else.

Am I making your brain hurt yet?  Get that Excedrin ready, because there’s more where that came from…

Friday marked the eighteenth game this season that the Reds have been held to one or fewer runs.  It’s the 26th time they’ve been limited to two runs or less.  That’s over 30% of their games!  You don’t need me to tell you that’s atrocious.

Last night was also the second time the Reds have lost a game 1 - 0, the other just over a week ago against the Pittsburgh Pirates.  They’ve also lost three games 2 - 1, and two more 3 - 2.  For whatever reason, when the scoring is kept to a minimum, the Reds aren’t finding ways to win.  Sure puts their 38 - 44 record in perspective, doesn’t it?

You can look at this one of two ways: One, that the Reds aren’t clutch.  Or, if you prefer a more optimistic outlook, you could argue that the Reds are simply unlucky.  They certainly were last night.  The Cardinals put on a defensive show that included multiple sliding catches and a rob of a game-tying home run in the ninth inning by Stuart Fairchild.  Okay, so maybe they can be forgiven for last night’s loss…but what about the rest?

The reality is, the Reds lineup – at this very moment – is not playoff caliber.  They’re 25th in the MLB in batting average, 22nd in on-base percentage, and 19th in slugging percentage.  They may steal more bases than anyone else and are the most aggressive team in baseball when it comes to taking the extra base, but it’s not exactly translating to more runs.  Their season-average of 4.26 runs per game is slightly below league-average.

Of course, injuries and other absences have played a not-so-subtle role in diminishing what was expected to be a fireworks-inducing lineup.  Last year’s breakout star Matt McLain has missed the entire season to this point while recovering from a labrum surgery, and isn’t expected to return to the lineup until August at the earliest.  Top prospect Noelvi Marté is back from a 80-suspension due to PEDs, but his absence compounded the earlier loss of McLain by depriving the team of another viable option off the bench.  For much of this season, the Reds were reliant on the fringes of their farm system (the Mike Fords, Jacob Hurtubises, Blake Dunns and Levi Jordans of the world) to soak up at-bats as necessary, further dulling the lineup’s sharpness.

Spark-plug centerfielder T.J. Friedl has also been in-and-out of the lineup with various maladies.  Jeimer Candelario shook off a brutal start to his season to become one of the Reds’ most consistent and dangerous hitters, but even he hasn’t been immune to the occasional missed game.  As of today, the only Red who has yet to miss a start is Elly De La Cruz.

And despite the lineup’s maddening inconsistency, the Reds pitching has actually been phenomenal basically from the jump.  Their top four starting pitchers (Hunter Greene, Andrew Abbott, Frankie Montas and Nick Lodolo) have given the Reds chances to win nearly every time they’ve taken the mound.  Sadly, the Reds lineup hasn’t been able to hold up their end of the bargain – hence, a 38 - 44 record despite the Reds out-scoring their opponents on the season 349 runs to 337 runs.

This brings me to my next point – and if you have a glass-half-full perspective on this Reds season, you’ll like this one.  According to the Pythagorean Theorem, which estimates a team’s winning percentage based on runs scored and runs allowed, the Reds' estimated record should be 42 - 40.  If that were the case, they’d be sitting squarely in third in the NL Central, just a half-game behind the Cardinals.  Instead, reality sees the Reds barely ahead of the Chicago Cubs in the Central’s cellar.

Again, there’s a compelling argument to be made that misfortune is more to blame for the Reds’ current circumstances than anything else.  The offense is capable of big performances, and the pitching has – for the most part – been steady as she goes all season long.  But beneath the veneer of positivity lie some worrying developments: namely, the Reds can’t make up any ground in their division.

Good thing the Cubs exist.  If they didn’t, the Reds division record would be a pitiful 6 - 11 this year.  Instead, it’s a not-quite palatable 11 - 13.  Not horrific, but certainly not acceptable either.  Besides, beating the Cubs isn’t much to brag about.

The Reds' struggles against good teams isn’t just limited to their division either.  To date, the Reds are 1 - 5 against the Arizona Diamondbacks (last year’s NL pennant winner), were swept by the Baltimore Orioles and Seattle Mariners (two AL contenders).  They’ve managed some surprising results against NL powerhouses the Philadelphia Phillies (4 - 3 season record) and the Los Angeles Dodgers (4 - 3), but those are starting to look more like aberrations than signs that the Reds are some sleeping giant.

While there are some peripheral signs that could suggest to the aforementioned glass-half-full fan that the Reds are due for some positive regression to the mean, there’s also plenty of ammo for the glass-half-empty fan too.  The Reds might have a positive run differential, but there are three teams in particular they have to thank for that – the Los Angeles Angels, the Colorado Rockies and the Chicago White Sox.

Those three teams comprise some of the worst outfits in baseball, especially the White Sox.  With a .274 winning percentage for the year, the White Sox have made baseball look harder than establishing a permanent colony on Mars.  The Reds, to their delight, have feasted on this trio.  The Reds did not drop a single game in nine tries to the three, and outscored these opponents by a combined score of 73 runs to 21.  Remember the Reds’ slightly encouraging run differential?  Take away these results, and the Reds’ run differential plummets to 276 runs scored on the year to 316 runs allowed.

Any guesses on what the Reds’ Pythagorean record would be with that run differential?  By my calculations, if we subtract those nine games, the Reds expected winning percentage would be .438.  In other words, the Reds would be sitting at a measly 36 - 46.

Thankfully, the Reds did play those teams, and they did win.  Sadly, they only get four more games against the Rockies and won’t face either the Angels or White Sox again.  The Reds had better make their August four-game series against the lowly Miami Marlins count, because outside of a series against the Washington Nationals and Oakland Athletics, the Reds are going to be in for a dogfight the rest of the way.  And so far, the Reds haven’t proven themselves to be particularly reliable in close contests, as their 6 - 15 record in one-run games would indicate.

There’s still plenty of time to make a run.  India is breaking out with one of the hottest stretches of his career, and De La Cruz and Spencer Steer have heated up of late as well.  But, as last night’s debacle reminded us, this offense is prone to stinkers.  Unless the Reds are willing to make a big splash at the trade deadline (hopefully for a stud outfielder), it’s hard to imagine this lineup suddenly finding consistency from top to bottom.  Maybe I’m wrong, but through three months of baseball, the Reds haven’t shown enough to get the benefit of the doubt.  You’ve got 80 more games to prove me wrong, Reds.  Go do it.

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