One month into the 2009 season, the task of assessing the Reds for their staying power in the National League playoff race remains a work of wild guessing. They have no stars and few track records. They finished 13-12, hitting the ball harder with their gloves than with their bats.
The first month leaves us neither hot nor cold. The Reds are like every club in the National League that isn’t going as well as St. Louis and Los Angeles or as poorly as Washington.
But we can be reliably certain of one aspect concerning the Reds, it having been demonstrated a good number of times already this year. Their plan is fundamentally sound. It remains a plan until it’s fully executed, but the idea of building a ball club around pitching shows its value again and again.
Notice that the Reds are seldom out of a game. Notice that they hadn’t lost more than two in a row. Notice also that they were the most punchless club in the National League: 12th in homers with 19, 15th in batting average at .241 and 15th in OPS at .696.
The Reds don’t walk, don’t steal bases, don’t hit the ball out of the park and don’t bring in runners from second base with less than two out. They don’t do anything offensively.
But whenever they start reeling just a little bit, someone takes the ball to the slab and almost wins a game by himself. On April 26, with the Reds on a two-game losing streak, Micah Owings gave up one earned run in seven innings, helping the Reds to an 8-2 win over the Atlanta Braves. Three days later, the Reds on another two-game losing streak, Edinson Volquez shut out the Houston Astros in eight innings for a 3-0 win.
We haven’t even talked about Johnny Cueto, who deserved wins in his last four starts and utterly dominated three of them. Or Bronson Arroyo, who is 4-1, or Aaron Harang, who should have four wins and has just two.
While it regularly happens that ball clubs change out the majority of their personnel during periods of three years, the transformation at Great American Ball Park is truly remarkable. The Reds said they wanted to change their ways and develop pitchers, if only so we’d all quit saying they haven’t produced a reliable major league starter since Tom Browning 25 years ago.
But they’re actually doing enough of it to weather a batting slump that afflicts almost every regular hitter.
In 2005, the Reds led the National League with 820 runs, 222 homers and a .785 OPS. They also finished last in the league by giving up 889 runs and 219 homers with two complete games and 31 saves. And they were terrible, 73-89 and 27 games out of first place.
Worse, they fell into so many deep holes that they weren’t worth watching. A ball club becomes irrelevant by going down 7-2 in the fifth inning three days a week with the worst bullpen in the league. Through their last three general managers, the Reds reached an important conclusion: If you’re not going to win, at least don’t step into a 7-2 hole every other day.
That 2005 club won six games all year when it scored three runs or fewer. This year’s club already has won four times when it’s scored three runs or fewer.
Harang and Edwin Encarnacion are the only two players still around from 2005. Harang has matured into one of the league’s best starting pitchers. Unfortunately, Encarnacion hasn’t matured into one of the league’s best third basemen or power hitters.
It kind of figures. While the Reds have assembled an electric rotation, we might now complain that they haven’t developed a proven big league hitter since Adam Dunn came up in 2001.
Obviously, that’s not by design and, being fair, time should prove it wrong. Joey Votto is an All-Star right now, driving in 22 runs on a club that can’t put people on base. With runners in scoring position, he ended the month 12 for 25 with 19 RBI.
Call it a small sample, which it is, but where would the Reds be without Votto? He’s hitting left handers well (.956 OPS) and right handers even better (1.051 OPS), and he’s still pretty good when the Reds lose (.868 OPS), though he’s unbelievable when they win (1.118 OPS).
The great left-handed hitters become that by figuring out left-handed pitchers. So far, so good where Votto is concerned. Now if Jay Bruce can get there, this ball club is substantially better.
Not to nag, because Bruce just now turned 22 and it should be noted that he’s in for a maturation process. But if you’re looking for one guy offensively who makes the difference between winning and losing, Bruce is your best guess right now.
Against right handers, he’s a monster already, hitting a homer for every nine at-bats (six bombs in 54 ups) with a 1.033 OPS. Against lefties, he’s not even Mario Mendoza, batting .160 with a .450 OPS. In Reds wins, Bruce bats .300 with a 1.066 OPS. In losses, he hits .205 with a .621 OPS.
Again, the numbers are small, but we’ll look for Bruce to do better. Should Reds manager Dusty Baker be stacking Votto and Bruce in the batting order? Certainly not against left handers.
We’ll look for a lot of hitters to do better. Brandon Phillips is better than .207. Alex Gonzalez is better than .186. You don’t have to like Encarnacion, but you have to agree that he’s better than .127.
The good news — and we haven’t been able to say this in a long time — is the Reds are hanging in there during tough times offensively, and they’re only going to improve. It’s way too early to talk about this club being in any kind of “hunt,” but one suspects they have a hunting trip planned.
The Reds have nasty holes and imperfections, but they also have pitching already online and about four bats waiting to wake up.
We can’t say the Reds are playoff contenders, but we can’t say they aren’t. Their record so far, despite terrible hitting, is an indication they might just be in the hunt.
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