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Numbers Don't Lie, Except When They Do

By Bill Peterson · May 11th, 2005 · Sports
Danny Graves complained last week about fans in their home digs booing the Reds. Funny, but Reds management must have disagreed and were grateful for anyone who showed up.

In addition to not hitting or pitching, the Reds aren't drawing either, playing in front of Cinergy Field crowds at Great American Ball Park. Perhaps the Reds should be consoled that no one's watching as they lost 13 of 16 games through May 8, including a dreadful eight-game string of defeats.

Those of us who penciled the Reds in for 85 wins this year know they really aren't this bad. Everyone knew they'd face their fair share of top pitching this year, though no one thought ahead to the possibility they might see so much of it during the first month of the season.

As a result, the Reds are struggling not only from the pitcher's mound but also from the plate. They faced half the NL's clubs through May 8. Three of their opponents -- St. Louis, Los Angeles and Florida -- are among the four elite NL clubs so far, the other being Atlanta. The Reds are 3-8 against them.

The Cardinals, Marlins and Milwaukee (another Reds opponent to this point) are among the top four NL clubs in staff ERA, while the Dodgers are sixth. The Reds are 3-12 against them.

We said the Reds would be better. We didn't say they'd stay with the league's best clubs.

The season happens to have reached a low point early. Due, in part, to the quality of their competition, key Reds players are performing at levels of ineptitude they can't possibly maintain.

Who would have thought, for example, that a batting order with Sean Casey, Junior Griffey, Adam Dunn, D'Angelo Jimenez and Ryan Freel would struggle against right-handed pitching? The Reds should eat right-handed pitching alive.

Instead, they're one of the NL's two or three most unreliable clubs against right-handed pitchers. They're hit or miss, mostly miss, batting only .245 through May 8 against right handers, tied with Philadelphia at the bottom of the NL. The Reds' totals against right handers included 175 hits ...

and 191 strikeouts.

The Reds' best bat against right handers is Dunn, who either puts none of his bat on the ball (19 walks and 18 strikeouts) or puts all of his bat on it (six homers in 66 at-bats). Dunn was hitting .333 against right handers through May 8, while Ryan Freel batted .326 against them with a .415 on-base percentage. Otherwise, it's a long night when a right hander throws for the opposition. Casey batted .332 last year against right handers. This year: .257. Last year, Griffey batted .286 against right handers. This year: .240.

See a pattern here? Not a lot of hits in the lineup against right-handed pitching. Add it up and the Reds were 6-16 against right-handed starters through May 8, when they were mastered by the immortal Jeff Weaver.

What's really odd in light of all this is to note how well some Reds are hitting against left-handers. Griffey batted only .199 against lefties last season and is up to .286 this year. Wily Mo Pena is murdering portsiders, hitting .471 with a .471 on-base average and 1.118 slugging percentage for a 1.589 OPS. In his 12 at-bats against left handers, Lopez has four hits, two homers and a 1.218 OPS. And Joe Randa, who batted .299 against lefties last season, is up to .333 this year.

A peculiar case on the pitching side lies in the left arm of Eric Milton, whose free agency signing last December, more than any other event, triggered optimism for this season. Milton is said to possess the make-up of a winner, but he's a fly ball pitcher, a dangerous way to make one's living in today's baseball. Last year, he gave up more homers, 43, than any other NL pitcher, allowing a homer for every 18 batters he faced.

Milton came to this season with a brand new two-seam sinking fastball, all the better to keep more batted balls in the park. But he's more homer-prone than ever, allowing 13 homers already in 39 innings, one for every 10.9 batters.

The veteran left hander has allowed 11 of his homers to right-handed hitters, which raises a question. If pitching coach Don Gullett wanted to teach Milton a low-riding pitch to go with his four-seam fastball, curve and change, why didn't he teach a slider, which breaks in on the opposite-handed hitter and might keep right-handed batters off balance?

But Milton at least knows how to get a left-handed hitter out, which is more than can be said for almost anyone else on the staff. Through May 7, left-handed hitters batted .316 or better against Graves, David Weathers, Brandon Claussen, Ben Weber, Matt Belisle, Paul Wilson, Joe Valentine and Ramon Ortiz. Notice Ryan Wagner's name isn't in there? Lefties were hitting .296 against him.

Opening Day is a month into the past, but it's still early. The kids are in school and the Reds still haven't taken their hacks at the dregs of the league. The numbers we've seen tell us something of why the Reds are losing, but they're freakish because of the small samplings, which tells us something of why we shouldn't be too alarmed.

History lies to us sometimes when we ask it to predict the future, but it's telling us the Reds will start hitting against right handers. It's hard to imagine this batting order will maintain a .235 batting average with runners in scoring position, especially when they take their turns against weaker pitching staffs. Some of these strikeouts should become balls hit into play.

Milton and Gullett are professionals who will work out the pitcher's gopher ball problems. The bullpen will find a groove and quit blowing six-run leads. Fans will boo that kind of performance every time, for good reason: It shouldn't happen.

Attendance isn't great, but the Reds are drawing no worse than other losing ball clubs in small cities. And it might be for the best that fans have missed the show so far.

On the night of May 8, the Reds were 11-19 against clubs that combined for eight games over .500. One month hence, with the Devil Rays in town, the schedule will have evened out. We should expect better from this ball club during the next month. The numbers say so, and the season is depending on it.



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