Friday, October 2, 2015

Next Up: The Suddenly Competitive Cincinnati Reds

Not for anything good, mind you. Here are the teams with the eight worst records in the majors as of the All-Star break: 
Team          W  L Pct.  GB
Philadelphia 29 62 .319  --
Milwaukee    38 52 .422  9.5
Miami        38 51 .427 10
Colorado     39 49 .443 11.5
Oakland      41 50 .451 12
Cincinnati   39 47 .453 12.5
San Diego    41 49 .456 12.5
Seattle      41 48 .461 13

Here's where it was at the start of September:
Team          W  L Pct.  GB
Philadelphia 52 80 .394  --
Miami        53 79 .402  1
Colorado     53 76 .411  2.5
Atlanta      54 77 .412  2.5
Cincinnati   54 76 .415  3
Milwaukee    55 75 .423  4
Oakland      58 74 .439  6
Seattle      61 71 .462  9

And today:
Team          W  L Pct.  GB
Philadelphia 62 97 .390  --
Cincinnati   63 96 .396  1
Atlanta      64 95 .403  2
Colorado     66 93 .415  4
Oakland      66 93 .415  4
Milwaukee    68 91 .428  6
Miami        69 90 .434  7
Detroit      73 85 .462 11.5

Why's this relevant? Well, the worst record earns you the No. 1 pick in next summer's amateur draft. That's valuable. First picks, historically, do considerably better than other picks, even No. 2. So the difference between being the worst and the second-worst is significant. Cincinnati's been making an impressive drive for the that top draft choice! (And what in the world have the Marlins been thinking?)

How Are They Doing Lately? When a team moves up in the ranks of the worst teams in baseball, it's not because they're doing well. The Reds have lost 12 in a row going into the season-ending weekend series at PNC Park. The 1993 Reds also lost 12 straight, and the team could tie the 1930 and 1945 Reds with 13 straight losses tonight. (The all-time franchise record of 19 straight losses, set in 1914, is out of reach.) Unsurprisingly, Cincinnati has the worst record in the league over the last 30 days, 9-19. They've scored 4.0 runs per game, .001 runs per game more than the fourth-worst Cardinals, while giving up 5.6 runs per game, easily the most in the league, over a half a run more than the next-worst Braves.

What's Going Right? I've mentioned this a number of times, but two pitching figures that can reflect luck are batting average on balls in play and percentage of baserunners stranded. Most players and teams tend toward the league averages (.299 batting average on balls in play and 73% strand rate in the National League over the past 30 days). The Reds have allowed the highest batting average on balls in play and the stranded the lowest percentage of baserunners over the past 30 days, indicating they've probably been a little unlucky. 

What's Going Wrong? Over the past 30 days, the Reds are eleventh in the league in batting (.248), 13th in on base percentage (.308), and 13th in slugging (.388). They've struck out the fourth most frequently and walked the fourth most infrequently. They've had the second lowest rate of hard contact in the league. And the pitching has completely melted down; the bullpen ERA of 4.70 is the third worst in the league over the past 30 days, and the starters' 5.82 ERA is the second worst. 

Who's Hot? Joey Votto is closing out a sensational season, batting .329 with a .487 on base percentage and .482 slugging percentage over the past 30 days. He's got a .547 on base percentage in the second half of the season. The only players who've bested that over half a season are Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, and Barry Bonds. Second baseman Brandon Phillips (.317/.336/.433 slash line) is also winding up a strong second half; his .759 OPS trails only the Mets' Daniel Murphy (.824) and the Pirates' Neil Walker (.762) among regular second basemen in the National League since the All-Star break. Closer Aroldis Chapman, in limited save opportunities, has a 0.93 ERA and 16 strikeouts and just four hits allowed in 9.2 innings, covering the last 30 days.

Who's Not? No Reds starter has an ERA lower than 4.73 over the past 30 days, including the weekend's starters, Keyvius Sampson (6.52), Brandon Finnegan (6.00), and Josh Smith (7.07). The weakest bats over the past 30 days have been those of left/center fielder Jason Bourgeois (.237/.297/.335), utility man Ivan DeJesus (.222/.246/.370) and catcher Tucker Barnhart (.179/.238/.196).

What's the Outlook? The Pirates can't completely coast. Their magic number over the Cubs for home field in Wednesday's wild card play-in game is two, meaning they need a combination of two victories over the Reds and/or Brewers victories over the Cubs over the weekend to put the game in PNC Park. But we should expect to see some position players get time off. As for the Reds, they have to hope the Phillies can extend their four-game winning streak at home against the Marlins, opening the door for Cincinnati to nab the top draft pick next summer.

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