The 2013 Cincinnati Reds have been good, not great. Sitting 12 games above .500, they are unlucky to be sitting in third in the National League Central division but are still holding onto a wild-card spot. Granted, there are plenty of games to be played, and there is plenty of time to move up (or down) in the National League.
I am a pessimist. After watching Cincinnati sports for years, I have grown cynical about success and about the local teams' chances. Looking at this season's Redlegs, there are some glaring problems that I just cannot help but point out.
An Ace in the Hole
Cincinnati's rotation has been stellar this year, with all five starters posting ERAs under 4.00. From where I am standing, though, that means they have been very lucky.
Mike Leake took over the No. 1 spot following the All-Star break. If you had heard at the end of last season that Leake would ever be the No. 1, you would be understandably stunned. Leake's 2.73 ERA (seventh in the NL) is ridiculous considering he posted a 4.58 ERA last season. He's already posted more wins this season than last (10 vs. nine).
Looking at the metrics, none of this should be happening. Yes, his ERA and wins totals are both looking sharp, but this season he's striking out fewer and walking more batters than last season. His ground-ball rate has improved marginally (.4 percent change). He's mixing his pitches up about as often as prior seasons.
More telling still are the sabermetrics. His FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching), a stat that attempts to remove the effect of a team's defense upon its pitcher, is hovering at 4.06, a career low, but considering 4.00 is considered average, that's really nothing to brag about. He looks primed to regress any minute.
Mike Leake's luck is perfectly exemplified in his last three starts. Leake won two games, giving up four runs over 18.2 innings, which isn't half bad. But in those 18.2 innings, he gave up 22 hits. It's a miracle he didn't give more than four runs.
The Best of the Rest
But what about the rest of the rotation? Without looking up the numbers, Mat Latos and Homer Bailey seem the most worthy of praise. By the eye test, Bailey has been unlucky to lose as much as he has while Latos seems to be performing around where you'd expect.
Latos hasn't been awe-inspiring, but then again, he never really was. He's a solid No. 2 at best. When I see Latos on the mound, I see a solid fastball and good command, but I don't see him go deep in games often enough (in his last four starts he's averaging less than six innings pitched).
The sabermetrics make me a little more excited, as he's posting an excellent 3.06 FIP, but until he can learn to pitch more consistently and stay in games longer, I refuse to consider him a viable No. 1.
Bailey, completely unlike Leake, is incredibly unlucky. He's among the top in the NL in poorest run support. His .310 BABIP screams that batters are just lucky to find gaps. Despite his 5-10 record, he's sixth among NL pitchers in WAR.
His fastball has been incredible this year, the seventh fastest on average in the NL. I love his ability to shut out games, apparent most obviously in his second no-hitter. The fact that Homer is consistently unlucky and consistently getting nothing in terms of run support makes me hesitant to want him as the team's ace.
And who else does that leave? A 36-year-old Bronson Arroyo who is "somehow" posting his best ERA since 2003 and rookie Tony Cingrani, who throws his fastball over 80 percent of the time, enough to be second in MLB among starters if he qualified.
Arroyo, like Leake, is striking out fewer batters and giving up more walks than last season. His FIP is highest among all the starters and yet somehow he has managed nine wins.
Cingrani, meanwhile, is getting by with a deceptive delivery. As soon as batters see him throw more, his undoing will begin. I am not claiming he will be terrible, but he has never been projected as an ace and no ace is throwing his fastball four-fifths of the time.
Off the Bat
The bats in Cincinnati are not much better than the pitching. Before going into depth, I will acknowledge that both Joey Votto and Shin-Soo Choo have been excellent this season, posting OBPs above .400. While it is hard to complain about either player, the one thing I will say is that Choo's average of .176 against lefties is a glaring weakness that playoff teams will be looking to exploit.
So where does that leave the rest of the team? Well, Jay Bruce has somehow managed to pull together a .274 batting average despite striking out almost 30 percent of the time (13th in MLB). If Bruce could trade some strikeouts for something other than a league-average OBP, he might be more of a menace in the order.
In split time, Derrick Robinson and Xavier Paul have both managed above-average OBPs, although Paul's dismal numbers against lefties are a big weakness in his play. Robinson is a rookie and while I admit his speed and switch-hitting abilities excite me, he has not seen enough major league pitching for me to be sold on him.
One hitter I'm warming up to is Devin Mesoraco. He's been hitting better post-All-Star break and is looking to show some of what made him an elite prospect last season. For now, though, his numbers are below league average and in need of improvement.
As for the rest, Todd Frazier has managed a comfortable .338 OBP but has been streaky. Brandon Phillips, despite his great RBI numbers and incredible defense, is owning a .310 OBP, which is below average. He simply has to reach base more to be a reliable cleanup hitter. The rest of the team is only worse.
You May Now Approach the Bench
So what about the rest of this team? Looking at the bench, who is there to get excited about? As a manager, who is your X-factor? Jack Hannahan is hovering around Mendoza levels; Cesar Izturis is even worse. Both are decent in the field, but late in the game the team is not looking for another glove.
I am willing to give this team some benefit of the doubt because of all the injuries. Maybe Ryan Ludwick returns and is that X-factor. Maybe he somehow has another fantastic year despite the fact that he's 35 and has never established himself as a great hitter. I am skeptical, but hey, maybe it happens.
Maybe Chris Heisey starts to show why he was named minor league player of the year in the Reds' organization a few years ago. He's looked alright since his return but let's face it, he's never been anything special.
When the Reds don't field their strongest team, they have a huge hole in whatever position the backup is playing, both defensively and offensively. That is not a good sign for a playoff-caliber team.
A Dusty Problem
My No. 1 complaint above all else when looking at the Reds, my No. 1 reason why I don't think they'll win the World Series, won't go deep into the playoffs and won't win the division is the man with the toothpicks in his mouth.
Dusty Baker is the Achilles' heel of this team.
Baker's stubborn adherence to his classic techniques is killing this team. He's the reason why Jay Bruce, despite having more hits, walks and home runs than Brandon Phillips, is still not batting cleanup. He's the reason why Zack Cozart was hitting at the top of the lineup for so long. He's the reason why Choo is still going out there to face lefties who are simply dominating him.
He's the reason bullpen moves are often too late and make little sense. He underutilizes his bullpen's X-factor in Aroldis Chapman and feigns surprise when a rookie like Curtis Partch blows the game.
How is this guy still in baseball? The San Francisco Giants couldn't win a World Series with him despite a loaded roster, and now? Two World Series wins since Dusty's departure.
It is really hard for us as fans to know what things he brings to the club, but I don't think many of those things are positives. Yes, the Reds have the best record in baseball going back to the start of last season, but I'm telling you they could be even better with a simple change in batting order. How much longer does he have in Cincinnati?