Monday, April 24, 2006

Code Red
By Ben Valentine

Like a lot of people who follow MLB, I thought the National League Central was where we could see a sleeper team emerge as a division winner. Ned Yost’s Milwaukee Brewers looked like the team on the verge of doing something big. They played close to .500 ball last year and have a lineup full of good young players like Rickie Weeks, Prince Fielder and JJ Hardy. Their rotation has the scary good but injury prone Ben Sheets along with the wildly effective duo of Chris Capuano and Doug Davis making them a solid pick to challenge the Cardinals and Astros. However, while the Brew Crew could still be that team, there’s another potential contender, the 13-7 Cincinnati Reds.

Coming into this season, most people thought the Reds would be the Central’s version of the Colorado Rockies, since Great American Ballpark plays like Coors Lite. So far, the Reds offense has been as good as advertised. Even though Ken Griffey Jr. has returned to the D.L., Adam Dunn has picked up the slack, already hitting 8 homers on the young season. At third, the Reds feature a young gun in Edwin Encarnarcion, who despite defensive woes, has not disappointed with the bat so far, hitting three homers, scoring 16 times and driving in 17, all while posting a 10:9 BB:K ratio, suggesting this is no mere hot start. In addition, the Reds picked up former top prospect Brandon Phillips off the scrapheap, only to see him go crazy in his first week back in the bigs, with an incredible 17 RBI in just 12 games.

But it’s not the offense which could make the Reds contenders for the Central crown. It’s the pitching, thought to be a black hole, which will decide the fate in Cinci. And much to delight of the Reds organization, when you actually take a close look at that starting staff, it is pretty good at the top.

27 year old Aaron Harang has never gotten much notoriety being one of the revolving fifth men of the A’s rotation that has seen the likes of Kirk Saarloos, Corey Lidle and Esteban Loaiza in the past four years. However, Harang quietly put together a very solid season for the Reds in 2005, with a 3.83 ERA in that homer happy ballpark. What is even more impressive about Harang, and why the Reds should be optimistic, are his peripherals. Last year, Harang put up a 6.93 K/9 and a very impressive 3.20 K/BB ratio. Translation; it wasn’t luck that allowed him to have such a respectable ERA. This season has started off somewhat slowly ERA wise for Harang; it sits at 4.53. But he is 3-1 and his peripherals are in line with last year; 7.39 K/9 and 3.71 K:BB ratio. If he keeps it up, the ERA should come down and with this Reds offense, he should easily improve on his 11-13 mark from a year ago.

A few years ago, the Yankees traded away Brandon Claussen, who was at the time their best prospect, for Aaron Boone. Boone proceeded to go the entire second half without collecting a hit until that home run in game 7 of the ALCS off Tim Wakefield, thus ensuring no Yankee fan would even lament the loss of Mr. Claussen. Boone heroics or not, the Yankees organization probably wish they had that trade back. Claussen right now would be at the very least the Yankees’ third starter, and possibly the number two guy behind Randy Johnson. Last season in 166.2 innings, Claussen struck out 6.53 batters per nine, while posting a 2.12 K/BB ratio. His ERA was 4.21, which is very respectable in that ballpark. However, given that he is just 27 and that it was his first full season of starting, it is possible Claussen could improve on those numbers. If he can drop his walk rate down a bit, he walked a high 3.08 per nine in 2005, he could move in Harang territory as being a legitimate #2 caliber starting pitcher in the majors. This season the ERA for Claussen hasn’t been pretty; 6.75, but the Ks are there at 8.10 per nine and he’s slightly improved on his K:BB ratio at 2.57. The lefty may not be far off now.

The third piece to puzzle was the acquisition of Bronson Arroyo. At first this move seemed to be a slam dunk in favor of the Red Sox, who got back Willy Mo Pena in the deal. But while Pena has struggled with his defense and has not gotten consistent playing time in the early going, Arroyo has flourished in the NL, going 3-1 with a 3.04 ERA and jacking a pair of homers in his first two starts. Even more encouraging than the won-loss record is the improvement in Arroyo’s strikeout numbers. After consistently being in the 7.00’s for the early part of his career, it dropped to 4.38 per nine along with a miserable 1.85 K:BB last year in Boston. This season Arroyo has his K/9 back up to 7.15 and his K:BB at an astounding 4.40. Those are legit ace peripherals. Of course, it’s doubtful he will be able to keep the walks down all season, but if he can post a K:BB around 3.00, which he did his first two years in Boston, he will be one of the better pitchers in the National League, despite where he pitches half his games.

To be fair, the backend of that rotation featuring Dave Williams, the now injured Eric Milton and the perennially injured Paul Wilson isn’t anything to write home about. And who knows about the bullpen; though those are crap shoots half the time anyway. But with the Reds lineup, there’s a chance they can just go out and outscore teams on the days when the pitching doesn’t have it. And there will be games like that.

When it comes right down to it though, the Reds have the potential to run out a very good starter three out of every five days. That’s more than a lot of teams, even some contenders, can say. So watch out NL, because while the Reds are off to a hot start, they might just be here to stay.

5 Comments:

Blogger Bryan Koch said...

Ben,

I'm always one for a feel good story, but I would be shocked if the Reds were to win more than 75 games. Claussen is trash - his career WHIP is 1.50. I'm not sure why you would make the argument that he's a better pitcher than Mike Mussina. 27 is already approaching peak age -- there's really not much room left for growth here. Look for an ERA below league average, probably in the high 4's.

Harang is acceptable, a nice pitcher. As for Arroyo, he's primarily succeeding because these hitters haven't seen him before. He's average, and the back end of the rotation, as well as the bullpen, is simply a nightmare. This team will give up 825 runs if they're fortunate; it could be a lot worse.

The Reds may finish ahead of the Pirates, but that's about it. Their schedule until the end of May is incredibly soft, so they could hover above .500, but from that point forward, they play eight consecutive series with teams that should finish in the top half of the league. Look for the tailspin to commence right around then.

1:16 AM  
Blogger Ben Valentine said...

Bryan, Claussen has had one season starting the in the majors; as I'm sure you know injuries derailed him early on. Claussen's WHIP last year was 1.40; not good. But with any pitcher the key is walks. If he can get his ratio to a consistent 2.50-3.00, he'll be a very good pitcher. And while he is approaching his peak age, he doesn't need his Ks to increase, he just needs to show better control. In other words, his stuff doesn't need to improve, just how he uses it does.

If I were starting a team tomorrow and you gave me the choice of a 27 year old Claussen or a 37 year old Mussina, I'm taking Claussen. And even if you want to argue Mussina is better for this year, Claussen still is better than Chacon, Wang, Wright and Small.

Arroyo is probably benefiting from not being seen by a lot of these hitters, which is why I don't think he can pitch as well as he has been. On the other hand his K/9 is not out of line with his career numbers and he has posted K:BB of over 3.00 before. So why couldn't he post an ERA around 3.80-4.10? With that Reds offense, that's good enough.

The Reds are better than the Pirates and the Cubs, who's pitching is too hurt and offense is not very good (especially now that Lee is gone). I don't see why they can't be better than the Brewers who have talented but erratic starters. And the Astros overachieved last year. That just leaves the Cardinals who's starters aren't very good outside of Chris Carpenter. Are you going to tell me there's that much difference between those team's pitching staffs?

3:09 PM  
Blogger Bryan Koch said...

Ben, last year the Cardinals allowed 634 runs. The Reds allowed 889. Throw in some regression, and Arroyo, and you're still talking about a 200 run gap. Even after accounting for ballpark differences, only the Marlins project to be a worse staff.

I could go on about why the Reds won't win more than 75-77 games, but the column's already been written:

http://www.hardballtimes.com/main/article/five-questions-cincinnati-reds-2006/

A few notable quotes:

"They finished last in runs allowed in 2005 (including last in component statistics such as DER, FIP, and K/game), last in Team Runs Saved using David Pinto's Probabilistic Model of Range, and last in Ben Jacobs' 2005-2006 offseason moves ranking."

"Using 2006 ZiPS Projections, PECOTA and projections from Diamond Mind Baseball, SG, from the Replacement Level Yankees Weblog, ran a few 1000 DMB seasons to project the outcome of the 2006 regular season. When averaging the results from the three projection sources, the Reds are projected to win 72 games and made the playoffs in the simulations only 1% of the time."

Arroyo ups the average finish to 74-75 wins. Just to be clear, even the Devil Rays make the playoffs around 1% of the time under these simulations. The Reds are one of the worst teams in the majors, and it would require a minor miracle for them to even be in contention beyond June.

4:58 PM  
Blogger Bryan Koch said...

Oops. Here's the web address, broken up for spacing purposes:

http://www.hardballtimes.com/main/article/
five-questions-cincinnati-reds-2006/

4:59 PM  
Blogger Ben Valentine said...

It's hard to argue against the big boys projections; that being said, the Phillies winning the NL East? The Twins? Projections are nice but a lot can happen over a season.

Anyway, I looked at the Cardinals rotation outside of Carpenter, who when healthy is one of the best pitchers in baseball. Here's what it looks like: (Stats from 2005)

Mark Mulder 205.0 IP, 4.87 K/9, 1.59 K/BB, 19 Hrs, 3.64 ERA, 2.70 GB/FB

Jeff Suppan 194.1 IP, 5.28 K/9, 1.81 K/BB, 25 Hrs, 3.57 ERA, 1.43 GB/FB

Sidney Ponson 130.1 IP, 4.70 K/9, 1.42 K/BB, 16 Hrs, 6.22 ERA, 1.82 GB/FB

Jason Marquis 207.0 IP, 4.35 K/9, 1.45 K/BB, 29 Hrs, 4.13 ERA, 1.59 GB/FB

Really unassuming bunch numbers wise. In fact, they're all remarkably similar with their K/9, K:BB and GB/FB ratios (Mulder excluded from the last). Now you had ERAs ranging from mid 3.00's to the sixes. Was Suppan lucky and Ponson just really unlucky? The truth lies somewhere in between but what it comes down to is that after Carpenter, you have a pitcher who was fortunate to post a 3.67 ERA and whose numbers suggest a decline along with three guys who would be lucky to get an ERA under 4.00.

I don't think the Reds starting staff is that much worse than St. Louis' when it comes down to it. Now I'm sure the Cards pen is better than the Reds, but relievers can go good to bad and visa versa quickly.

The Reds would need some breakthrough seasons from guys like Claussen and offensively from Encarnarcion and Brandon Phillips, but it's possible. I think they'll be at least around .500.

1:48 AM  

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