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You may have noticed, if you have eyes and/or ears, that the Reds’ offense has been somewhat less than stellar this season. Actually, that’s selling it short: Cincinnati’s offense has been awful, among the worst in the majors.
Even if you haven’t looked at the actual numbers, I doubt I’m telling you anything you didn’t already suspect. With injuries at various times to Joey Votto, Jay Bruce, Devin Mesoraco, and Billy Hamilton, manager Bryan Price has often had difficulty finding eight competent hitters to scrawl on his lineup card on a nightly basis.
How bad has it been? Well, the 2014 Reds have scored more runs than the San Diego Padres. That’s it. Twenty-ninth out of thirty teams, just one season after Cincinnati scored the third-most runs in the National League. If we look at rate stats, the picture doesn’t look much prettier. The team’s on-base percentage is better than only the Cubs and Padres among NL clubs. Same with wRC+ (weighted runs created plus), which attempts to quantify a team/player’s total offensive value and measure it by runs; basically, the Reds are creating 14% fewer runs than the league average.
Sure, the injuries have been a big problem, but there are other culprits for the offensive malaise. Ryan Ludwick has been terrible, hitting .253 AVG /.319 OBP /.377 SLG with just four homers and 18 RBI; his FanGraphs WAR (wins above replacement) is -0.2. Yep, he’s been worse than a replacement-level left fielder. Over in right field, Bruce has been even worse, when healthy (.197/.314/.318, 3 HR, 14 RBI). The third in that outfield trifecta, center fielder Hamilton, is hitting a miserable .251/.290/.339 (though to be fair, Hamilton’s overall production far exceeds that of Bruce and Ludwick, thanks to his outstanding defense and base running). Honestly, it's almost unimaginable how bad Cincinnati's outfield has been this season. As a group, they’ve hit .233/.306/.341 with a paltry 11 homers, a .290 wOBA (weighted On Base Average) and 79 wRC+.
The offensive output of the infield, on the other hand, isn’t the dumpster fire we’ve seen from Cincinnati’s outfield. Todd Frazier and Devin Mesoraco (between DL stints) have been nothing short of brilliant, and when Votto was healthy, he was more productive than you think (137 OPS+; 100 is average). Zack Cozart has been pretty terrible with the bat (.225/.266/.313), but no one expected much offense from him, and his glove has been predictably great. The biggest problem among the infield group has been Brandon Phillips, who has put up a slash line of .270/.293/.395 and an 87 wRC+. It is becoming increasingly clear that BP’s value is tied up almost entirely in his glove, which is still good (but that’s a scary thought, given that Phillips is a soon-to-be 33-year old middle infielder).
If the Reds are satisfied with being a better offensive unit than only the Cubbies and the Padres, then things are looking just great! I’m guessing, however, that you aren’t satisfied with that. Neither am I.
Now that we’ve spent plenty of time discussing how bad things have been over the first two months of the season, let’s try to put on some Pete Rose-colored glasses. Yeah, the offense has been putrid, but I’m here to tell you that there are actually reasons for optimism. I’m being serious here. You believe me…right?
I’ll make the case. First, through two months of the season, exactly one player has performed above his expected 2014 production: Mesoraco. It’s difficult to understate how good Mesoraco has been when healthy: .351/.396/.680, 8 home runs, and a whopping 196 wRC+. I think we can safely assume that Cincinnati’s young catcher won’t continue to hit that well for the rest of the season; nevertheless, when the season is over, the Reds are likely to be quite pleased with the offensive production they’ll have received from the Mesoraco/Brayan Pena tandem. In other words, Mesoraco doesn’t need to hit like Mike Piazza for him to be a contributor with the bat.
Perhaps you want to say Frazier is playing above his head. I’ll agree that he has been better than I expected, but if you had been told, before the season, that the Jersey Boy would hit .269/.339/.488 with a 125 OPS+ as a 28-year old, that wouldn’t have seemed terribly crazy. Obviously, he’ll need to keep up the good work if the Reds hope to contend.
So the Reds have had lots of injuries and only one player exceeding expectations. Meanwhile, you can safely expect—we’re trying to be optimistic here, remember—that Jay Bruce will return to his career statistical norms for the rest of the season. Bruce has established himself as a roughly 3-5 win player (WAR) over the last few years; if healthy (and yes, that’s a huge “if”), he’s much better than what we’ve seen over the last two months. Votto is a similar case. He is reportedly due to head to the minors on a rehab assignment soon. I’m skeptical of the medical reports coming from Cincinnati’s front office regarding both Bruce and Votto, but if they can return healthy (and/or stay healthy) in the near future, there are four months left in the season for these big boppers to do some damage.
In addition, it isn’t unreasonable to assume that Billy Hamilton will improve with the bat as the season progresses. Hamilton had an awful start, but has shown some flashes of brilliance. If he can continue to improve, even marginally, he can be a productive major league center fielder. Despite his struggles at the dish, Hamilton still ranks third on the club in wins above replacement. When he figures out how to contribute offensively, his ceiling will only climb and higher.
Finally, the Reds have to get more production from left field than they’ve gotten thus far. Bryan Price announced this week that Ludwick has lost his stranglehold on the starting spot, and he’ll be sharing time out there with Chris Heisey and the ever-gritty Skip Schumaker. Heisey’s defense is very good, and Schumaker has demonstrated pretty good on-base skills for his entire career. All of these guys have flaws, but some sort of platoon could be a good thing, provided Price can figure out the right way to mix and match them. Or the Reds can just trade for Giancarlo Stanton. That’ll work, right?
I will concede that this optimistic tone I’m taking is largely dependent on hope. The Reds have to hope that everyone will get back soon, and hope that they all perform at a level commensurate with the backs of their baseball cards. I’m a sabermetric-friendly guy; I don’t usually recommend relying on “hope.” (And I certainly don’t recommend that the Reds depend on “hope” as a strategy for the remainder of the season; to the contrary, GM Walt Jocketty needs to figure out a way to obtain a big bat for left field). But it’s not a stretch to imagine a scenario where the Reds can get healthy in a hurry, thus providing an immediate lift to the offense.
Let’s not fool ourselves: Getting all these guys healthy and productive again won’t give the Reds an elite offense. But maybe—just maybe—they can boost the run production to a level that, when combined with the club’s excellent pitching, will keep the Reds in the thick of the pennant race. At this point, that’s all we can really hope.
There’s that word again. But I’ll own it—I’m hopeful.
Chad Dotson is the founder of Redleg Nation and a contributor to ESPN's SweetSpot blog. This is his first post for our Reds Blog. He will be contributing regularly througout the season. Follow him on Twitter at @dotsonc.