In the film Almost Famous, Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s character is talking on the phone with the main character—a young journalist—helping him navigate the turbulent waters of adolescence, instructing him on how to deal with those who approach high school as the peak of their shortsighted lives.
“You’ll meet them all again on their long journey to the middle.”
This advice applies to baseball as well, on both sides of that journey. Everything evens out in due time. Stat nerds refer to this as “regression to the mean.” Cyndi Lauper said essentially the same thing in more poetic terms. And at the moment, the 2013 Cincinnati Reds seem to be living it.
Obviously, the season is still in the very early going. For that reason, I’m hesitant to read too much into the current statistics, especially when comparing them to previous complete seasons. But we are already beginning to see some basic themes pop up for the club thus far, many of which suggest the team might be angling toward the middle of its particular arc in relation to how it fared in 2012.
The Reds won 97 games last year on a wave of strong performances and incredibly good fortune. They were largely injury free, particularly to begin the season, only running into notable issues when Joey Votto went down with knee trouble (and even then, he was able to return before the postseason). The team went the entire schedule without having anyone from the five-man rotation miss a single start. Ryan Ludwick climbed like a phoenix from the ashes and Aroldis Chapman went on a late-inning rampage. Heck, Scott Rolen even made it the whole season without needing a double hip-replacement. In the end, the breaks were mostly good ones (save for, ya know, that whole playoff fiasco). Things were destined to cool off in the luck department, regardless of how strong the roster is or how well the players complement each other.
This isn’t to suggest that Reds can’t (or won’t) approach 97 wins again this season. Quite the contrary, seeing as how it’s still a supremely talented ballclub. In fact, barring catastrophic injury/slumping issues, this squad actually has a chance to improve in terms of individual performances. Shin-Soo Choo has already shown the upgrade he can provide over Stubbs at the plate, and one would hope that some of the youngsters will continue to make positive strides in their overall game (Frazier, Cozart, Bailey, etc.). But a few instances of that regression to the mean have started to peek through the cracks. Ludwick, who had a breakout effort last season, dislocates his shoulder on Opening Day. The rotation, rock-solid for all of 2012, sends Johnny Cueto to the DL in early April. The bullpen, which by and large came up aces during the NL Central title run, has been rough pumpkins to start the year. It hasn’t been a team-wide an unprecedented meltdown, but the opposition isn’t exactly shaking in their cleats for the time being.
But again, this doesn’t mean these streaks will necessarily persist, either. It simply showcases how the law of averages is catching up to a squad that went all Katniss Everdeen on the odds in 2012. Even within the first handful of games, it’s obvious how thin a tightrope is being walked. The Reds win an early pair of series against the Nationals and Angles (to the delight of fans and pundits), and then they get swept by the Bucs. Todd Frazier’s first week is pure gold; week two is pure garbage. Dusty Baker is completely abusing the bullpen, but if Broxton handles the final game of the Pittsburgh series without imploding, no one makes as big a deal out of it.
Ultimately, it’s about balancing the team’s expectations. Things won’t always be as bullish as most of last season or the first week of this year, and they won’t remain as bearish as the recent smackdown via the Pirates or implosion to the Giants last postseason. As evidenced by many scenarios in life (and pop culture), things always have a way of evening out…