The first month of the season is gone and the Reds sit in fourth place with a record of 11-11. Homer is hurt. Mes is hurt. It’s been a trying April. But I’m not the kind who gives up early, and it’s still early.
I know, I know. Half the lineup isn’t hitting! you’re thinking. And the bullpen! My God the bullpen! Yeah, those certainly look ugly right now. But what I say to you is this: it’s early, and that means it’s not time to panic.
What we are really saying is that the sample size isn’t very large yet. One game can still create wild swings in a hitters slashline, for instance. I always look at stats, but especially this early, I like to look at peripheral stats. For hitters, one of my favorites is batting average on balls in play (BABIP). Most players hover right around .290 for their BABIP. Players who are especially fast or hit the ball especially hard often tend to come in above the average and players who are really slow or who don’t hit many line drives will come in below the average.
But it can swing wildly from one season to the next, and certainly from one month to the next. Unless someone is hurt, that variation is usually nothing more than chance—hitting too many balls right at someone and whatnot. So let’s quickly take a look at the BABIPs of the seven healthy regulars and see how they stack up right now compared with their career averages.
Out of seven players, five are underperforming their career numbers and three are so far from their career numbers that it’s almost impossible for them to remain where they are. Last year, in all of baseball, only seven players had a BABIP below .260 and no player was below .230.
So, yes, you can expect Bruce, Frazier, and Byrd to all hit significantly better. You can also expect improvement from Hamilton. Votto is hitting for more power than expected, so his overall numbers will probably be fairly stable.
As for the two who are a better than we might expect, Phillips has a BABIP right where it should be. His problem is that he isn’t taking any walks and he isn’t hitting for any power. Given his age, this may simply be who he is now. Cozart is likely to regress some, but then you already knew that if you’ve been paying attention at all for the last few years.
Are the Reds the ‘27 Yankees? No. But they’re almost guaranteed to hit better than they have because no one has BABIPs as low as Frazier, Byrd, and Bruce without a good-sized helping of bad luck. Hit ‘em where they ain’t, boys.
As for the bullpen: It’s been ugly. And there have been a lot of hard hit balls. But I want you to imagine something for me. Two Mike Leake starts. In the first one, he pitches six innings and gives up a run. Nice start, huh? In the next one, he doesn’t have his stuff working and he gets chased after giving up four runs in the third. Are you worried about Mike Leake?
Of course you aren’t. But in this scenario, he’s pitched 9 innings and now has them same ERA and innings pitched as JJ Hoover. It may well be that no one other than Chapman is going to put up decent numbers out of the pen this year, but really we have no idea. I often harp about how money should never be spent on relievers, and this Reds bullpen is the reason why. Their numbers swing wildly from year to year. Badenhop has had a good career. Are we really worried about seven bad innings? With the exception of Kevin Gregg, there’s no reason to think any of these guys is predisposed to have a terrible season.
The point of all of this isn’t to say that I think the Reds are a great team; I think they’ll generally be in a scrum for second with the Cubs and Pirates. The point is that it’s still very early, and that because it’s early and our brains haven’t seen much of the season, we are weighing the results more than we really should. If these players all had completely ordinary seasons and then a bad month in July, we’d barely notice.
So take a deep breath, everybody, It’s May 1. We don’t know as much as we feel like we do. And because of that, there’s still hope.
Jason Linden is a Nuxhall Way contributor who also writes for Redleg Nation and The Hardball Times. His debut novel, When the Sparrow Sings, is out now. You can follow him on Twitter at @JasonLinden.