The Reds have made the playoffs three of the past four years, but a 2-7 record has left fans wondering what’s wrong. I have a couple theories.
I’ll start with the most popular and most controversial of theories. Dusty Baker embodies old school (whatever that means). His lineups, bullpen usage, interactions with players and media, demeanor. Everything. And I must admit upfront, Saberists acknowledge the somewhat limited impact a manager can have on his team’s win total by making minor tweaks to things like batting order.
At the same time, the studies that are done on that topic often assume these “tweaks” are in fact minor, and that generally the manager will come up with a lineup that is at least somewhat close to optimized. I’d argue that Dusty does not do this. For over half the season he batted one of his lowest OBP guys second. For basically all of the season he batted another low OBP guy in the top 4, probably because of that player’s reputation for being a “run producer” (whatever that means).
The point is, Dusty isn’t coming close to trotting out an optimized lineup. This was blatantly clear in a September game against Houston, when Votto and Bruce (2 of the Reds top 3 hitters) were intentionally walked in the same inning. They were separated by Ludwick (who of course missed most of the season with an injury, so this is nothing against him) which allowed the Astros to pitch around the Reds best hitters and instead face a rusty Ludwick and free-swing Todd Frazier. The Astros got out of an inning in which the Reds had the winning run on third with nobody out.
Of course this is one example, and you could point to other examples where Cozart or Phillips or someone other than Votto/Choo/Bruce came through. But the point is that night after night, the Reds aren’t put in the BEST position to win when it comes to something they have COMPLETE control over.
I won’t go into as much detail around the bullpen, except to say that Dusty has shown he is unwilling to veer outside conventional “wisdom” when it comes to bullpen usage, almost always saving his best reliever until the 9th inning, ignoring whether a situation previous to the 9th calls for it. And this happens right on down the line. Tough situation in the 6tH? Here comes Logan Ondrusek or Zack Duke. I am not trying to knock these guys, but the blind use of bullpen arms in reverse order of quality is just mindless and silly.
Dusty sympathizers point to his very long track record, his reputation for clubhouse management and being a player’s manager, and the fact that he can’t control how players perform on the field. In my opinion, there are legitimate arguments against each of these. Along with a track record of regular season success is a track record of post-season disappointment. As many have stated, perhaps Dusty’s clubhouse magic helps a team through the long grind of 162 games, but his game (mis)management gets magnified in the post-season, and ultimately hurt his teams considerably.
Last year I was more or less convinced that Dusty’s immeasurable impact when leading a group of 25 adult baseball players was real (at least in the regular season), and possibly worth his other shortcomings. This year, I’ve become unconvinced, and everything I’ve seen confirms that any team he leads will always be at an inherent disadvantage when facing another team in a post-season series.
THIS TEAM IS MISSING “IT”
Define “It” however you want… desire, urgency, heart. I’ve read over and over this year that this team doesn’t have it. And while I generally dismiss this as a chicken and egg argument (do teams lacking desire lose, or does losing just make it APPEAR that the team lacks desire) but at this point I feel I can no longer deny the possibility. Did Scott Rolen’s leadership really inspire this team that much? Is Joey Votto too much of an introvert to be this team’s emotional leader? Is Brandon Phillips too much of a wild card?
It’s impossible to answer these questions. They say teams without chemistry seem to suddenly acquire it as soon as they start winning. I don’t necessarily think this team has chemistry issues, but might “desire” and “urgency” suddenly be detected if only a few more things went their way?
Do the Reds not want to win as much as other teams? I have a hard time believing that. If Frazier stopped swinging at terrible pitches, and guys not named Votto/Choo/Bruce worked the count a little better, would it look like the Reds wanted it more, as a whole? I have no idea, but at this point, I believe it’s very hard to completely change the way a Major League baseball player approaches an at bat.
CONCENTRATION OF TALENT
This “theory” could probably be labeled a bunch of different ways, but the point is this: for the past couple years, the Reds have had VERY good production from a few spots in the lineup/field, and average or below average production in most other places. Votto and Bruce are very good baseball players. This year, the Reds had another very good baseball player in centerfield. However LF, SS, and C were all below average, especially at the plate. 3B and 2B were about average, overall. This offense relies heavily on 2-3 guys.
The problem is, it seems the other positions are good enough that they aren’t glaring holes the Reds perceive as problems that need to be fixed, but they are also not good enough to form a complete, well-rounded offense.
Frazier and Cozart were just assumed to be the heirs apparent for their respective positions. Both have been quite good in the field, but thus far have not developed into bona fide Major League hitters. More than just results, it is their approach at the plate. Frazier especially appears to have terrible pitch recognition, though gets ahold of one often enough to remain around a league average hitter. And even after Cozart’s hot finish to the season, he was still well below average (albeit at shortstop) and walks very infrequently.
Ludwick is another story, as a surprising 2012 performance at the plate has led the Reds to believe he’s a solution at LF. His injury notwithstanding, he was unlikely to duplicate his 2012, he’s 35 years old, and a liability in the field. Add in Brandon Phillips’ disappointing season (and impending decline), and terrible offensive output at catcher, and *all of a sudden* positions in which the Reds thought they were fine or had answers, are dragging down this offense.
The issue is how to fix it. After a bit of a spending spree in which Votto, Phillips, and Bruce were signed to long term contracts, and Ludwick signed a multiyear deal, it’s unclear how to fix this, or how a single player can make any significant impact. As I said before, players in these positions are good enough that they appear not to be problems, but when you add up 4-5 spots in the field that are average or below average, you end up with a problem.
Over the last two years the Reds have traded away a lot of young talent for players like Mat Latos and Shin-Soo Choo. It’s hard (or impossible, really) to argue that those trades didn’t work out in the Reds favor. What it leaves, though, is a relatively empty farm system with very little coming down the pipe any time soon. In contrast, the Cardinals seem to pull guys up at will that contribute right away… Lance Lynn, Shelby Miller, Matt Adams, Matt Carpenter, their fire-balling bullpen. The Reds don’t have these guys. Someone smarter than me has to figure out why.
Have the Reds put too many eggs in a few baskets. Eclipsing $100 million for the first time in their history, have they left themselves with too little flexibility in their budget? Do familiar names at all the positions prevent them from taking flyers on guys like Justin Morneau, or Marlon Byrd, or Francisco Lirano, or Carlos Beltran? I think it’s a little bit of all of these things.
I haven’t talked about the pitching at all here, which is mostly because the Reds are in the best shape, pitching-wise, than they have been in maybe ever. The one issue I could squabble with is their recent obsession with committing lots of money to bullpen arms, but that could be another entire article. Suffice it to say that it certainly impacts budgeting (and lack of funds to make other moves) though bullpen performance is probably fairly low on this teams list of problems.
When it comes down to it, it’s probably a combination of all of the things listed above. My fear is that whatever the reason(s), this Reds team is fatally flawed. Next year we likely lose a major piece of the offense. Dusty Baker will almost certainly be back. I’m not sure what moves there are to be made in the off-season. We’ll just have to wait and see. If the talent this team has (or seems to have) ends up going to waste, it’ll be a shame.
But maybe next year Brandon starts hitting like 2010, and Frazier and Cozart figure it out a little more, and Ludwick returns fully healthy to produce almost as well as 2012, and the bullpen injuries are minimal, and Votto becomes superhuman again, instead of merely really awesome. (And Bruce puts up another Bruce season… man that guy is consistent.)
Baseball is a funny game, and despite everyone’s insistence on trying to figure it out, it refuses to be figured. Which is why we come back for more, every year.