SweetSpot: Zack Cozart

It's not easy getting recognition for your defense when you play in the same league as Andrelton Simmons and Troy Tulowitzki, but such is the fate of Cincinnati Reds shortstop Zack Cozart.

But when we look at the leaderboards in 2014 for defensive metrics, Cozart is leading the way (all statistics through Sunday):

Defensive Runs Saved
1. Cozart +20
2. Simmons +14
3. Jhonny Peralta +13
4. Jordy Mercer +9
5. Tulowitzki/Alexi Amarista +8

Ultimate Zone Rating
1. Cozart +12
2. Peralta +9.7
2. Erick Aybar +9.7
4. J.J. Hardy +9.4
5. Simmons +8.2

Defensive metrics may be subject to some range of error and judgment -- and thus argument -- on a one-year basis, but the metrics agree that Cozart has been the best shortstop in 2014. It's not a fluke, as Cozart was solid in his first two seasons in the majors, with plus-16 DRS and plus-17 runs via UZR. This season, he has played nearly mistake-free defense. But when the game's elite gloves are discussed, Cozart rarely gets mentioned, perhaps in part because he's a .245 career hitter -- and hitting is still a way to earn a little more recognition.

Simmons may win the Gold Glove in the National League for the next decade, but Cozart should be a yearly challenger and arguably deserves it this season. His glove is good enough that even though the Reds need more offense, they're not looking to replace him despite his poor offensive season.

Cozart may not have a cannon arm like Simmons or Tulowitzki do, but he makes many spectacular plays that don't show up on the highlight reels. Here's a diving stop off a high hop where he gets the forceout; here's a nice double play he starts off another diving stop; and here's another diving stop and forceout.

Baseball Info Solutions tracks every play for its Defensive Runs Saved statistic, and when digging into the numbers, we see that Cozart rates so well overall because of his consistency and mistake-free defense. BIS has two categories called Good Fielding Plays and Defensive Misplays & Errors. Through Sunday, Cozart ranked 14th among shortstops with 34 GFPs (Adeiny Hechavarria of the Marlins was first with 60, while Simmons was second with 55). Cozart had just 14 Misplays & Errors. Compare that to Hechevarria (28), Simmons (23) or the flashy Alcides Escobar (40). Even Tulowitzki, known for his steadiness, had 18 (in less playing time due to his DL stint).

Still, the focus much of the year has been on Cozart's bat.

He hit .180 in April and his power numbers are way down from last year, when he had 12 home runs and 45 extra-base hits. It hasn't helped that with Jay Bruce having a down year and Joey Votto on the disabled list, the Reds sorely needed some of the secondary guys to step up. But Cozart hasn't taken his offensive struggles into the field.

"Defense is the thing that's kept me sane all year," Cozart said last week.

Through Sunday, Reds starters had the lowest balls-in-play average in the majors. Their unsung shortstop is one major reason for that.

Reds' righty bats need to start hitting

August, 4, 2013
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Now 11 games over .500 after beating the Cardinals on Saturday night, the Cincinnati Reds might seem like they’re in a good spot with the fifth-best record in the league. As long as they continue to be just that wee bit better than mediocre, they can probably count on making it as far as the one-game wild card play-in. The Phillies have already excused themselves in the last week, while the Diamondbacks and Nationals don’t seem likely to achieve escape velocity from their orbits around .500.

While a third trip to the postseason on Dusty Baker’s watch seems likely, though, this isn’t as strong a team as it looks like at first glance. The lineup that ranks fourth in the league in runs scored with 4.3 per game might appear to be humming along with Shin-Soo Choo and Joey Votto getting on base and Brandon Phillips and Jay Bruce driving them in.

But it’s far from a perfect offense. Despite gaudy RBI totals generated by getting to bat behind Choo and Votto, Phillips isn’t a perfect cleanup man. The Reds are getting below-average offense from five different positions, including second base, the others being catcher, short, left (absent Ryan Ludwick) and third base.
[+] EnlargeDevin Mesoraco
Jamie Sabau/Getty ImagesDevin Mesoraco's hot bat since the break could help cure some of what ails the Reds.

Third? Didn’t the Reds just get a top prospect break through there? Sadly, not so much. Todd Frazier has struggled badly as a sophomore, with a .718 OPS that represents a 100-point tumble from his rookie season; add in last season’s September fade and that Frazier is producing a woeful .581 OPS on the road, and you might wonder if he’s really a long-term answer.

One of the especially crippling problems the lineup has is the woeful performance of its right-handed hitting regulars against right-handed pitching, or almost half of the Reds’ plate appearances. Even with the advantage of getting to hit in a bash-boosting ballpark like the Gap when they’re home, the Reds’ righty bats are hitting a pathetic .219/.274/.330. Big culprits include everyday players such as second baseman Phillips (.673 OPS vs. RHPs) and shortstop Zack Cozart (.634). Chris Heisey was supposed to help improve the offense when he came back from the DL to man left field; instead, he has chipped in a .558 OPS versus righties.

How bad is the issue? The team’s collective .604 OPS from righties against righties through Friday night’s action ranks 14th in the National League, bettering only the Marlins. Using Baseball-Reference.com’s OPS indices for league-relative splits, if 100 would be normal, the Reds’ 74 for righty-on-righty performance barely betters the Marlins’ 71. When you’re better at something than one of the worst offenses in the era of divisional play, you don’t really get to brag, you merely hope that nobody else notices.

Unfortunately, the Reds won’t have that luxury, especially not if they’re matched up against the Cardinals -- and either one of the Birds’ top-tier right-handers, Adam Wainwright or Shelby Miller. While anything can happen in sudden death, that sounds more like one-and-done than something won as postseasons go.

One source of improvement is supposed to be left fielder Ryan Ludwick, out since Opening Day and working hard to get back in action to prove that his surgically repaired shoulder is sound while also trying to get his bat back up to speed. Ludwick is the rare righty whose career line is stronger against right-handed pitching (.811 career OPS, versus .774 against lefties). If Baker’s preference for Ludwick to get another week-plus of minor-league playing time is any guide, Ludwick will be back in action mid-month.

Maybe Ludwick helps fix the problem, but that leaves the Reds with just two weeks to evaluate him and make a decision on whether they need to add a bat before the waiver trade deadline, compressing an already tough decision into an impossibly small timeframe. Kvetching about sample size will be pointless -- there won’t be enough results to say much of anything either way. They’ll simply have to make a tough call.

Happily enough for the Reds, Saturday’s game provided more than just a win against the Cardinals, it also gave them a reason to believe things might be getting better where Devin Mesoraco is concerned. Ripping a pair of home runs on Saturday gave him four since the break. If Mesoraco is finally settling into a groove at the plate, it can’t come a moment too soon for a Reds organization that had expected him to have long since blossomed into a top-tier hitter at catcher, going all the way back to when they made him the 15th overall selection in the draft in 2007. The well-worn bromide that catchers develop later doesn’t have a lot of statistical support for it, but if Mesoraco finally breaks out in his age-25 season, it couldn’t come a moment too soon.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.

Which Reds sophomore do you like best?

February, 26, 2013
2/26/13
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Heading into the 2012 season, the Reds had three rookies lined up to be regular parts of their lineup. Zack Cozart was the everyday shortstop. Devin Mesoraco was, if not the No. 1 catcher, number 1A. Todd Frazier was the super-sub and Scott Rolen injury caddy. We know how it worked out.

Mesoraco seemingly flopped and was sent down near the end of the Triple-A season. When he returned to Cincinnati he was barely allowed to stand up off the bench. Cozart provided excellent defense at short, but his offense, especially his .288 OBP, was less than many Reds fans had hoped for. Frazier was the breakout star. Injuries to Joey Votto and Rolen provided him with nearly a full season's worth of at-bats. He briefly injected his name into the Rookie of the Year race, and his .273/.331/.498 line at the end of the season made a lot of people really happy.

So, coming into the 2013 season, there seems to be a clear hierarchy among those three second-year players. Frazier is the rising star. Cozart is the solid contributor. Mesoraco is looking for a second chance. When we look closely at the numbers, however, flaws in that line of reasoning begin to materialize.

When Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP) comes up, it's usually in reference to how lucky a player was (or wasn't), and that's exactly how I'm going to use it here. BABIP tends to hover around .300 (it was .297 in 2012), but can fluctuate for hitters just as it does for pitchers. That is, there's some chance involved in every player's BABIP. We can tell what a player's seasonal BABIP should have been based on the number of line drives, flyballs and ground balls he hit. (Check out this RotoGraphs article for more.) Frazier was very lucky last year. Based on the kind of balls he put in play, his BABIP of .316 was about 20 points too high. That is, he had some dying quails and a few ground balls with eyes, something that's reflected in the fact that he saw zero production dropoff moving from Triple-A to the majors.

SportsNation

Which Reds sophomore do you like the most long-term?

  •  
    32%
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    47%
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    21%

Discuss (Total votes: 1,028)

Cozart and Mesoraco had the opposite problem. Cozart's BABIP was 35 points too low and Mesoraco's was 40 points too low. It is no surprise then that each player saw his numbers fall more than we would normally expect from a player transitioning from Triple-A to the majors.

Then there is age. Cozart and Frazier are both entering their age-27 seasons this year. Mesoraco is entering his age-25 season (though he's almost three years younger than Cozart). And finally, there's the fact that Mesoraco and Cozart both bring more defensive value than Frazier. According to FanGraphs WAR, Cozart and Frazier provided almost exactly the same value last year because Cozart's defense was so much better than Frazier's.

What it all means is that it would be unsurprising if Frazier had the least impressive 2013 and the least impressive career of these three players. That doesn't mean he's a bad player, it just means we shouldn't judge a player based solely on one season's worth of data (or, in Mesoraco's case, part of a season). Especially when that data is heavily influenced by luck, as it was for these players.

Jason Linden writes for Redleg Nation.
That was one of the more entertaining games of the postseason, a classic pitching duel of sorts, with some interesting strategic decisions and some missed opportunities. The Cincinnati Reds will be kicking themselves for not taking advantage of one of the best-pitched games in Reds postseason history and the San Francisco Giants will be wondering how they’re still alive in a game where they got three hits in 10 innings and struck out 16 times. For the rest of us, we’ll get more baseball!

Some thoughts on the Giants’ 2-1 victory:

  • As dominant as Aroldis Chapman was in the ninth inning, getting two strikeouts while throwing just 15 pitches, I was a little surprised he didn’t come back out for the 10th inning. Chapman pitched more than one inning eight times this season, but only twice after becoming the closer, a 1.2-inning save May 27 and a four-out save Aug. 10. Factoring in the shoulder fatigue that sidelined Chapman for 11 days in September, maybe Reds manager Dusty Baker is wary about using Chapman for more than an inning. The trouble is it’s a big drop-off from Chapman to Jonathan Broxton. Of course, it’s a big drop from Chapman to just about any reliever not named Craig Kimbrel.
  • As is, despite giving up two singles to start the inning, Broxton would have escaped the 10th if not for shoddy Reds defense. After he struck out Brandon Belt and Xavier Nady, Ryan Hanigan's passed ball allowed the runners to move up and then Scott Rolen mishandled Joaquin Arias' chopper to third base. The sloppy defense in this postseason continues. Giants manager Bruce Bochy made a couple interesting choices that inning: He let Belt swing away with two on and no out. I would say most managers would have bunted there about 99 percent of the time. I didn’t mind the call. Belt has never had a sacrifice bunt in his brief career and he was the Giants' best chance to deliver a hit. Bochy then let pitcher Sergio Romo hit with runners at first and second. Again, I liked the call. Romo is the Giants’ best reliever; Bochy had used the other relievers you might want to use. Plus, Bochy had used up his bench; only backup catcher Hector Sanchez was left.
  • Xavier Nady and Xavier Paul. Discuss. Or not. Man, these two benches are horrible.
  • Keith Law and Eric Karabell talked about an interesting point on the Baseball Today podcast today, wondering if the Yankees aren’t better off moving up Robinson Cano in the order. He hit cleanup on Monday, and was left in the on-deck circle as Alex Rodriguez made the final out. Keith’s point is that batting lineups don’t matter all that much, but one obvious benefit of stacking your best hitters at the top is you may get them one more plate appearance. That’s the problem with the Reds batting Zack Cozart and his .288 OBP second. He made the final out, leaving Joey Votto on deck.
  • Not to bury Homer Bailey's awesome start. You can see why he pitched a no-hitter two starts ago as he took a no-hitter to two outs in the sixth (although the Giants had scored on a hit-by-pitch, walk and two sacrifices). The walk to No. 8 Brandon Crawford proved especially painful and kudos to pitcher Ryan Vogelsong for a good bunt and Angel Pagan for delivering the sac fly. Considering Bailey had thrown just 88 pitches, you can argue that Baker took him out too early. I can't fault Baker for handing the game to the best bullpen in baseball, but the Giants couldn't touch Bailey on this night.
  • Bailey’s game score of 80 was the fourth highest in Reds postseason history, behind Hod Eller’s 89 in Game 5 of the 1919 World Series against a team that wasn’t trying to win (9 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 9 SO) and Ross Grimsley’s 84 in Game 4 of the 1972 NLCS (9 IP, 2 H, 1 R, 1 BB, 5 SO). Jose Rijo’s win to clinch the sweep of the A’s in the 1990 World Series (8.1 IP, 2 H, 1 R, 3 BB, 9 SO) scores a 91. And, yes, this was just an excuse to mention Hod Eller.
  • Brandon Phillips' hustle effort in the first inning when he got thrown out at third base is one of those plays described as a “baserunning error” if you don’t make it but “heads-up baseball” if you do. The argument against trying to get the extra base is that with zero outs there is a little reward if you do make it (you’re already in scoring position) but a huge penalty if you get caught. As it turned out, Vogelsong labored through a 30-pitch inning and Phillips’ hustle cost the Reds a potential big inning.
  • Vogelsong did a nice job of settling down after that inning. He walked Votto and Ryan Ludwick in the third, but got Jay Bruce on a fly to left. Bruce swung at the first pitch, which isn’t necessarily the worst idea if he thinks a pitcher is going to groove something after two walks. Bochy hit for Vogelsong leading off the sixth, again not a bad idea considering the circumstances. Vogelsong had thrown 95 pitches, the Reds had Votto and Bruce due up the next inning and the Giants were still hitless at the time. It was the one opportunity Bochy knew he could use Aubrey Huff against a right-hander, without the possibility of the Reds bringing in Sean Marshall or Chapman. Huff just isn’t a big weapon right now.
  • As I write this, the Reds haven’t announced their Game 4 starter. It could be Johnny Cueto, but that seems unlikely. It could be Mat Latos, three days after throwing 57 pitches in Game 1. It could be Mike Leake, but to activate him they’d have to replace Cueto, which would make him ineligible for the National League Championship Series, should the Reds advance. If they go with Latos, that would likely mean starting Bronson Arroyo on three days’ rest in a potential Game 5. No easy calls here, but I’d probably go Latos and Arroyo, and rely on the deepest bullpen in the league. The Giants counter with Barry Zito -- and you know Bochy will have a quick hook. The Reds had a .770 OPS against left-handers compared to .710 versus righties, so if Zito struggles early don’t be surprised to see Tim Lincecum again in relief. Should be a good chess match yet again.

 

Relentlessly consistent Reds clinch Central

September, 23, 2012
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The Reds came away with the National League Central title, a triumph of consistency that we could have anticipated for weeks. But that shouldn’t take anything away from their triumph -- indeed, the absence of drama in a feat built over 5½ months might represent a relief for a team that’s just going back to where it was in 2010, putting away a division it had the talent to win. Again.

There’s an easy mistake to make on the subject of consistency: You might recall that Ralph Waldo Emerson called it the hobgoblin of little minds, but you might have forgotten that it was "foolish consistency." There’s nothing foolish about the Reds’ brand of consistency, which is why they’re hoisting a tri-pennant as NL Central champs this weekend.

The Reds haven’t suffered a losing month all season. So far, they’ve won or split their season series with every opponent in the division, notably clobbering the Cubs and Astros for a combined 22 wins in 29 games. It would be hard to say anyone’s got their number, because they’ve been winding with the grinding reliability of death and taxes. If unaligned actuaries wanted to pick a ballclub, they ought to root for the Reds.

Consider their strengths, the stuff victories are made of, now as ever, forever. After Mat Latos’ Saturday gem and a 6-0 victory, the Reds are neck-and-neck in the race for league lead in quality starts from their rotation with 93, one back of the NL-leading Phillies and Mets totals (94), while the Giants are a few steps behind with 89.

Now sure, it’s easy to pick on the quality start as a standard for starting pitching, especially if you’re old enough to be hung up on standards set in the low-scoring 1970s or the high-mound ’60s, with the expectations that starters pitched deeper into games, and before the hyper-specialization and expansion of bullpen responsibilities. My advice? Get over it. Fundamentally, if you’ve gotten six innings or more and three runs allowed or fewer from your starting pitcher, that’s a game your team can win, anywhere, against anybody.

The Reds’ tally is all the more remarkable because of some of the challenges they have to deal with, perceived and real. Perceived, in that Dusty Baker was the skipper who went to the whip down the stretch with the starting pitchers on his 2003 Cubs, a decision that didn’t work out so well then, or shortly thereafter for Mark Prior or Kerry Wood. But give Dusty his props: He isn’t the same manager when it comes to running a rotation, and as a result starters with troubling injury histories like Latos and Johnny Cueto have had excellent seasons with the Reds, just the way general manager Walt Jocketty expected when he was drawing up this season on a chalkboard.

And real challenges? Well, remember, the Reds have to call the Gap, one of the best hitters’ parks in baseball, home. Nevertheless, as a staff they’re allowing just 3.8 runs per game there, against 3.6 on the road. That adds up to a good-sized stack of winnable games over the 152 they’ve played.

Another thing the Reds do exceptionally well is field, and like having starting pitching in depth, that’s a gift that keeps giving, game after game, week after week. Whether you want to use a metric as simple as Defensive Efficiency -- how many balls in play they turn into outs -- or Baseball Info Solutions’ Defensive Runs Saved, with the Reds you’re talking about one of the better fielding crews in the league, thanks in large part to premium defenders like second baseman Brandon Phillips, center fielder Drew Stubbs and shortstop Zack Cozart.

Pair their contributions in the field with the serious boppers that the Reds carry in the corners, and you’ve got a lineup that lacks many black holes, keeping things simple on the offensive side of the equation. Thanks in part to their home park, they’re one of the three best teams in the league in Isolated Power and in scoring runs on homers, which they’re also third in the league in. That’s because even their most glovely defenders, guys like Stubbs and Cozart, can exploit that ballpark. That’s no faint praise -- not every team in baseball has a shortstop and a center fielder with some power. When you win as consistently as the Reds have, credit the design, because it works.

If there’s one cause for complaint about the Reds, it’s the absence of a high-OBP leadoff man. That problem’s big enough that Dusty has been giving Phillips a whirl atop the order since Joey Votto came back from the disabled list, but Phillips’ .328 OBP still leaves plenty to be desired there.

But will that matter in October? To take it back to the starting pitching, maybe not, because if Cueto and Latos and the defenses behind them keep opposing hitters in check, it only takes a mistake or two to put a win in the ledger -- the same as has worked for the Reds for more than five months, consistently and relentlessly on the road to October.

PHOTO OF THE DAY
Bronson ArroyoAP Photo/Tom UhlmanThe Reds' Bronson Arroyo can't help thinking, how sweet it is!
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.
There's something beautiful when a baseball team goes on a long winning streak. The nature of the sport is that it's immensely difficult to win 10 games in a row like the Cincinnati Reds. One great game by an opposing starter; three bad pitches by a relief pitcher; one crucial double play not turned or blooper that falls. It doesn't take much to end a streak.

The only other team to win 10 in a row this season was the New York Yankees. Last season, only the Texas Rangers and Detroit Tigers had streaks of 10-plus wins a row. The Reds stretched their streak to double digits with a 7-2 win over the Colorado Rockies on Sunday as Drew Stubbs and Jay Bruce homered in the fifth inning to break the game open.

"A lot of pressure coming into the game knowing we won nine in a row, but I just attacked them," winning pitcher Mat Latos said. "Today it was in the back of my mind, but it's baseball. Just play."

In honor of 10 straight, here are 10 random thoughts about The Big Red Hot Machine.

1. Are they the best team in the National League?

I'm not quite ready to make that declaration. While it's impressive that their past six wins have come on the road, let's keep in mind who the Reds defeated: the Diamondbacks (one win), Brewers, Astros and Rockies. The Astros are fielding a Triple-A team right now and the Rockies aren't much better. The starting pitchers the Reds faced: Joe Saunders, Marco Estrada, Yovani Gallardo, Michael Fiers, Wandy Rodriguez, Lucas Harrell, Bud Norris, Drew Pomeranz, Christian Friedrich and Jonathan Sanchez.

The Reds are combined 25-8 against the Astros, Brewers, Cubs, Padres and Rockies. The Nationals, 61-40 overall compared to the Reds' record of 61-40, have played those five teams 10 fewer games by comparison. The Reds still have 23 games left against the Astros, Brewers and Cubs; the Nationals get only 12 games against those three clubs.

2. But they've done this without Joey Votto.

True. The Reds are 11-2 since Votto went on the disabled list on July 16 because of knee surgery. Todd Frazier has started 10 of those games at first base (with Miguel Cairo starting the other three). Frazier has hit .269 with one home run and five RBIs since July 16, but Scott Rolen has played well at third base, hitting .306 with two home runs and five RBIs in 10 games without Votto. So while the Reds have missed Votto they haven't necessarily received zero production in his absence either.

3. Speaking of the Nationals, they've barely allowed fewer runs than the Reds.

Good point. For all the hype about the Nationals' rotation, the Reds have allowed just four fewer runs (in one less game), 362 to 358. The Nationals have a 3.25 staff ERA to the Reds' 3.26. True, the Nationals' rotation has a better ERA -- 3.13 versus 3.56 -- but the Reds' starters have pitched 32 more innings. That's allowed the Reds to concentrate more of their relief on their best guys -- although led by Aroldis Chapman and Sean Marshall, the Reds have the deepest and best bullpen in the league right now. They have six relievers who have pitched at least 35 innings and Sam LeCure's 3.47 ERA is the highest of the bunch. Amazingly, despite their home park, the Cincy bullpen has allowed the fewest home runs in the league. It's a knockout bunch and the depth ensures Dusty Baker isn't going to burn any of them before September.

4. Homer Bailey. Speak.

I predicted Bailey as a breakout performer before the season and he hasn't disappointed, coming on strong of late. He's 9-6 with a 3.53 ERA, including a 2.45 ERA over his past eight starts. Baker has responded by trusting Bailey to go deeper into games -- he's pitched eight innings in four of those eight games. As a fly-ball pitcher, Bailey is going to give up some home runs, especially in The Great American Ball Park, but he throws strikes and 12 of the 17 home runs he has allowed have come with the bases empty. He has allowed a .206 average with runners in scoring position, which has kept down his ERA. Maybe he didn't developed into the No. 1 or 2 once projected one he was a prospects, but he's finally a solid No. 3 or 4.

5. Will they make any moves?

The lineup is still very right-handed, with only Votto (when he returns) and Bruce swinging southpaw. Having both Miguel Cairo and Wilson Valdez as backup infielders is a waste of a roster space. Don't look for the Reds to make a big move, but expect Walt Jocketty to pick up a veteran left-handed bat for the bench or a platoon role in the outfield.

6. OK, the leadoff spot.

Yes, it has been a problem all season, with an MLB-worst .246 on-base percentage and .508 OPS. Baker has been hammered all season for sticking primarily with rookie shortstop Zack Cozart despite his poor production while hitting there. We'll see how Baker constructs the lineup once Votto returns. He obviously prefers to have a righty hit between Votto and Bruce (a strategy that I think is vastly overrated), but with Ryan Ludwick hitting well of late, maybe he keeps Ludwick in the cleanup spot and moves Brandon Phillips to leadoff.

7. What about the Pirates?

Hey, they're still hanging tough. It's rough when you go 7-3 like the Pittsburgh Pirates have over their past 10 games and still lose three games in the standings. "They're not going to go away, that's fairly obvious at this point," Bruce said after Sunday's win. "We have some series left with them, but any time you can gain a game it's great." Mark this upcoming weekend down on your calendar: Pirates at Reds, the first three of nine games remaining between the clubs.

8. Aroldis Chapman is back on track.

He had that huge blip in June when he lost four games in seven appearances, but since then he's appeared in 15 games, recorded 13 saves, and struck out 33 of the 53 batters he's faced. National League hitters, be afraid.

9. Hey, what about Todd Frazier for Rookie of the Year?

Frazier remains a big surprise, hitting .277/.333/.523. No, his future isn't as bright as Bryce Harper's, but his numbers certainly are better than Harper's .261/.338/.430 line. He has been one of the unsung heroes of the 2012 season.

10. The man with the toothpick.

It's easy to dish out criticism to Dusty Baker. When I do my weekly chat, it's become a running joke: Somebody makes a sarcastic comment about Baker's managing. I'm not saying it's deserved and he has been torn apart going back to his Giants days and his Cubs days, much of it justified. But he has also gotten a lot out of this team -- good seasons not only from Bailey but Bronson Arroyo, whom everyone assumed was washed up, and Mike Leake.

Sure the players always deserve most of the credit (or blame), but as we head into the final two months, I found myself rooting for Dusty. Hey, managers who have accomplished much less and made bigger blunders have won World Series titles. Maybe it's Dusty's turn.
Maicer IzturisGary A. Vasquez/US PresswireElliot Johnson has one thing to say: Catch me if you can!

Kernels of Wisdom: Week in review

July, 28, 2012
7/28/12
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  • Three players this week -- Brett Lawrie on Sunday, Desmond Jennings on Wednesday and Starling Marte on Thursday -- took the very first pitch of the game out of the yard. Five players have now done that this season. Derek Jeter and Zack Cozart both pulled off the feat in June.
    In Marte’s case, it was his first major league at-bat, making him the first Pirate to homer in his debut since Don Leppert on June 18, 1961.
  • In Friday's game at Wrigley Field, Matt Holliday started the Cardinals' scoring with a solo homer in the first inning. Yadier Molina promptly went deep in the second; Lance Berkman in the third; Matt Carpenter in the fourth; and Allen Craig in the fifth. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the Cardinals are the first team to homer in each of the first five innings since the Astros did it on the final weekend of the 2004 season against the Rockies (Craig Biggio, Jeff Kent, Biggio again, Eric Bruntlett and Kent again). And it was a first in Cardinals team history.
  • [+] EnlargeTravis Wood
    AP Photo/Paul BeatyChicago's Travis Wood became the first starter ever to allow homers in each of the first five innings.
    Travis Wood gave up all five of those homers, making him the fifth pitcher in Cubs history to surrender five long balls in a game (Carlos Zambrano did it last season), and according to Elias, the first starter ever -- for any team -- to allow homers in each of the first five innings.
  • Jim Johnson of the Orioles had a fairly rough Friday night. He started the ninth inning with his team clinging to a 9-8 lead. After a leadoff groundout, he gave up five singles and a walk in succession. All six runners would score, and Oakland rallied for a 14-9 win. Johnson is just the second pitcher this year to surrender six or more runs in a save situation. Brett Myers did it for Houston on June 28, although only one of his six runs ended up being earned. Since saves became official in 1969, only two other Orioles have done it -- Jim Hoey in 2006 and Doug Jones in 1995 -- and neither of them entered in the ninth.
  • Matt Harvey made his major league debut for the Mets on Thursday night, and promptly mowed down 11 Diamondbacks -- nine of them swinging -- in the process. It's been nearly two years since a pitcher hit double-digit strikeouts in his debut. Nope, not Stephen Strasburg (he did do it in 2010, but he's not the last). That would be Thomas Diamond of the Cubs, who struck out 10 Brewers on Aug. 3 of that season, but also gave up three runs and took the loss. Harvey, however, earned himself an even better distinction by getting a two-out double and a two-out single in his two plate appearances. Elias says that makes Harvey the first player in modern baseball history (since 1900) to strike out 10-plus batters and get two hits in his major league debut.
  • Chris Johnson had three hits for the Astros on Friday night -- a homer, a triple and a double. He never got the "elusive" single, striking out in his final at-bat. Johnson did walk in the game, but alas, this is not 1887 (the year when walks counted as base hits). That means Johnson became only the fifth player this season to miss the cycle by a single. Paul Goldschmidt (June 23) was the most recent. By comparison, 32 players have needed the homer, 11 the double and 149 the triple.
  • Couldn't let this week end without one leftover Kernel from last Saturday. The Cardinals sent 17 batters to the plate in a 12-run seventh inning against the Cubs. Allen Craig was up third, pinch hitting in the pitcher's spot. He doubled and scored. As the inning continued, Craig came up again as the 12th batter. He doubled and scored again -- thus becoming the first "pinch hitter" to have two doubles before taking the field since Bobby Kielty of the Twins did likewise on June 4, 2002.
    St. Louis went on to hit seven doubles in that inning, a feat accomplished only once before, by the 1936 Boston Bees (the five-year experimental rebranding of the Braves).
    As for the 12 runs in that inning, that turned out to be the only scoring in the game. The Cardinals shut out Chicago 12-0. And that had also happened only once before in MLB history. The Indians scored all 12 runs in the fourth inning to shut out the Yankees on July 2, 1943.
Statistical support for this story provided by Baseball-Reference.com and the Elias Sports Bureau.
If you're a fan of one of these teams, you know of what I speak. For all the hype and attention given to the trade deadline, the biggest area of improvement for playoff contenders usually needs to come from players already on the roster. Here are 10 who need to step it up:

Ervin Santana, Angels (4-10, 6.00 ERA)
At this point, I'm not sure why the Angels are still running Santana out there. Simply replacing him with any decent fourth or fifth starter would be a huge improvement, and you wouldn't have to pay the hefty price to acquire, say, Zack Greinke. (Although adding Greinke would certainly bolster the playoff rotation.) After a terrible April in which he surrendered 10 home runs, Santana pitched a little better in May and June, but has been trending downward lately. In his past four starts he has a total of four strikeouts.

Santana's numbers are down across the board -- higher walk rate, lower strikeout rate, way too many home runs -- but it appears his primary problem has been too many hanging sliders. In 2011, batters hit .161 with seven home runs off his slider; this year they're hitting .199 but with 12 home runs already. Overall, he's allowed 23 home runs, despite pitching in a good pitcher's park.

[+] EnlargeAndre Ethier
Gary A. Vasquez/US PresswireThe Dodgers need Andre Ethier to find his early season form.
Andre Ethier, Dodgers (.289/.362/.481)
I mentioned Ethier in Wednesday' blog about the Dodgers. While his overall numbers are solid, since May 22 he's hitting .259/.346/.377 with just two home runs in 45 games. The Dodgers need more production from their cleanup hitter.

Jemile Weeks, A's (.216/.302/.300)
While the A's might look to boost their offense by adding a shortstop or third baseman (good luck with those positions), they'll likely ride with Weeks at second. So promising as a rookie in 2011 when he hit .303 with 26 doubles and eight triples in 406 at-bats, Weeks has actually doubled his walk rate while striking out less, but a .248 average on balls in play has hurt him. That's not all bad luck -- he's hitting fewer line drives and more groundballs than last season, and clearly he isn't driving the ball much. But the talent is there to have a strong final 60 games.

Reds leadoff hitters (.200/.247/.304)
That's mostly courtesy of rookie shortstop Zack Cozart with Drew Stubbs appearing there a few times of late. But that means Dusty Baker usually just moves Cozart down to the No. 2 hole. So, yes, Baker apparently believes it's a good idea to start your lineup with two sub-.300 OBP guys hitting first and second. He just doesn't get it, and why the front office hasn't told him to stop that nonsense is beyond me. The Reds would be better off with Brandon Phillips and Jay Bruce hitting 1-2. At least that way your better hitters are getting more plate appearances.

Michael Young, Rangers (.270/.299/.346)
For all the talk about the Rangers seeking another starting pitcher with Colby Lewis out for the season and Roy Oswalt struggling, Young is the one guy in the lineup who's been a big, fat zero. As a designated hitter with an empty .270 batting average despite playing in the best hitter's park in the American League, Young has been one of the least valuable hitters in the league. In fact, based on Baseball-Reference offensive WAR, only Ryan Raburn and Justin Smoak rank worse than Young. And he's getting worse; he hit .326 in April, but has a .270 OBP in July and hasn't homered since May 7.

Tim Lincecum, Giants (4-11, 5.88 ERA)
This one goes without saying. After two good starts (against the Triple-A Astros and Phillies), Lincecum was roughed up again on Wednesday, allowing 11 runners and two home runs to the Padres in less than five innings. I don't want to hear about his FIP or xFIP -- Lincecum has been terrible, can't locate his fastball, and when he does throw strikes he gets lit. The potential is there for improvement, of course, but it's starting to look more and more like a lost season. The Giants will undoubtedly look to upgrade the offense -- amazingly, Bruce Bochy hit Brandon Crawford fifth on Wednesday -- but Lincecum could provide a bigger left than any hitter they might acquire.

Philip Humber, White Sox (4-5, 6.25 ERA)
Was that this year that Humber threw his perfect game? The White Sox are still hoping that John Danks can return at some point, but considering he just threw 20 pitches off a mound on Tuesday in testing his left shoulder, he's still a long ways away. Humber has been burned by the long ball (16 home runs in 76.1 innings).

Tommy Hanson, Braves (11-5, 4.39)
Hanson's win-loss record is nice thanks to great run support when he's started, but he's hardly pitching like an ace right now, with a 5.54 ERA over his past 11 starts while averaging less than six innings per start. Maybe that hasn't resulted in losses, but it has taxed the bullpen. Injuries have cut into Hanson's once-promising potential, and the truth is his stuff doesn't grade out as high as it once did. His average fastball velocity is down 3 mph from where it was two seasons ago, and he now sits around 90. He's allowed 19 home runs this season -- 15 off his fastball.

Cardinals bullpen (10-15, 4.17 ERA)
This story sounds familiar: It took the Cardinals four-plus months last season to figure out their bullpen. The Cardinals rank 10th in the NL in bullpen ERA, and all the teams below them have losing records. Cardinals relievers have allowed 34 home runs, third-worst in the league; only the Rockies and Astros have allowed more. The arms and ability are here, as we saw last October.

Jon Lester (5-8, 5.46 ERA) and Josh Beckett (5-9, 4.57 ERA), Red Sox
You can take apart the Red Sox a thousand different ways -- injuries, clubhouse issues, Bobby Valentine and so on -- but consider this: Despite the multitude of injuries, the Red Sox are still second in the AL in runs scored. If these two were instead 8-5 and 9-5, they'd be 56-43 and 3.5 games behind the Yankees instead of 4.5 out of the wild-card standings.
Joey Votto has not played in the past two World Series.

He has never hit 28 home runs in one round of the Home Run Derby.

He's not a former No. 1 overall pick who overcame the demons of a drug addiction.

And he did not hit four home runs in one game earlier this season and hit .400 for the first six weeks.

But Votto, and not Josh Hamilton, is the best hitter in baseball right now.

Votto, of course, plays for the Cincinnati Reds, who would have attracted more attention if his teammates were named Rose, Morgan and Bench instead of Cairo, Hanigan and Heisey. Playing for the Reds now means you're a long ways from the center of the baseball universe, so even though Votto was the 2010 National League MVP, he remains a minor name on a national scale, well-known by fantasy players and diehards but not a big name to casual fans.

In the Reds' exciting 6-5, 10-inning victory over the Detroit Tigers on Friday, Votto had another big game, going 3-for-5, including a long three-run homer off Rick Porcello in the third inning. Porcello's pitch wasn't bad -- a tailing 2-1 fastball on the outside corner, but Votto crushed it just to the left of center field.

That's what Votto does better than any hitter in the game right now: wait, wait, wait ... boom. While Hamilton is hyper-aggressive at the plate -- no regular has swung at a higher percentage of pitches outside the zone than Hamilton this season -- Votto makes pitchers throw strikes. While Hamilton has swung at 46.6 percent of the pitches he has seen that were outside the zone, Votto has swung at just 21.1 percent.

Here are the heat maps of all their swings in 2012, and you can see how Votto lays off the outside pitches:

Joey Votto and Josh Hamilton heat mapESPN Stats & InformationIn looking at the hot zones of their swings in 2012, Hamilton will chase more pitches.


Of course, approach is just a means to production; Hamilton's approach clearly works for him. As I write this, Hamilton just slugged his 22nd home run, in the fifth inning of the Rangers' game against the Giants. Votto has just 10 home runs. Hamilton is hitting .341 and has 59 RBIs; Votto is hitting .360 with 38 RBIs. Hamilton must be better! He has more home runs and way more RBIs!

Most of you reading this probably understand that there's much to evaluating a hitter's production's than the traditional Triple Crown stats. So, yes, Hamilton has a 12-homer advantage. But Votto has outdoubled Hamilton 25 to 12 and, thanks to Hamilton's more free-swinging ways, drawn 46 walks to Hamilton's 22. That means Votto gets on base more while using fewer outs, which can be seen in each player's on-base percentage -- Votto's is .480 and Hamilton's .397. That 83-point gap is the same difference between Hamilton and, say, Marco Scutaro. According to FanGraphs' all-encompassing batting statistic, wOBA, Votto led Hamilton entering Friday's games at .458 to .450 (Paul Konerko actually ranked second at .454).

But the RBIs! Simply a matter of context. Votto entered Friday's action hitting .405/.526/.905 with runners in scoring position and .392/.517/.747 with men on base. Yes, that's a 1.431 OPS with runners in scoring position. And he went 2-for-3 on Friday, including the home run. Hamilton entered Friday hitting .358/.435/.736 with RISP and .355/.420/.806 with runners on.

So Votto's RBI total is merely a reflection of his teammates, not a lack of clutch hitting on his part. The guys batting in front of him on Friday were Zack Cozart and Chris Heisey, with OBPs of .301 and .292. The guys batting in front of Hamilton had OBPs of .342 and .371. In fact, if you still don't believe, Votto's average in high-leverage situations this season is a robust .487 with four home runs and nine doubles in 39 at-bats (before Friday).

He actually did fail to come through in a key situation on Friday, striking out against Phil Coke with two out, two on and the game tied in the eighth inning. But even in that at-bat you could see what makes Votto so tough: After Coke got ahead with two strikes, Votto choked up on the bat even more than he normally does (like Barry Bonds, he always chokes up a bit, not gripping the bat completely at the knob). Coke got him, but it's another indication of why Votto hits well with two strikes.

Speaking of Bonds, how rare is the .480 OBP that Votto owns right now? Since 1950, it has been just 10 times by five players -- including four times by Mr. Bonds. Before Bonds, the last player to do so was Frank Thomas in 1994.

And before Rangers fans get all worked up, this isn't criticism of Hamilton. It's actually a compliment, because if you can be mentioned in the same breath as Josh Hamilton in 2012, maybe you do deserve a little more recognition.

Reds getting production from all over

May, 24, 2012
5/24/12
11:55
PM ET


The Reds received a game-changing grand slam in the sixth inning to take a 5-2 lead against the Braves on Thursday night, leading to their sixth consecutive victory and their first sweep of the Braves since 1980. It wasn’t superstar Joey Votto who provided the knockout punch, nor was it mainstays Brandon Phillips or Jay Bruce. The home run came off the bat of one of the Reds’ many unheralded young players: 23-year-old rookie catcher Devin Mesoraco.

The blast also marked Cincinnati’s 10th home run of the series, leading to 14 of its 16 runs in the series. Winning with home runs is nothing new for this Reds squad, not at Great American Ball Park and certainly not in the Joey Votto era. But Votto didn’t hit a single homer in the series. Neither did Bruce. Phillips hit two. Instead of the three stalwarts on this Reds squad, it was the supporting cast leading the way: Mesoraco (1), Drew Stubbs (3), Zack Cozart (2), Todd Frazier (1) and Mike Leake (1).

[+] EnlargeCincinnati Reds
AP Photo/Al BehrmanDevin Mesoraco's grand slam in the sixth inning on Thursday put the Reds ahead for good.
Leake’s homer backed up a quality start on Monday, and the other home runs backed up quality starts from Mat Latos (Tuesday), Bronson Arroyo (Wednesday) and Homer Bailey (Thursday). The Reds saw scoreless outings from five different relievers and saves converted by three. To accomplish this in any series is excellent; to do so against the second-highest-scoring team in the league in one of the best hitters’ parks in all of baseball is another.

Depth and pitching have set this year’s Reds squad apart from last year’s version, a preseason favorite for the National League Central crown that was eventually lapped by both the Brewers and Cardinals. The 2011 season saw a 156 OPS+ from Votto and 119 OPS+ marks from both Phillips and Bruce. No other full-time starters came close; only part-time players Chris Heisey (113), Ramon Hernandez (113) and Miguel Cairo (101) even mustered an above average mark.

This season has seen the likes of Paul Janish, Edgar Renteria and Jonny Gomes excised in favor of Cozart (.727 OPS) and Frazier (.887). It has seen Stubbs come to life after three horrible series to open the year -- he owns a .266/.324/.430 line since April 17 to go with his typical fantastic defense. It’s seen Ryan Hanigan pick up his game as well, with a .794 OPS in 27 games as the starting catcher.

Johnny Cueto owns a phenomenal 2.22 ERA over 33 starts dating back to May 2011, but it was the other four Cincinnati starters who held down the Braves this week. Latos started out cold, but has a 2.35 ERA and 30 strikeouts in 23 innings in May. Arroyo has a 121 ERA+ after allowing a near-record 46 home runs last season, owning an absurd 44-to-8 strikeout-to-walk ratio in his first 58.2 innings. Bailey and Leake have had their rough spots, but they fit well in the back of the Reds’ rotation -- a tough job with half of their starts coming in the bandbox in Cincinnati.

The bullpen has established itself as one of the league’s best. Regardless of what one thinks Aroldis Chapman’s role should be, it is undeniable that he is the league’s best reliever. In the four-game sweep of the Braves, he pitched two more scoreless innings. Chapman fronts a bullpen full of talented pitchers: Jose Arredondo, Logan Ondrusek and Alfredo Simon all own ERA+ marks of 137 or higher. Sean Marshall shouldn’t be counted out either despite a rough start -- he was one of the best relievers in baseball over the past two seasons.

The Reds currently sit atop the NL Central, with a half-game lead over the Cardinals. As usual, Votto, Phillips, Cueto and Bruce lead the way. But if the Reds maintain their current success and carry it through to a playoff run, it will be because this year they didn’t have to do it all themselves.
For a few brief moments on Monday night, it appeared the Cincinnati Reds would slide past the St. Louis Cardinals into first place in the NL Central. The Reds had defeated the Braves 4-1 behind a brilliant effort from Mike Leake and four solo home runs. The Padres were leading the Cardinals late in their game, until Tyler Greene's two-run homer in the eighth lifted the Cards to a 4-3 victory.

Still ... half a game. Half a game. Cardinals fans have to be wondering how this happened.

Considering the hot starts many of the Cardinals jumped out to -- Rafael Furcal, Jon Jay, Carlos Beltran and three-fifths of the rotation in Kyle Lohse, Lance Lynn and Jake Westbrook -- the Cardinals can only look back and wonder why they're not five or six games in front of the Reds. After all, St. Louis' run differential is +58; Cincinnati's is only +3.

I'd call it an opportunity squandered, because now the Reds are breathing down their necks and they're probably here to stay. Hey, there has to be at least two good teams in the NL Central, right?

With all the talk about who should be closing in Cincinnati, the biggest issue with the pitching staff has been Leake. He entered winless in seven starts -- at 0-5, he joined Chris Volstad and Francisco Liriano as the only pitchers without a win and at least five decisions -- but wasn't just reeling from a lack of run support. He'd allowed at least three runs each start, had a 6.21 ERA, a .309 batting average allowed and just 21 strikeouts in 37.2 innings.

Leake walked Martin Prado with one out in the first but struck out Freddie Freeman and Dan Uggla. In the second, Juan Francisco homered, but Leake then retired 14 in a row before Uggla doubled in the seventh. He finished with eight innings, just those two hits and six K's. For Leake, his biggest issue before Monday night had been an ineffective changeup, usually a good pitch for him. In 2010-2011, opponents hit .252 off his changeup but they were hitting .529 in at-bats ending with a changeup in 2012.

He appeared to compensate by throwing more cutters against the Braves -- 28 out of 98, the second-most he's thrown in a start this season. Of course, it helped that he was ahead of hitters much of the night, throwing just two pitches on three-ball counts; in his previous three starts, he'd thrown 31 pitches with three balls. Pitching is easier when you don't have to groove a pitch to avoid a walk.

Leake also sparked the Cincinnati offense in the fourth inning, when he homered off his friend Mike Minor (Minor was the seventh pick in the 2009 draft, Leake the eighth, and the two were teammates on Team USA). Zack Cozart and Drew Stubbs followed with home runs to give the Reds back-to-back-to-back blasts. While it was Leake's first career blast, he's a legitimate threat at the plate with a .271 career average.

The four solo shots do highlight a big problem with the Reds' offense, however. Outside of Joey Votto this lineup is completely hacktastic -- working the count is not exactly a disease that has spread from Votto to everyone else. Even with Votto's MLB-leading 40 walks, the Reds rank just 11th in the NL in free passes, and despite playing in a hitter-friendly home park, their .697 team OPS is tied for 10th in the league. After Votto, Jay Bruce is second on the team with 12 walks -- quadruple that total and you have a guy on pace for 48. Home run boys Cozart and Stubbs can flip the occasional long ball, but they've combined for just 22 walks and 86 strikeouts. Brandon Phillips has just eight walks. Votto gets walked a lot because he often comes up with nobody on base. (Memo to Dusty Baker: Try moving Bruce in front of Votto. Just consider it, please.)

Somewhere, Joe Morgan cringes.

When the Reds won the NL Central in 2010, they led the NL in runs scored. That team led the NL with 188 home runs and a .272 average while ranking ninth in walks. This offense doesn't show signs of matching the firepower of that lineup, not with Votto, Bruce and catcher Ryan Hanigan the only three sporting an OBP over .300.

That means the Reds are going to be in a lot of low-scoring games, which means the bullpen will prove key, especially since Leake's outing was only the 12th in 41 games where the Reds' starter has gone at least seven innings.

Which, inevitably, gets us back to Baker and how he handles the relief crew. It's certainly interesting that in the two days since Aroldis Chapman was "named" the team's closer that exiled closer Sean Marshall picked up the two most important outs.

On Sunday, with the Reds leading the Yankees 3-2 and a runner on with no outs in the eighth, Marshall retired Robinson Cano. Chapman came on for the easy save and faced the bottom of the Yankees lineup after the Reds had extended their lead to 5-2.

On Monday, with Chapman unavailable after pitching four times in five days, Marshall again delivered after Jose Arredondo walked Uggla and Brian McCann with two outs in the ninth. Brought on to face Jason Heyward, Marshall fell behind with a slider, threw two of his big-breaking curveballs for a called strike and a swinging strike, saw Heyward foul off another curve, threw a fastball down low, and then got Heyward to fly to right on another curve.

For all the consternation over who gets the capital C designation, it shouldn't really matter. Marshall is a very good reliever. Chapman has been a great one. Arredondo and Logan Ondrusek are solid right-handers and rookie J.J. Hoover has looked impressive. What Baker should avoid doing is getting trapped into saving Chapman for the ninth inning only -- which means fewer innings and fewer moments with the game on the line. Chapman is the guy you want in there when you need a big strikeout with runners on base in the eighth inning. Marshall, Arrendodo and Ondrusek can close out the three-run leads. Use Chapman and his bullpen mates wisely, and the Reds can stay in this race even with a mediocre offense.

As for the Cardinals, that hot start is a thing of the past. The injuries are mounting and that run differential has gone to waste. We're a quarter of the way into the season and we have a race.

Considering these two teams have some strong dislike for each other going back a couple years, it should be a fun summer in Central Land.

PHOTO OF THE DAY
Neil WalkerJustin K. Aller/Getty ImagesSometimes things just pass you by... like Neil Walker leaving Mike Nickeas in the dust.
I'm with Steve Berthiaume: Predictions are generally a big pain in the neck. Read Steve's column and understand: If I don't pick your team, it doesn't mean I hate them or root against them or like the Yankees better than the Red Sox or vice versa. Last season, I infamously projected the Phillies to win 90 games and miss the playoffs ... OK, I was only off by 12 wins. Hey, I could defend my analysis -- Vance Worley's surprise season, Chase Utley returned sooner than expected, the bullpen was great, Cole Hamels had his best year, the Hunter Pence trade -- but bottom line: I was wrong.

And that's good. As Steve writes, baseball wouldn't be so great if we were always right.

What I did was project each team's runs scored and runs allowed and project their win-loss record from there. Of course, the runs scored and allowed totals have to add up to same number. Not every team can exceed it's over/under line. Overall, I project 21,055 runs scored, a 247-run increase over 2010 (there were 21,308 runs in 2010). Note, of course, that in reality every team doesn't match its projected runs scored/allowed wins total. Last season, for example, the Tigers and Diamondbacks exceeded their Pythagoren record by six wins.

So here are my surely-to-be-wrong predictions ...

AL EAST

I know, I know ... I couple weeks ago I declared the Red Sox the team to beat in the AL East. Since then Andrew Bailey has landed on the DL after thumb surgery and Josh Beckett has some sort of thumb injury as well. It doesn't sound serious, but those are two red flags. No matter how you slice it, the division should be a terrific three-way race. The Yankees and Rays have more rotation depth but I like Boston's lineup. And don't discount the Blue Jays. If Colby Rasmus rebounds, Adam Lind has a better season and Brett Lawrie lives up to expectations, this lineup could score 800-plus. It just needs the back of the rotation to produce and the Jays could be a sleeper contenders if one of the favorites falters.

AL CENTRAL

I went on record earlier as picking the Indians to win the AL Central, so I now apologize to all Cleveland fans as I change my mind. I just couldn't make the math work and Ubaldo Jimenez's spring struggles and state of mind are a huge concern. Still, I do believe the Tigers are vulnerable; look, if Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello take a big step forward the Tigers will run away with the division, no matter how grounders slip past Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder. For now, I still those two as inconsistent 3-4 starters and I suspect that regression from Alex Avila and Jhonny Peralta may cancel out some of the offensive gains Fielder will provide. Some people like the Royals, but I don't see a .500-caliber rotation and I'm lukewarm about the offense once you get past Eric Hosmer, Alex Gordon and Billy Butler. Even with some bounce-back from Adam Dunn and Alex Rios, the White Sox will struggle to score runs. Their rotation could be interesting, however. And the Twins ... well, they're just one season removed from 94 wins.

AL WEST

No surprise here: should be a great two-team race. The Rangers had a run differential 144 runs better than the Angels last year; that's a lot of ground to make up. Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson and perhaps Kendrys Morales will produce a large chunk of that and the Rangers may regress a little, but the Angels will need to find improved offense somewhere else (and we mean you, Vernon Wells). The A's were actually closer to the Angels in run differential a season ago than the Angels were to the Rangers, but this is still a lineup with Coco Crisp hitting third to start the season. The Mariners will score more runs, but that isn't saying much. Safeco Field will help the pitching staff look better than it is, but Mariners will be watching Double-A Jackson with nearly as much interest as the big league club.

NL EAST

So I was talking to a Phillies fan here in the office and told him I was picking them despite the Ryan Howard and Chase Utley injuries. His response: "We don't want you." Nice! I sense some pessimism in Phillies land, and while understandable to a small degree, YOU STILL HAVE ROY HALLADAY, CLIFF LEE AND COLE HAMELS. Anyway, any of the top four teams can win this division. The Marlins may actually have the highest upside if everyone stays healthy, Ricky Nolasco's ERA matches his FIP and Carlos Zambrano actually pitches well. But with several injury-prone players, I'm a little more cautious. Same with the Braves; the good news is Jason Heyward and Freddie Freeman should improve on 2011, but there are injury concerns in the rotation, shortstop is a question mark, third base could be a problem and the bullpen may again have to carry a big workload.

NL CENTRAL

Here's what worries me about the Cardinals: Lance Berkman, David Freese, Rafael Furcal, Carlos Beltran and Matt Holliday have all battled various injuries in the past season or two. Adam Wainwright is back, but Chris Carpenter is out for an unknown period of time. Can they win the division? Of course. I actually think the team most likely to run away with the division is the Reds, if everything breaks right, especially in the rotation. But my safe pick is the Brewers. Or maybe they're not so safe; not many have jumped on the Brewers' bandwagon this year but I love the Zack Greinke-Yovani Gallardo duo. It's hard to project much for the Cubs, Pirates and Astros, although maybe the Pirates could challenge .500 if Erik Bedard and A.J. Burnett stay healthy and pitch well.

NL WEST

Even with regression from Ryan Vogelsong and uncertainty in the fifth spot, the big three of Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner and a lineup that has to score more runs than 2011 makes the Giants slight favorites over the Diamondbacks. Plus ... I couldn't pick EVERY division winner to repeat. In fact, recent history tells us half of each season's playoff teams won't make it the next year. So maybe that opens the door for the Dodgers, Rockies or Padres in a surprise finish in the always unpredictable NL West.

PLAYER AWARDS

AL MVP: Evan Longoria

Since the wild-card era began in 1995, 29 of 34 MVPs played on playoff teams and 31 of 33 position players to win hit .300 (the exceptions being Jimmy Rollins in 2007 and Alex Rodriguez in 2003). Longoria has not .300, but he did hit .294 in 2010 so he has a .300 season in him. Could end up being a "Defense matters!" debate between him and Miguel Cabrera.

Sleeper: Shin-Soo Choo. If the Indians shock the world.

AL CY YOUNG: David Price

He finished second in the 2010 voting and I believe he's a better pitcher now -- higher strikeout rate and lower walk rate in 2011. Run support may be an issue.

Sleeper: C.J. Wilson. Had a 2.31 road ERA in 2011.

AL ROOKIE: Yu Darvish

I believe.

Sleeper: Addison Reed. Could end up as the White Sox closer and rookie closers have historically done well in the voting (Craig Kimbrel, Neftali Feliz, Andrew Bailey and Huston Street have won in recent years).

NL MVP: Ryan Braun

Joey Votto was my initial pick, but since I have the Brewers winning the division ahead of the Reds, I'll go with Braun.

Sleeper: Giancarlo Stanton. OK, not much a sleeper, but could have a monster RBI season hitting behind Jose Reyes and Hanley Ramirez.

NL CY YOUNG: Roy Halladay

No insulted intended to Clayton Kershaw, Cliff Lee or any of the other great NL starters.

Sleeper: Zack Greinke. Well, hard to call a guy who's won before a sleeper. Looks for his ERA to come close to his second-half from 2011 -- 2.59.

NL ROOKIE: Zack Cozart

The NL rookie crop isn't quite as exciting as the AL's, but the Reds have two strong candidates in Cozart and catcher Devin Mesoraco. But while Mesoraco will share time with Ryan Hanigan, Cozart should play every day at shortstop and put up decent numbers.

Sleeper: Trevor Bauer. If Josh Collmenter falters, Bauer may be up quickly for Arizona.

Follow David Schoenfield on Twitter @dschoenfield.
Devin Mesoraco Norm Hall/Getty ImagesThe Reds' Devin Mesoraco hopes to become the third catcher in five years to win NL rookie honors.


More staff predictions from the SweetSpot network bloggers: Nine different players received first-place votes for NL rookie of the year, suggesting a wide-open race. Cincinnati Reds catcher Devin Mesoraco tops the balloting, just edging out former teammate Yonder Alonso, now with the Padres. Bryce Harper and Trevor Bauer, two players starting the year in the minors, both fared well in the voting.

Voting on a 5-3-1 basis.

I've been asked the question a couple times in my chats and promised readers I would follow up. So I asked our cracked research staff: Has a team made the playoffs with rookies starting at shortstop and catcher?

This question applies to the Cincinnati Reds, a perceived playoff contender but a team likely to start Zack Cozart at shortstop and Devin Mesoraco at catcher.

The answer, with the help of the Elias Sports Bureau: No team has made the playoffs with rookie starters at those two positions.

The closest team that meets the criteria was the 1969 Atlanta Braves. Rookie Bob Didier was the team's regular catcher, a 20-year-old who started 108 games and hit .256 with zero home runs. Sonny Jackson was the team's regular shortstop but I'm guessng suffered some sort of injury on July 13, was out until Aug. 20, came back and then went down again in mid-September. That allowed a 28-year-old minor league veteran named Gil Garrido to start 74 games at shortstop. But he only accumulated 251 plate appearances (he hit .220 with zero home runs) and Jackson still had more playing time.

Does this mean the Reds won't make the playoffs? No. Every year in baseball something that has never been done before gets done. Working in the Reds' favor is their two rookies appear to be fairly polished players. Mesoraco spent all of 2011 in Triple-A, hitting .289/.371/.484. Cozart has spent the past two years in Triple-A, hitting .310 when he was recalled to Cincinnati last July. He played 11 games and then injured his non-throwing elbow (he had Tommy John surgery). Both should be able to put up respectable numbers for their positions.

In fact, you can argue that the biggest question marks in the Reds' lineup aren't the two rookies, but the health and production of third baseman Scott Rolen and what kind of production they'll get from Chris Heisey and Ryan Ludwick in left field. Still, rookies are rookies and the Reds do need both of them to produce. Ryan Hanigan is a good backup behind the plate but Paul Janish is not an acceptable major league hitter for a team that wants to win a division title.

Reds scare or Reds scary?

July, 8, 2011
7/08/11
1:30
AM ET


Considering that the Cincinnati Reds play in a division they won by five games in 2010 and in which the other contenders have been hit with injuries to key players in 2011, you might have expected them to be sitting in a very comfortable position by now. Instead, after a 5-4 loss in Milwaukee on Thursday, they’re on the wrong side of .500 at 44-45 and trail the Brewers, Cardinals and even the Pirates in the NL Central. They’re 7-12 since a three-game sweep of the Dodgers in mid-June. For all that, they’re still just three games out of first place. Can the ship be righted, and how?

The team took a stab at dealing with its two most obvious problems on Thursday. They demoted Edinson Volquez, who had been walking nearly six men per game on the way to a 5.93 ERA and may be replaced by an apparently resurgent Dontrelle Willis. And they gave a long-overdue promotion to shortstop prospect Zack Cozart, who had been hitting .310/.357/.467 and will be given an opportunity to replace the shockingly poor production they had been receiving from Paul Janish and Edgar Renteria, who have combined to produce -0.1 wins above replacement (WAR), according to FanGraphs.com. Both moves represent huge steps in the right direction.

Those weren’t the only problems this team has, however. Bronson Arroyo has arguably struggled even more than Volquez, and his veteran status and hefty price tag running through 2013 make him a harder burden to shake off than Volquez. Travis Wood has been similarly ineffective if you go by his 5.11 ERA, though his 4.11 FIP suggests he’s been mostly unlucky. All told, for all the preseason talk about the great starting rotation depth, and despite a great first 11 starts from Johnny Cueto, Reds starters entered Thursday with a 4.60 ERA, second-to-last in the National League, and tied for last with just 3.5 FanGraphs WAR.

Outside of that little rotation issue, though -- and that’s a big one -- it’s hard to pinpoint areas in which this team has gone wrong. They’ve gone with an unorthodox sort of three-headed-monster approach in left field, dividing the position among Chris Heisey, Jonny Gomes and Fred Lewis. Yet all three have been effective, with Gomes and Heisey providing good offense and Lewis good defense, combining for 3.1 WAR. It’s starting to look like Scott Rolen’s bat has fallen off the old-age table, but he appears to be making up for it with his still-excellent defense, and his oft-used substitute Miguel Cairo (against all odds) has been solid with both bat and glove. At catcher, first, second, center and right, the Reds have received well above-average play (at least), and the bullpen has been solid. One would think a team with this lineup would be better than 44-45, even with a shaky rotation.

And in at least one sense, they have been better than that. Coming into Thursday, the Reds’ “Pythagorean record” -- the record suggested by their run differential -- was 47-41, which would have them tied for first place in the division. A negative disparity between a team’s Pythagorean and actual record sometimes suggests a managerial failing of some kind, but I don’t see a lot of evidence of that here. Dusty Baker certainly has his flaws (ones we in the sabermetric community are all too aware of), and sometimes makes some interesting decisions regarding the use of his bullpen and other personnel, and it’s possible that his decision-making has lost some close games. There’s no hard data to back that up, though, and anecdotally, most Reds fans I know seem to think that Dusty is doing a better job of in-game managing this year than he has in the past.

Rather, the discrepancy seems to be the result of a lack of “clutch hitting” by the Reds; the team’s .259/.330/.403 overall line (through Wednesday) slips to .237/.313/.343 in “late and close” situations, suggesting that they’re finding it easier to score runs when ahead or trailing by a bunch than they are late in a tight game, when each individual run matters a bit more. The team’s overall hitting line is above the NL average, but its “late and close” line is slightly below average across the board. (The NL “late and close” average entering Thursday was .244/.322/.359.)

So the Reds’ problems, after dealing with their shortstops and Volquez, seem to boil down to Arroyo, Wood and clutch hitting. The last bit can’t be dealt with; study has shown that “clutch,” to the extent it exists, is impossible to separate from simple dumb luck, good or bad. Wood should be fine for essentially the same reason: He has really struggled with runners in scoring position, and unless the team has some reason to believe he has problems pitching out of the stretch or gets more rattled than most do with men on second or third, those numbers should get better. Arroyo on the other hand has been legitimately struggling for two months, and is a real worry; if they’re willing to recognize his huge contract as a sunk cost and move him to a long-relief role (or off the team entirely), and in favor of Sam LeCure (if healthy) a possible acquisition on the trade market, that could really improve the team going forward.

For the most part, though, the Reds have done almost everything they can by finally calling up Cozart and demoting Volquez. Most else is out of their control: The hits should get more timely, and the non-Arroyo pitching should get better. Even the hitters who are doing well in 2011 -- Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips, Drew Stubbs and Jay Bruce, in particular -- have shown themselves capable of doing even better. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see one or more of them get incredibly hot and carry the team over the second half.

Looking up at three other teams at the All-Star break is never a good place to be, but the Reds seem about as well-positioned to make a second-half run as a fourth-place team could get.

PHOTO OF THE DAY
Andrew MillerMark L. Baer/US PresswireAndrew Miller only has eyes for his comeback with the Red Sox.
Bill Parker writes for The Platoon Advantage. Follow him on Twitter: @Bill_TPA.

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