Friday, May 2, 2014

Why the Reds are a 90-win Team

Prior to the season, I pegged the Reds as an 89-91 win team, so it seems like a good time to get my thoughts down on that subject, otherwise I won't receive the proper (and likely deserved) mocking at the end of the season. Besides, with all the negativity swirling around the team's early season performance, it seems worthwhile to point out that this team could be about as productive last year, even if the shape of that production ultimately differs.

To start, let's look at how the Reds finished in 2013 and see whether we can expect improvement or decline.

The Reds finished up the 2013 season with a 90-72 win/loss record. However, their Bill James Pythagorean record, based on their 698 Runs Scored and 589 Runs Allowed, was 95-67. The Reds arguably should have been 5 wins better than they were. So, if people think the Reds are worse and will regress in 2014, do we regress them from a 90-win benchmark or a 95-win benchmark? I would argue something closer to the latter, so even a 3-5 win regression would keep us around the 90 win mark.

As for changes, there have been only a few notable ones in the makeup of the Reds for 2014.

1. The departure of Shin Soo Choo and the promotion of Billy Hamilton.

This is the big one. This is where all the hand-wringing comes into play, but it essentially comes down to a question of the extent to which Billy Hamilton can offset the lost hitting production of Shin Soo Choo with baserunning and defense.

Perhaps Dusty's biggest mistake (and least talked about) of the 2013 season was keeping Choo in centerfield after Ludwick's injury. That decision screwed us in 2013, but helps us in 2014. In 2013, Choo was the worst regular defensive centerfielder in baseball, which cost the Reds in run prevention and prevented us from maximizing the production of Choo, as he gave away some of his offensive production on the defensive side. However, in 2014, it's actually a blessing because it's easier to offset the loss of Choo/CF production simply by replacing Choo with a top flight defensive CF.

So, Dusty's inefficient deployment of the outfield in 2013 makes for an easy improvement for Price to reap in 2014. If Dusty had utilized Choo properly on defense, then we would have been a better team in 2013, but Choo would be harder to replace in 2014.

In 2013, according to FanGraphs, Shin Soo Choo was 16.9 runs below average on defense. For comparison, Carlos Gomez was the best at 24.4 and AJ Pollock was second best at 17.4, followed by Colby Rasmus (11.2), Leonys Martin (10.3), and Denard Span (10.2). Is it unreasonable to think that a player of Billy Hamilton's speed can put up comparable defensive numbers to someone like Colby Rasmus or Denard Span? Or, even AJ Pollock?

For the record, with full "small sample size" disclosure, Billy Hamilton in 2014 has a UZR mark of 2.1 runs above average and an extrapolated UZR/150 mark of 17.8 runs above average.

If Billy Hamilton can be 15 runs above average on defense, then Billy Hamilton will have prevented ~32 more runs in centerfield than Choo (+15 + -16.9 = 31.9). That's 32 fewer runs he needs to produce on the offensive side in order to offset the loss of the great Choo.

In addition, Shin Soo Choo provided minimal value/production with his baserunning. Accordingly to FanGraphs, Choo's 2013 Base Running (includes advancing on balls-in-play and SB/CS) mark was -0.6, meaning he was 0.6 runs below average with his legs. In 2013, the league leader was Jacoby Ellsbury at 11.4 runs above average, followed thereafter by Eric Young (9.9), Elvis Andrus (9.9), and Mike Trout (8.1).

And, so far in 2014, Billy Hamilton has a Base Running mark of 1.2 runs above average. Given Hamilton's historic speed, it doesn't seem a reach to think he's a better baserunner than Ellsbury, EY, Elvis, and Trout. So, when he's on-base, he'll advance and steal at a better rate than they do. Of course, he has to get on-base to do so, as you can't steal first. Even so, given his current pace (1.2 Runs Above Average over 6 months), he should be 7.2 Runs Above Average with his legs. And, if his offense improves over it's putrid level in the early part of the season, it could/should be even higher.

So, with his legs, Hamilton would/should provide 8+ more runs than Choo.

Roughly speaking, Hamilton could provide 40+ more runs with his defense and baserunning than Choo. Translated into wins, using the 10 runs = 1 win estimate, Billy could provide 4 wins more than Choo on the defense and baserunning side of the game. But, how much is Hamilton likely to give away to Choo with his hitting?

Well, in 2013, Choo posted a FanGraphs Batting mark of 40.9 runs above average. So, based on this back of a cocktail napkin calculation, Billy Hamilton could be just about as valuable in 2014 as Shin Soo Choo was in 2013 IF he can simply be a league average hitter. The shape of the production would look different (Choo: 40.9 Batting + -0.6 Baserunning + -15.5 Defense = 24.8 Total Runs Above Average///Hamilton: 0.0 Batting + 7.2 Baserunning + 15 Defense = 22.2 Total Runs Above Average), but it all looks the same in the team's Run Differential.

Of course, Hamilton's early season struggles make it seem like league average hitting is a stretch. So far in 2014, Hamilton has a -5.6 Batting mark, which extrapolated out over 6 months would be a -33.6. Obviously, that would be a problem, almost a 3.5 Win downgrade, but what if by season's end Hamilton is at something more like -15 runs? That would make him only 1.5 Wins worse than Choo, a very manageable shortfall and one that comes at significant cost savings.

The larger point is that Hamilton's other attributes should make the downgrade in centerfield from 2013 to 2014 far less painful than expected...if he can hit at least enough to justify being a full-time regular. I have faith, but the early results at the plate are not promising.

2. Swapping Bryan Price in for Dusty Baker at the helm.

While the shape of the team's aggregate production will undoubtedly look different, with a greater emphasis on run prevention than run creation, it should be relatively comparable to, though likely a bit less than, what the team posted in 2013. Given the likely lower level of both Runs Scored and Runs Allowed, the games will be tighter, making incremental gains from reaping small competitive advantages more important. Fortunately, the Reds now have a manager who is willing and able to seek out those competitive advantages.

Price has already shown that he is willing to embrace unorthodox measures to incrementally improve the team's run differential. For example, he's moved Joey Votto up into the second spot in the batting order. We quibble all day over what impact lineup construction has on run production, but what can't be disputed is that getting Joey more PAs over the course of a season is a very good idea. Each spot in the batting order gets ~15-20 more Plate Appearances over the course of the season than the one right after it.

Given that Votto has gotten on-base ~43% of the time over the last two seasons, 20 more PA would mean he's on-base 8-9 more times in 2014 just by moving up one spot in the lineup. Votto will generate more runs scored and RBI in those additional plate appearances. Incremental improvement.

The other big change being implemented by Bryan Price is in defensive shifts. Matt Adams is personally responsible for souring Reds Nation on the idea of defensive shifts, but they are all the rage around the league and for good reason. "Optimal positioning" can turn a higher percentage of balls-in-play into outs. Of course, defensive positioning, including the classic over-shift, is only as good as the data on which it is based, but valid data on hitter tendencies can provide a better idea of where to position your fielders to increase the chances of an out. It's also only as good as the command of the pitchers on your staff, as locating pitches is also part of directing a ball-in-play towards your fielders. Fortunately, the Reds pitching staff is pretty damn good. And, until "optimal positioning" no longer converts a higher percentage of balls-in-play into outs, teams who refuse to do so will be at a competitive disadvantage to those that do.

Dusty never shifted, Bryan Price does. If done properly, it should improve the Reds' BABIP allowed and, correspondingly, their run-prevention ability. Another incremental improvement.

Finally, Price paid lip service to the idea of changing the usage pattern for Aroldis, extracting maximum value from him by using him in high leverage situations and for longer stints. Obviously, the injury to Aroldis has prevented that, but it may happen when he returns. Another possible incremental improvement.

3. Devin Mesoraco for Ryan Hanigan

I didn't know what to think of this change, as Hanigan was a high OBP guy with plus pitch-framing skills, both of which are real, albeit subtle, value-drivers. And, Devin was an unknown quantity heading into the season. He's still an unknown quantity, but at least he got off to a robust start. Given the way Devin is swinging the bat, he seems likely to make this switch neutral at worst, a net positive at best.

If Devin can keep swinging a hot bat, he'll provide a much needed boost to Run Scoring and help offset the loss of Choo. Still, if the bat slips, then Hanigan's subtle attributes could really be missed.

4. Miscellaneous

Outside of those three changes, the rest seem negligible/minimally important to the team's likely Run Differential.

The departure of Bronson Arroyo doesn't seem like much of a loss to me, especially if we can get something approximating full seasons out of Cingrani and Leake. Bronson was durable as hell, but his performance level can be matched, and probably improved upon, by in-house options.

The addition of Skip Schumaker doesn't move the needle and probably won't move the Run Differential mark, but he's a solid addition when healthy.

The new coaching staff, hitting coach, etc doesn't seem likely to make a real impact.

And, it's not unreasonable to think Todd Frazier could take a step forward in 2014 or that Ryan Ludwick will prove an upgrade in leftfield over the 2013 aggregate LF production of .250/.313/.374. So, those are possible areas for improvement, though I wouldn't necessarily bet on it.

Final Thoughts

Overall, this is a team that will be focused more on preventing runs, rather than scoring them. Not surprisingly, the Reds are third in MLB with a Defense mark of 17.0 runs above average and tied for 2nd in Runs Allowed with 82. That will result in a lot of frustration over the offense and a lot of close games. It will put a lot of stress on the pitching staff, fortunately we have a strong defense and an elite closer, both of which should improve our run prevention and make us competitive in close games. And, we have a weapon in Billy Hamilton who should make us a real threat in close games.

Obviously, the injuries to Aroldis and Latos have been real drags on the early season performance. While the emergence of Simon has offset the loss of Latos in the rotation, that burden has been shifted to the bullpen where injuries to Broxton, Marshall, and Aroldis have made us thin out there. Hopefully, the return to health of Latos and Aroldis gives us better depth and production up-and-down the pitching staff.

I'm sure I'm wildly off the mark here, but I still think it's reasonable, when all is said and done, for this team to land in the 89-91 win range.