Five Questions: Cincinnati Reds

Warning: those Reds fans with high blood pressure, or are pregnant, or faint of heart, or have stomach pain, or nausea, or under a doctor’s care for any serious condition, should skip question one and proceed to question two. If you’re a young lad or lass searching for your lifelong team, you too should avert your eyes and start with question two. If you’re in a location where yelling and swearing are “unprofessional”, it is strongly encouraged that you bite down on a pencil or forearm, preferably not your own. For those of you still reading this paragraph, let’s start with the now highly-anticipated question number one:

1. Can the atrociousness of the Reds defense in 2004 be quantified? In other words, where does it rank all time?

In the AL and NL combined, there have been 2304 team seasons. And only one team has been worse with their defense. And they don’t even count. Yes sir, the 2004 Reds were the worst defensive team ever! Seriously. Here’s how it was determined:

First, defense is considered to be pitching and fielding, combined. Second, Runs Allowed is the counting statistic that will be used to assess defense. And third, Lahman’s Baseball Database was used.

Now, as explained by Rob Neyer and Eddie Epstein in Baseball Dynasties, it’s not sufficient to simply compare the Runs Allowed by a team to the average Runs Allowed by the league. It does not account for the dispersion, or distribution, of the league.

Enter standard deviation. By calculating the mean and the standard deviation of Runs Allowed for a league, a normalized score (or z-score) can be calculated for each team in the league simply by subtracting the league’s mean Runs Allowed from the team’s Runs Allowed and then dividing by the league’s standard deviation of Runs Allowed. It’s essentially determining how many standard deviations away from the league mean is a particular team’s Runs Allowed.

If this z-score is calculated for all teams in all leagues (AL and NL only, actually) for all seasons, the defenses can be ranked. A few adjustments were performed, however, before calculating the z-scores.

First, each team’s Runs Allowed was adjusted by the team’s 3-year park factor. Second, Runs Allowed was divided by Games Played to account for variation in season-length throughout history (or even within a season). Then, a quick-and-dirty adjustment was made to account for the fact that a team’s defense did not have to face its own offense. The other teams from the 1975 and 1976 NL seasons should not be penalized for facing The Big Red Machine while the Reds defenses escaped unscathed. And vice versa for those defenses who were unable to face their own pathetic sister offenses. After these three adjustments, the z-scores were calculated and then sorted, worst to best. Here are the worst ten NL and AL defenses of all time, with Wins, Losses, Runs Allowed, and the z-score Runs Allowed (zRA) presented:

Year  Lg  Team                    W    L    RA    zRA
1899  NL  Cleveland Spiders      20  134  1252  -2.69
2004  NL  Cincinnati Reds        76   86   907  -2.68
1997  NL  San Diego Padres       76   86   891  -2.56
1984  AL  Oakland Athletics      77   85   796  -2.54
1977  NL  San Diego Padres       69   93   834  -2.49
1998  NL  Florida Marlins        54  108   923  -2.45
1996  AL  Detroit Tigers         53  109  1103  -2.44
1984  NL  San Francisco Giants   66   96   807  -2.43
1890  NL  Pittsburgh Alleghenys  23  113  1235  -2.36
1978  AL  Seattle Mariners       56  104   834  -2.36

Now wait a minute … above it was declared that the 2004 Reds were the worst ever.

They are. First, the 1899 Spiders only played 42 games at home, while playing 112 games on the road. Therefore, their 3-year park factor of 96 might be assuming they played half of their games at home, and thus, adjusting incorrectly and adding too many runs to their Runs Allowed total. Second, even if the park factor adjustment is correct, the 1899 Spiders were essentially a minor league team because their owner, Frank Robison, transferred all of the good players to his recently-acquired other team, the St. Louis Browns. (Mercifully, the Spiders were contracted prior to the 1900 season.)

So they are stricken from the list! The 2004 Cincinnati Reds, 2.68 standard deviations worse than the league mean of Runs Allowed per Game Played, had, legitimately, the worst defensive season ever. Tell your grandkids.

And if you were wondering, the worst 5% (115) defenses consist of a healthy mix of teams from all decades, not just pre-20th century and the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s, as presented in the list above. Keep your eye out for a future article exploring this method to determine the best offenses, defenses, and complete teams of all time.

2. So what did the Reds do this past offseason to recover from 2004?

It appears they employed a 7-step recovery plan:

1. The first step was to sign and trade for average pitchers, especially Eric Milton, the player who made the Reds a player, whatever that means.

So by acquiring Milton, Ramon Ortiz, David Weathers, Ben Weber, and Kent Mercker, the Reds have most likely saved themselves from a repeat dreadful pitching performance, but when your best pitchers are most likely average, your entire corps will still be below average. But at least it’s a step in the right direction.

2. Then, general manager Dan O’Brien was sent to assuage the masses, assuring everyone that recovery is going smoothly.

3. To inspire the team, a motivational speaker who knows his vowels was brought in at the beginning of Spring Training. The effect of his presence should last until October.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

4. Of course, the Reds also had to announce that Ken Griffey Jr. is in good hands this year.

5. The next step was to tinker with the main cog in the offense, as if that was the problem last year.

6. It was then time to announce the pitching strategy — Reds are for sale. But thankfully, Lindner will be keeping the Reds in Cincinnati! … what a relief.

3. Will Cincinnati’s four-man OF be the best in the NL in 2005?

Thanks to fellow Reds fan, Mike Mundy (who is hoping that if he ignores the pitching staff, it will go away) for submitting this question.

To estimate the best NL outfield, 2005 PECOTA-projected VORP scores for the best four outfielders were summed together for each NL team. The tallies:

Team          VORP
Reds         150.6
Giants       149.1
Cardinals    145.1
Padres       118.4
Mets         117.3
Dodgers      117.1
Phillies     112.1
Astros        87.3
Marlins       85.1
Rockies       83.9
Braves        83.4
Cubs          79.5
Diamondbacks  77.8
Nationals     76.0
Pirates       70.4
Brewers       50.2

And that’s only projecting 2,037 PA for the Reds foursome, approximately 100 PA short of what’s required out there. (Note to Reds management — keep Wily Mo Pena… you’re going to need him!)

Barry Bonds might miss the entire season, though, which would drop, drop, drop the Giants to last on the list. That leaves the Reds vs. the Cardinals with just the defense to consider (VORP doesn’t include fielding).

Accounting for defense, and again using PECOTA, the Reds OF is roughly fifteen runs below average, while the Cardinals are only about five runs below average. This ten run difference pushes the Cardinals to the top of the list. Damn. But at least when looking at the defensive projections for the Padres, Mets, Phillies, and Dodgers, the Reds maintain their 2nd-place status.

4. There is cheap help on the way, right?

The farm system is a barren wasteland. Well, perhaps not that terrible. Sickels posted his Reds Top 20 prospects list recently, and then concluded that the Reds have just a weak farm system. The only player who will probably see action with the Reds this year is Edwin Encarnacion, a third baseman rated fairly high in Aaron Gleeman’s Top 50 Prospects of 2005 list. Thankfully, the Reds only signed Joe Randa to a one-year deal, most likely placing Encarnacion at 3B for the Reds in 2006.

The problem seems to be the draft strategy. Drafting pitchers is risky, especially ones directly out of high school. But this is something the Reds should have already known by now.

In the 1998 draft, the Reds selected Austin Kearns and Adam Dunn with their first two picks. In 1999, the Reds, with their first two picks, selected Ty Howington, who hasn’t panned out, and Ben Broussard, who was traded to the Indians for Russ Branyan on June 7, 2002. Since then, the draft picks, which can be examined here, have been very unimpressive.

The result is a serious lack of depth in the Reds organization, especially with pitching. Now, of course, a serious run of bad luck with the draft is probably contributing, but until the Reds can produce their own ballplayers, they’ll be forced to seek elsewhere for average (and hopefully above-average someday) pitching and replacement parts. And that’s not usually a winning strategy for a team unwilling to (wisely) spend a lot of money.

5. Where else can I find opinions, previews, and projections concerning the Reds?

For opinions, blogs are always full of them. Recommended sites are Redleg Nation, The Red Reporter, and The Great American Red Blog. They can direct you to the other Cincy-focused blogs that appear to be surfacing frequently this year.

Perhaps this might not have been the preview you were looking for. If that’s the case, please jump to these articles that might meet your needs: Baseball Think Factory’s preview, Batter’s Box’s preview along with a follow-up digression by THT’s Craig Burley, and Baseball Toaster’s Cub Town’s Know Your Enemy.

If projections are your game, Marcel the Monkey might do the trick, or perhaps Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS projections. In fact, 2000 season simulations by SG at THT’s Larry Mahnken’s Replacement Level Yankees Weblog, using both ZiPS and Diamond Mind’s projections, predict about 72 wins for the Reds.

That can’t be right … not with the 7-step recovery plan.

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