Baseball is special amongst the professional sports in America. You will often hear people talk about how a season is a marathon and not a sprint. This nice little axiom is supposed to remind us not to get too high or too low over events that happen throughout the season. In no sport is this truer than our National Pastime. While the NFL has a 16 game season, and the NBA has an 82 game season, and the NHL, well, does anyone know? Does anyone even watch the NHL? Anyway, in Major League Baseball, the season lasts almost twice as long, 162 games. When you play 162 games, things tend to even out. Good luck can balloon an average NFL team into a playoff contender, a la the Chicago Bears of 2001, but in 162 games, the cream does not just rise to the top, the grounds have time to settle to the bottom.
All of this brings us to the 2004 edition of the Cincinnati Reds, who, about a week ago, were sitting at 12 games over .500 and leading the National League Central. The pre-season picks the Chicago Cubs and the Houston Astros were several games behind, and sports media around the country kept asking, are these guys for real? On the surface, it appeared to be so. Ken Griffey Jr. was healthy for the first time in years, led the league in home runs, and was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Adam Dunn was blasting home runs, Danny Graves led the league in saves, starter Paul Wilson was 7-0, and Sean Casey was having the best year of any first baseman in the Major Leagues. A closer look, however, reveals that while the car may look nice, problems underneath the hood are leading toward a breakdown.
Welcome Back! was the banner headline for Junior this past week, but is he really back? True, he is leading homers (18) and is among the leaders in RBIs (49). But, he is only batting in the .250s and the once-vaunted defense that made him the games best all-around player for most of the 1990s, is gone. According to Ken Rosenthal of The Sporting News, in an effort to avoid injury he no longer covers the ground or even throws as well as in the past. Griffey ranks 15th among the 16 regular National League centerfielders in zone rating, the percentage of balls a player fields in his typical defensive zone, according to STATS Inc., and a scout labels him an average centerfielder at best. A .258 average, 18 homers, and 49 RBIs with average defense does not make you one of the games best players, it makes you Adam Dunn.
Speaking of Adam Dunn, .259, 18 homers, and 41 RBIs is what the other slugger for the Reds is putting up this year, but before you become too excited, remember that Dunn has a habit of putting up power numbers early, only to watch them fall as the season develops. The 26 saves by Graves may look impressive, but two other numbers should cause you to stop before anointing him the next Eric Gagne. Graves has seven blown saves, a pretty high number, and has given up nine home runs. Neither of these numbers are reflective of a great closer.
Pitching was the projected problem going into the season, and pitching is what is triggering the Reds fall from grace. Wilson and his 7-0 record with a 3.18 ERA is indeed impressive, and he has earned an invite to the All-Star Game, but before getting too excited, a season like this has been the exception for Wilson and not the rule. The rest of the Reds pitching staff is a motley crew of bottom-of-the-rotation pitchers that would not crack the starting staff for more than half of the other teams in the league. Do the names Jose Acevedo, Aaron Harang, or Cory Lidle strike fear in your hearts? Of course not, and the team ERA of 4.97 places them second to last in the NL, thank God for the Colorado Rockies.
Sean Casey, (a guy the Reds had tried to unload), is healthy and showing, once again, that he can be a great hitter at this level. The power numbers, 13 homers and 47 RBIs are the real surprising aspect of his game in 2004. The lack of power at a power position has been the knock on Casey for years, but perhaps all he needed was to finally be healthy. It is a crime the fans are voting Griffey into the All-Star Game, but Casey is down the list of first baseman.
Of course, all of this insight would have looked better a week ago, before the Reds went into a tailspin. The truth is when Sports Illustrated pointed out that according to Bill James stats, the Reds should be at .500, that is when it became apparent the season was over. The beauty of a 162 game season is that you cannot hide anything, and that is why the numbers and the odds, no matter how you stack them, always turn out right.
When the article appeared, the Reds began their descent. First, a three-game sweep to the in-state rival Cleveland Indians. Then a rain-soaked loss to the Phillies puts the losing streak at seven games and counting. A lot of excitement was being generated in the Queen City as it appeared the Reds would contend, and although they may hang around, winning a division seems unlikely looking at the current roster and numbers, unless the front office makes moves to shore up the pitching and Junior continues to stay healthy and improve. And somewhere in there lies the unspoken question, Will the front office help the team? This regime has shied away in the past from anything having to do with adding money. The fear most Reds fans have, if the Reds fall out of contention, is that instead of looking for ways to help the team, once again they will look to save money. n