Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Janish single unclogs bases for Reds win

Last night, I attended the Reds game vs. the Los Angeles Dodgers on an absolutely beautiful night at Great American Ball Park. Joining me in attendance was Pete Rose, the all-time major league leader in hits, who was sitting in his usual location, right behind home plate.

Homer Bailey started the game for the Reds. He had somewhat struggled in his first two outings and was looking for a good performance in front of the home fans.

I watched him warm up in the bullpen before the game.

Homer had an especially tough challenge facing this Dodgers' lineup that really presents problems, top-to-bottom. Even Blake DeWitt, who was batting .249 before the game had an OBP well above. .400.

In comparison, the Reds lineup apparently packed little punch, with no hitters entering the game batting above .300 -- except for pitcher Homer Bailey. Particularly struggling was leadoff hitter, Drew Stubbs. Stubbs was hitting .167 at the start of the game and went 0-5 with two more strikeouts. I'd love to see Dusty Baker move him lower in the lineup, like to 7th or 8th and have Chris Dickerson play LF and bat leadoff.

Last night marked the very welcome return of Scott Rolen to the lineup. Rolen had missed the three game series in Pittsburgh against the Pirates with a sore back. The veteran third baseman responded with three line-drive hits, earning star-of-the-game treatment afterward.

After Homer gave up three runs on a bases-clearing, full-count double by Casey Blake, he settled down and held the powerful Dodgers lineup scoreless for four innings. I'll predict that's the only time the Dodgers will go four innings without scoring in this series.

After a quiet first inning, with Stubbs, Cabrera and Votto making outs, the Reds bats exploded with six runs in the second inning. Brandon Phillips ignited the rally with a towering home run to left field.

Rolen, Bruce, Gomes, and Hernandez all followed with hits. Homer Bailey reached first on an error by the Dodgers on his sacrifice bunt attempt. Stubbs struck out (with a runner on third) but both Cabrera and Votto knocked in runs to conclude the inning.

Two innings later, Joey Votto padded the Reds lead with a long, 2-run homer to right center field. Homer Bailey was cruising along at that point.

After Homer ran out of gas in the sixth inning, giving up two runs, the bullpen took over. A nice appearance by lefty Daniel Ray Herrera was followed by a shaky one by Logan Ondrusek, who manager Dusty Baker keeps using in very high leverage situations for the Reds. Arthur Rhodes entered the game and got Ondrusek and the Reds out of trouble in the seventh. But Nick Masset continued his troubling start to the season by blowing a four run lead in the top of the eighth.

To their credit, the Reds promptly responded in the bottom of the same inning. The eventual game-winning rally was begun by the smallest of plays, one that apparently doesn't even appear in Dusty Baker's playbook, Jay Bruce clogging the bases with a walk.

After a second walk to Ramon Hernandez further clogged the bases, defensive shortstop replacement Paul Janish came to the plate for a dramatic at bat with two outs.

Janish fought off an inside pitch and lined a single to left field, ultimately scoring two runs.

Coco Cordero came in to shut the door on the Dodgers in the ninth,

ending a five-game losing streak for the Reds.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Baseball gods to Reds on Opening Day: Release the Pujols!

I attended my first Opening Day at Great American Ball Park yesterday. It was exciting to feel the ballpark filled to capacity. There were other unique aspects as well.

The live Dixieland jazz band playing in the concourse ...

Pre-game interviews with the Reds broadcast on the scoreboard ...

Former Cardinals GM and current Reds GM Walt Jocketty on the field with Dusty Baker and current Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa ...

Reds owner Bob Castellini with Ohio Governor Ted Strickland ...

A giant, US-shaped flag on the field during the national anthem, with color guards from all branches of the armed forces present ...

Retired long-time Reds announcer George Grande (did you know he hosted the very first SportsCenter on ESPN in 1979?) threw out the first pitch to Big Red Machine Hall of Fame catcher Johnny Bench. Here they hug afterward.

One other awesome display before the game was Albert Pujols taking batting practice. Seeing Albert rise up out of the Cardinals dug out to take his swings reminded me of the clip from the fantasy Clash of the Titans.

"Release the Pujols!"

Unfortunately, the Cardinals first baseman was an all-too-real punishment inflicted by the baseball gods on the Reds.

Pujols did not hit the longest ball of BP, though. That accomplishment fell to Cardinals OF Matt Holliday, who hit a ball above the batters eye in CF onto the steam-boat bar area.

Baker's lineup

I've complained at length about Reds manager Dusty Baker's terrible lineup construction. For those who think lineups don't really matter much, a
new statistical analysis from the folks at FanGraphs confirms that sub-optimal lineups can cost in terms of run production. They analyze Baker's lineup yesterday and found that it was sub-optimal by .24 runs per game. While that may not sound like much, over 162 games that works out to over 40 runs (or 4 wins) per year.

My two biggest complaints. One, batting Orlando Cabrera second. As I've written before, he's the worst Reds hitter in the lineup but slated to bat in front of the Reds' best hitter and receive the second largest number of AB for the Reds. Scott Rolen would be a perfect #2 hitter. Cabrera was 0-5 yesterday, including grounding into a double play.

Second, Baker started Laynce Nix instead of Drew Stubbs. This might have been based on Nix being a left handed batter, who might have a better chance against Cardinals starter, RHP Chris Carpenter. Nix did get a hit. Stubbs, put into the game later, was 2-2.

The game

There were several positives for the Reds. Joey Votto got three hits. Here Votto takes an inside pitch with Pujols playing first base in the background.

Third baseman Scott Rolen hit a long home run and was robbed of a second by Cardinals CF Colby Rasmus. Here is Rolen rounding third after his HR.

My biggest complaint with Baker's game management, aside from his lineup choice to start Cabrera ahead of Paul Janish and bat Cabrera second, was that he sent shaky relief pitcher Mike Lincoln to the mound for a second inning in the top of the seventh -- to face the meat of the Cardinals lineup. Lincoln gave up a hit-homer-hit (including Pujols second) that essentially put the game out of reach for the Reds.

When asked after the game why he sent Lincoln out for a second inning, Baker replied, according to reporter C. Trent Rosecrans:
"I needed that second inning so I didn't go through my whole bullpen," Reds manager Dusty Baker said. "You need that second inning bad."

Correct me if I'm wrong, but didn't the Reds have SIX other relief pitchers available to cover the last three innings (Owings, Herrera, Cordero, Rhodes, Masset, Ondrusek)?

Further ... so what if the Reds went "through their whole bullpen," didn't they have today off for the bullpen to get fresh for tomorrow?

Seriously, sending Mike Lincoln, the Reds worst relief pitcher, the one who wouldn't have made the team were it not for his guaranteed contract, the one who barely did make the team anyhow, sending him to face Pujols and Holliday in the seventh inning was a terrible, indefensible mistake by Baker.

Did that cost the Reds the game? Probably not. But I sure would have liked to see how the game would have played out with the Reds coming to bat in the bottom of the seventh behind only 4-2 instead of 6-2.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Pounding the zone

"I was just going out there and pounded the zone. Just here it is, hit it," said Homer Bailey commenting on his performance today at Goodyear Ballpark.

The result, he pounded the Giants. In his outstanding start against a mostly first-team San Francisco Giants lineup, Homer allowed only one run in five innings. He gave up three hits, all in the first, and one walk. Only one of the hits was a line drive.

In the first inning, Giants leadoff hitter, Aaron Rowand greeted Homer by lining his first pitch into left field for a base hit. After Edgar Rentaria grounded to Scott Rolen, Pablo Sandoval was fooled on a Bailey pitch and topped the ball softly toward the first base bag. Neither Homer or Joey Votto could make a play on both the ball and the bag, so Sandoval was safe, Rowand moving to third. Aubrey Huff then blooped a check-swing single down the third base line, driving in the Giants only run off of Homer.

Homer kept the Giants off balance with his sweeping curve ball -- including one he threw on a full count in the fourth inning to Giant left fielder, and Reds-killer, Mark DeRosa. DeRosa tapped it softly back to the mound. It was mostly smooth sailing for Bailey, as he continued his progression toward being an outstanding major league starting pitcher.

Homer retired the last 10 batters that he faced. He'll next take the mound Monday against the Chicago Cubs in Mesa. Here catcher Ryan Hanigan is about to receive one of Homer's bullpen warm up pitches before the game.

Post-Chapocalyptic observations and hopes

The Reds day off yesterday provided time for reflection to assess where the team stands with just less than two weeks before Opening Day. Here are a few updated observations -- and hopes -- for the final 10 days of the Reds spring camp.

Infield: Mismanaging the backups
The Reds recently cut top prospects Todd Frazier, Chris Heisey and Zack Cozart. Of the three, Todd Frazier didn't receive nearly enough quality playing time, particularly at second base. The 50 AB and all the starts the Reds have given to Aaron Miles, Miguel Cairo and Chris Burke should have been distributed among our younger players.

The way the club is handling Aaron Miles is particularly frustrating. Miles came to the Reds in the swap-of-bad-contracts that sent Willy Taveras to the Oakland A's. Because Miles' contract was slightly less horrible than Taveras' we had to send Adam Rosales packing, too.

The day the Reds subtracted Taveras and added Miles, Reds GM Walt Jocketty praised the latter, leaving no doubt that he considered the 33-year-old Miles squarely in the Reds' future plans. "I'm happy to be reunited with Aaron, who played a key role in our World Series championship in St. Louis. He's a quality infielder, a quality person and will be an asset to our club."

This spring, despite ample opportunity, including several starts, Miles has exactly the same number of hits as he does errors - one. Not quite the "asset to our club" that Jocketty forecast. Miles' one hit was a bloop single, fisted barely over the head of the Giants third baseman last Saturday. The rest of his AB can be characterized as a series of weak ground balls.

Miles' defense has been unremarkable for the most part except for the one error. In the field, he certainly is less athletic than Drew Sutton or Paul Janish, both of whom have had excellent springs at the plate.

In comparison, the Oakland A's dumped Willy Taveras the day after the trade was completed. They didn't drag him along to their spring camp, wasting valuable playing time and at-bats for other players. No, they admitted, in a way the Reds wouldn't, what that trade was all about.

Given the love Miles has seen from the Reds this spring, it wouldn't surprise me at all if he heads east with the team in April. At least based on current performance, that would be unfortunate, as he surely hasn't earned it. Baker doesn't seem happy about it, but Miles is Jocketty's guy.

Hopes: The Reds quickly end their experiment with Miles (and Cairo and Burke) and give the two backup infielder jobs to Janish and Sutton, both of whom could use more consistent work to get ready for the year.

Outfield: Stubbs has caught Dickerson
Spring training started with Dusty Baker virtually anointing Drew Stubbs as the Reds CF and leadoff hitter. Those plans were called into question a few weeks later as Dickerson exploded out of the gate in Goodyear while Stubbs struggled. Baker even allowed a few days ago that Dickerson had thus far outplayed Stubbs.

Today, against the Giants, for the first time all spring Baker has Dickerson batting leadoff and playing CF with rest of the first team. Homer Bailey, the most important Reds pitcher this year, is starting.

Over the past week or so, Stubbs has dialed up his game. Always a spectacular fielder, as Stubbs has gained major league experience, he has shrugged off problems with "taking charge" that plagued him when he first was called up to the Reds last fall. His spring on-base-percentage is now at .351 (Dickerson is at .400). Stubbs is still striking out at too high a rate for a leadoff hitter, whiffing 11 times in 37 plate appearances.

The Reds now face two squeezes in the outfield. One is for playing time, as four players have had positive springs - Stubbs, Dickerson, Jay Bruce and Jonny Gomes. Gomes has even demonstrated a bit of improved defense.

The second tough decision concerns the last of the five outfield roster slots. Both Laynce Nix and Wladimir Balentien have had productive springs, flashing power and glove. The conventional wisdom is that Nix, as a lefty, has an edge in this battle. But Balentien is out of options, so the Reds would lose him if he doesn't make the 25-man roster.

Top prospect Chris Heisey was cut and sent to the minor league camp. He had shown glimpses of why the Reds and other scouts are so high on him, though.

Hopes: To see Stubbs and Dickerson play side-by-side in the OF, with Dickerson in LF, and equally importantly, Dickerson leading off. Stubbs should bat sixth behind Jay Bruce.

Starting Pitchers: Fifth spot remains uncertain
Aaron Harang, Bronson Arroyo, Johnny Cueto and Homer Bailey have all turned in solid springs thus far, ready to head back to Cincinnati assured of the top four spots in the starting rotation. But what of the fifth spot? Who is going to pitch April 11 in Great American Ball Park against the Chicago Cubs?

Just as an answer was forcing itself upon the Reds management, this happened.

Aroldis Chapman's back spasms have thrown the Reds 5th SP slot into turmoil. Matt Maloney seemed to be earning it for a while. But apparently the party line is that he is now being looked at for the bullpen, which is a polite way of saying he will start the year in the minor leagues.

The youthful duo of Travis Wood (LHP) and Mike Leake (RHP) have seemed tied together this spring. Not only have they pitched on the same day, but their performances have paralleled each other, with their last outings in San Francisco bringing expectations back down to the proper place. This Friday may turn out to be particularly important, when both Wood and Leake will pitch on the road against Seattle. Leake will start this time, so he'll face Ichiro, Chone Figgins, etc.

A new name has entered the mix in the press recently, Justin Lehr. This really surprises me as Lehr has been an afterthought in the Reds planning this spring. He hadn't pitched more than two innings at a time prior to Sunday when he faced the Cubs. Lehr's respectable spring ERA and numbers from the game against the Cubs are misleading for two reasons. First, he has been hit pretty hard. Second, against the Cubs he was facing a lineup of AA/AAA players. If he starts for the Reds on April 11, that's a sign the Reds are playing for time, probably to get Aroldis Chapman ready.

Hopes: That Maloney, Wood or Leake will be given the opportunity to take a few big league turns in the rotation. And that Chapman returns to health quickly and is the Reds fifth starter by May 1.

Bullpen: Looks great
The pitchers assigned to the back end of the bullpen -- Coco Cordero, Arthur Rhodes, Nick Massett and Daniel Ray Herrera -- have been fine this spring, particularly Cordero and Rhodes. You can probably count on Micah Owings for one of the two remaining slots, given his unique talent as a pinch hitter. The long relief role is a perfect fit for him.

Hopes: For the continued good health of these pitchers.

Corey Patterson, Willy Taveras ... Orlando Cabrera

Just when you thought it was safe to let Dusty Baker manage the Reds lineup this year, it turns out there is another tragically OBP-terrible player for him to bat insanely high in the lineup. 35-year-old SS, Orlando Cabrera is Baker's new lineup-killer -- and he's batting right in front of the Reds best hitter, Joey Votto.

It shouldn't be a big surprise to the Reds that Orlando Cabrera is hitting like Willy Taveras this spring. After all, his career on-base-percentage (.322) is virtually identical to that of Taveras (.321). Last year, Cabrera's OBP was .316.

This spring, in 34 plate appearances, Cabrera's OBP is a woeful .286 so far. He has certainly looked the part at the plate - regularly swinging wildly at pitches well out of the strike zone. He has yet to hit a home run.

By comparison, last year's SS Paul Janish has an OBP of .388 this spring, with two home runs and a double. Janish is certainly no #2 hitter either. But the Reds do have another option -- an excellent one, in fact -- to bat second in the lineup.

Raising an additional horrible memory of Taveras was Cabrera's pathetic effort to bunt for a hit on Monday, with the ball stopping about a foot in front of the catcher.

To be fair, Cabrera has been excellent in the field this spring, turning in one of the best defensive plays on Monday, robbing Rockies catcher Miguel Olivo on a ground ball hit deep in the hole at SS.

Nonetheless, Cabrera's once sterling defensive reputation has taken a hit in the past couple of years, as he has aged. Last year he had the most errors (25) of any SS in the league. And out of the 31 shortstops who played at least 500 innings in 2009 he was ranked 29th based on the defensive statistic UZR/150.

BTW, the #1 rated SS in that category? Paul Janish, of course.