Okay…I’m about to post something which probably isn’t going to be very popular on a number of different levels, but I believe it needs to be said.

I don’t think the Reds will win as many games in 2010 as they did in 2009; that is, they will win fewer than 78 games. How many, I don’t know, but somewhere between 71 and 78.

Why do I feel this way?

Well, due to the Pythagorean winning percentage method (click the link and then scroll down to get to the formula and definition).

In 2009, the Reds won 78 games and lost 84. If you’ll check a source such as baseball-reference.com you will see that the Reds’ expected won-loss record was 76-86, based on the number of runs the Reds scored and allowed. This “surplus” to the win total is usually credited to the manager, in this case, Dusty Baker, as to finding a way to help the Reds scrap to two additional victories. Some attribute the extra wins to blind luck, but whatever the case, the Reds overachieved.

However, in reading the new Baseball Prospectus book, I find the Reds overachieved even more than at first glance. Baseball Prospectus has taken the Pythagorean method to a new level, calling it Pythagenpat, and it’s used their equivalent runs methodology to get a better understanding of team talent than to have the numbers distorted by outside independent influences. Using this method, the Reds’ projected 2009 performance should’ve been 71-91, which means Dusty and the Reds came up with seven wins above expectations. That’s rather exceptional.

The problem lies in the mirage.

For two consecutive years, Dusty’s Reds’ teams have outperformed their Pythagorean expectations (two-three wins each year using the traditional Pythagorean method). That’s probably an even stronger indicator that something may go wrong, or put in proper perspective, a “correction” may take place in the balancing of luck.

Back in 1983, Bill James wrote in his 1983 Baseball Abstract about the “Johnson Effect” of the Pythagorean won-loss principal. He referenced it in his 1989 book “This Time Let’s Not Eat the Bones.” Let me quote James’s book instead of trying to paraphrase:

“The Pythagorean theory of won/loss percentage states that the ratio between a team’s wins and losses will be similar to the ratio of the square of their runs scored and the square of runs allowed…..It can also be shown that teams which deviate from this relationship in a season tend to be drawn toward it in the next season; in other words, if a team wins ninety games with runs scored and runs allowed figures which should lead to only eighty wins, the odds are strong that the team will decline in the following season.”

Reading from James’s 1983 Abstract, James referenced a Toronto newspaper writer named Bryan Johnson who had proposed this theory (thus the “Johnson Effect”) that teams will move more toward the middle year after year, especially from wins seemingly derived from ‘luck.” James conducted a study of National League teams from 1900-1980 which had actual won-loss percentages of 40 points (about six games) better than their projections. Of the 42 teams that met this criteria, 29 of those teams declined and 13 teams improved, or stated another way, 69% of the teams declined the next season.

To check his study, James lowered the threshold to 20 points (about three games difference) which happens far more often than six games of variance. James used American League teams from 1960-1980 and had 50 teams to use for the study. In this study, 15 of the 50 teams improved, and 35 of the 50 teams declined, which falls very closely to the National League study. In this case, 70% of the teams declined.

The conclusion: by historical norms, there’s about a 70% chance the Reds will win fewer than 78 games in 2010. Likewise, that means there’s about a 30% chance the team will win more than 78 games in 2010.

There’s a few things that can offset this projected decline. An acquistion of a true impact player, such as a superstar, without losing much talent from the existing team, can improve a team by several games. Also, an across the board improvement of a young team can make a difference, too. However, before we get on the “we’re a young team” bandwagon, it should be noted that the Reds are not exceptionally young. In 2009, the National League had a league average age of 28.7 when it came to positional players. The Reds’ average positional player age was 27.9, the fifth youngest in the NL. The National League’s average pitching staff was 28.6. The Reds’ pitching staff averaged 29.0, which was the sixth oldest staff in the National League. The age issue seems to be a wash to me, and we haven’t added any real game changers in the offseason; and we already have Joey Votto, who was one of the best hitters in the league in 2009.

As for the farm system, Baseball Prospectus pretty much says there’s not much help for us there at present time. The highest ranking Reds prospect on the BP prospect list is pitcher Mike Leake, who ranks 58th, and is probably a couple of years away. Next is infielder, Todd Frazier, who ranks 67th, and is predicted to replace what will probably be a traded Brandon Phillips, whom BP states is our best overall player. Since that’s all we have listed in BP’s top 100, there’s not anyone in our farm system that will add to our team this year. Also, keep in mind that most any prospect over the age of 24, is quickly losing prospect status. With prime peak baseball age being 26-29, prospects are younger, not older. Young players over 24 can still contribute, but are far less likely to be impact players; more than likely, they will be role players, which every team needs, too, but they aren’t likely to be gamechangers.

The caveat to this suggestion is that we have already graduated three players who are “prospect age” and are contributing on the major league team–Jay Bruce, Johnny Cueto, and Homer Bailey. Bruce and Bailey still have high ceilings; at this point, Bailey seems to be making bigger strides than Bruce, keeping the “Verducci Effect” (Baker’s overuse of Bailey in 2009) in mind. Neither Cueto or Bruce made as many strides in 2009, but both are still young and have time to improve.

As for quality by position…BP uses their “PECOTA” system to rate potential league leaders and top ten players by position. BP predicts Joey Votto to tie for 14th in the majors in home runs with 29; Jay Bruce is predicted to be 9th in Isolated Power (total bases minus singles divided by at bats); and Francisco Cordero is projected to be 8th in saves. As for quality by position (top ten listed in the majors), Joey Votto is ranked the 7th best first baseman in all of baseball and Brandon Phillips is listed as the 7th best second baseman in baseball. The only other mention we have is that potential fifth starter Matt Maloney is projected to have the 5th best value over replacement pitcher for rookies. We essentially don’t have enough star power either.

My hope? I believe if Homer Bailey can pitch anywhere near where he pitched at the end of last year, we can at least overcome at least half of the seven game deficit (78 wins over the expected 71), may be even more. I think Bailey has the biggest chance of making a positive impact on the Reds team this year. If Jay Bruce can increase his line drive rate (decrease the flyballs) and somewhat manage the strike zone, that will most definitely help, too. Bruce’s 2009 line drive rate was 13%, which was the lowest of any player in baseball with more than 300 plate appearances. Bruce has the power, but we need more hits, too. If Bailey and Bruce don’t take huge steps forward, we won’t win 78, and we’ll be lucky to win 75.

Thus, my rationale. I suppose some will say I’m a naysayer; others will say I’m taking the unusual stance (for me) of supporting Dusty; others will say I just downplayed Dusty’s role; others will disdain what I’ve written as unnecessary; others will remind me that there are exceptions. I truly hope it doesn’t work this way, because games are a lot more fun when we win…but, in my opinion, we still need a whole lot more talent than what we currently have on our roster or in our farm system. I realize that most projections I’ve seen for our team are for around 80-82 wins, but the historical record does not support that proposition.