Warning, what I’m about to say runs against conventional wisdom, so I’ll say it plainly: The 2015 Cincinnati Reds have a reasonable chance to win 90 games.

Reds fans turned their attention to the 2015 season long ago, since, oh, roughly 6:10 p.m. ET, August 17, 2014. And many have allowed the discouraging consensus about their team to poison their hopes for the season. Well, I’m here to say it ain’t necessarily so.

The reasoning? The Reds weren’t as bad as their record indicated last year. And they are a much better (healthier) team this year.

If those 20 words of explanation don’t satisfy you, try the next 2,000:

(1) The 2014 Reds weren’t as bad as their record indicated

Bill Parcells, Hall of Fame NFL coach, once said “you are what your record says you are.” In a general sense, he’s right. But it’s wrong to think that one statistic (wins) can define the true talent level of an athletic team.

Analysts are taking Parcell’s maxim to heart and using 76 — the number of games the 2014 Cincinnati Reds won — as the starting point for projecting a win total for the 2015 Reds. These forecasters say the club, therefore, will finish last in the NL Central with fewer than 80 wins.

But that’s sloppy deduction. The Reds weren’t a 76-win team last year, despite their record.

Run Differential Instead of focusing on wins and losses in 2014, let’s  look at run differential, which is simply runs scored minus runs allowed. It’s a quick rule of thumb for measuring a team and has proven to be a more reliable predictor of future records than has past records. The Reds run differential in 2014 was (-17). That gap is small and typically in line with a 79-win team, all things equal.

One-run Losses Another reason to be skeptical of straight-line extrapolation from 2014’s win-loss columns is the Reds’ league-worst record in one-run games (22-38). The outcome of one-run games is mostly random. Yes, better teams do tend to win a few more one-run games because they win more of every kind of game, on average. But that effect is small and usually dominated by randomness. That’s hard to believe, but it’s true.

Take 2014. The Marlins and Padres were both well above .500 in one-run games, yet each team finished 77-85. The Phillies and Red Sox, two of the worst teams in MLB last year, had winning records in one-run games. The A’s and M’s combined were 39-55 in one-run games and won 88 and 87 games respectively. The World Series champion San Francisco Giants were below .500 in one-run games. You might think one-run wins and losses depend primarily on bullpen quality. Think again. The 2014 Kansas City Royals, who made it to the World Series on the strength of an outstanding bullpen, were both below .500 in one-run games.

A fun historic example of this principle comes from 2003. The Detroit Tigers that year went 43-119. They were one of the all-time worst teams. The 2003 Tigers won more than half their one-run games. While the same season, the Atlanta Braves won 101 while going 17-25 in one-run games.

Seriously, one-run games aren’t a good measure of the talent of a team. And they are poorly correlated from one year to the next. Research since 1870 has shown that teams that win (or lose) a lot of low-scoring games are no more likely to win (or lose) such games in the future. Good news: the Reds are extremely unlikely to be 16 games under .500 in close games in 2015.

If the 2014 Reds had split their one-run contests evenly, they’d have won 84.

Another interesting — and sort of mind-boggling — way to look at 2014 is this: If you exclude all those one-run games, if you look just at all the games the Reds played that were decided by two or more runs, their record would have been 54-48. Let that sink in. That extrapolates to an 86 win season.

Is 84-86 wins a reasonable baseline for the true talent of the Reds? No, not with the negative run differential.

But if you look at those factors, it leads to the conclusion that the Reds true baseline in 2014 was closer to 80 wins, maybe more. And that includes the litany of injuries that could fill a hospital wing, the Chernobyl-quality bullpen and the horrendous third base coaching.

The 2013 Baseline The pessimistic projectors also assume the starting point for comparison for 2015 should be the 2014 Reds. But why shouldn’t it be the 2013 version? A strong case can be made that 2013, a season with a normal amount of injuries, is the tighter comparison. In three of the four years prior to 2014, the Reds won at least 90 wins. Remember, last year, before full-on adversity hit, they were following that pattern — 7 games over .500 more than half-way through the season, only 1.5 games out of first place.

The 2013 Reds won 90 games. They had Shin-Soo Choo, Mat Latos and Bronson Arroyo. But they didn’t have a healthy Johnny Cueto, a bashing Devin Mesoraco and Billy Hamilton covering acres of land in centerfield.

(2) The Reds are a much better (healthier) team in 2015 than they were in 2014

The question then becomes, how do the Reds — and your expectations — get from 80 wins to 90?

Poor health destroyed whatever hopes the 2014 Reds had to return to the postseason. Those players are healthy now. Healthy. Now. That factor alone makes a gigantic difference between last season and this one. The 2014 Reds ranked 28th out of the 30 MLB teams in runs scored. Does anyone believe that a team with a healthy Joey Votto, Jay Bruce, Devin Mesoraco and Todd Frazier will score fewer runs than the Tampa Bay Rays?

Let’s break down the comparison in detail, position-by-position. After all the offseason moves and non-moves, here’s where the 2015 Reds stand:

[Note: These conclusions are based on detailed analysis you can find in the Big Reds Preview, on sale now. Download immediately for $12.95, 140+ pages.]

First Base – Joey Votto returns in good health and carrying a Brennamen-sized motivational chip on his shoulder. Votto was healthy for about 20 games last year. His return massively improves the offense and defense at 1B. Remember Brayan Peña and Todd Frazier (and Jay Bruce!) struggling there, out of position? Votto will thrive as the #2 batter in the lineup. Think: His 2013 season plus a little more power, possible MVP. [2015: +5 wins]

Second Base and Shortstop – Brandon Phillips and Zack Cozart continue to provide outstanding defense up the middle. At the plate, Cozart improves a tick based on better luck, and that cancels out Brandon Phillips’ continued age-related decline. [2015: Push]

Third Base – Todd Frazier can focus his efforts in the field at third. 2014 signaled Frazier’s improvement in hitting on the outside-third of the plate (doubled his ISO). While it’s unrealistic to expect Frazier to duplicate his glitzy counting stats – 29 homers, 20 stolen bases – his hitting rates from 2014 (.273/.336/.459) are sustainable. [2015: Push]

Left Field – Marlon Byrd is 37 years old, an age when major league players tend to suffer substantial decline. Byrd’s OPS in the first half of 2014 (.795) fell from his career-high (.847) in 2013. He showed further decline in the second half of 2014 (.699). But the Reds had the worst hitting LFs in the majors last year. Even if Byrd continues to fade, he’s a huge improvement. [2015: +1.5 wins]

Center Field – Billy Hamilton has given little indication this spring that he’s improved at the plate in any fundamental way. But his exemplary defense in the middle of the outfield plays all day. Expect more of the same in 2015. [2015: Push]

Right Field – A healthy Jay Bruce is primed for a strong rebound. He had three great seasons from 2011-13, including winning the Silver Slugger Award the latter two. No reason to believe that at 27 he become unable to hit a fastball. The weakness in his knee explains 2014. Even if Bruce’s batting average doesn’t return fully, in part due to defensive shifts, expect 30 home runs and 40 doubles. [2015: +2.5 wins]

Catcher – Devin Mesoraco can repeat his 2014 numbers (.273/.359/.534). When people assert he can’t keep it up, they’re thinking about the first half and they’re right. But by October, his stat line had become a credible predictor. Mesoraco showed tremendous improvement in batted ball distance and line drive rate. He hit more homers and more doubles. And there’s a good chance he’ll increase his number of plate appearances by at least 10-15 percent. [2015: +1 win]

Starting Pitchers #1-#4 – Johnny Cueto and Mike Leake enter their walk years, pitching for the Reds and their next contract. Cueto will remain an ace, but it would be unrealistic to expect another year as good as 2014. On the other hand, Leake should continue his steady improvement, now pitching in the #3 spot in the rotation. [2015 Cueto and Leake: Push].

Homer Bailey will miss one start, but has been healthy this spring. While his 2014 season was plagued by minor injuries, he continued to improve on important underlying stats, like his fastball velocity, swinging strike rate and groundball percentage. Over his final seven starts, Bailey’s ERA was 1.62 and he gave up zero or one runs in five of them. [2015 Bailey: +2 wins]

Anthony DeSclafani as the #4 starter remains unproven but promising. He’ll benefit from the Reds strong defense. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to see him put up a 4.00 ERA. [2015 DeSclafani: -.5 win]

Starting Pitcher #5 – Huge uncertainty. Just how wide this all-consuming black hole in the Reds’ rotation will become is an issue of tolerance. If the Reds act aggressively to minimize the damage, Jason Marquis might make just a handful of starts and be replaced by the cadre of arms (Michael Lorenzen, Raisel Iglesias, David Holmberg etc.) at AAA. However, if the Reds cling to their former Cardinal, he might pitch half the season and do substantial damage to the Reds chances. [2015: -1.5 wins]

Bullpen – Aroldis Chapman’s 65 innings provides the anchor. After that, it’s hit-and-miss. Or hit-hit-walk-miss-hit-hit. That’s what you get from relief pitchers. If they were more consistent and talented, they would be starters. Expect Jumbo Diaz to be fine, although his split against LH batters is concerning. J.J. Hoover will have a much better outcome. Burke Badenhop should be solid, but not shutdown. Tony Cingrani may provide the best improvement for the pen over 2014. Manny Parra regressed back to the pitcher that got released by the Brewers in 2012. Parra and Kevin Gregg will be the weak links. Good news: Capable arms in AAA are plentiful, if the Reds don’t dither like they did last year in delaying Diaz’s arrival. [2015: +.5 wins]

Third Base Coach – Just kidding. Half kidding. Sorta. But, yeah.

Conclusion

Based on those estimates, the Reds would be 10.5 wins better now than they were in 2014. That moves the win column from 80 to 90.

Does everything have to go right? Well, most everything. Good health for the core players at least. But each one is healthy right now. Healthy. Now.

Is 90 wins the most likely scenario for the Reds? No, but it isn’t the ceiling, either. Plenty of conservative assumptions were baked in to these projections. What if Marlon Byrd hits like he did last year? What if one of the young pitchers breaks through and becomes the next 2013 Tony Cingrani in the starting rotation? What if Devin Mesoraco has another gear? And friends of mine who follow other teams tell me that general managers can make trades to improve rosters during the season. The Reds could end up even better than the specific projections above.

Obvious caveat: The position player roster is, once again, thin as a dime. Rather, nickel and dime. If the bench sees substantial playing time in the stead of a core player, all bets are off.

Another obvious caveat: The Reds play in the toughest division in baseball. The sad sack Houston Astros of 2012 and the stupid Cubs aren’t walking through the clubhouse door any more.

Offsetting those caveats: Motivation. It’s hard to believe the Reds won’t have tremendous desire to prove last year was a fluke. The player response to the Mat Latos letter showed a new and welcome edginess. In addition, individual players — those bouncing back from injury, like Votto, Bruce, Phillips and Bailey and those playing in a contract year, like Cueto, Byrd and Leake — have reason for even higher level of motivation.

My bottom line: Optimism. Not the unbridled kind, though. Maybe if the offseason hadn’t been so awful and spring training decision-making less resulting in oldster, washed up guys on the roster, maybe then, unbridled optimism. One more proven major league player on the bench and at the back of the rotation would have been huge. I’m predicting 86 wins largely because I don’t trust the team’s management to be nimble enough to pivot away from failing free agents they signed in the offseason. But the fundamentals are there to win 90 otherwise.

The Reds aren’t a 76-win team now and weren’t last year. But is it reasonable to expect them to get back to being a 90+ win team?

Johnny Cueto will throw the first pitch this afternoon at 4:10. Let’s play ball and find out.

2 Responses

  1. lost11found

    Thanks for the Optimism Steve.

    Advanced statistics have been a boon for fans of every team, but the flip-side to that is that but for very few cases, one can always find an achillies heel if enough layers of the onion are peeled away.

    That’s the beauty of baseball. It sheer randomness, even over a long season, can still and usually does in some way every year!

    PLAY BALL!

  2. Robby20

    I thought the Reds had a no trade provision written into Jocketty’s contract