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.

51 Responses

  1. bohdi87

    If we are using 2013 as the base one could also factor in the upgrade at manager from Dusty to Price into that equation as another (albeit small) positive.

    Also, for a small market club like the Reds, health is always going to be a caveat going into a season. The Reds haven’t had a good bench or depth for a while now but they’ve still managed a few playoff appearences.

    • ohiojimw

      After the 8th inning of opening day, I suspect very people still think Price is a better manager over the 162 game season than Baker.

      Truth is Baker was a pretty good long haul manager and has the numbers to prove it. His shortfall was was short series and even more in individual crucial game moments.

  2. RiverCity Redleg

    I like it Steve. And, like you say, most of these expectations are fairly conservative. I think the BP/Cozart combo could easily be an upgrade. BP’s natural decline will be off of what he should have been had he not played hurt the last couple of years, giving you at least a wash (if not a bump). And if Cozart isn’t the worst hitter in baseball, he’ll be a bump. Giving an overall bump over last year.
    The problem is in your caveat. This team HAS to stay healthy to compete in this division.We just do not have any realistic reinforcements to cover extended play anwhere, except maybe the bullpen.

    • Matt WI

      Good to see you post! I’ll take optimism on Opening Day.

  3. docmike

    Good post, Steve. I, too, am cautiously optimistic. With the pitching, I feel Cueto’s greatness will cancel out Marquis’s nothingness. Desclafini’s uncertainty will cancel out the reliability of Mike Leake. The X-factor in the rotation is Homer Bailey. If he pitches like a solid #2, the Reds have a good chance to win more than they lose.

    With the hitting, it all depends on health. The talent is there, hopefully it stays out of the training room.

  4. George Mirones

    I watched the Cubs and Cards last night , and yes it is 1 game but the Cards didn’t beat the Cubs, as I saw it, the Cubs once again beat themselves.by a lack of fielding, not holding runners, and outfielders that looked as if they were playing their first game in spring training.

    Perceptions, yes, but the Cards accepted the gift.

    • Matt WI

      I’ll say this… The Cards have a knack for limiting the impact of punches. The Cubs had a lot of leadoff hitters on, had a couple of doubles, and the Wainright buckled down every time. It was a familiar feeling of “how do they always do that” when the Reds start to threaten and get extinguished. But you’re right, the Cubs didn’t play clean ball last night. That and the wind held a few balls up at the track!

      • George Mirones

        Matt;
        The wind is an equal opportunity barrier. Playing “clean ball” is the offset against that barrier. If it were my money to bet, I would want to see the Cubs play better defense before I get all giddy , as some have done, before putting them anywhere other than 5th place.

      • jdx19

        I think Kris Bryant alone keeps them out of 5th place. Seriously…the guy is nuts. He’ll be replacing Mike Olt in 2 weeks… Mike Olt, AKA the worst hitter in the Cubs lineup.

      • Nathaniel

        Solar was an adventure every time the ball was hit his way.

    • jdx19

      Also, a wildly erratic strike zone (from what I saw) sort of made me question the whole thing. A lot of walks and strikeouts that didn’t seem like they should have happened, on both sides, really.

  5. Jeff Gangloff

    Love the optimism, especially on opening day. Go Reds!

  6. George Mirones

    Overall I have these thoughts about the 2015 Reds. If Homer, Cueto, and Leake can each win 5 more than they lose and the other starters can match 500 we have a chance.
    No matter what the other 8 position players do it will come down to the production of Bruce not Votto that will have the greatest impact on the offense. As weak as the offense was last year a healthy Bruce this year could make a difference of 5 games not just +2.5.

  7. Matt WI

    And friends of mine who follow other teams tell me that general managers can make trades to improve rosters during the season. Well done, Steve.

    • Robby20

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

  8. DevAJS

    This is what I just said on the Opening Day post…

    I know that everyone expects predictions to be made and what not, but I’ve been disappointed in the negativity that a lot of people have had about the team. Of course a lot of the season depends on the overall health of the team, but you could say that about literally every single team in the division.

    I know that the last two seasons have been let downs and make it hard to be optimistic when it comes to the team staying healthy, but reading the comments and predictions has made me depressed. While the Cardinals as a whole tend to be a better run organization and are admittedly pretty consistent, they could have a ton of unforeseen injuries as well. The fact that the Reds have actually done as well as they have without their best players at full strength or being out completely for the last two years I think actually bodes pretty well for the them when they are at full strength.

    I’m actually still pretty excited about the season. I’m glad that you aren’t one of the super pessimistic ones Steve.

    • jdx19

      I replied over there so I don’t want to replicate… but being excited and being pessimistic aren’t mutually exclusive. I don’t think the Reds will have a great season. I think they CAN, for sure, but I don’t think it is likely. But, I”m excited nonetheless. I don’t think everyone on the blog has to be claiming the Reds will win the WS. That would make for a pretty unexciting blog, I’d say.

    • charlottencredsfan

      Deva, I took the prediction post as what you “think” will happen. From here out, it is what I “hope” will happen. Steve lays out a plausible path to a successful season and I’m on board. The baseball season is like a novel made up of a 162 chapters. Each game has it’s own part to play and of course they play them one at a time. The game is complicated and very hard to predict who will be where come fall. If you had the Giants and Royals making the WS last year, you raked in the money. Let’s get a nice start today!

      • DevAJS

        I agree, I just think some are more pessimistic about things. Nobody truly has any better insight than anyone else and that’s what makes the game so interesting. Unlike other sports there are so many different variables and the season is so long that it truly is the type of sport that has to be taken one game at a time. Perhaps that’s why baseball can also be incredibly frustrating. One game your team looks like it could beat any team in baseball and the next they are so bad you wonder if they will ever win another game.

        I agree, I hope we have a good start today. I like the odds against Liriano.

      • vegastypo

        I think you’d almost have to say the baseball season began the minute the last season ended. Maybe call the off-season a “prologue” to the 162 chapters about to unfold. In that regard, pinning hopes on Byrd and Marquis invites its own brand of pessimism, even before the first pitch is thrown.

        Hope Steve proves correct, but it just wouldn’t surprise me to see things slip the other way.

      • charlottencredsfan

        Understood but it is impossible to say what will transpire. Both Byrd and Marquis could have productive years or both could be replaced, by say, Winker and Lorenzen, who take off like rockets.

        I made my intellectual prediction on another thread but the season is starting and I’m looking at it optimistically. The deck is stacked against us but much stranger things have happened. Game at a time.

      • Matt WI

        Right on Charlotte… there’s a difference between making a guess about how the season goes and being the frustrating fan who declares games over in the third inning and the season over by Wednesday. That nonsense keeps me out of most game threads. Game to game, I’m in it and hope for good things to happen.

  9. Jeff

    Okay Steve, I asked for some hope and you gave me some hope. Not changing my prediction, but I have found some of that hope that is supposed to spring eternal on opening day.

  10. Eric T

    Steve, you said that 2013 was a season with “a normal amount of injuries”. I believe you, but what constitutes “normal” with regard to team injuries/games missed? Is there a stat that’s been developed to show the health of a team’s starters for a full season relative to the rest of the league as well as an average numbers of games any player can expect, on average, to miss through injury or rest?

  11. earmbrister

    Good to hear some optimism after an off season of way too much pessimism. If I read one more national correspondent talk about the Reds who can only point to one major injury last year (Votto), I’ll scream. I’m expecting a big rebound from Bruce, and we should get much more production out of LF. Mesoraco and Frazier have come of age, and Bailey, Simon, and Latos limped home last year. The 2015 Bailey, Disco, and yes Marquis (fingers crossed) should be the push that SM projects.

    GO R-E-D-S !!!

  12. earmbrister

    I should have added:

    The offense should be WAY better than last year. Really like the new lineup.

  13. w_c_hughes

    Love it! Can’t disagree. My bet is borderline playoffs, 87 wins.

    • Doug Gray

      Steve, don’t throw yourself in the boat with me. I’m a sinking ship when it comes to minds. Lol

  14. i71_Exile

    I am optimistic about the Reds’ chances and see them contending. It’s going to take a few weeks of solid offense to fully flush the taste of last year’s ineptitude from my damaged psyche, but today’s a good day to get it started. Kicking BP down to seventh has already put a bounce in my step.

    Go Reds!

  15. jdx19

    This one made me laugh!

    “And friends of mine who follow other teams tell me that general managers can make trades to improve rosters during the season.”

  16. WVRedlegs

    Cautious optimism moving forward. I think 88 wins is achievable. The 88 wins might be what wins the NLC. I see the Cardinals being ripe for having the injury bug hit them hard this year. The NLC will be a slobberknocker in 2015. They’ll be lucky to get a wild card team from the NLC.
    The front office is what will weigh down the 2015 Reds like a mill stone. Jocketty is a -6 WAR GM.
    Prediction:
    82-80.

    • DevAJS

      Ugh, I hope not in regard to the front office. I hope the team stays healthy enough to minimize the impact that the front office has (that is unless the front office has actually learned something from the last couple of years, which is doubtful).

  17. gaffer

    Looking at the national publication predictions, we are picked 5th in the division many places. That sort of makes me mad, but I remember that we have been picked 5th nearly EVERY year that I can recall, even in 2012 when we were nearly the best team in the NL.

    This team probably will not win the division (it is a tough division) but a wild card is probably 50/50 chance. Clearly, we need health and people need to perform to expectations but would you rather have the Brewers roster? Cubs looked lifeless yesterday too. Pirates have plenty of issues too.

    • DevAJS

      That’s what I was confused about in regard to all of the predictions. I mean I don’t think any true baseball fan will say that the Pirates or Brewers are bad teams and that the Reds should definitely finish higher than them, but the Pirates and Brewers aren’t exactly the Nationals and Dodgers either. Both have just as many issues that they need to deal with as the Reds. For the Reds it really is all about health and everyone playing to what their baseball card says they can do. If it’s a standard year for everyone on this team, then I like the chances.

  18. Tom Reed

    If the batting order stays with Votto hitting 2nd. and Phillips in the 7th. slot along with Byrd/Boensch in left field, the Reds offense should improve. The three starting pitchers look good with four and five the question marks. The middle bullpen is a work in progress but Cingrani and Chapman will get it done. Along with a second year manager and a new 3rd. base coach, I think the Reds will be an improved team.

  19. Jake

    Lineup

    Hamilton
    Votto
    Frazier
    Mesoraco
    Byrd
    Bruce
    Phillips
    Cozart

    • DevAJS

      Again if everyone stays healthy I like the lineup quite a bit over the long haul.

      • Jake

        I agree, there is some potential. If Billy can repeat his performance before the AS break last year, Cozart can hit and Byrd can mash we’ll be near the top of the division

  20. sultanofswaff

    I like the direction this team is headed win or lose.

    If we are in the hunt, we’ll have a cavalry of stud prospects to bolster the roster for the stretch run. Better than any trade because your not subtracting talent to acquire talent.

    If we are out of the race, we trade Cueto/Leake/Chapman(?) for legit talent and hit the ground running in 2016.

  21. WVRedlegs

    Quoting Bill Parcells is an omen. Maybe it’s more like Dennis Green, “they are who we thought they were, and we let them off the hook.”
    Cannot let the front office off the hook for such a poor off-season. And the 2015 Reds are who we think they they are, the quality Jocketty sought out this winter, mediocrity.

  22. bhrubin1

    I’ve been thinking this through too, and came to a very similar conclusion, though by a slightly different route: I’m slightly more bullish on Hamilton and the bullpen, slightly more bearish on Byrd and the rotation. I also think the improved lineup logic is probably worth a win.

  23. User1022

    I tend to be a fairly optimistic guy, so I’m thinking the Reds will do pretty well this year. I’m glad to finally see Votto hitting in a position that maximizes the return on his skillset (and, for that matter, may give BHam a small boost in production as well).

    I actually think Brandon Phillips will out-perform his stats from last year.

    Marlon Byrd is a HUGE upgrade over the black hole we called left field last year.

    If we had this year’s offense with last year’s pitching staff, I’d say this was a playoff team for sure.

    As it stands, I’m very wary of the pitchers we’re running out there. I guess they COULD do ok…. But it’s definitely something that needs monitoring. For as much as people have focused on Votto and Bruce returning to health, I don’t think enough atttention has been paid to just what we have lost in our pitching staff.

    That said, seeing the new lineup has given me a glimmer of hope. If everything falls into place and everyone performs up to expectations, yes, I agree this is a 90 win team.

  24. 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!

  25. vegastypo

    i think jason marquis is starting for the brewers today, 4-0 rockies, still batting top of first

  26. Steve Schoenbaechler

    I don’t know about 90. I could easily see 85, give or take. 90 would barely be on the high side of that.

    • seat101

      Well, now we only need to win 90 out of 161, and I believe that’s better than having to win 91 out of 162.

      • seat101

        So, Steve, I think we’re on the same chapter of the same book if not the same page, eh?

  27. GeauxReds

    I agree with your line about trades to improve the team. We all know it is do or die this year. Including Walt. The best player fire the reds this year might not be on the roster yet.

  28. Jay King

    Just wanted to say that this is your best article of the past 6 months. It has realism in it and it has hope. Thank you.