Pictured: Window of Contention.
Every team sets up (or tries to set up) a specific period of time where they can conceivably make the playoffs/win a championship, and focuses all of their energy toward succeeding in this window. This has been called a "window" of contention, and it's fundamentally how teams sell rebuilding to their fans, by promising a window of contention later on. Obviously, this doesn't always work perfectly. Every time the Royals get a new window, they proceed to throw a brick through it because the Royals are delinquents who can't have nice things. Meanwhile, the Yankees window has been open since 1995, with fancy venetian blinds and southern exposure and all that nonsense.
During this past offseason, the Reds looked at their window, decided "hmmm, it could be bigger," and proceeded to smash a giant hole in their wall to expand their window. They tore a big chunk out of their farm system and handed it to San Diego in exchange for Mat Latos, who they gambled could be an ace starting pitcher on a team that desperately needed a front-line starter. And just as the season was beginning, the Reds emptied their small-market piggy bank and gave star first baseman Joey Votto the longest guaranteed contract in major league history. These moves were not made with the 2015 payroll in mind: the Reds finished just under .500 last year after winning 91 games the season before, and they want to win a championship soon.
Meanwhile, the Diamondbacks traded a 23-year-old pitcher for a 24-year-old pitcher, signed Jason Kubel, and pretty much called it an offseason. I'm not necessarily criticizing either approach, just pointing out the different reactions to being on the cusp of a window of contention.
And for what it's worth, the Reds' "all in" strategy seems to be working. After a sweep of the Cardinals, the Reds sit alone at the top of the NL Central, with the second-best record in the National League. If you think this entire sequence of events (lose in NLDS because of lack of pitching, finish under .500 the next season because of lack of pitching, trade entire farm for ace pitcher to go with good offense, get really good in the season after that) seems similar to what the Brewers did last year, trust that you aren't alone.
What the Stats Say (According to Fangraphs):
Considering that the Reds are eight games better than the Diamondbacks, those first two rows seem rather more even than they ought to be. The Reds rank sixth in ISO%, suggesting that power has not been their problem. However, they rank in the middle of the pack in Batting Average and Walk Rate, so "little ball" (as every annoying national broadcaster ever would call it) has been a problem.
That FIP- of 94 is fairly snazzy, but it belies a far snazzier ERA- of 83, second only to the Nationals in all of baseball. Their rotation has been pretty solid top to bottom, but the bullpen is the real story here. They've gotten a collective ERA of 2.71 from their relievers, and this all comes in a famously hitter-friendly home ballpark. If you need perspective on that, consider that the Diamondbacks' very best reliever (Hernandez) has an ERA of of 2.81 on the season.
I can't speak to how Reds fans are handling this lineup, but, god would we be insufferable if we had to watch this lineup on a daily basis. I mean, their top two hitters--and I would like to emphasize that they hit in front of one of the best players in this generation--have OBPs of .294 and .281, respectively. If this happened here, shoewizard and blue bulldog would go on weekly rants about how Gibby was costing the team wins, and Clefo and soco and others would respond with all-caps sarcasm about "GOTTA HAVE SPEEDSTERZ AT THE TOP OF THE LINEUP D00D," because really, what else can you do? Think about the top of this order the next time you complain about Willie Bloomquist, AZ Snakepit.
You probably remember that Joey Votto won the NL MVP in 2010, making a legitimate bid for the triple crown in the process. Well, he's actually better this year, sporting an OPS of 1.062 in 2012, as opposed to a puny 1.024 in his MVP year. Nobody is even within shouting distance of his league-leading .462 OBP. I don't even know what else to say except, please, if you consider yourself a baseball fan, watch a Joey Votto at-bat if you haven't already. They're a sight to behold.
Phillips is having another nice season, though it's a bit off the pace of his fantastic 2011. Bruce leads the team in home runs, and has been quietly awesome in Votto's shadow since about 2010. Ryan Ludwick is Ryan Ludwick, just with quite a bit more power now that he's left Petco Park behind, and Todd Frazier's having a very solid season. I think it's fair to say that the middle of the lineup more than makes up for the top.
Insightful Commentary: "If he gives up a few homers against a team with the fewest in baseball, then I'll start getting worried."
-Me, on Wade Miley before the Dodgers series.
Two Dodger home runs later, and suddenly his new-found ability to keep the ball in the ballpark this year has started looking an awful lot like a small sample size illusion. And that was a large part of his success in the first half. Certainly not the only part, but it definitely helped. Regardless, the team could really use an ace-like start from a guy who became their unlikely ace in the first half.
Bronson Arroyo was the entire reason the Reds dropped from 91 wins in 2010 to 78 in 2011, but he was a contributor. 5.07 ERA, 5.71 FIP, -1.3 fWAR made for a disastrous season. He had never been worth less than 1.6 fWAR in a season before that though, and whatever was plaguing him last year seems to have passed, as he's on pace for his lowest ERA since 2006.
Insightful Commentary: Here's a comprehensive list of things we know about Trevor Bauer:
- Dude really likes thrash metal.
- Dude can hurl a baseball really far and really hard.
- Dude can have success at the major league level, just ask the Dodgers.
- Dude probably isn't going have success at the major league level every time he goes out there, just ask the Padres.
Yeah, I'm pretty sure that's it. Predicting much more would mean reading far too much into far too little data.
Some of you might remember that Johnny Cueto made his major-league debut against the Diamondbacks back in 2008. And some more of you might remember that he was freaking brilliant. He had a perfect game going until the sixth, when Upton launched a pitch to left. This was the only hit Cueto gave up that day. No matter what else he has done since then, that's what I'll remember him for. Which is a shame, because the numbers tell me he's been pretty good since then, too. He actually finished last year with an ERA of 2.31, which would have made his success this year less surprising, if anyone outside Cincy had noticed how good he was last year. But his peripherals have improved across the board, so that's exciting to see.
Wednesday: Ian Kennedy (6-8, 4.55) vs. Mat Latos (7-2, 4.10)
Insightful Commentary: I just...I don't know anymore. Kennedy had four extra days plus a rain delay to prepare for his start against the Cubs, and he still didn't look ready for the game to start. He looked all over the place, pretty much from the start, and the home runs that he had been so good about avoiding over the past couple starts resurfaced at the hands of Alfonso Soriano. The start didn't provide any new information, just more of the same in what has been a very frustrating season for Ian.
We've already talked a bit about what it took to get Latos to Cincinnati. So now the question becomes, was he worth it? Well, at times. Latos has had 10 starts on the season where he has allowed two runs or less. That's ace-like! But he's also had four starts where he's given up five or more runs. That's somewhat less ace-like! His HR/9 has done pretty much what you'd expect from a pitcher moving from Petco Park to Great American Ballpark, which is to say it's doubled. And considering that his FIP is pretty much in line with his ERA, this might be what we'll get from Mr. Latos in Cincinnati.
Insightful Commentary: Saunders celebrated his return from the Disabled List by having the most Joe Saunders start imaginable. Six innings, four runs, three earned. it was a home run and a couple bases-loaded jams away from being a microcosm of Saunders' entire career. I don't necessarily mean that in a negative way, either. Save his back-to-back six run starts against St. Louis and San Francisco in mid-May, he's legitimately kept his team in every game he's started. That's his job, and he does it well.
Mike Leake went to Arizona State. I hope you made careful note of that previous sentence, because that will be the only time anyone passes that bit of information along to you ever. Leake throws five different pitches, and much of his success stems from being able to provide so many different looks to hitters. He has also kept his walk rate very low since arriving in the majors, with a career BB/9 of 2.41.
Final Verdict: There's not any way to sugarcoat this: the Diamondbacks looked dismal in Chicago, and they may have put already slim playoff hopes on life-support. We haven't seen the loss that eliminates the Diamondbacks from realistic playoff contention yet, but we may see it in Cincinnati. The D-Backs are facing one of the best teams in the National League, one that has won six in a row, including an emotional sweep of the hated Cardinals. Can the Diamondbacks win this series? Of course they can. Have they done anything in the past two weeks to suggest that they will? Absolutely not. Reds three games to one. I don't think I'm out of line in suggesting that their playoff hopes rest on them proving me wrong.
Want a report on the Reds? Head over to Red Reporter. Seems pretty intuitive to me.
(Stats via Baseball-Reference and Fangraphs)