Reds scare or Reds scary?

Considering that the Cincinnati Reds play in a division they won by five games in 2010 and in which the other contenders have been hit with injuries to key players in 2011, you might have expected them to be sitting in a very comfortable position by now. Instead, after a 5-4 loss in Milwaukee on Thursday, they’re on the wrong side of .500 at 44-45 and trail the Brewers, Cardinals and even the Pirates in the NL Central. They’re 7-12 since a three-game sweep of the Dodgers in mid-June. For all that, they’re still just three games out of first place. Can the ship be righted, and how?

The team took a stab at dealing with its two most obvious problems on Thursday. They demoted Edinson Volquez, who had been walking nearly six men per game on the way to a 5.93 ERA and may be replaced by an apparently resurgent Dontrelle Willis. And they gave a long-overdue promotion to shortstop prospect Zack Cozart, who had been hitting .310/.357/.467 and will be given an opportunity to replace the shockingly poor production they had been receiving from Paul Janish and Edgar Renteria, who have combined to produce -0.1 wins above replacement (WAR), according to FanGraphs.com. Both moves represent huge steps in the right direction.

Those weren’t the only problems this team has, however. Bronson Arroyo has arguably struggled even more than Volquez, and his veteran status and hefty price tag running through 2013 make him a harder burden to shake off than Volquez. Travis Wood has been similarly ineffective if you go by his 5.11 ERA, though his 4.11 FIP suggests he’s been mostly unlucky. All told, for all the preseason talk about the great starting rotation depth, and despite a great first 11 starts from Johnny Cueto, Reds starters entered Thursday with a 4.60 ERA, second-to-last in the National League, and tied for last with just 3.5 FanGraphs WAR.

Outside of that little rotation issue, though -- and that’s a big one -- it’s hard to pinpoint areas in which this team has gone wrong. They’ve gone with an unorthodox sort of three-headed-monster approach in left field, dividing the position among Chris Heisey, Jonny Gomes and Fred Lewis. Yet all three have been effective, with Gomes and Heisey providing good offense and Lewis good defense, combining for 3.1 WAR. It’s starting to look like Scott Rolen’s bat has fallen off the old-age table, but he appears to be making up for it with his still-excellent defense, and his oft-used substitute Miguel Cairo (against all odds) has been solid with both bat and glove. At catcher, first, second, center and right, the Reds have received well above-average play (at least), and the bullpen has been solid. One would think a team with this lineup would be better than 44-45, even with a shaky rotation.

And in at least one sense, they have been better than that. Coming into Thursday, the Reds’ “Pythagorean record” -- the record suggested by their run differential -- was 47-41, which would have them tied for first place in the division. A negative disparity between a team’s Pythagorean and actual record sometimes suggests a managerial failing of some kind, but I don’t see a lot of evidence of that here. Dusty Baker certainly has his flaws (ones we in the sabermetric community are all too aware of), and sometimes makes some interesting decisions regarding the use of his bullpen and other personnel, and it’s possible that his decision-making has lost some close games. There’s no hard data to back that up, though, and anecdotally, most Reds fans I know seem to think that Dusty is doing a better job of in-game managing this year than he has in the past.

Rather, the discrepancy seems to be the result of a lack of “clutch hitting” by the Reds; the team’s .259/.330/.403 overall line (through Wednesday) slips to .237/.313/.343 in “late and close” situations, suggesting that they’re finding it easier to score runs when ahead or trailing by a bunch than they are late in a tight game, when each individual run matters a bit more. The team’s overall hitting line is above the NL average, but its “late and close” line is slightly below average across the board. (The NL “late and close” average entering Thursday was .244/.322/.359.)

So the Reds’ problems, after dealing with their shortstops and Volquez, seem to boil down to Arroyo, Wood and clutch hitting. The last bit can’t be dealt with; study has shown that “clutch,” to the extent it exists, is impossible to separate from simple dumb luck, good or bad. Wood should be fine for essentially the same reason: He has really struggled with runners in scoring position, and unless the team has some reason to believe he has problems pitching out of the stretch or gets more rattled than most do with men on second or third, those numbers should get better. Arroyo on the other hand has been legitimately struggling for two months, and is a real worry; if they’re willing to recognize his huge contract as a sunk cost and move him to a long-relief role (or off the team entirely), and in favor of Sam LeCure (if healthy) a possible acquisition on the trade market, that could really improve the team going forward.

For the most part, though, the Reds have done almost everything they can by finally calling up Cozart and demoting Volquez. Most else is out of their control: The hits should get more timely, and the non-Arroyo pitching should get better. Even the hitters who are doing well in 2011 -- Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips, Drew Stubbs and Jay Bruce, in particular -- have shown themselves capable of doing even better. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see one or more of them get incredibly hot and carry the team over the second half.

Looking up at three other teams at the All-Star break is never a good place to be, but the Reds seem about as well-positioned to make a second-half run as a fourth-place team could get.


Bill Parker writes for The Platoon Advantage. Follow him on Twitter: @Bill_TPA.