Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Offensive: An early look at the Reds' bats

by Andrew Wright
Staff Writer

First, let’s get some disclaimers out of the way. The 2014 season is barely two weeks old, making for a small statistical sample. Brandon Phillips leads the Reds with 49 ABs, with only two others topping 40. And, as the old adage goes, batters generally lag behind pitchers to begin a season (or is it the other way around -- adages are called old for a reason, I suppose).

Nevertheless, there is a lot of handwringing going on in Redlegs Country these days about the offense. The statistics bear witness to that pessimism. The Reds rank in the bottom-third of National League teams in every major statistical category. Most notably, only the Padres separate them from the league basement in runs scored. A bleak statement considered in light of Sunday's 12-run outburst led by Devin Mesoraco and Chris Heisey.

Was Sunday a harbinger of things to come, or merely fool’s gold? A glimpse into this small statistical window might help.

An important, and largely overlooked, statistic is Batting Average of Balls in Play (BABIP).

If you have heard of BABIP at all, it was most likely within the context of the individual batter. Stat geeks usually compare a batter’s BABIP against the league average to get a sense for how “lucky” or “unlucky” he is. However, we may learn more about a player by considering his current BABIP against his own career average. Different types of hitters can be productive with very different BABIPs. For example, a power hitter can do his job with a BAPIP well below the historical average of .300, while a leadoff-type will likely need to hover well above that point.

The fantastic website SportingCharts.com offers a helpful definition of Team BABIP:

Team batting average of balls in play is the batting average of a team on all balls that were hit into play, which excludes home runs and excludes plate appearances that end in strikeouts (meaning the ball wasn’t hit into play).

Now, you might be thinking, That’s all well and good, “professor,” but what does that have to do with the Reds offense this year? Everything. And maybe nothing. But let’s take a look anyway.

Team BABIP takes into account the team’s collective hitting talent. Teams with a high BABIP generally hit a lot of line drives (see the 2013 World Series Champion Red Sox and their .329 BABIP). Every team has a different mix of talent, though. Some have more power hitters, some play small-ball, some are very balanced. What are the 2014 Reds? In short, they are what we thought they were.

In 2013, the Reds Team BABIP was .293, good for 10th in the NL. Last year the Reds turned this into 698 runs, third in the league. Despite having the two league-leaders in OBP in Joey Votto and Shin-Soo Choo, meaning a host of base runners from the top of the order, the Reds could not outpace the league in runs scored. No matter how you analyze it, they simply did not get enough out of the balls they put in play.

The 2014 Reds are largely the same team of hitters, while plugging Billy Hamilton in for Mr. Choo. The result so far is an uninspiring .281 BABIP with anemic run production. The obvious silver lining is that this group will likely inch toward their previous production as the season wears on. The obvious downside is that we’re going to see less base runners than last year, meaning less opportunity to drive in runs. This team just isn’t putting enough hard-hit balls into play to make up the difference.

Yet, there are recent glimmers of hope.

Devin Mesoraco is absolutely raking the ball, with an otherworldly 1.672 OPS in four games since returning from the DL. Votto’s power stroke may have emerged from the wilderness. Hamilton may be over his first week jitters, flashing glimpses of his electricity of late.

Coming full circle, small sample sizes can be early indicators or red herrings. For the Reds to make their bats less offensive this year, their glimmers and flashes need to grow up into lightning bolts.

This writer gratefully relies upon statistics found at MLB.com, baseball-reference.com, and sportingcharts.com.

Photo Credit: sluggermuseum.com

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