Red flag: Cincinnati struggling against quality competition
While the Pirates have won six in a row to move into a tie for first place in the NL Central — and a tie for the majors' best record, at that — the Reds have lost five out of six to fall into third place in the division. Though they're still second in the NL wild-card race, their flaws have become a bit more apparent — particularly upon closer examination.
Cincinnati is 45-34, 3 1/2 games behind the Pirates and Cardinals. Its +47 run differential is the league's third-best, 11 runs better than that of the Pirates. Even so, it bears looking at the opponents against whom it has put together those records. According to the Baseball-Reference.com Expanded Standings page, the Reds are 31-10 (.756) against teams who currently have records below .500, the highest winning percentage in the majors. The Cardinals are 34-17 (.667) against those dogs, which ranks third, while the Pirates are 30-16 (.652), which ranks fourth.
Meanwhile, when facing teams who currently have records of .500 or better, the Pirates have the best record of the trio at 18-14 (.563), which by winning percentage ranks fifth in the majors. The Cardinals are 14-13 (.519) against such teams, which ranks ninth. The Reds are a dismal 14-24 (.368) against those teams, the sixth-worst record in the majors; half of that record consists of their 4-6 showing against the Pirates and 3-6 against the Cardinals. Amid their current skid, they've lost one to the Pirates (with whom they split a four-game series), two out of three to the Diamondbacks, and two to the A's — all teams that now have at least a share of their division leads. When they're going toe-to-toe with other contenders, they're getting knocked around.
In that regard, Cincinnati's record can be considered misleading (hat-tip to Twitter follower @JoshDBresser, who sent me down this road of inquiry), though at the same time, it's worth pointing out that of the three Central contenders, they're the one whose actual and Pythagorean records match most closely. Via the Baseball Prospectus Adjusted Standings, they're 0.3 wins above the record that could be projected from their actual runs scored and runs allowed rates. St. Louis is lagging a full three wins behind its Pythagorean record, while Pittsburgh is 4.7 wins above its projection. Adjusting for run elements (hits, walks, total bases, baserunning) and quality of opponents' hitting and pitching via BP's third-order Pythagorean record, the Cardinals are essentially on target, −0.2 wins below their actual record, and the Reds are just −0.7 wins below theirs, while again, the Pirates are 4.6 wins above theirs. Those opponent quality measures are based on park-adjusted scoring and run prevention rates, not won-loss records of teams, hence the discrepancy.
Fortunately for the Reds, after their upcoming three-game series against the Rangers, their next 10 games are against the sub-.500 Giants, Mariners and Brewers. The season doesn't end in early July, however, and at this point, it's particularly worth pointing out the struggles of Cincinnati's offense. While the team does rank third in the league in overall scoring (4.39 runs per game), it's down to 3.54 runs per game in June, on .233/.299/.380 hitting. While both Shin-Soo Choo and Joey Votto continue to get on base, neither has been doing so at a clip comparable to the first two months, but then it's tough to maintain OBPs of .419 (Choo in April-May) and .437 (Votto over that same timeframe) given the extent to which they were driven by 20 hit-by-pitches in the case of the former, and 10 intentional walks in the case of the latter. Choo has been hit five times this month as well, and is on pace to surpass the single-season record — 51 by Hughie Jennings in 1896, or 50 by Ron Hunt in 1971, if you prefer modernity — but he's batting just .221/.358/.326 in 107 PA in June. Votto has been intentionally walked just once this month and is hitting a fairly ordinary .281/.366/.461 in 101 PA.
Votto, who has hit third in 78 of the Reds' 79 games, isn't getting pitched around to the same extent as before because cleanup hitter Brandon Phillips is hitting just .189/.250/.270 in 80 PA this month. The latter is still collecting RBIs — 16, to push his season total to 60, which ranks third in the league, but his overall performance (.265/.318/.425 with 11 homers) hardly befits a cleanup hitter. Number five hitter Jay Bruce, on the other hand, has homered 10 times this month and is hitting .286/.324/.653 in 105 PA in that span. It's fair to suggest the latter should be batting fourth, even if that means stacking lefties Votto and Bruce back-to-back. Bruce is hitting .276/.313/.533 in 112 PA against lefties this year, and after a wretched early-career performance against same-siders, is at .252/.321/.502 against them since the beginning of the 2010 season; Votto (.298/.405/.507 against lefties in that span) is just fine against them as well.
After persisting with the ill-suited Zack Cozart (.243/.273/.378 overall) in the number two spot in the lineup, manager Dusty Baker has spent the past couple of weeks tinkering with his order, using switch-hitting 25-year-old leftfielder Derrick Robinson (.289/.373/.361 in 112 PA) in one of the top two spots and Choo in the other in eight of the team's last 12 games; the Reds won the first four but lost the last four, with only one of those wins coming against a team above .500. Robinson, a 2006 fourth-round pick by the Royals, had no major league experience coming into the year and had hit all of .269/.338/.332 in three years at Double-A and Triple-A, suggesting he'll be hard-pressed to maintain his hot introductory performance.
Baker has been starting Robinson against lefties, and lefty Xavier Paul (.257/.348/.424 in 164 PA) against righties, a decent platoon for the moment given the absences of Ryan Ludwick, who's been out since an opening day shoulder dislocation that required surgery, and Chris Heisey, who's just back on the roster after a two-month absence due to a hamstring strain, but hitting just .179/.210/.308. Though the Reds maintain hope that Ludwick can return this year, he only began throwing again on June 14, and is believed to need about two months from that point before he can return. All of which suggests that general manager Walt Jocketty may eye an outfielder at the trading deadline, particularly considering that speedster Billy Hamilton, who set a professional record with 155 steals last year, is batting just .247/.302/.344 in his introduction to Triple-A and centerfield.
Despite their recent hitting slump, the Reds remain effective at run prevention, fourth in the league at 3.80 runs per game, even with a 4.38 per game mark this month. Four of their five starters have ERAs below 4.00 this month, the exception being Johnny Cueto, who missed 15 days due to a lat strain, then came off and had a good start and a bad one. If the latter is a sign of things to come, it's not good news, but the team can still shift rookie Tony Cingrani back to the rotation, where he put up a 3.15 and an eye-opening 10.4 strikeouts per nine over seven starts and 40 innings. Such a move would weaken a bullpen which has been showing some wear lately; the unit has a 5.07 ERA this month, and has been without setup man Jonathan Broxton since June 13 due to elbow inflammation — though with a 4.33 ERA, he hasn't been nearly as effective as he was late last year. You don't need a crystal ball to see that Jocketty will be one of 30 GMs in search of bullpen help next month. All of which is to say that the Reds have flaws, but they're hardly in bad shape at this juncture. But as the NL Central race intensifies, it's worth keeping an eye on how they fare, particularly against their peers – because sooner or later, they'll have to beat them to return to the postseason.