With one more win or a Cardinals loss, the Cincinnati Reds will be the second National League team to clinch a playoff spot. That gives them time to rest their guys and line up their playoff rotation. But unlike the Phillies, the Reds don’t have a dominant top three — they don’t even have a dominant top one. That makes their playoff rotation decisions a bit more interesting. We could see them go a number of ways, though it does appear clear who will start the first two games.
1) Bronson Arroyo CHONE: 4.55 nERA, 4.70 FIP
2010: 1.8 WAR, 4.65 FIP, 4.65 xFIP, 4.67 tERA, 3.97 ERA
I think Stan McNeal of The Sporting News put it best when he described Arroyo as, “the Reds’ No. 1 for his experience more than his stuff.” Chances are he’ll get the ball in Game 1, and given the results he has produced this season that might not be a bad thing. He has kept his ERA under 4.00 through 208.2 innings, a remarkable feat given his DIPS numbers. His 5.05 K/9 ranks seventh worst among MLB starters with at least 170 innings, and his 1.21 HR/9 ranks ninth worst among the same group. Yet his 3.97 ERA outpaces his 4.65 FIP, in no small part because of his .249 BABIP. That’s the lowest in the NL and second lowest in MLB.
With BABIP it’s easy to fall into the trap of writing it off as luck and expecting a regression. In Arroyo’s case that has to be somewhat true. Last year Randy Wolf and Ross Ohlendorf ranked among the league’s lowest in BABIP, and both have seen a nearly 30 point rise this year. But that overlooks two points: 1) a regression won’t necessarily occur in the playoffs, and 2) Arroyo might have changed something that has aided his low BABIP. It does appear that he is going to the changeup and curveball more often and the slider far less often than in year’s past. I’m not sure if that has made a difference in his BABIP, but it’s more constructive, I think, to ponder these possibilities than to write it off to luck and assume he’ll regress.
Arroyo might not be anyone’s prototypical No. 1 starter, but he’s done well by the Reds in the past few years. They might have a physically more capable pitcher on staff, but it appears they’re comfortable giving the ball to the veteran in Game 1.
2) Johnny Cueto CHONE: 4.58 nERA, 4.32 FIP
2010: 2.7 WAR, 4.07 FIP, 4.34 xFIP, 4.40 tERA, 3.73 ERA
Good things can happen when you allow fewer home runs. In many ways Johnny Cueto’s 2010 season looks like his 2009 one. His ground ball and strikeout rates are fairly close, while his BABIP is nearly identical. There are two noticeable differences, though, in his rate stats. First is his walk rate, 2.82 per nine down from 3.20. That has moved his WHIP from 1.36 to 1.28. That might not seem like a lot, but it does mean fewer base runners. That plays into the next change, his home run rate. Thanks to an 8.8 percent HR/FB ratio, down from his 11.2 percent rate from last year, Cueto has reduced his home run rate from 1.26 per nine to 0.96 per nine. If, all other aspects being equal, a pitcher puts fewer runners on base and allows fewer homers, it stands to reason that his ERA will drop. That is the case with Cueto, whose 3.73 ERA is a stark improvement over his 4.41 mark from last year.
While the Reds will clinch in the next day or so, they still have something to play for in the season’s final week. Finishing ahead of the NL West leader means they’ll start the NLDS at home, which is favorable with Cueto on the mound in Game 2. He has fared much better at home this season, striking out more batters, walking fewer, and allowing fewer home runs. This is all the more remarkable because The Great American Ballpark ranks eighth in ESPN’s HR Park Factors. That trend might not carry over into next season, but that doesn’t matter right now. As long as it carries over into the playoffs the Reds will be in a good position.
3) Travis Wood CHONE: 4.29 nERA, 4.31 FIP
2010: 2.2 WAR, 3.39 FIP, 4.21 xFIP, 3.89 tERA, 3.46 ERA
I had originally planned to put Wood in the question marks section, but then I read Redleg Naton, where Chad Dotson convinced me otherwise:
Travis Wood is a no-brainer, as far as I’m concerned. He’s the only lefty, and he’s earned it.
Earned it he has. Though he’s thrown just 96.1 innings this year, Wood has shown the Reds plenty. While CHONE isn’t so optimistic about him sustaining his current production, his fielding independent numbers suggest otherwise. As you can see, his FIP and tERA aren’t too far off of his actual ERA, though his xFIP is a bit higher. That’s because of a 6 percent home run to fly ball ratio. It’s tough to say at this point in his career whether that’s a sustainable mark, but Wood has given us little reason to doubt he’ll continue keeping balls in the park for the rest of the season.
What’d odd about Wood is that he hasn’t gotten much experience at his home ballpark. Of those 96.1 innings, only 16 have come in Cincinnati. The results in those 16 innings have been fine, but that’s not to say that they’ll stay that way. A few unlucky breaks on fly balls could break a playoff game. I do wonder if this, combined with Cueto’s home numbers, would move the Reds to ensure that Wood starts on the road. That would be easy if they start the NLDS at home. But would Baker and Co. start Wood in a Game 2 on the road and Cueto in Game 3 at home? It seems like an odd move based on relatively small samples, but we’ve seen odder things.
The final two spots in the rotation are up for grabs, though it appears that Edinson Volquez has the upper hand.
4) Edinson Volquez CHONE: 4.12 nERA, 3.98 FIP
2010: 0.7 WAR, 4.35 FIP, 4.10 xFIP, 4.25 tERA, 4.45 ERA
While Volquez’s 2010 numbers appear above for the sake of uniformity, they don’t really tell us anything about what we can expect in the playoffs. He didn’t get a start until later in the season and so had pitched just 56.2 innings. Yet even that is misleading. After an excellent season debut against Colorado, Volquez stumbled a bit. The breaking point was a 0.2-inning, 5-ER start against the Giants on August 23. On August 31 the Reds optioned Volquez to class-A in hopes that he could rediscover his form. They recalled him in time for a September 11 start, and since then he’s been quite strong: 21.2 IP, 10 H, 4 R, 4 ER, 7 BB, 23 K. The only problem is that he’s faced three non-playoff teams in that span.
When he’s good Volquez is the ace of this staff. He does have trouble with control, but his stuff helps make up for that. If he comes anywhere near his 2008 levels he will provide Cincinnati with a favorable matchup in any Game 4. The only question remaining is of whether he’s really back or not. He’ll get another audition tonight against Houston, though again that’s not the most strenuous test. Still, it seems as though the Reds will give him a shot in case of an NLDS Game 4.
5) Homer Bailey CHONE: 4.56 nERA, 4.43 FIP
2010: 1.8 WAR, 3.89 FIP, 4.07 xFIP, 4.32 tERA, 4.59 ERA
While the top of the Reds rotation has outperformed its fielding independent numbers, Bailey has fallen short of his. That has evened out a bit in September, as he sports a 3.72 ERA, but to trust September numbers is a folly. Three of the five teams he faced were out of the race, and so had no reason to put out the A lineup. He did fare well against the Padres last time out, striking out six and walking just run in a seven-inning, two-run performance. But one start does not a postseason campaign make.
Maybe a move to the bullpen for the playoffs will be good for Bailey. The Reds have to hope it will be, because that seems like the move they’ll make. It’s tough to make a case for trusting Volquez at the moment, but at least he’s had success in the majors. Bailey has yet to experience a sustained run of good starts. He still has some promise, but in terms of this year’s playoff rotation it appears he’s the odd man out. Maybe a strong final start, combined with a Volquez implosion, will change Dusty Baker’s mind. But I doubt it.
Joe also writes about the Yankees at River Ave. Blues.