The Opportunity in Front of the Reds

Last year’s Reds won 67 games. They won just four more games than the Marlins, and they won just five more games than the White Sox. They won 29 fewer games than the division-rival Brewers, and they won 28 fewer games than the division-rival Cubs. The previous year, the Reds had won 68 games. The year before that, they’d won 68. The year before that, they’d won 64. There’s been a running joke that the Effectively Wild podcast never talks about the Reds. That’s not actually true, but they’ve rarely been brought up on purpose.

And now, as you know, the Reds are making noise. They’re not signing Bryce Harper, and they’re not signing Manny Machado, but they did acquire Yasiel Puig, and they did acquire Alex Wood. They traded for Tanner Roark, and, on Monday, they traded for Sonny Gray. Gray is the one player under contract beyond just 2019. The Reds haven’t given the farm away or anything like that, but they have depleted their own longer-term resources. Clearly, the Reds have grown tired of being forgettable.

And that might well be the biggest behavioral driver. As an organization, they might’ve simply decided they wanted to be more competitive. It’s what so many people have wanted to see from more teams. As a fan, you want to go into a year with higher expectations. But there could also be a particular opportunity here. It’s worth examining the context in which the Reds are going to play.

In writing about the Gray trade on Monday, I observed that the Reds might still be the fourth- or fifth-best team in their own division. On its own, that makes them atypical buyers. Based on Steamer projections and our internal depth charts, we currently project the Reds to finish 80-82, with a winning percentage of .493. That puts them right there with, say, the Diamondbacks. The Diamondbacks aren’t out there trying to buy. In fact, they traded away the best player they’d ever developed. The Mariners are another team that’s also sold, having gone into the offseason with a roughly average team projection. Average generally isn’t good enough. This is supposedly an era of haves and have-nots.

But now let’s widen the view. Let me say this first — I know the team projections aren’t perfect. I know they don’t yet fold in the ZiPS numbers. I know the offseason isn’t complete. I know you’ll collectively have your disagreements. But at the moment, we project the Reds at 80-82. Here is the entire projected NL Central:

  • Cubs, 87-75
  • Cardinals, 86-76
  • Pirates, 80-82
  • Reds, 80-82
  • Brewers, 79-83

Your eyes might be drawn to the Brewers first, given how they’ve performed the past two years. Yes, I also think they’re being underrated here. I don’t think they’re being given enough credit for their defense, and I don’t think they’re being given enough credit for their bullpen. Given the option, I’d elect to move the Brewers up. Yet I wouldn’t move them up by *that* much. I don’t see the Brewers as a super-team. I don’t see any of these clubs as a super-team. This is just a tight-looking five-team division.

How tight, relatively speaking? Baseball has existed in a six-division format since 1994, so I examined the past 25 years, and also included the 2019 team projections. I understand that projections tend to be more conservative, and reality tends to be more extreme. It’s not entirely fair to blend projections and historical observations. But that all being said, here’s a table of the ten tightest divisions since 1994, in terms of winning percentage standard deviation:

Tightest Divisions, 1994-2019
Division Year Standard Deviation
AL West 1994 0.021
NL Central 2019 0.023
NL East 2005 0.024
NL West 2005 0.035
NL Central 1996 0.036
AL West 1995 0.036
NL West 1995 0.037
NL Central 1997 0.037
AL East 2015 0.038
NL West 1997 0.039

If the NL Central actually played out this way, it would be the second-tightest division in recent history. And not only was the 1994 AL West a four-team division — it was a four-team division in a shortened season. The average of all the divisional standard deviations has been 0.071. This year’s NL Central looks uncommonly bunched. For another view, here are the smallest differences between first-place and last-place winning percentages:

Tightest Divisions, 1994-2019
Division Year Spread
AL West 1994 0.047
NL Central 2019 0.049
NL East 2005 0.056
NL West 2006 0.074
NL West 1995 0.076
AL West 1995 0.080
AL West 1998 0.086
NL West 1997 0.086
AL Central 2008 0.089
NL Central 1996 0.093

Again, we’re just looking up at the 1994 AL West. The Rangers led the way with a hilarious winning percentage of .456, while the Angels brought up the rear at .409. Then we have this year’s projected NL Central. The average of all the gaps has been 0.172. Rarely has there been a smaller perceived difference between the best team and the worst.

Granted, one thing that means is that the Reds could somewhat easily sink back to last. An opportunity for them is an opportunity for all five of the division rivals. We could talk about the opportunity in front of the Pirates if we wanted to. But the Pirates aren’t making win-now moves. Maybe they already got those out of the way in acquiring Chris Archer and Keone Kela. The Reds have been trying to improve, making trades and engaging with higher-profile free agents. And it turns out the Reds are in a position where success might be more achievable than one would’ve assumed.

In order to accept the premise, you have to expect the Brewers to regress. You have to expect the Cubs to regress, as well. I understand and acknowledge that our projections could stand to be stronger. But if we just take Steamer at its word for now — the Reds aren’t great, but they are in a position where every additional win is especially valuable. They’re looking to inch forward within a tightly-grouped cluster, and first place might not be *so* out of reach. Perhaps the big wild card will be Nick Senzel, and whether he can become this year’s Juan Soto or Ronald Acuna. There are other high-upside young players — looking at you, Luis Castillo — and the Reds might still take another step by finding a true center fielder. I don’t buy that the Reds are close to, say, the Dodgers, and I don’t think they’re close to the Yankees, yet those teams aren’t the competition. If they become the competition, something will have gone very well.

This offseason, the Reds decided to try for a push. Based on how last year played out, it would come off as ill-advised and impatient. Even now, the odds remain against them, but at least there’s some support for their decision. The NL Central is likely to look different from how it did. The NL Central is more likely to leave the door open.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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3 years ago

To get historical perspective, you kind of need to see the closest divisions in terms of preseason projections, not actual results. Naturally, things tend to look closer before the season starts than the actual results, because certain teams will get lucky, and others will become unlucky, and buy and sell, thus widening the gap.

3 years ago
Reply to  Jeff Sullivan


Ryan DCmember
3 years ago
Reply to  Jeff Sullivan

Thanks for checking!

3 years ago
Reply to  Jeff Sullivan

Very glad this was discussed. Projections by their very nature smooth out extremes in a way that reality does not, so while I appreciated the spirit of this post the analysis was always going to favor a projected division standing as less spread out than a real-world one.

3 years ago
Reply to  Jeff Sullivan

You should really get that up on the site somehow or another.

3 years ago
Reply to  sphenreckson

Yes. The pirates, reds and brewers all could be sellers at the deadline if the start goes wrong. I think especially the reds priced that in their calculations, there is a good chance wood and puig are gone at the deadline.

I think this is more like a “feeler” for the reds, they try to see where there are at and if it doesn’t work they can sell the short term pieces again.

3 years ago
Reply to  Dominikk85

This is the exact thinking I’ve been rolling with during this offseason as a Reds fan