Baseball's best asset is the integrity of its regular season. You don't fly under the radar gun in baseball. Across 162 games, you wear the face you deserve. Six games a week for six months is better than truth serum.
Which is why when the Reds finish this season with 78 or 79 wins, no one should be excited. Least of all ownership.
What if the halves had been reversed? What if Jerry Narron's team started 51-31, and not vice-versa, then tumbled to 60-70, its record before Tuesday's doubleheader? We might not be praising the manager, mentioning a division title race or suggesting this team is closer to contending than had been imagined.
Daugherty is basically saying that the Reds' strong second half is ascension to the mean. They looked like an 80 win team at the beginning of the year, he argues, and they're probably going to win around 80 games. By focusing so much on the second half, Daugherty believes that Reds fans are choosing a random endpoint that is likely to fool them into thinking the Reds have a shot next year when they truly don't, so let's everyone calm down.
Is he right? For starters, whether focusing on the second half is truly a random endpoint is open for debate. Some real things did actually happen that may make placing more emphasis on the second half success defensible. A managerial change for one thing, as Pete Mackanin's replaced Jerry Narron on July 1st, which correlates with the Reds strong second half performance. But as most folks should know, correlation is not the same thing as causation, and if there is to be hope, one must be able to look at the things he has done as manager and determine whether they represent real change that has led directly to improved performance or if, rather, he has simply rearranged deck chairs and has ridden the Reds as they ascended to the mean following a disappointing first half.
So why have the Reds picked up the pace, and is it something that should give Cincinnati fans hope for 2008? To answer this question, I enlisted the help of my coworker, Cincinnati Reds expert, and occasional road trip companion Mark Noel for his opinion as to what he thought was responsible for the Reds' rise. Here, generally, is what he had to say:
The Pen: Since the beginning of July, Rule V selection Jared Burton has posted a 1.56 ERA in 25 appearances. After a terrible beginning of the year followed by a month or so back in Louisville to get his head together, Gary Majewski has put up a better-than-expected 3.52 ERA for August. Billy Bray who, like Majewski was picked up in the Kearns-Lopez trade that, for some reason people still think was bad for the Reds, has logged a 1.35 ERA since his August 11th callup. These guys, along with the typically-reliable David Weathers, have brought much needed stability to a bullpen that, early in the year, was a house of horrors. Breaking the Reds' Coffey addiction has helped too. Now, if Mackanin would stop trotting Mike Stanton and Eddie Guardado out there every other day . . .
Jeff Keppinger: Since being placed in the starting lineup nearly every day (mostly at short, but spotting at second, third, and in left), Keppinger has flat out raked, posting an OPS of .882 in July and 1.069 in August. He hasn't been too shabby with the glove in that time either, committing only one error in 25 games at short, and posting range factors and zone ratings that would place him among league leaders if qualified. Sure, it's a very small sample size, but it is nonetheless impressive considering that he had never played a game at short in the majors prior to this year, and had only played five games there over a seven year minor league career.
Valentin over Ross: Even before David Ross (.680 OPS through July) went on the DL, Javier Valentin had begun getting the majority of starts behind the plate where he has hit to the tune of .349./406/.492 in the month of August.
Freel's Injuries: You never wish injuries on anyone -- not even the scrappiest scrapper whoever scrapped a scrap -- but the fact that Freel's absence this month has diverted at-bats to players who aren't posting a sub-.700 OPS (Keppinger, Josh Hamilton, and even Norris Hopper). Yes, Hamilton would have returned to center full time whether Freel was hurt or not, but simply having the world's highest-paid utility player around would have tempted Mackanin to actually use him, so it's fair to say that Freel's owies have actually helped the Reds on the field.
Brandon Phillips Figuring it Out: After many had written off Phillips as a once-promising prospect gone bust, he has put together a nice season at second base for the Reds. While no one is about to send Phillips to an All-Star game, he has shown steady improvement at the plate all season, with July and August coming in as his best two months. Phillips is now fourth among NL second basemen in OPS in addition to playing above-average defense.
Other Stuff: Obviously Adam Dunn has been the Reds' best hitter since Mackanin took over, but that is to be expected. The difference this year is that he hasn't wilted in the August heat like he did last year (August 2006 OPS: 700; August 2007 OPS: 1.059). Whether it's better conditioning or better focus or something else altogether, Dunn, with an assist from Keppinger, has been the straw stirring the drink in Cincinnati in the second half. After a July slump, Griffey has rebounded to the form he showed in May and June. The rotation? Ah, the less said the better. If the Reds had gotten some decent starts from anyone not named Harang, they would probably be up with the Cubs right now.
So if that's what has happened, is Daugherty right? Should Reds fans write off the hot second half as a mere ascension to the mean, or have they really laid the groundwork for real hope in 2008? It's close, but I think there's hope.
One never knows what one will get with any assemblage of bullpen arms, but Krivsky and Mackanin's reshuffling of the bullpen has been a step in the right direction. Though no one is going to confuse Burton, Bray and Majewski with Putz, Papelbon, and Jenks, they are cheap yet valuable relievers who, along with David Weathers, could stabilize an area that has been the biggest headache for Reds managers since the Nasty Boys broke up. Of course it's not all roses in that Mike Stanton is still under contract for next season, which may mean that the Reds might actually, you know, use him. The Reds likewise have a club option on Guardado ($3M!), which one would hope they won't exercise. But even if they do break training with Stanton and Guardado and they pitch as poorly as one might expect, the Reds have a handful of minor league arms that could prove useful. All in all, not a great bullpen, but certainly not the club's biggest headache either.
Based on his track record, Jeff Keppinger, currently enjoying the year of his life, is not likely to maintain anything close to his current pace. His minor league numbers and decent play at short this year suggest that he can be a useful player, but there is nothing to suggest that stardom is in the offing. Last year the Reds made a mistake signing Freel to a multi-year deal based on a similar, though less-spectacular pattern. It will be interesting to see how they deal with Keppinger's hot streak -- maybe he has earned a hard look as the everyday shortstop -- but if Reds' management enters 2008 banking on him batting .370 again, well, God help them.
As for the rest of the offense, it strikes me that the Reds would be foolish not to exercise their option on Dunn. No, he's not the most popular player with casual fans or the Reds broadcasters, but there is simply nowhere the Reds can turn to replace Dunn's .900+ OPS for the $13.5M his option would cost. Maybe the Reds don't exercise the option if they're rebuilding, but given how up-for-grabs the NL Central has been, can they truly consider that now? An even simpler decision involves Scott Hatteberg, who at $1.85M (club option) will again be one of the biggest bargains in baseball. Griffey is under contract at what is likely an unmovable price, but he will still provide above-average offense. Hamilton, Phillips, Keppinger, and Encarnacion (who I suspect will rediscover his gap power that mysteriously abandoned him this year) are all cheap, useful players. All in all, the offense, she looks strong.
Starting pitching is the big x factor. After Harang and Arroyo, things have been grim. But again, this is the NL Central. The addition of one decent arm -- the Reds' version of Gil Meche? -- could put Cincinnati over the top next year. Rather than obsessing about Adam Dunn, releasing Adam Dunn, and then vainly scrambling to find someone to replace Adam Dunn, the Reds should focus almost all of their offseason effort on finding someone -- anyone -- who can provide a reasonable imitation of a third starter, plug Homer Bailey in at number 4, and pray that someone like Bobby Livingston or Matt Belisle can nail down five. There will be many teams going into battle with less.
So, while the Reds are far from perfect, I think Daugherty is wrong. Their strong second half does provide a basis for hope because rather than mere chance, much of the success has resulted from Krivsky and Mackanin's willingness to try new things at catcher, short, and in the bullpen when the status quo wasn't working. These are real changes that have brought tangible improvement which, Keppinger's Rod Carew imitation aside, could easily extend into next year. And even if those particular changes don't work, the mere willingness to change when necessary is a good sign.
Based on these changes and improvement, I suspect that Mackanin will be given the full time job. I think he's earned it.