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Thomas Campbell-USA TODAY Sports

Reds still face a forgotten lineup void

It is easy to overlook the black holes, the voids, between the stars.

Somewhere between Cincinnati’s biggest offseason question (How do the Reds replace Shin-Soo Choo‘s production at the top of the order?) and their easiest offseason answer (Joey Votto hits third, and in case you haven’t noticed, he hits well), a void still lingers, forgotten. With the stars of Cincinnati, Choo and Votto, leading the National League in on-base percentage and constantly clogging the base paths, fans and analysts understandably overlooked the offensive black hole between them.

But despite the negligible impact on the message boards, the sieve that was the second spot in the Cincinnati roster had a tangible, and significant, impact on  stopping Red rallies and minimizing production.

Collectively, hitters batting second for the Reds hit .228/.281/.350 in 2013, a stat-line that placed them 25% below league average. When they weren’t recording one out in the inning, they were often taking two; they accounted for 21 ground balls that led to double plays. And a lack of trust for their hitting prowess ultimately led to a league-leading 21 sacrifice bunts from this group once Dusty Baker became willing to trade a precious out in order to avoid the risk of Votto facing an empty infield and two outs.

The Reds still managed to score the third-most runs in the National League. But, oh, what could have been. They also led the NL in runners left on base. And, even worse, the slot in their lineup seeing the second-most at bats hit worse than any other non-pitching position on the batting order.

That’s not a typo.

Cincinnati Reds batting 2nd: .228/.281/.350, sOPS+ of 75.
Cincinnati Reds batting 7th: .244/.298/.364, sOPS+ of 96.
Cincinnati Reds batting 8th: .226/.310/.322, sOPS+ of 91.

The main contributor to the second-spot woes, shortstop Zack Cozart, slotted in at number-two for 64 games. Hitting between the ambassadors of South Korea and Canada, Cozart managed to hit .254/.284/.367, grounding into 10 double-plays, compiling 42 strikeouts to only 13 walks, and posting an OPS 19% below the league average (81 OPS+). But he wasn’t alone.

Chris Heisey (in 23 games batting 2nd): .250/.305/.455 ; 21 strikeouts-5 walks ; 109 OPS+
Brandon Phillips (in 23 games batting 2nd): .240/.305/.365 ; 21 strikeouts-8 walks ; 87 OPS+
Todd Frazier (in 16 games batting 2nd): .188/.257/.344 ; 12 strikeouts-4 walks ; 66 OPS +
*Departed Reds Choo, Derrick Robinson, and Xavier Paul also started 10+ games in the second-slot.

With below average play from this wide-sampling of Reds hitters, Votto rarely saw a table set for two, leading to his much-maligned low RBI total despite his more than respectable .291 average with runners-in-scoring-position.

A better season from the second spot might have meant the difference between a great Votto season, and an iconic one –between a good offensive season for the Reds, and an historic run.

***

As startling as these numbers seem, it’d be easy to argue that they represent more of a blip than a trend. After all, it was only 2012 when the second-spot in Dusty Baker’s batting order saw better performance.

2nd spot, 2013: .228/.281/.350 – 7 stolen bases – 21 GDP – 21 sacrifice hits – 75 sOPS+
2nd spot, 2012: .257/.310/.390 – 32 stolen bases – 4 GDP – 7 sacrifice hits – 96 sOPS+

The warm-up acts to Joey Votto in 2012 didn’t exactly inspire calls to Cooperstown. However, these numbers paired with the production of Choo batting first would undoubtedly produce a more lethal lineup for pitchers in the beginning inning.

Providing even more hope to Red Nation is the fact that current struggling second-spotters thrived in the role just two seasons ago. When Cozart batted second in 2012, he hit .324/.378/.490 in 27 games. Chris Heisey hit .297/.330/.426 (in 23 games). Considering their age and projected growth, both players seemed poised to turn into good, complementary pieces in the Reds lineup. Perhaps they still can. Perhaps 2013 was a brief lapse in an upward climb; careers aren’t always linear.

Unfortunately, evidence suggests that 2012, instead, was the aberration.

For one, a lot of the second-spot production of 2012 belonged to a cause the Reds have long decided was worth losing: Drew Stubbs. Despite his unbelievable strikeout rate, he did garner a stat line of .237/.300/.401 with 26 stolen bases in the two-hole. If nothing else, he avoided double plays with his incredible speed (and by striking out 30.5% of the time), and when he did manage to get on, could race himself into scoring position.

It’s possible that Billy Hamilton will fill that role in the one-or-two slot. Otherwise, Stubbs’ skill set now resides in the thin air of Coors Field in Colorado.

More damning to the Reds’ ability to revisit the relative success of 2012 in the two-hole is the amount of luck both Cozart and Heisey saw in posting those great numbers. Cozart, for example, compiled those stats with an unsustainable .408 batting average on balls in play (BAbip); league average is .300. Heisey similarly benefited from balls sneaking through the gaps, posting a BAbip of .368. Considering that their respective line-drive rates have actually gone up from 2012 to 2013, there is little reason to believe that they earned those high BAbip numbers two seasons ago.

Sometimes, the numbers do lie. It’s unlikely, over a full season, that either Cozart or Heisey could replicate 2012.

Cozart nor Heisey have displayed the ability to maintain a high BAbip over time (like, say, Joey Votto has). Cozart has a career BAbip of .286; Heisey sits at .300. Their more subdued production in 2013 fell back to that norm.

All of this number-heavy analysis can be summed up with a simple truth that a lot of Reds fans may have already guessed: Cozart and Heisey (alongside other Reds youngsters like Todd Frazier and Devin Mesoraco), are not viable candidates for such an important role in the Reds lineup.

Which begs the question: then where oh where does Cincinnati turn to fill the void?

***

The answer isn’t as obvious as the problem.

Already, we’ve examined the limited free-agent pool at the Reds’ disposal in their quest to replace Shin-Soo Choo’s production. A player like Juan Pierre or Chris Coghlan could potentially provide an upgrade near the top of the lineup.

Otherwise, the Reds have three options, none of which will allow them to breathe easy this winter: find a diamond in the rough, hope for an answer from within, or take a creative risk.

The diamond in the rough. Obviously, it wouldn’t be a hidden gem if we could predict where they are hiding. That said, there may be free agents with high promise and low price tags. Beyond those listed above, keep an eye infielder Justin Turner. Once drafted in the seventh round by the Cincinnati Reds, Turner has hit .267/.327/.371 in the last three seasons with the New York Mets. His power (eight home runs) and speed (eight stolen bases) over that span leaves much to be desired, but he puts the ball in play. Considering the Reds’ ridiculous strikeout rate in the two-spot, Turner’s meager 117 strikeouts in his last 297 games might be a welcome addition, and he’s young enough to have better years ahead.

The answer within. There might be hope that the answer to this dilemma already dons a Reds uniform. Cincinnati brass might be smart to expect an offensive resurgence from Brandon Phillips, whose career two-slot performance includes a line of .275/.320/.420. If he could slow his recent propensity for grounding into double plays (9th most in the NL and 15th most in baseball in 2013; 2nd and 13th in 2012), Phillips might represent a more steady presence in front of one of the game’s greatest hitters.

There might also be hope to be had for Chris Heisey. Already, his performance in the two slot has been the best on the squad, and he’s only 25 years old. His peak years, if he continues to improve, are ahead of him. That said, it seems damning that Xavier Paul and Derrick Robinson jumped him on last year’s depth chart, when Heisey saw less playing time than he had in the two seasons prior.

The creative risk. This is the part where traditionalists will hit the “x” on their internet browsers. For years, conventional wisdom instilled in our minds that the team’s best hitter slots in the third-spot. Usually, this makes sense. It increases the likelihood, in the first inning at least, for a team’s best bat to have runners in scoring position without running the risk of them having to lead off the second inning. Everyone wins.

But, as constituted, the Reds lineup isn’t built to hand Votto the keys and let him drive. It’s built to hand Votto the scraps and hope he gets enough to eat.

Last season, Votto only saw runners in scoring position on about 26% of his at-bats. By comparison, he faced empty bases 54% of the time, and no one out with one or two outs on 33% of his at-bats.

If the options don’t exist to bridge the gaps between those numbers, the Reds should consider getting him as many at-bats as possible, setting the table for players like Jay Bruce in the meat of the lineup. Moving Votto up in the lineup would garner him approximately ten more at bats per season in the two-hole, twenty at lead off. Which seems minor. But with Votto’s five-straight seasons of getting on base at least 41.5% of the time, that’s anywhere between 4 and 11 more chances to score. And in this league, even 162 games deep, every run counts.

Every run matters.

***

It’s easy to overlook the voids between the stars.

Especially when solutions, when ways to fill them, aren’t so easy to find.

But with the departure of Shin-Soo Choo, who once filled a void in the leadoff spot, and the commitment of Joey Votto (a franchise star seemingly slotted into the third spot until 2020 and beyond), the decision makers in Cincinnati must face a forgotten, but very real, hole in the lineup.

Otherwise, the Reds run the risk of finding the same fate as the hitters who manned the two-spot last season. To fail to take advantage of Joey Votto’s limitless ability. To find themselves not in the running, but out. To find themselves lost in star-centered conversations… irrelevant.

Thus is the nature of black holes. You can fail to notice them before they inevitably suck you in.

Tags: Brandon Phillips Chris Heisey Reds Zack Cozart

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