Time to Hit the Red(s) Button


David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

In a film lacking for Academy Awards but abundant in breaking British voices and magical moments, Ron Weasley and Harry Potter stare down a cluster of giant spiders. Ron squeals, in all of his pubescent glory. And the red-headed Wizard asks the question festering in the minds of Reds-headed fans: “Can we panic now?”

The answer does not require admission to the Chamber of Secrets.

The answer resides in the facts: after Saturday’s shutout loss to the Tampa Bay Rays, the Cincinnati Reds have scored just 28 runs in 11 games. That ranks 29th, or next to last, in Major League Baseball, second only to the San Diego Padres. Nothing if not consistent, the Reds dwell in the cellar across all offensive categories, ranking 24th in hits, 25th in batting average and on-base percentage, 28th in extra base hits.

It gets worse. The Reds, so far, strike out in about one-fourth of their at-bats. And their BABIP (batting average on balls in play) of .282 is too close to league average (.298) to blame bad luck and bad bounces. There is only one conclusion: this lineup couldn’t hit a giant spider with a flying Ford Anglia.

Before the panic sets in, let’s address the obvious. It’s early. In an increasingly statistically-savvy baseball world, “small sample size” has become part of the vernacular. The most curmudgeonly baseball mind acknowledges that, over time, baseball regresses to the mean, to the norm.

So in some ways, this suffering can’t last. Billy Hamilton will get closer to Mendoza than his current .147 average. Jay Bruce won’t hit .157. Zack Cozart (probably) won’t finish the season batting beneath the .100 mark. And this team, no matter how puny their roster, will not maintain this plodding pace.

That pace would net them 412 runs for the season, which sounds like a big number but is impossibly low. The Reds have been around for 133 seasons and they’ve never come close to that level of ineptitude. The 1981 squad, which only played 108 games in a strike-shortened year, plated 464.

At this point, Cincinnati circa 2014 does not simply have to regress to the mean. They just have to start regressing to the historically possible.

The worst Cincinnati offense in the last 20 years belonged to the 1997 Reds, who scored 651 runs and struggled to get fans to Cinergy Field. That team featured a set of Sanders (Reggie and Deion), as well as a middle-infield combination of Bret Boone and Pokey Reese that collectively hit .221 with 11 home-runs and 72 runs-batted-in. Even that seems a drastic comparison. That lineup had no equivalent to Joey Votto‘s mastery or Bruce’s power, even with Willie Greene somehow, for that one season, making us believers in Going Greene.

So if fans were worried that this team would continue this streak of shutouts, strike outs, and sad at-bats, they can rest assured. Barring a sudden player’s strike or the government deporting Votto to Canada, the Reds will increase their productivity. They won’t finish 2014 as the worst offense in franchise history. There will be a bounce-back, perhaps as equally glorious as this season’s start has been horrendous.

But that question still lingers, still has merit: “Can we panic now?”

Because this isn’t 1997. A rise to mediocrity no longer moves the meter. Cincinnati has tasted the postseason in recent years, and once that touches the tongues of a fan base, they are thirsty for more. And this team lacks the pop. It lacks the juice.

Just to score as many runs as last season, the Reds would have to average 4.45 runs per game from here on out. Which sounds reasonable until you look at the moving parts of this small Red machine. And there’s a reason they are moving.

There’s a reason that, only ten games in, Bryan Price decided to move Votto to the second-spot. This wasn’t just a widespread slump. Something wasn’t working. And when Price told the Cincinnati Enquirer, “We need some newness…we need to do something different,” he was right.

Which is why it likely won’t be enough to re-shuffle the same pieces.

The production of Bruce should rise (in his customary streaks), but then what? Despite his denials, Brandon Phillips and his offensive game continues to decline. Ryan Ludwick represents a risk with a body at age-35 and a bat that disappears. And only time will tell if the promising starts to the season from Todd Frazier and Devin Mesoraco signify an emergence or a peak before the valley. Unless the Reds look elsewhere, three of these names slot 3-4-5. Doesn’t exactly get the blood pumping.

Hence the threat of panic. Moving Votto to the two-spot only works if the heart of the order isn’t flat-lining. Say Hamilton improves and Votto continues his consistent stardom. It still might not be enough. Clogging the base paths isn’t the same as clogging the arteries. It won’t force that weak heart to attack.

It’s that reality that has settled in Cincinnati. Sure, 11 games is a small sample size. But there’s a bigger picture at play. Despite a team ERA well above league average, fans are seeing the standings, that snowman in the loss column, and they’re wondering, “Can we panic now?”

Even if this paucity of production can’t be sustained, even if the numbers must rise, the answer to that question might be yes.

Because, sure, Votto might wield his bat like a magic wand. But even he might not be capable of reversing the effects of this dry spell. Streaks die, but problems linger.

So, too, does that big red button, that panic button, waiting for a small sample size to become a season on the brink.

It might be the one thing this team can hit.