Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Reds Sweep Nationals; Arroyo, Bullpen Combine on One-Hitter

In Wednesday afternoon action, the Cincinnati Reds beat the Washington Nationals on the road to complete a three-game series sweep. Bronson Arroyo, the starting pitcher for the visiting Reds, threw an outstanding ball game, pitching eight innings of one-hit, shutout baseball allowing only two walks on eight strikeouts. His opposition, Nationals' starter Ramon Ortiz, was a Reds' starter last season, but he was overmatched in this game despite allowing five runs (four earned) in six and two-thirds innings of work on seven hits with three walks and six strikeouts.

Arroyo has simply been a star pitcher for this team. His 4-0 start out of the gate is nothing short of amazing for his position as the "third starter" on this team. Granted, he was placed in that spot to vary the righty-lefty-righty sequence that manager Jerry Narron obviously values, but he is pitching every bit as well (if not better) than staff ace Aaron Harang. Brandon Claussen can't hold a candle to Arroyo so far, but he (Claussen) will hopefully redeem himself in a big series against the Astros this weekend. If both Eric Milton and Paul Wilson get to be healthy and pitching like either is capable of pitching, this starting staff may be nearly impressive. I don't have a lot of faith that Dave Williams will hold his rotation spot with Wilson on the horizon not to mention the work that Elizardo Ramirez did in shutting down the Nationals on Monday night as well. As a Reds' fan, I can only hope that Williams doesn't bury the team in a hole every time he pitches so that the bullpen isn't taxed too much or his value diminishes to nothing over the course of the season. This was the team's return for Sean Casey in the Pittsburgh trade (after all).

The Nationals are hardly one of the "star" teams of the National League. They and the Marlins deserve to be cellar dwellars in the NL East. Of course, the Pittsburgh Pirates, who should have been at least somewhat better than they are, are now the worst team in all of baseball with 18 losses and only five wins. The KC Royals are undoubtedly the worst of the American League, but even the Seattle Mariners haven't looked very good so far themselves. This early season is looking like the haves and the have-nots ... making the NL Central race that much more compelling with four teams with better than .600 winning percentages. No other division can make that claim.

I have a sneaky suspicion that the NL Central is going to produce three teams with better than 90 wins this season (and probably a fourth with around 85 wins). One of the three is going to have to go home come playoff time in October -- which one will it be? Smart money would be picking the Astros and Cardinals, particularly given their track records in recent years, to make the cut. Why not pick the Reds, though? The offense is strong, the pitching is strong, the defense has made errors but is passable ... is the pitching going to be decimated by injury as the season rolls along? Will the offense stop scoring runs? Are the Cardinals and Astros that much better at limiting the runs scored by their opposition?

Yes, the Reds pitchers have allowed 121 runs this season (109 earned) through today's game. In three games, the runs allowed were greater than 10 (Opening Day - 16, 4/18 - 12, and 4/22 - 11). Factor out those games and the total runs allowed equals (121 - 16 - 12 - 11 = ) 82 in 19 games. The Astros have allowed 90 runs through two fewer games (have not played yet today) while scoring 107 runs. Similar to the Reds, the Astros have allowed greater than 10 runs on three occasions (4/4 - 11, 4/8 - 12, and 4/18 - 12). Doing the same math, the reduced result is 72 runs in 17 games. The Cardinals have allowed 80 runs through today's 4-3 win over the Pirates. They have given up 10+ runs only once (12, on 4/18 ) with remarkably consistent pitching over 21 games. 82 / 19 = 4.316 (Reds) 72 / 17 = 4.235 (Astros) 68 / 20 = 3.400 (Cardinals) On offense, the Reds have scored 136 runs in 22 games, the Astros have scored 107 runs in 20 games, and the Cardinals have scored 105 runs in 21 games.

136 / 22 = 6.182 (Reds)
107 / 20 = 5.350 (Astros)
105 / 21 = 5.000 (Cardinals)

In short, the numbers paint an interesting picture for each club. The differentials between runs scored and runs allowed is usually a meaningful statistic for a team's success. Here they are for these three:

6.182 - 4.316 = 1.866 (Reds)
5.350 - 4.235 = 1.115 (Astros)
5.000 - 3.400 = 1.6 (Cardinals)

If these numbers mean anything (which, realistically, they don't mean much with only 1/8 of the season complete), the Reds and the Cardinals are superior to the Astros. The offense for the Reds is best while the pitching for the Cardinals is superior. I am actually surprised that the Cardinals haven't scored more runs than they have (with Albert Pujols in the order), but their pitching has been stellar. This NL Central race could (and should) be the most exciting in the majors this year.

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