Hidden within the Reds' excellent record this season is a stark pattern: They've gotten fat off the weaker teams while struggling when they face the better teams. The Reds are 16-31 against the other six teams in contention for an NL playoff spot -- the Phillies, Braves, Cardinals, Padres, Giants and Rockies. Against the rest of baseball, they're 66-31.
A team has to take care of business to get to the postseason. Just ask the Cardinals, who have played .500 ball against losing teams and as a result are looking up at the Reds in the standings. But those second-division teams come off the schedule in about three weeks. If the Reds can't beat the better teams, they won't be around for long come playoff time.
Before going too far down this road, it's worth noting one caveat: for the most part, predicting any playoff series is a bit of a fool's errand. There's too much chance in a short series to pick a victor with any real confidence. But certain trends have held up over time. There are things you need to do, most of the time, to beat good teams.
The Reds, simply put, don't do those things well enough, often enough.
Their rotation goes five deep, but has more quantity than elite-level quality. That's a better way to go about April through September than it is October. The Reds don't look at it that way, of course -- preferring to concentrate on what they do have, which is five (or more) quality starters.
"Bronson Arroyo has been to a World Series," said catcher Ryan Hanigan. "Guys have been around a while. It helps to have the experience or an ace but these are our guys. We've won with our guys all year. I feel good about our staff. I want us to keep working to where we need to be for the rest of the season and do well with what we've got."
The bullpen has some quality arms, but closer Francisco Cordero has been unreliable. It's possible to beat lesser teams regularly by scoring a lot of runs and getting just enough from the rotation and bullpen. It's much, much tougher to do that against the top teams.
Offensively, the Reds have actually fared decently against good teams. They're scoring almost exactly four runs per game against contenders, which isn't great but should be enough to win more than 34 percent of the time -- assuming good run prevention.
However, the Reds have allowed nearly 5.5 runs per game in their matchups with contending clubs. That's not going to cut it, be it in July or October. And it's difficult to see how they solve the issue. Cincinnati simply doesn't have a pitching staff that's constructed to beat top-flight teams. The Reds don't strike out enough batters and they don't shut the door well enough at the end of the game.
The "Secret Sauce" calculation from Baseball Prospectus has come up in this space before. It's a measure of how teams fare in three statistical categories with predictive value in the playoffs. Those same traits, the creators argue, also have increased value when quality teams play in the regular season. The qualities are: pitchers who strike out a lot of batters, good defense and a top-flight closer. The Reds have one of those qualities.
Cincinnati ranks 22nd in the Major Leagues, and a dismal 14th in the NL, in strikeout rate. Against a poor offense, that doesn't have to be a problem. A team with a bad approach will get itself out often enough. A good team, a team with the kind of offense that gets you to October, will make you pay. As for the closer, that speaks for itself. Good teams play closer games against other good teams, and Cordero, who has blown eight saves, including two in his past three chances, is having a rough year.
The Reds' back-of-game issues have showed up in another way, too. They've been particularly bad on the road against contenders, going 4-18 in road games against the other NL postseason challengers. Plenty of factors can cause a team to struggle on the road, but spotty bullpen work is a big one. You can't lose on a walk-off at home.
A couple of potential solutions loom. Edinson Volquez is returning from a stint in the Minor Leagues, and if he can find the form he showed before elbow surgery, he could provide a power arm at the front of the rotation. The Reds also would be well-served to use phenom Aroldis Chapman and his 100-mph-plus fastball more aggressively.
Overall, though, it's a matter of how this team is structured. It's built perfectly for the long haul of the regular season. With all their starting depth, the Reds virtually never begin a game without a chance at a win. With their powerful offense, they can overcome deficits, especially against lesser pitching staffs.
But it's not a coincidence that they've had a difficult time beating the better teams. And it won't be surprising at all if that trend carries into next month.