As the day starts on June 20th the Cincinnati Reds find themselves by themselves, atop the National League’s Central Division. The team was picked to finish in last place by most and those who didn’t have them in last had them in next-to-last and just ahead of the Pittsburgh Pirates. How did we get here?
The simple answer to that question is that to this point in the season the Cincinnati Reds have won more games than the other teams in the division. The longer answer is that the division as a whole isn’t that good, the roster the team has today looks vastly different than the one they had on opening day, and some big time performances from players that they weren’t expecting to get right away.
The roster today, particularly from an offensive standpoint looks so much better than it did when the season began. It began to change when Matt McLain showed up. After having a so-so season in 2021 in Double-A Chattanooga, McLain entered 2023 with some changes at the plate and just obliterated the baseball in Triple-A Louisville. His 1.188 OPS was the highest mark in all of the minors when he was called up to Cincinnati. While he hasn’t been THAT good in the big leagues, he’s been very good. In his first 32 games he’s hit .317/.371/.496, provided quality defense, and he’s been good on the bases.
After an absolutely brutal start to the season for Will Benson he was sent to the minor leagues. He started slow there, too, but he got things going in the right direction in May for Louisville and since being recalled on May 26th he’s added depth and quality plate appearances to the lineup. Benson has hit .367/.483/.531 with 11 walks and just seven strikeouts in 60 plate appearances spread out over 19 games.
The Elly De La Cruz era began with enormous fanfare. And for good reason – the guy can do things on a baseball field that just defy logic. He’s aggressive on the bases, but with extreme smarts and he’s faster than just about anyone in the game. He makes things happen. But he’s also a good defender at both shortstop and third base. There was a stretch of a few games there where he racked up a bunch of strikeouts, but by-and-large he’s been like many other hitters in this lineup – patient and battles guys to extend plate appearances. He’s hit .271/.352/.417 in his first two weeks in the big leagues and has been a sparkplug in the middle of the lineup.
Andrew Abbott recently joined the rotation after beginning the season in Double-A. His ascension was quick – he and Matt McLain are two of the fastest players from the 2021 draft to reach the big leagues. And since he joined the Reds he hasn’t allowed a run in his three starts, picking up wins in each of the games.
Then you’ve got some unlikely production from a guy like Ben Lively. He began the season in Triple-A and while he was solid there he seemed to be getting by on weak contact and throwing strikes. He’s come to Cincinnati, thrown way more strikes and struck out a ton more batters than he had while in the minors. For a rotation that’s basically been in shambles due to ineffectiveness by some and injuries to others, Lively’s stepped up in a big way for the club.
While there have been some unexpected guys step up, the club has also gotten good production from players that were expected to perform well. Spencer Steer struggled a bit in his debut last September, but he’s brushed that off and hit quite well – as he was expected to – this season. While playing first, third, and a little bit of the outfield of late, Steer’s hit .278/.362/.475 and like the hitters talked about above, he’s provided quality at-bats.
Jonathan India’s 2022 season was a bit of a down year compared to his rookie campaign, but he’s turned things around this year while being a little bit healthier. Batting in the top third of the order throughout the season he’s hit .271/.355/.439 with 10 homers (tied with Spencer Steer for the team lead).
TJ Friedl was the original Will Benson. Well, maybe not – but he went through something similar last year when he struggled a bit in the big leagues and was sent back to Triple-A and made some adjustments, then returned in August and he’s hit .288/.360/.493 in 352 plate appearances since then. His strong finish in 2022 has carried forward this season and he’s hit .308/.368/.465 in 50 games.
Hunter Greene has been good out of the rotation. Through 14 starts he’s got a 3.93 ERA (that’s a 121 ERA+), and while his won/loss record doesn’t reflect it, he’s been the best pitcher on the clubs. Unfortunately for the club, Greene just went on the injured list yesterday.
But perhaps the biggest surprise and a big factor for the team’s success has been the bullpen. Alexis Diaz has been one of the best relievers in baseball this year. He was also one of the best relievers in baseball last season as a rookie. He’s 19-for-19 in save chances this season and has been as dominant as any Reds reliever has been in decades.
It’s not just Diaz in the 9th inning, though. Buck Farmer has a 2.55 ERA, Lucas Sims has a 2.70 ERA, Alex Young has a 2.79 ERA, Ian Gibaut has a 3.41 ERA, and prior to landing on the injured list Derek Law had a 2.57 ERA. The bullpen certainly has had some guys in it this season who have gotten rocked, but there’s some depth of good relievers on the club and when David Bell has needed guys to step up that group has certainly been up to the task.
The lineup as currently constructed is deep. The catcher on the day may still be a bit of an easy out, but beyond that the lineup is full of guys who work the count, mostly have high contact rates, and while not a team that has a ton of home run pop in it, has a lot of extra-base power to it. And to top it off, the team has a bunch of speed on the bases. They make the pitchers work and work hard to get through the lineup. And they put pressure on the pitcher, catcher, and fielders with how they run the bases.
The pitching staff is in a tough spot right now. Three starters are on the injured list and two of the pitchers in the rotation have been inconsistent at best and not good if we’re being polite. Who fills in for Hunter Greene next week when the team needs a starter is anyone’s guess as the club has pushed it’s depth to the limits in the rotation. That issue hasn’t had an effect on the bullpen yet, but it certainly could down the line.
The Reds are not without issues. Nick Lodolo is out until at least August. Hunter Greene’s been dealing with a hip issue for what seems like a month now and is on the injured list. Graham Ashcraft started out hot but since May he’s struggled in a big way and is currently on the injured list. Luke Weaver has an ERA pushing six and a half. But as was stated in the early parts of this article – this division stinks. Every team in it has pretty big question marks somewhere on the club.
Can the Reds continue to outpace the division like they have for the last two months? They certainly can. The lineup is very deep and the bullpen is quite good. The rotation is being held together with dollar store tape and a glue stick from 1997, but there are opportunities for that to improve. Maybe it’s a call up of Connor Phillips in the second half (he’s on a roll and currently making a mockery of Double-A), perhaps Graham Ashcraft returns from the injured list and starts getting things going in the right direction again, Hunter Greene’s hip issues get figured out and he can remain on the mound, and maybe – just maybe – the team uses a summer trade to add a starting pitcher who can eat some innings and provide stabilization.