Red Hot in Cincinnati, But for How Long?

This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.

The New York Sun

Every year, some unlikely team comes out of nowhere to get off to a great start, inspiring lots of talk about how various players have put it all together, how the skipper is a lock to be voted manager of the year, and how baseball is back in [insert name of long-suffering city here]. Almost invariably, the team goes back to doing more or less what it was expected to do before the season began, and falls out of the race by July. (Though sometimes, the team turns out to be the 2006 Chicago White Sox and wins the whole thing.) Maybe the Cincinnati Reds are for real, but I don’t think they need to start printing playoff tickets just yet.

Yesterday’s bottom-of-the-ninth win over the Cardinals propelled the Reds to 19-8, the best record in baseball. That’s pretty impressive, especially considering that they’ve given up more runs than any team in the league save the Pirates and Giants. While the Reds’ bad pitching is usually blamed on the Great American Ballpark being a bandbox, that’s not really fair – the park is good for home runs, but not for other kinds of hits, and actually plays as a more-or-less neutral park, even granting that the Reds’ foolish insistence on putting fly ball pitchers in the rotation means its homer-happy ways affect them more than visiting teams.

Plain old bad pitching and unbelievably bad defense, not the ballpark, are to blame for the Reds’ high runs-allowed totals, and aside from unlikely ace Bronson Arroyo (5-0, 2.06 ERA) and a few relievers, the pitchers haven’t done much more for the Reds this season than in any other. They’re riding high on great hitting and a bit of good luck.

The hitting, at least, is legitimate. Last year the Reds boasted what was probably the best offense in the league, and they may well this year, too, despite some truly silly decisions, like giving lots of at-bats to washed-up veterans Scott Hatteberg and Rich Aurillia (both of whom, to be fair, have hit very well … thus far). Perennial 50-homer threat Adam Dunn anchors the lineup, right fielder Austin Kearns is finally staying healthy and living up to his promise, and Felipe Lopez may be the NL’s best hitting shortstop.

Then there are a couple of younger, less-established players. Twenty-three-year-old third baseman Edwin Encarnacion, long one of the most complete and curiously overlooked prospects in the game, is enjoying a breakout spring, exhibiting mastery over the strike zone (13 walks against 14 strikeouts) and plenty of power. Second baseman Brandon Phillips – who was by far the best middle infield prospect in baseball a couple of years ago – has been a revelation since being claimed off waivers a few weeks back, driving in 23 runs in 19 games. He won’t keep that up, but it’s possible he might be tapping into all his potential.

Even with Ken Griffey on the shelf, this is a dynamite lineup. So far as I can tell, none of them are much better fielders than Griffey (or Bernie Williams, for that matter), with Dunn being particularly horrible. But the strategy of stacking a lineup with a bunch of guys who can kill the ball is always a viable one. It’s particularly nice to see a surprise team that’s built this way, since whenever a team outperforms expectations in the first few weeks of the season it’s invariably credited to pitching, defense, and solid fundamentals. I’m sure there’s someone out there crediting those for the Reds’ success, but I have no idea who it is.

Even leaving aside the defense, the Reds have little means of preventing their opponent from scoring. Their default third starter, Brandon Claussen, has a 6.04 ERA that more or less accurately represents his abilities. Fourth starter Dave Williams will improve on his ERA, which is north of 9.00, but he’s a bit too reliant on the defense behind him to be a really good fit here. Arroyo and Aaron Harang are good, solid pitchers, but not guys you want at the front of your rotation, and the bullpen is a house of cards, unless you think Todd Coffey is going to keep giving up two runs per 13 games.

Balance out the likely improvements against the likely declines, and the staff will probably finish the season about where it is now. As good as the offense is, it’s not going to carry the third worst staff in the league.

It might for the next while, though. Detroit and Milwaukee are the best teams the Reds play over the next month, so it’s not hard to imagine them atop the standings come June 1. How much does that mean? Last year’s National League champions, the Astros, were tied (with the Reds) for the second-worst record in the league last June 1,12.5 games out of first. It’s a long season, especially when you can’t get anyone out.

The New York Sun

© 2024 The New York Sun Company, LLC. All rights reserved.

Use of this site constitutes acceptance of our Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. The material on this site is protected by copyright law and may not be reproduced, distributed, transmitted, cached or otherwise used.

The New York Sun

Sign in or  create a free account

By continuing you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use