How The Cincinnati Reds Blew Open The NL Central Race

The Cincinnati Reds are riding high in the NL Central race, with an 84-56 record and the 9.5 game lead they hold is the highest of any divisional leader. If this were a political campaign, the networks would be calling it and you’d see the image of Dusty Baker next to the division standings with the check-mark next to him indicating a race that was over. It’s a remarkable achievement for a team that lost its closer (Ryan Madson) in spring training, it’s best setup man (Nick Massett) about the same time and pulled away from St. Louis and Pittsburgh during a period when their best player (Joey Votto) was on the disabled list. Let’s take a look at how the Reds did it.

You would not expect a team that plays in one of the most hitter-friendly parks in baseball to do it with pitching, but that’s exactly what Cincinnati has done. They stand second in the NL in ERA and I’m sure if a sabermetrics guru ran park-adjusted numbers the Reds would also be ahead of league-leader Washington. Johnny Cueto has to be the frontrunner for the Cy Young Award and should at least be in the MVP discussion. The ace has 17 wins and 2.58 ERA in his 28 starts. Bronson Arroyo and Mat Latos each have 12 wins and ERAs in the 3.60s, and Homer Bailey’s 10-9 record with a 4.03 ERA will satisfy any manager in the #4 spot.

One thing that can’t be overlooked is that all four starters have made the full complement of 28 starts. As much bad luck as the Reds had with the injuries noted above, they’ve had it in spades when it comes to their starting pitching and I’m just Baker will take his end of the trade-off.

And if the starters don’t go deep into the game, there’s no shortage of relievers who can get it done. Aroldis Chapman is high-profile closer and has 35 saves with a 1.61 ERA. In spite of a rare blown save on Friday night, he’s still got an astonishing 24 of those saves since the All-Star break and the ERA since the midway point is a buck-thirty.  In front of Chapman, the Reds have gotten good work from Alfredo Simon, who’s brought his career back from a murder charge a few years ago when he was in Baltimore. Simon’s ERA is 2.47, while Sam LeCure and Logan Ondrusek give a righty-lefty combo that can get outs in setup work. And though Jose Arredondo has cooled after a good first half, the Reds added Jonathan Broxton at the trade deadline. The former Dodger closer has a 3.55 ERA since coming to Cincy and is capable of pitching better.

The offense is 7th in the league and using the same park-adjusted effects, we’d have to see this is an average attack at best, especially by playoff standards. Votto had a dazzling .474/.607 stat line for on-base percentage and slugging percentage in the 300 at-bats he posted before his injury. He’s now back and getting back in the groove for the postseason. In the meantime, Cincinnati owes a debt to the following players who got the job done in his absence…

*Jay Bruce is the key supporting player and he lifted his game drastically after the All-Star break, delivering a .370/.632 stat line with 15 home runs since the mid-July break.

*Brandon Phillips has hit .323 since the break and after a slow start lifted his seasonal stat line to a respectable .335/.454. He also provides veteran leadership at second base.

*Todd Frazier has been the spark this team needed. He first took over for Scott Rolen at third base when the latter was injured. Then Frazier shifted over to first in Votto’s stead. Wherever Frazier has played, he has hit, with a season-long line of .347/.525 and popping 18 home runs in 373 at-bats.

*Speaking of Rolen, he came back at the right time, when Votto went down and delivered a .408/.496 line since the break. He’s back to nursing the bum shoulder that’s hindered him since 2006, but he came through when the Reds needed him the most.

*Ryan Hanigan was supposed to be replaced by stud rookie Devin Mesoraco at catcher, but it’s the veteran Hanigan who came up with a .405 on-base percentage in the season’s second half.

*Some of us thought Cincinnati had a big hole in centerfield and that Shane Victorino made sense as a trade deadline acquisition. I don’t regret thinking that, but while Victorino went to Los Angeles and struggled, Cincy incumbent Chris Heisey has delivered a .362/.538 stat line since the break.

Cincinnati can now focus on postseason positioning. They are 5.5 games up on San Francisco for the #2 seed, which would ensure homefield advantage in the Division Series. The Reds are 2.5 games back of Washington for the top seed, which carries homefield throughout the World Series thank to the National League’s All-Star game win.

The NFL season starts tomorrow in Cincinnati, with excitement there for the Bengals. But the football team can’t match the ceiling of the Reds, who have a division locked up and the pitching to go deep into October.