Reds at midseason: National League parity provides hope despite injuries, losing record


In 2010, the Cincinnati Reds exceeded expectations and not only posted their first winning season in 10 years, but won the National League Central before a quick exit from the playoffs.

That 2010 team boasted the National League’s Most Valuable Player in Joey Votto, a budding star in Jay Bruce, a resurgent veteran leader in Scott Rolen as well as emerging starters like Johnny Cueto, Mike Leake and Homer Bailey.

In what looked like a turning of the corner for a franchise, the Reds finished four games under .500 the next year before winning the second-most games in baseball in 2012 before a disappointing playoff exit.

Last year’s Reds team defied all expectations despite missing the playoffs. Still, the 2023 Reds finished with a winning record, 82-80, after losing 100 games the previous season.

With Thursday’s victory in St. Louis, the 2024 version of the Reds reached the halfway point at 38-43 and in fourth place in the NL Central. Though they’re 10 games behind the Milwaukee Brewers, the Reds are just 3 1/2 games back in the wild-card hunt.

At the halfway point, it’s a good time to take a look at what the first half held for this Reds team and what it could mean going forward.

Expectations

The Reds entered spring training with high hopes — the polar opposite of the year before. Though far from a favorite to win the NL Central, the Reds were expected to challenge for the top spot.

The reasoning was sound. The Reds had good, young talent throughout the roster.

However, as spring training went on, the Reds continued to lose players. First, it was a suspension to Noelvi Marte, among the favorites for the Rookie of the Year race going into the season, then injuries to the projected No. 1 and No. 2 batters in the order, TJ Friedl and Matt McLain. Not only were those two players atop the lineup, but also two middle-of-the-field lynchpins.

Friedl is currently on his third injured-list stint and has played in just 26 games. McLain hasn’t played and it seems unlikely he’ll play this season, even though the team is holding out some help. Marte missed the first 80 games due to a suspension and his three hits in his first game — extending his hitting streak that began last season to 17 games — showed what the Reds missed in his absence.

What’s gone right

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Hunter Greene has a 3.79 ERA and 103 strikeouts over 92 2/3 innings. (Dylan Buell / Getty Images)

The biggest positive of the season has been the steps forward made by three of the team’s top-end young talents, shortstop Elly De La Cruz and starters Hunter Greene and Nick Lodolo.

Like Friedl, Lodolo is on the IL for the third time this season. However, he’s already made five more starts this season than the seven he made in 2023. Lodolo, who went on the IL earlier this week because of a blister on his left index finger, is 8-3 with a 2.96 ERA, with the Reds winning nine of his 12 starts. Even in his last outing before going on the IL, he couldn’t throw his best pitch — his breaking ball — but still put the Reds in a position to win, allowing three earned runs in 4 2/3 innings. Until he does it, staying healthy will be a question for Lodolo, but each of his first two IL stays was short.

Greene’s on-again, off-again search for a third pitch is showing some progress with his splitter. Greene is 5-3 with a 3.79 ERA in 16 starts.

And then there’s De La Cruz. Because De La Cruz’s talent is so obvious, there’s often a focus on what he isn’t doing well as opposed to what he is doing well.

In 98 games last season, De La Cruz posted a 0.8 bWAR and is already at 2.7 bWAR this season.

De La Cruz led baseball with 106 strikeouts entering the Reds’ 82nd game of the season. That’s the bad, at least on the surface.

De La Cruz is going to strike out, but he’s hardly alone in that department. Strikeouts are part of the modern game, and despite all the recent rule changes, strikeouts still count as only one out. Even if his 30.6 percent strikeout percentage is high, it’s 3.1 points lower than it was in his rookie year. He’s also seen his walk rate improve at nearly the same rate, from 8.2 percent last season to 11 percent this year.

One of the biggest changes has been De La Cruz’s swing decisions, something he said was an offseason focus. After putting up a chase percentage — the rate of swings at pitches outside the strike zone — of 32.8 percent as a rookie, it’s at just 24.7 percent this year. That may not sound like much, but he’s gone from the 24th percentile to the 71st percentile in that category.

When De La Cruz does hit the ball, he’s seen his ground-ball rate go from 55.3 percent to 48.5 percent.

De La Cruz’s batting average as a rookie was .235 and was at .255 heading into Friday. But he’s also seen his on-base percentage improve from .300 to .346 and his slugging has gone from .410 to .470.

Those successes have helped him have three more steals this year than he did all of last season in 17 fewer games. He’s also topped his home run total with 14 through 81 games against 13 a year ago.

He’s also taken a step forward batting from the right side, hitting .243/.355/.379 this season. A year ago, he hit .184/.231/.263 as a right-handed hitter.

Last year De La Cruz had 13 errors at shortstop on 277 chances. This year he has 15 in 325 chances, a similar rate as a year ago.

As for advanced fielding metrics, Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) has him at minus-4, but Statcast’s Outs Above Average has him at 7 and his fielding run value is in the 91st percentile. All advanced metrics have their positive and negatives, but by examining them as a whole, you can see that it’s not easy to pigeonhole someone as a “good” or “bad” fielder by those metrics alone. It’s undeniable that De La Cruz has an elite arm and range.

It’s never a guarantee that a young player will improve in their second year, but so far De La Cruz has done that in many different areas of his game.

What’s gone wrong

In addition to McLain and Friedl starting the season on the injured list, another of the team’s heralded youngsters, Christian Encarnacion-Strand, started slowly and then suffered a fracture in his wrist that will require surgery.

Encarnacion-Strand played in 29 games and hit just .190/.220/.293.

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Jeimer Candelario is batting .300 with eight home runs in June. (John Fisher / Getty Images)

Jeimer Candelario has also been hobbled recently, just as his bat started heating up. Injuries have kept Jake Fraley out of the lineup. The Reds’ outfield of Stuart Fairchild, Levi Jordan and Nick Martini looked more like one you’d expect at a road game in spring training than the lineup for a rubber match against a division foe.

Outfielder Will Benson started slowly in 2023, but after a demotion to Triple A, he came back and hit .298/.389/.542 over the final 98 games of the season. Now, because of the issues with the team’s outfield, the Reds simply don’t have the bodies on the roster to send him down. Benson is hitting just .194/.285/.378 in 75 games.

On the pitching side, all but three pitchers have an ERA+ better than 100. However, each of those three came into the season with high expectations: starters Frankie Montas (95) and Graham Ashcraft (78), and closer Alexis Díaz (87).

What’s next

Marte’s back, which is good news. However, between now and the trade deadline, the Reds will have to decide where they stand.

The state of the National League makes that decision even more difficult., with 13 out of the 15 teams within four games of a playoff spot.

Especially the year after the Arizona Diamondbacks edged the Reds for the final playoff spot and then went to the World Series, it’s difficult to wave the white flag. That said, because there are so few sellers at this point, the Reds could find that the low supply of teams looking to sell should mean those players on the market could offer a tempting return.

The playoff race should clear up a little in the next month, but straddling the line between buyer and seller may go down to the wire.

(Top photo of Elly De La Cruz: John Fisher / Getty Images)



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