How has Cincinnati Risen to the Top of the National League?
The Cincinnati Reds are having their best season (win percentage-wise) as a franchise since 1976, pacing all of baseball with a 73-42 record (.605 win %). The Reds have been scorching hot in the 2nd half, taking advantage of a weak schedule to go 25-9, extending their lead in the NL Central to 6.5 games. The only blemish on Cincinnati’s otherwise flawless season has been an injury to Joey Votto, which hasn’t effected the team in any way. So with the best record in baseball residing in the Queen City, let’s count down the reasons why the Reds have been so successful in 2012.
1) Johnny Cueto is a legitimate Cy Young candidate
Johnny Cueto continued his excellent 2012 season on Saturday, pitching 8 innings of 3-hit, 2-run ball, while picking up a win over the Chicago Cubs. Cueto boosted his record to 16-6, tying David Price for the Major League lead in wins, while posting a 2.44 ERA, with 135 strikeouts compared to only 37 walks. Cueto achieves his success by keeping hitters off-balance with a variety of pitches with excellent movement including a curveball, slider, and a nasty sinker. Cueto can locate all of the pitches well, and he’s been absolutely brutal on right-handed hitters this season, destroying them to the tune of a .210/.261/.290 triple slash. If he keeps pitching this well, Cueto will be a top-3 contender for the NL Cy Young Award for the rest of the season. He’s probably the front-runner after today’s dominant start.
2) The bullpen, led by Aroldis Chapman, is awesome
The Reds have posted the lowest bullpen ERA in all of baseball for a majority of the 2012 seasons, maintaining their dominance at an almost eerie level. No pitcher has been more dominant or fun to watch out of the bullpen than Aroldis Chapman this season. He combines devastating 102 mph heat with pinpoint location, averaging an uber-elite 7.36 strikeouts per walk. Chapman has struck out an unreal 106 batters in just 58 innings while proving his control issues from a season ago are a thing of the past. The rest of the Cincinnati bullpen has been stout, featuring 6 other relievers with ERA’s under 3.20. Jose Arredondo, Sean Marshall, Logan Ondrusek, and company have been phenomenal, and their combined 2.62 ERA as a unit in a combine 312.2 innings is a huge factor in their National League best record.
3) The pitching staff has been remarkably healthy
You wanna know the average number of starters a Major League team has used this season? 9. That’s 9 pitchers making at least 1 start per team. There are three teams that have had only 6 different starting pitchers, San Francisco, St. Louis, and Cincinnati, and only the Reds have used the minimum of 5. It’s almost shocking when you think about, and it’s removed a lot of the guess work for Dusty Baker. Each starting pitcher (Cueto, Arroyo, Bailey, Latos, and Leake) has been league average or better this season, which gives Cincinnati a consistency that no other franchise has.
4) Joey Votto was hitting at a MVP-type level before going on the DL
The Reds multi-talented 1st baseman was having an all-time great season and was on pace to challenge the all-time record for doubles hit in one season until he opted for knee surgery. Votto’s season line: .342/.465/.604 with 36 doubles, 14 homers, and 49 RBI. He’s probably fallen too far behind Andrew McCutchen to compete for the MVP award, but his team is still streaking toward the NL Central title and an easier path to the World Series.
5) Ryan Ludwick has stepped up in Votto’s absence
Over the last 28 games, since Joey Votto hit the disabled list, Ryan Ludwick has hit .365/.419/.753 with 8 homers and 25 RBI. The outfielder has stepped his game up, providing Cincinnati the middle-of-the-order presence they so desperately need in order to maintain a league average offense. Ludwick is having the 2nd best season of his career at age-33, as he is on pace to post the 2nd best OPS, OPS+, batting average, home run total, and RBI total of his career. He’s done an excellent job holding down the fort the slugging 1st baseman, and if he can continue putting up solid numbers, Cincinnati becomes a much more difficult team to handle in a 5 or 7 game series.
6) A favorable schedule doesn’t hurt
Cincinnati’s opponents over the last month of play: Arizona, Milwaukee, Houston, Colorado, San Diego, Pittsburgh, Milwaukee again, Chicago, New York, and the Cubs again. Not exactly a murderer’s row, and even without Votto, this stretch in their schedule provided them a chance to gain some ground in the standings, much like I thought it would a month ago.
Currently Cincinnati is on pace to win around 98-99 games this season, and they have the most comfortable division lead in baseball, fronting the NL Central by 7 games over Pittsburgh and St. Louis. Votto is due to return in a week or two, which will provide Cincinnati with the required offense necessary to maintain their lead in the division and to make the playoffs once the schedule toughens up again. And with no true frontrunner in the National League this season, the Reds may have the inside track in the pennant race.