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Three Things that Surprise Me about the Reds Season (and Two that Don’t)

Where have the Reds’ bats gone? These days, it feels like Elly De La Cruz is the sole hitter in the lineup capable of doing…well, anything.

Last night was just the latest example.  The Reds might have been facing arguably the best team in the American League in the Baltimore Orioles, but they might have been facing arguably their worst starting pitcher.  Somebody apparently forgot to remind Cole Irwin.  He went 6.1 scoreless innings last night and allowed just two hits.  You can thank Elly for both.

Who am I kidding?  This wasn’t a shocker – the Reds suck against left-handed pitching.  When the Reds saw Irwin, they scattered like he was Omar Little.  They have a team batting average of .214 against southpaws, thirty points below league average.  They have the worst team batting average in the entire National League, and the third-worst team batting average overall.  If you were looking for encouragement right now, this is not the place to get it.

This lineup looks defeated.  This is the second time the Reds have left it to De La Cruz to secure their only hits of the ballgame, and coincidentally, that was also the last time the Reds weren’t above .500.  The Reds went on to sweep the Angels to get back on track.  Sadly, the Orioles present a much different challenge than the perennially hapless Halos.

Could the Reds turn it around?  Of course.  But given the Orioles are running out another lefthander today, it might be safer if we hedge our bets. In fact, maybe we should save all our gambling for the Derby.

It’s terrifying to imagine where the Reds would be without their 22-year-old (early) MVP candidate.  He’s been their one consistent bright spot.  He’s still just as incredible to watch as he was when he first burst onto the scene last year.  Things haven’t gone exactly as I expected this season to go, but through the ups-and-downs, Elly’s emergence has been mesmerizing to behold.  He’s been a wonderful surprise, but hardly the only one.  Here are the three things that have surprised me about the Reds season (and two that don’t).

Surprise – Elly De La Cruz is the best player on the team

Last year, Elly was an enigma.  He was singularly talented.  Nobody else in baseball has his combination of tools.  For a couple weeks after he was called up, he looked like some supernatural combination of Mickey Mantle, Rafael Furcal and an F-22 Raptor.  Then pitchers realized he would never lay off of a low breaking ball and his effectiveness plummeted.

21 strikeouts in 58 plate appearances in spring training didn’t exactly alleviate concerns.  That strikeout rate hasn’t really come down either.  Instead, De La Cruz has decided to just tear the cover off the baseball whenever he does make contact.  He’s also improved his discipline at the plate, increasing his walk percentage and decreasing the number of times he’s swinging at pitches outside the zone.  For one offseason, it’s quite the leap.

While it looks obvious who the Reds best player is right now, it wasn’t always so crystal clear.  Matt McLain earned that distinction last year, and for much of the start to this season, that honor belonged to Spencer Steer.  Today though, there is no more question: it’s Elly.

No other player in baseball provides De La Cruz’s power and speed combination, and after a rough patch early, his defense has been exceptional too.  He’s doing everything he can – utilizing every extraordinary gift he has – and the Reds are staying afloat in the NL because of it.

Not a Surprise – Injuries are really taking their toll.

As amazing as De La Cruz has been this season, it’s only partially masked the fact that the Reds are sorely missing some key contributors, McLain in particular.  Unfortunately, McLain won’t be back until late September at the earliest.  The Reds, it seems, will have to make do in the meantime.

On a positive note, T.J. Friedl should be returning soon. His ability to make quality contact, create chaos on the basepaths, and be a solid option in the outfield makes his return a welcome one.  Stuart Fairchild is a reasonable fourth outfielder and has made some spectacular plays in center field, but the Reds really miss Friedl’s magic.  Expect plenty of bunts for hits from the 28-year-old speedster, and for a team that struggles to get runners on base right now, that’s like having a built-in cheat code.

The Reds pitching has also suffered its share of attrition.  Frankie Montas looked stellar before a comebacker to the forearm saw him sidelined for a couple starts, while Ian Gibaut hasn’t pitched all season after leading the Reds in appearances in 2023.  Brandon Williamson was a godsend in the back half of last season, and his ongoing shoulder soreness has forced the Reds to keep Nick Martínez in the rotation rather than the bullpen where he’s better suited.

Although not an injury, Noelvi Marté’s suspension is complicating matters too.  The second-year infielder was supposed to be a big part of the Reds lineup this year, and instead his absence has only exacerbated another big surprise of the Reds season so far…

Surprise – The Reds are getting nothing from their corner infielders

The Reds did not sign Jeimer Candelario to hit .188/.275/.365 hitting.  The Reds did not let Joey Votto walk in free agency so Christian Encarnacion-Strand could hit .190/.216/.305.  But that’s what they’re getting out of their starting third baseman and first baseman, respectively.  Yuck!

At least there’s a little hope for CES.  His exit velocity on batted balls isn’t quite up to last year’s level, but it’s still in line with league average, while his .243 batting average on balls in play suggests he’s at least partially dealing with some bad luck.  With Candelario, the outlook is grim.

His average exit velocity has tumbled all the way from 88.3 mph last year to 85.9 mph this year (in the 13th percentile league-wide).  His strikeout percentage has jumped from 22% to 33%, one of the worst marks in the league.  Pitchers are challenging him with more breaking balls, and he isn’t responding well at all.  He hasn’t gotten a single hit off a curveball all season!

The Reds need Marté, and they need him now.  The 22-year-old third baseman/shortstop won’t be eligible for the postseason following his PED suspension, but at least he can give the Reds an option to replace Candelario at third after 60 games.  We can worry about the postseason later – first we have to get there, and that isn’t happening with this particular corner infield situation.

Not a Surprise – The bullpen isn’t doing what it did last year

It’s a cliché because it’s true: bullpens are notoriously fickle from year-to-year.  In 2023, the Reds bullpen was a surprising strength.  This year, it’s been a headache.

It’s particularly painful because the Reds chose to reinforce this area of their team in free agency, adding Emilio Pagán and Brent Suter, along with sometimes-reliever Nick Martínez.  These additions were supposed to be a buffer in case last year’s performance was a bit of an aberration.  It hasn’t worked.

Nearly every reliever has taken a step back from where they were last year.  Lucas Sims is struggling with his control, Pagán is giving up too many long-balls, and Alexis Díaz is giving up too many hits.  It would be a disaster if it weren’t for the second big surprise of the Reds season…

Surprise – Fernando Cruz is the best reliever on the team

Forget the grand slam he gave up to the Padres a couple days ago – other than that brutal appearance, Cruz has been nails.  His splitter is one of the unhittable pitches in baseball, and Reds manager David Bell knows it.

Last night, Bell called upon Cruz to bail out the Reds in the sixth inning of a 0 - 0 game.  With two runners on and two outs, facing the Orioles’ Heston Kjerstad, the 34-year-old Cruz got Kjerstad to strike out swinging – blowing by the lefty with a 95-mph fastball.  It’s become a common sight in 2024.  Díaz might be the closer, but Cruz is the man for those have-to-have-it moments.

There were signs that Cruz was turning into an elite reliever, but they were muddled by his less-than-impressive 4.91 ERA in 2023.  Still, his splitter was devastating, and he was in the top 1% of the league in strikeout percentage.  He’s only elevated his game from there.

Other than his one blow-up game against the Padres, Cruz has been borderline-unhittable.  He’s been the one trump card in the Reds bullpen that Bell can utilize anytime versus any hitter.  Nobody is safe from that splitter, be you righty or lefty, slap or pull hitter.  The Reds haven’t been great on the back end, but Cruz gives them more than a fighting chance every time he’s on the mound.

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