In 2012 the Cincinnati Reds won the National League Central by a league-high nine games over the St. Louis Cardinals, only to lose in the NLDS to the eventual World Series Champion Giants despite taking a 2-0 lead in the series. The 2012 Reds won 97 games after finishing 21st in the majors in runs scored.
A year later the Reds are starting to get hot, going 17-6 in May heading into Tuesday night’s game with the Indians. It’s fairy easy to point to why the Reds are rolling: offense. Cincinnati has jumped up to eighth in runs scored this season and the number figures to increase.
Again, there’s a relatively straightforward explanation to the Reds’ improved offense: Joey Votto is healthy. The Canadian first baseman only played 111 games last year, missing most of July and August with cartilage damage in his knee. This season the 2010 NL MVP leads baseball in walks per plate appearance (.181) along with a .351/.475/.555 line with nine homers and 25 RBIs. By any evaluating metric, Votto is a “tough out.”
Votto’s T-1000-like batter’s eye, coupled with that of leadoff batter Shin-Shoo Choo, acquired from Cleveland in the offseason, has made the Reds’ offense much more consistent. Choo and Votto are third and fourth behind Miguel Cabrera and Chris Davis in runs created and the Cincinnati pair are Nos. 1 and 3 in pitches seen this season.
The addition of Choo and a healthy Votto have rubbed off on Brandon Phillips, hitting in the No. 4 hole. Phillips’ 2013 season makes a good case for those who want to devalue the RBI statistic, attributing it to being a product of where and when a batter hits. Last year, in 147 games, Phillips posted a .281/.321/.429 line, driving in 77. This season his line is very similar through 49 games: .279/.327/.462, but he’s driven in 43 runs already — tops in the National League, mainly because he’s hitting so often with either Choo or Votto on base.
When you throw in the consistent Jay Bruce batting usually behind Phillips, the Reds have one of the deepest lineups in the National League, which is a pain in the neck for pitchers to get through.
Pitching has, statistically, been even better for Cincinnati with the Reds team ERA (3.28) tied for second in the National League. Starters Homer Bailey, Mat Latos, Johnny Cueto and Mike Leake are each pitching to a sub-3.20 mark. Even if he’s blown two saves already, closer Aroldis Chapman is a force at the end of the bullpen with 41 strikeouts in 24 innings.
Expect the battle for the Central division between the Reds and Cardinals — who lead Cincinnati by 1.5 games — to last until September. The loser here figures to be one of the league’s two Wild Card teams. As it stands the Cardinals, Reds and surprising Pirates have the three best winning percentages in the National League.
This is going to be a good race all summer.