Cincinnati has risen from low expectations to the team of destiny in a single summer. How?
On July 13th, in a moment of accidental prophecy, I wrote the following paragraph: If the Reds have hopes of chasing 1990 and reviving the ghosts of championships past, this season can’t rest solely on the shoulders of Joey Votto. That’s the beauty of baseball; you can’t do this thing alone. To be left standing in the chills of late October, an entire team has to rise. Everything has to click. Unlikely heroes must emerge.
On July 16th, the shoulders, and the surgically-repaired knee, of Joey Votto hit the DL, sending Redleg Nation into a panic. The Reds had just reclaimed the NL Central, holding on to a narrow one-game lead over the underdog darling Pittsburgh Pirates, and for their fans, it seemed that there were reasons for optimism. One of the most dreaded phrases in sports was starting to touch the lips of the Cincinnati faithful: Maybe this is the year.
Then this happened. Joey Votto, MVP candidate and fan favorite, was absent from the lineup on July 16th –mysteriously absent. Then the announcement came that his knee would require surgery and that he wouldn’t be back until the Reds were (hopefully still) contending down the stretch. Optimism instantly morphed into something closer to panic and despair, as attested by Twitter reactions such as the one I shared with a friend of mine (Shameless plug, @CoCoCoryCollins):
Maybe this wasn’t the year. How could the Cincinnati Reds stand a chance after losing their best player, their only consistent force in the lineup, and one of their two (count them, TWO!) left-handed hitters on the active roster? It seemed impossible. The Votto-less weeks on the calendar looked as lengthy as one of his soaring flies to centerfield. The lead in the NL Central suddenly seemed as fragile as a surgically-altered knee.
All that’s happened since? –The impossible has happened. Since losing their star Joey Votto, the Reds have done nothing less than amass the best record in the Major Leagues since July 16th (at 19-8) and watch their lead in the NL Central grow to a much less slim margin of 4.5 games over the Pirates. At one point in the juncture between then and now, the Reds rattled off ten wins in a row –tied for the longest such streak by any team this season.
So how did they do it?
That’s the question now hiding in the whispers of Cincinnati fans and baseball analysts alike. Perhaps the answer resides in that introduction I wrote nearly a month ago: To be left standing in the chills of late October, an entire team has to rise. Everything has to click. Unlikely heroes must emerge.
Unlikely heroes must emerge. It happens every year. The teams of destiny don’t simply have superstars; they have heroes that rise from the ashes or obscurity and take the sport by storm. Last year, names like Allen Craig and David Freese played as integral a role as names like Albert Pujols and Chris Carpenter in the Cardinals’ World Series run. The year before, the unlikely champions from San Francisco found an MVP in the resurging Edgar Renteria, and key contributors in Cody Ross and Andres Torres.
Votto or no Votto, the Reds need unlikely heroes to contend for the October sweepstakes. In his absence, they’ve certainly found some.
And it’s not who you might expect. With Votto out, Jay Bruce seemed the obvious heir apparent to help keep the team above water –a fellow All-Star, a fellow fan-favorite, and a fellow-left-handed powerhouse. But he’s hardly risen to the occasion. Since Votto hit the DL, Bruce is hitting a piddling .220/.326/.427, only contributing four home-runs and 12 RBIs over the 27-game span. It’s a performance that would seemingly have rendered the Reds powerless, with a vast darkness in the heart of their lineup.
Enter Ryan Ludwick. If ever the story is written of the 2012 Reds and their destined run to the World Series, the phoenix rising from the ashes will be Ludwick. Coming into this season, no one expected much from the aging outfielder. He’d seemingly peaked in 2008 with the Cardinals before becoming a journeyman for teams like San Diego and Pittsburgh. Cincinnati got him on the cheap, and still may not have expected their money’s worth.
Well, they got it –and then some. After a slow start, Ludwick has absolutely raked since Votto left the lineup. In that span, he’s hitting .341/.404/.729 with eight home-runs, 27 RBIs, and more hits in the clutch than the rest of the lineup combined.
Alongside rookie standout Todd Frazier (.283/.321/.455 with four home runs and 18 RBIs since Votto hit DL) and the always reliable Brandon Phillips (.326/.348/.523 and only eight strikeouts in that span), Ludwick has led the Reds offense to a respectable 4.6 runs per game. Against all odds, they haven’t fallen drastically (in fact, not at all) from their production with Votto. Even Zach Cozart and Drew Stubbs have increased their on-base percentages (.283 and .342 respectively sans Votto) in lieu of their star player. If that’s possible, then anything is possible. If Bruce can join the party and Joey Votto can return sometime in August, this offense may rise from pretty good to potent. Imagine saying that three months ago.
An entire team has to rise. The offense hasn’t been alone. With Votto out, the Cincinnati pitchers have maintained what has been an incredibly productive season. Johnny Cueto has stayed in the Cy Young conversation, going 5-1 with a 2.61 ERA in Votto’s absence. Mat Latos has continued to prove his worthiness of the offseason deal, posting a 3-1 record and a 2.81 ERA in the same span. Even Homer Bailey and Bronson Arroyo have been consistent forces in the rotation, combining for a 6-3 record, and keeping their ERAs under 5.00.
But the story this season hasn’t been Cincinnati’s starting rotation. It’s been Cincinnati’s bullpen. In Votto’s absentia, that continues to be the case, perhaps best represented by the face of that bullpen: Aroldis Chapman. Other pitchers have pitched well. Chapman has pitched out of this world. Since July 16th, he’s amassed 15 saves in 14.2 innings pitched. In those games, he has an ERA of 0.00, 27 strikeouts, and batters are hitting a pathetic .137. That’s what people in the business call getting gassed.
With both pitchers and batters stepping up, an entire team truly has risen in filling the void of its brightest star. In those 27 games, the offense is hitting .261/.321/.433 as a team, scoring 4.6 runs per game. The pitching staff has an ERA of 3.62, and strikes out 7.7 batters per game as compared to only walking 2.7 batters per game. This unified team effort has resulted in a run-differential of +24 for the Cincinnati Reds, hence the 19-8 record.
So surely that’s the answer, right? That’s how the Reds have not only survived post-Votto, but thrived, posting a win-percentage 13.5 points higher post-surgery than they did before it. Right?
Not so fast. The numbers above look great…but as it turns out, they don’t represent Cincinnati playing over their heads. The Reds without Votto haven’t surpassed the production of the Reds before Votto. At best, they’ve simply maintained it. Take a look:
Offense before Votto’s Injury: .252/.317/.421 – 4.3 runs/game
Offense after Votto’s Injury: .261/.321/.433 – 4.6 runs/game
Pitching before Votto’s injury: 3.40 ERA – 7.8 K/9 – 2.7 BB/9
Pitching after Votto’s injury: 3.62 ERA – 7.7 K/9 – 2.7 BB/9
And if you adjust the run-differential so that the difference in games played is equal, they are only 2 runs apart; +22 before Votto, +24 after Votto. Such a breakdown begs the question: Did this surging Reds team just arrive, or have they been here the whole time? Has this always been 2012’s team of destiny?
Everything has to click. I think the answer is yes. This team obviously isn’t better without Votto, but to maintain the production without him is a sign that unlikely heroes have stepped to the plate. It’s a sign that, without resting on the laurels of Votto’s incredible performance, an entire team has risen to national attention. But this Reds team was this good before Votto hit the DL.
It’s their competition since that has been worse. This may not be what the Cincinnati faithful wants to hear, but the Reds have benefitted from an easy schedule since Votto went under the knife. In fact, I’d say the timing wasn’t accidental, considering his injury had taken place days earlier. In this stretch, the Reds have faced the Diamondbacks, Brewers, Astros, Rockies, Padres, Pirates, and Cubs. Only the Pirates and Diamondbacks have winning records. Combined, these teams are 348-481 this season –103 games below .500.
Here’s the bad news: Against better competition, this team, as constituted without Votto, may not have enjoyed such a great streak. But here’s the good news: 1) Their schedule for the rest of the season is similarly weak, until they face the Pirates and Cardinals at the end of the pennant race. And 2) Votto will be back for those games, completing the lineup that put up these same numbers against better competition.
All that being said, the Reds’ accomplishment shouldn’t be downsized. To lose your best player and simultaneously gain a substantial lead in your division is beyond maintaining the status quo –that’s the strength that winning teams exhibit. Other promising Reds teams post-1990 would have folded under such pressure –such impossibility. This team rose to the occasion. This team ceased to be a one-player wonder, and forced the nation to discuss names like Ryan Ludwick. This team, no matter how red hot their current streak is, can only go higher from here.
October is a long way away. There are a lot of games between today and the day in which we’ll know who will vie for baseball’s Fall Classic. But you can toss all of these stats and analysis aside, simply look at the standings, and reach the same conclusion.
No matter what happens to them, this team continues to follow the catchphrase of their most famous fan Charlie Sheen. They are simply finding ways to continue…winning.