April Disasters Brought the Reds a May Resurgence

OK, let’s not start ordering playoff tickets, but the team’s offense and pitching have both improved during May. That’s something, right?
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All of a sudden, April seems like eons ago. I’m sure you remember the first month of the season. How could you forget? The Reds lost 22 of their first 25 baseball games—or, as I like to think about it, Cincinnati went 1-20 after Reds COO Phil Castellini vomited all over himself and threatened the franchise’s hardcore fans. It was a historically inept beginning, the second-worst in the history of baseball, a start that somehow failed to meet our already lowered expectations in spectacular fashion.

While many fans tuned out after that, the Reds did something surprising: They started playing (somewhat) better baseball! Since dropping to 3-22 on May 5, the Reds have gone 13-9 (and that record would be 14-8 had the bullpen not collapsed on Sunday to end a four-game winning streak). Still, that’s not bad, right? And listen to this: Cincinnati is only 9.5 games out of a Wild Card spot. Start printing those playoff tickets, baby!

I’m getting ahead of myself obviously, but having the local nine play more competitively is certainly something to celebrate after the miseries of April. How did we get here? Well, here’s how I summed up Cincinnati’s offensive woes as we entered May:

Just how bad have things been for the home team? By almost every measure, Cincinnati has baseball’s worst offense and worst pitching staff. On the offensive side of the ledger, they’re hitting a paltry .201 as a team, and their wRC+ (67) is far and away the worst in either league. Go play around with the sortable leaderboards; it’s even uglier than you might have imagined.

The Cincinnati offense’s wRC+ is up to 85, and they’re now only third-worst in the league. Huzzah! But if we just look at games since May arrived, the Reds are fourth in the NL in runs scored. Sure, that includes the 20-run outburst last week against the Cubbies, but it’s still a huge improvement.

On the individual level, the Reds have been led by catcher Tyler Stephenson, a budding All-Star (as we discussed in this space one week ago) who’s hit .321/.360/.469 (131 wRC+) in May. The next two top contributors in the month, as everyone expected, were Brandon Drury (.247/.324/.484 with a team-leading five homers in the month) and Tyler Naquin (.286/.353/.506 with three home runs). The Reds even got a hot stretch early in the month from Mike Moustakas (.347/.439/.633 in 14 games), and when Moose started to cool Kyle Farmer went on one of his patented hot streaks, hitting .536/.537/.929 with three homers in the last eight games.

What about pitching? Here’s how I summed it up a few weeks ago:

The pitchers haven’t fared any better. The Reds’ team ERA is 6.19; that’s the worst in the majors by more than a full run ( the second-worst is Washington’s 5.08 ERA). If you like the fancy stats, Cincinnati xFIP is also the worst in baseball. Here are your sortable leaderboards for pitching; feel free to take a look, but I might recommend doing something productive instead, like banging your head repeatedly into the closest brick wall.

That team ERA is now down to 5.53, which is still the worst in baseball. But the Reds have gotten some dynamite individual performances to help make the club competitive. There’s Connor Overton, for one; three of his four starts this season have come in May, and he was the best pitcher on the club for that four-start span (1-0, 1.82 ERA). Alas, because Reds fans can’t have nice things, just as he was breaking out, Overton was placed on the 60-day injured list.

But he wasn’t the only Reds starter to show flashes. In a three-start stretch between May 10 and May 21, Hunter Greene was nearly unhittable—well, if we’re going to be accurate, Greene was literally unhittable on May 15 against Pittsburgh, tossing seven and a third hitless innings. In those starts, he posted a 1.93 ERA in 18.2 innings. And just as Overton departed, the Reds called up young Graham Ashcraft and his dazzling fastball, and he’s looked great in his first two big league starts: 1-0, 1.69 ERA.

Tyler Mahle and Luis Castillo haven’t been as consistent as we’ve come to expect, but each has had starts that remind us why they were supposed to have been Cincinnati’s one-two punch this season. Heck, even Vladimir Gutierrez looked pretty good in his most recent start, picking up his first win of the season over the weekend by spinning five one-run innings.

Some of you will accuse me of putting lipstick on a pig, to which I respond: Sure, that’s exactly what I’m doing! Let’s not get crazy. The Reds are still 15 games below .500. And, yes, while they are only 9.5 games out of a playoff spot, in order to qualify the Reds will have to pass (checks notes) every single other team in the league. Yep, they still have the worst record in the NL.

But over the last few weeks, this club has battled and competed, which is something we did not see in April. At the very least, they are interesting now. I’ll take “interesting,” given what we saw during that disastrous start.

No, I don’t think the resurgent Reds are likely to qualify for the playoffs, though I would note that Cincinnati has better odds of making the playoffs (according to FanGraphs) than the Pirates. And that’s where we should start. The Reds are only 3.5 games out of “not being in last place.” Let’s shoot for that first.

First Pittsburgh, then Chicago … and then we can start ordering those playoff tickets.

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