One year ago, the Cincinnati Reds were 23 games below .500 at the All-Star break, a distant 15.5 games out of first on their way to a 100-loss season. As recently as May 25 of this year, the Reds were buried in last place in the National League’s Central division. What’s happened since has been nothing short of stunning.
The Reds have won 29 games and lost only 12 in the last six weeks, powered by a dazzling young cast of budding superstars. The contrast between this exciting club and last year’s dull mess couldn’t be more stark. With the leagues taking a break for the 2023 Midsummer Classic, Cincinnati’s record stands at 50-41, and, after winning nine of their last 12, the Reds are in first place, a game ahead of Milwaukee.
The Reds are taking a few days off (with the exception of the club’s lone All-Star, Alexis Diaz), but there’s no rest for us here in the digital pages of Cincinnati Magazine. Let’s take this opportunity to hand out some (similarly digital) midseason awards. We’ll begin with the three actual awards that are handed out each season by the Cincinnati chapter of the BBWAA.
The Ernie Lombardi Award (Most Valuable Player): Alexis Diaz. In a season where the offense has gotten most of the headlines (for good reason), it seems odd to select a relief pitcher as the team’s MVP. But there’s a reason why Diaz is the only player representing Cincinnati in the All-Star Game: He’s 3-1 with a 2.03 ERA, and his 26 saves are tied for the major league lead. If you like the nerd stats, you may note that, despite pitching just 40 innings, Diaz is either first or third on the team in WAR (depending on your source). He’s been legitimately great since arriving on the big league scene, and I’m eager to see what the future brings.
Honorable Mention: TJ Friedl, Matt McLain.
The Johnny Vander Meer Award (Most Outstanding Pitcher): Diaz, obviously. Did you expect to see Ricky Karcher here?
Honorable Mention: Hunter Greene, Andrew Abbott. WAR isn’t a great tool for evaluating pitchers, but I noticed something interesting when looking at Fangraphs’ WAR leaderboards for the Reds. Diaz has compiled 1.8 WAR so far this year, but Hunter Greene is close behind at 1.7. Part of that can be explained by the fact that Greene is a starter, but I’m not sure Reds fans understood how well Greene (2-4, 3.93 ERA) pitched before being sidelined with a hip injury.
Special mention here to Abbott as well. A rookie lefty out of the University of Virginia, he’s had a dream start to his big league career. In his first six starts, Abbott went 4-0 with a 1.21 ERA and the Reds won every game. In the last of those games, he went seven and two-thirds innings, striking out 12. Abbott lost his first career game in his final start before the break, but he’s laid claim to a spot in the Reds rotation for the foreseeable future.
The Joe Nuxhall Good Guy Award (player who has a positive relationship with the media but is also a role model in both the clubhouse and within the community): Jonathan India. Despite recent struggles at the plate, this team clearly follows his lead with his enthusiasm on and off the field. Case in point was when India led a contingent of his teammates to TQL Stadium, where he wore the now-famous viking helmet and raised the sword before an FC Cincinnati victory.
Now for some non-BBWAA awards….
The Chris Sabo Award (Rookie of the Year): Matt McLain. There are five different players who could stake a claim on this award, but McLain has the narrow edge. A former first-round draft pick, he debuted in mid-May, started hitting immediately and hasn’t slowed down since. He’s hitting .300/.366/.512 with 16 doubles, four triples, and seven home runs. This kid hasn’t gotten as many headlines as Elly De La Cruz, but he’s been just as good.
Honorable Mention: Spencer Steer (.277/.367/.477, 121 OPS+), who leads team in doubles (19), homers (14), and is second in RBI (51); Elly De La Cruz; Andrew Abbott; Will Benson.
The Sparky Anderson Award (Manager of the Year): David Bell.
Honorable Mention: Lou Piniella.
The Jack Armstrong Award (Most Improved Player): Will Benson. This spring, I wrote about how I was irrationally excited about Benson. A former first-round pick who was acquired in a little-noticed off-season trade, he was in Cincinnati’s Opening Day lineup and promptly struck out in all four of his at-bats. Through his first eight games, Benson had just one hit in 21 plate appearances and had struck out 12 times. He was dispatched to Triple-A Louisville, and Twitter trolls gleefully mocked by pre-season excitement.
He went to the minors, listened to Joey Votto, worked on his workout routine, and returned to Cincinnati on May 21. He’s been nothing short of brilliant since: .340/.439/.588 with four doubles, four triples, and four homers, including one epic walkoff dinger. It’s been a fun turnaround for Benson.
The Pete Schourek Award (Biggest Surprise): TJ Friedl. Early in the season, I wrote about Friedl’s hot start, but if I were being honest with you—and I will always be honest with you, devoted reader—I wasn’t sure how long it would last. After all, he was a big league regular for the first time at age 27; those aren’t generally the guys who make the biggest impacts.
Well, Friedl’s first half has been outstanding in pretty much every way. He’s hitting .304/.380/.458 with 13 doubles, three triples, six homers, and 16 stolen bases, tied for the team lead. He also leads the Reds (and all National League center fielders) in fWAR. It’s been a dream half-season for Friedl.
The Elly De La Cruz Award (Most Exciting Player): Elly De La Cruz. We’re introducing a new award this year and naming it for the most exciting player I’ve ever seen in a Cincinnati Reds uniform. Whether he’s hitting for the cycle, hitting monstrous home runs, or stealing three bases within the span of two pitches, De La Cruz is doing things we’ve never seen before.
Every week, I just want to write more about this unique talent, and I’m sure I’ll be spilling plenty of words about Elly in the coming weeks and years. I had to create a totally fake award just so I could write about him, but De La Cruz has been the story of the first half.
And what a first half it’s been. Does a pennant chase await us in the second half? The Reds return to Great American Ball Park on Friday to begin a three-game series with the second-place Brewers. Buckle up: This could be a wild ride.
Chad Dotson helms Reds coverage at Cincinnati Magazine and hosts a long-running Reds podcast, The Riverfront. His newsletter about Cincinnati sports can be found at chaddotson.com. He’s @dotsonc on Twitter.