The Reds Launch the Matt McLain Era

Cincinnati’s new everyday shortstop impressed with a hustle double for his first major league hit. Alright, alright, alright.
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Matt McLain has arrived. The Reds called up the 2021 first-rounder on May 15 after a dynamite performance at Triple-A this season. Is his arrival a harbinger of things to come? Inquiring minds want to know!

As Wooderson would say: “Patience, darlin’. Patience.” First things first. It’s time to get to know the 23-year-old McLain, as he’ll hopefully be a fixture in Cincinnati for the foreseeable future. Hailing from Tustin, California, he was drafted in the first round (25th overall) out of high school by the Arizona Diamondbacks. He didn’t sign, choosing instead to attend UCLA.

That decision paid off. McLain started 60 games as a freshman but hit just .203/.276/.355 during that initial campaign while splitting time between center field and third base. Over the summer, he played in the Cape Cod League, where he hit .274/.394/.425 and was named MVP of the league All-Star Game.

He returned to campus a much-improved player, developing into a three-year starter for coach John Savage’s Bruins. As a sophomore in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, McLain hit .397, then absolutely exploded as a junior. Savage moved him to shortstop, and McLain responded by posting a slash line of .333/.434/.579 with nine homers, 14 doubles, and 36 RBIs in 47 games. The Reds, impressed with his bat and his athleticism, drafted him 17th overall that June.

His first full minor league season last year was a mixed bag. McLain hit .232/.363/.453 with 19 homers and 33 stolen bases while displaying a keen eye at the plate: He registered 84 walks in 126 games, with an excellent walk rate of 15.5 percent. On the other hand, he struck out more than 28 percent of the time at Double-A Chattanooga. The lack of consistent contact caused some observers (including yours truly) to pump the brakes on the McLain Hype Train.

At Triple-A this season, however, he’s improved in nearly every facet of the game. In 38 games, he posted a line of .348/.474/.710 with 12 doubles, 12 homers, and 40 RBI. He ranks in the top three in the International League in average, homers, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage. Even more impressively, he cut down the strikeout rate to 19.7 percent, while still maintaining a superb walk rate of 16.8 percent. Simply put: Matt McLain has been dominant all season long.

As a result, he forced his way into the big league conversation sooner than most expected. Of course, he was given an unintentional assist by the shoddy play of Cincinnati’s shortstops; Jose Barrero is hitting .223/.288/.330, while Kevin Newman has been even worse (.237/.273/.323). To compound matters, the Barrero/Newman combo has been shaky defensively, to put it lightly. The Reds were almost forced to make a move, and McLain’s hot start at Triple-A meant that he was the beneficiary.

For now, McLain will be Cincinnati’s primary shortstop while playing second base when Jonathan India is the DH or out of the lineup, according to sources within the Reds organization. This will be an interesting test for McLain who, to put it frankly, has not been a great defensive shortstop this season. In the future, it’s likely that he ends up at second base or center field.

It’s a great opportunity for the kid, and I’m interested to see how he responds, especially since this is only his second full year of pro ball. McLain still has a lot of growing to do (as a player, anyway, if not in stature; he’s only 5-foot-8 and doesn’t figure to get any taller). Reds fans should be patient, a trait that isn’t generally associated with this fan base.

But I have an idea that Cincinnati is on the verge of falling in love with McLain. His first big league hit in Colorado on Monday would have been a single for most players, but he tore out of the batter’s box and hustled his way to a double. He has speed, some pop in his bat, and he’s a little guy* who plays hard. That’s a recipe for a cult following in the Queen City. [*Again, I’m talking about his height. If you’ve seen McLain’s biceps, you probably wouldn’t call him a little guy. At least not to his face.] He ended up 1-for-4 with two runs scored in a Reds loss.

So what’s next for the Reds and these kiddos down on the farm? Last week, while making the case for bringing McLain and his fellow top prospects to Cincinnati, I wrote this:

On the other hand, what’s the worst that could happen? Will the Reds lose more games by bringing up these talented young kids? I hate to mention it, but Cincinnati is currently on pace to lose 95 games. It’s difficult to believe they’d lose more games with McLain or CES replacing guys like Kevin Newman and Matt Reynolds. And even if they did, at least they’d be more interesting. At this point in the Reds rebuilding process, I’m OK with that. If you can’t be good, at least give me some hope for the future. Bring the kids to Cincinnati.

The point is this: Sure, the team isn’t good, but they have been fun to watch. Bringing up the kids would make them even more fun. That’s all I’m asking for at this point.

Then the Reds proceeded to have a pretty good week, and now they’re on a pace to lose only 91 games. And it’s become clear that the National League Central division is a steaming pile of repugnant garbage. Despite being four games under .500, Cincinnati entered play on Monday only five games out of first (and 3.5 out of second place).

What I’m saying is that, despite management completely punting on this season, the Reds actually have a real opportunity to make this season interesting. They’re not going to win the World Series. But we could have some fun along the way, right?

Christian Encarnacion-Strand (.341/.371/.706 with 9 homers in 19 games) should be in Cincinnati in time for Friday night’s titanic struggle against the New York Yankees. Elly De La Cruz, who just may be the greatest player in the history of baseball, should follow shortly behind him.

More importantly, the Reds need to get pitcher Andrew Abbott to the show sooner rather than later. With Nick Lodolo going to the injured list this week, Cincinnati now has just two legitimate big league starting pitchers on the entire roster. Abbott is the only help for the rotation on the horizon. If you want to praise Nick Krall for acquiring all the young talent in the organization (and he does deserve credit) you also have to criticize him for the complete and utter failure to acquire any pitching depth for this season. But enough of that—I’m trying to be a dreamy-eyed optimist today.

So let’s see Abbott, CES, and Elly in a Reds uniform as soon as possible. And with the Central division being so weak, maybe—just maybe—these ol’ Redlegs could make a little noise and give us something to root for. Sure, hope is a dangerous thing. But as Andy Dufresne taught us, “Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.”

Yes, I’m comparing the 2023 Cincinnati Reds to a movie about escaping from a prison. Such is the life of a Reds fan. Enjoy!

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.

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