Through eight games, the Reds have won four times in their final at bat and lost three times despite having led by three runs. It’s been about as eventful as the first eight games of a season can be, but the Reds are surely happy to be sitting atop the NL Central, given that they were picked — almost unanimously — to finish last in the Central behind each of their first three series opponents (Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Chicago). To be honest though, that prediction seemed fair, and still could hold true, considering Cincinnati did the least of any team in the division to improve during the offseason. The Reds only significant move in terms of field players was a less-than-popular trade for outfielder Marlon Byrd, in which the Reds parted ways with pitcher Ben Lively, the organization’s 2014 Minor League player of the year. Boasting seven of the same every day starters as last season, the Reds plan for 2015 is clearly just to be significantly healthier and more productive than the 2014 team which finished in the bottom three in the MLB in runs, hits, RBIs, on base percentage, slugging percentage and team batting average, after missing Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips, Jay Bruce and Devin Mesoraco for long stints during the year.
Given its anemic state last year, it doesn’t feel too early to start evaluating the production of the Reds lineup.
Byrd seems like an appropriate player to start with, being that he’s the lone newcomer to the everyday lineup. And, before we talk offensive numbers, I’ll say one thing for Byrd: In the first eight games of the season, he’s already made no less than five defensive plays that no combination of the Reds beleaguered left field by committee would’ve made in the previous two years. His running catch against the wall on opening day saved the Reds – even if just for a second – from Kevin Greg’s propensity to give up extra base hits, and he’s made three diving stops in the current Chicago series alone. He looks like a legitimate Gold Glove candidate, but that’s not what he was brought in to be.
In both the 2013 and 2014, the Reds finished dead last in all of baseball in RBIs and home runs produced by the left field position. The Reds gave up a huge prospect in Lively, hoping that Byrd could remedy that lack of production, and the payoff has not come early. Byrd has no homers and just three RBIs to go along with a .167 average and nine strikeouts. He’s looked his age at the plate thus far, which is disappointing considering he was one of the bright spots in the Reds order during spring training.
At this point, the Reds know exactly what they’re getting with Zack Cozart. He’s a phenomenal defensive player who was deserving of Gold Glove consideration last year, and he and Brandon Phillips form one of the best central infield duos in all of baseball. But he’s never matured into a formidable big league hitter, finishing the 2014 season with a .221 average. After last season, the Reds would be ecstatic if Cozart could finish the year with his current .250 average, even more so if he continues to produce extra base hits with the same frequency he’s displayed early this season – his three doubles are the 10th most in the NL so far.
Perhaps the biggest early concern for the Reds, other than a complete lack of consistency from the bullpen, is the form and health of Mesoraco, a first-time All Star in 2014. In just 440 plate appearances last season, Mesoraco tallied 25 homers and 80 RBI. One of the biggest bullet points in Brian Price’s plan for improvement going into the season was transitioning Mesoraco into a full-rotation catcher, meaning that he’d be catching all five starters instead of sitting out in favor of Brayan Pena during Johnny Cueto’s starts. But after a very poor spring, Mesoraco notched just two hits in 20 at bats to start the year, and has missed the past two games with an ailing left hip. He’s expected to re-join the team this weekend, but having his catcher and most powerful bat struggle with a leg injury in the first week of the season is already keeping Bryan Price up at night.
I’ve always been a huge fan of exploiting early season trends to calculate completely un-plausible end-of-season numbers. That being said, Billy Hamilton is on pace break the MLB record for stolen bases and stolen base percentage with 162 stolen bases on 162 attempts. That’s obviously impossible, although this makes you wonder …
At any rate, Hamilton is a perfect 8-for-8 on stolen base attempts this season, which is a great sign going forward for the young speedster who led the major by being caught stealing 23 times last season. In terms of plate production, Hamilton’s average is about the same as last season at .250, but his OBP is up 52 points to .344, which is all the Reds really care about. Hamilton has reached base in six of the seven games he’s played thus far, and he scored at least one run (eight total) in all six. He appears to have matured slightly, which showed in his ability to draw a walk that set up Votto’s walk-off single in the bottom of the 11th inning against the Pirates last week. The only concerns for Hamilton thus far are the health of his hands (he’s already missed a game after spraining his left hand sliding into second), and the nine strikeouts he has already amassed.
In my mind, Bruce is the real question mark for the Reds this season. He was very hard to watch last season after coming back too early from knee injuries and never fully returning to form on the field. He’s always been remarkably streaky, batting well over .300 with home run streaks one month, and then dipping down to the low .200s the next. But all of 2014 was a streak, and it was just about all negative, as he went from winning a Silver Slugger Award in 2013 to batting a dismal .217 with just 18 home runs and a slugging percentage which dropped more than 100 points (.478 to .373) in 2014. He’s looked a little more comfortable in the early going of the season, and has already slugged two no-doubt home runs, a sign that perhaps his knee issues are behind him. Unfortunately, strikeouts continue to be a problem for Bruce, as he’s already tallied 11 Ks, which is the sixth most in the NL as of last night. The Reds need Bruce to return to being a complete player, think .260s and 30 plus homers. Otherwise, he’s just Adam Dunn with fewer home runs and a better arm.
It’s been an odd start to the season for @DatDudeBP, who looked terrible at the plate in the first five games of the season but now has hits in seven of his last 10 at bats. Phillips’s noted ego famously blew up at Enquirer beat writer C. Trent Rosecrans last year when he wrote that Phillips should be dropped in the Reds order. Ironically, that’s exactly what Price has done to start the season. It’s hard to say if that jogged his ego and caused an early slump, and it’s just as hard to say if that inspired the hitting barrage of the last few games. It’s Brandon Phillips, so it’s hard to say anything that he hasn’t already said. But Monday was the first time he’s had four hits in a game since 2011, and Tuesday he left the game with what looked like a clear concussion, although the Reds are saying that it isn’t. He’s day-to-day, which means that Phillips, who missed 41 games last year, Mesoraco, and Hamilton have already missed games with injuries in the first week and a half of the season. So much for keeping the same lineup as last year and staying healthier.
Despite an average lowered by two bad nights at the plate to start the Cubs series, Frazier has seemingly picked up right where he left off from last season in terms of power and run production. He gave the Reds a win on opening day with a three-run homer in the bottom of the eighth, and has notched two more in the seven games since. Frazier is tied with Votto for third in the NL in both home runs (3) and RBIs (9). With Votto and Hamilton getting on base as frequently as they are now, Frazier is in a great position to surpass his impressive numbers from last season.
By a show of hands, is anyone still upset with Votto for not returning too early from injury to play meaningless games at the end of last season? No? No one? None of you guys on Twitter? None of you that were calling into Lance and Mo every single day?
Joey Votto looks the best he’s looked since he won the MVP in 2012. It’s not just that he’s leading the Reds in hits (12), Home runs (3), RBIs (9), total bases (25), walks (5), slugging (.781), OBP (.459), etc. etc., it’s that he’s passing the eye test and the unrealistic expectations that spawned from controversy over his absence last season. Votto looks leaner, but somehow stronger. He’s hit two opposite field home runs already, which says that his ailing quad has completely healed. But there’s something else going on, and I don’t think we need to overanalyze it as anything more than Votto being able to enjoy baseball for the first time in a while. I wish there was a video anywhere of Votto sneakily stealing second base standing in the bottom of the eighth during the Reds 5-4 win against St. Louis, because he looked over to Billy Hamilton, who had already stolen third, smirked and dropped a few sarcastic words unsuitable for print. Regardless of the other seven guys, the Reds will win a few games with that Joey Votto on the field.
Joshua A. Miller is a Nuxhall Way and Cincinnati Magazine contributor. You can follow him on Twitter at @_J_A_Miller.