The All-Star break has arrived, and it’s hard to imagine that the first half could have been more of a rollercoaster ride for Reds fans.
We’ve all tried to eliminate it from our collective memories, but I’m sure you recall Cincinnati’s miserable 3-18 start to the season. That was a fun time, right? The Reds were losing at a historic pace and appeared to be on a collision course for 100+ losses.
As it turns out, the sky wasn’t falling after all. In fact, this Reds team—despite management’s baffling mismanagement of the April roster that contributed directly to the awful start—is exactly who we thought they’d be. Which is to say, they aren’t bad.
Since those first 21 games, the Reds have posted a record of 40-35. They’re a somewhat above-average team that’s generally pretty competitive every night and is often a lot of fun to watch. Over the last 75 games, the Reds have been the team we hoped would show up for the 2018 season—or maybe even a little better than expected.
But we can’t ignore those first 21 games, as much as we’d like to. As things currently stand, the club sits at 43-53, 13.5 games out of first place, and dead last in the National League’s Central division. So which team is real: the 3-21 team or the 40-35 club? Or is 43-53 more reflective of the truth? More importantly, what we can reasonably expect from the Cincinnati Reds in the season’s second half?
Well, let’s preface the conversation with this unwelcome news: The Reds aren’t going to make the playoffs this season. I told you before the season, and I believe now, that this team had all the pieces to make a Wild Card run in 2018. That horrendous 21-game stretch at the beginning of the season destroyed any chance of that, and don’t fool yourself to the contrary.
Is it technically possible that the Reds could still make the playoffs? Sure. The math (according to Fangraphs Playoff Odds) says that the Reds have a 0.2% chance of capturing a Wild Card spot. So I’m telling you there’s a chance, though it’s overwhelmingly unlikely.
Of course, you and I are going to keep cheering for the impossible to happen over the final 66 games of the season. We have that luxury. Reds management, on the other hand, shouldn’t be fooled by any hopes of sneaking into the playoffs. That ship sailed when (a) the front office kept a bunch of bums on the April roster instead of younger, more talented players who could have mitigated the damage when the injury bug bit; (b) some of the team’s best hitters decided to hit like Bill Plummer for the first few weeks of the season; and (c) Homer Bailey and Brandon Finnegan happened.
Repeat after me: Whatever decisions the Reds make at the July 31 trade deadline need to be with an eye on improving the team for the next year, and the year after and the year after … not for the next two months.
I certainly believe that the Reds team we’ve seen since that initial stretch of ghastly play is the real deal. I said it back in March, both here in the digital pages of Cincinnati Magazine and on every local Cincinnati sports talk show at the time: This team was capable of playing .500 or better baseball in 2018.
I’ve seen only one thing that’s caused me to waver on that opinion: I’m somewhat less confident in the front office’s (or, as seems increasingly likely, ownership’s) willingness to do what it takes to put the best team possible on the field. But everything else we expected—the offense’s production and the stability of the pitching—has come to pass, though it took a while. And what we’re left with is a good, if clearly flawed, team.
The offense has been incredible. Even taking into account the slow start, the Reds’ offense has scored the third-most runs in the National League, with the third-best team wRC+ too. They’re the most patient Cincinnati offense in years, with three Reds—Joey Votto, Jesse Winker, and Eugenio Suarez—among the top four in OBP on the NL leaderboard. In fact, until Suarez’s OBP dipped to .399 just before the All-Star break, it was the first time the Reds had three players getting on base at a .400 or better clip since the Big Red Machine in 1976. You may have heard of those three: Joe Morgan, Pete Rose, Ken Griffey. Pretty good company, eh?
Even the pitching has been substantially better than last year’s disaster. The bullpen has been among the better groups in all of baseball for most of the season, and the rotation is coming along nicely as well. Over the last 30 days, Cincinnati’s rotation ranks 10th in the majors in ERA and, though the young pitchers have had their ups and downs—because that’s what young pitchers do—they have begun to stabilize a bit. It’s been fun to watch.
Here’s a fun fact you can use to amaze your friends on trivia night at the local watering hole:
- Cincinnati Reds record in games started by Homer Bailey or Brandon Finnegan: 1-16
- Cincinnati Reds record in games started by literally anyone else: 42-37
All that is to say that, yes, the team we’ve seen recently is the team we should expect to see in the second half. The Reds have won at a .533 clip over the last 75 games. If they can keep up that pace for the rest of the season, they would finish 78-84. Even if they “just” play .500 ball the rest of the way, the Reds would end up at 76-86. Both of those are completely reasonable, and in either scenario the season could be considered a substantial improvement over the last three.
And just because I can’t help myself, let’s run the Wild Card math. Hmmm, let’s see … the Reds would need to go 45-21 the rest of the way to get to 88 wins, which would probably get them in the conversation. Of course, they’re 10 games out of the Wild Card chase right now, and to capture one of those slots they’d have to leapfrog seven other teams.
No, it’s (probably) not happening, even though I won’t stop hoping. But no matter: There is every reason to believe this team will continue playing fun baseball the rest of the way, and after all the suffering of recent seasons that will be a joy in itself.
Still, at the trade deadline and into the off-season, Cincinnati’s front office should stay the course. They shouldn’t overreact to the recent success in a misguided attempt to thread the needle to a Wild Card berth this October. The Reds can compete next year. That may (or may not) require trading popular players like Raisel Iglesias or Scooter Gennett in order to put together a roster that can be successful in 2019 and ensuing years. Thus, the team’s record in the second half of 2018 should be irrelevant to the decision-makers.
Reds management needs to do everything they can to ensure Reds fans have real hope next spring; in fact, here’s a handy blueprint that they can steal and use as their own. They don’t need to get distracted by a 2018 Wild Card hail mary.
They can leave the hoping and the dreaming to us. We’re doing plenty of that these days, after all.
Chad Dotson is a contributor to Nuxhall Way, and the founder of Redleg Nation. His first book, The Big 50: The Men and Moments That Made the Cincinnati Reds, is available now in bookstores and online.