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Can the Reds Sustain Their Hot Start?

Elly De La Cruz playing with the Reds minor league affiliate; CC by License 2.0

The end of the lockout in March of 2022 signified the beginning of the fire sale in Cincinnati. Soon after the owners and players agreed to a new collective bargaining agreement, the Reds shipped SP Sonny Gray to the Twins and 3B Eugenio Suarez and LF Jesse Winker to the Mariners. The 2022 trade deadline saw plenty of players get one-way tickets out of Cincinnati, including Luis Castillo, Tyler Mahle, and Brandon Drury all dealt to playoff hopefuls. Within five months, the Reds had traded away three members of their starting rotation, two starting infielders, and three starting outfielders. They floundered to a 62-100 record in 2022 then began 2023 as everyone expected … by finishing the first half with the best record in the NL Central?


Nobody could have predicted Cincinnati’s remarkable resurgence this season. After once again stumbling out of the gate to a 21-29 record through May 25, good for last in the NL Central, the Reds have gone 29-12 since. They currently hold the fifth-best record in the National League, sitting above four 2022 NL playoff teams.


Cincinnati’s success begins with a quartet of talented rookies. 2021 first-round pick Matt McLain has patrolled the middle infield since his debut on May 15, becoming the team’s primary SS. The bright lights of the Show have not intimidated him, as he sports a .300/.366/.512 slash line and 131 wRC+ across 50 games. McLain has found success spraying ground balls to all fields. 40.9% of the balls he puts in play are grounders, and he hits 37.6% of balls up the middle and 28.2% to the opposite field. An 80th percentile Barrel % has led to quality contact that finds holes in the infield.


Slight regression is imminent for McLain, as he is drastically overperforming against breaking balls. He sports a Hard Hit % of 35.7% against sliders and 18.2 % against curveballs, good for xwOBAs of .239 and .267 against those pitches, respectively. However, his slash line should not take a hard nosedive. Matt absolutely crushes fastballs, sporting Hard Hit % of 45.5% and 52.0% against 4-seamers and sinkers, respectively. An xwOBA of .437 against 4-seamers and .417 against sinkers has kept McLain in the 73rd percentile for xwOBA, meaning that any offensive regression should not be severe. McLain also provides defensive value at shortstop, landing in the 83rd percentile for Outs Above Average. His steady presence in the lineup has been a key factor in the Reds’ incredible start. While he is unlikely to continue to produce at his staggering first-half pace, he should still be a consistent source of offensive output for Cincinnati moving forward.


First baseman turned left fielder Spencer Steer has provided another solid foundation for Cincinnati’s offense. Acquired at the 2022 trade deadline for Tyler Mahle, Steer finished the first half with a .277/.367/.477 slash line, good for a 123 wRC+. He hits the ball decently well but without great consistency, sitting in the 63rd percentile for average exit velocity, 48th for Hard Hit %, and 35th for Barrel %. Steer makes up for the lack of consistent hard contact with his great plate discipline. Sporting an 88th percentile chase rate, Spencer is able to draw walks and avoid striking out. His walk percentage of 11.2% and strikeout percentage of 18.2% are both amazing for a rookie with less than 120 career games played.


Steer’s expected statistics show that he is also due for regression. He has a .366 wOBA, but his xwOBA of .336 shows that there has been some luck in his first-half success. Expect opponents to throw Spencer more sliders and curveballs as the season progresses. He sports a measly 25% Hard Hit % against curveballs and a 23.9% K% against sliders. If Steer maintains his poor contact against those pitches in the second half, his numbers are sure to decline. While nobody should expect him to keep up his lofty numbers through the rest of the season, the level of Spencer Steer’s regression depends on his plate discipline. If he continues to draw walks by avoiding chasing pitches outside of the zone, he will still be a valuable offensive piece.


Starting pitcher Andrew Abbott set the league ablaze after his June 5 call-up, hurling 17.2 scoreless innings across his first 3 starts. He has not cooled down much since, pitching to the tune of a 2.38 ERA and a 1.032 WHIP across 41.2 innings so far this season. Abbott keeps hitters off balance with a 4-seam fastball, curveball, changeup, and sweeping slider. That four-pitch arsenal and the deception in his left-handed delivery have helped Andrew rack up a good number of strikeouts in his first major-league stint. He has fanned 48 batters this season, good for a K% in the 88th percentile.


As illustrious as the beginning of his career has been, Andrew Abbott, of course, will not continue to be this good. He does not limit hard contact, ranking in the 10th percentile for Barrel %, 14th percentile for average exit velocity, and 26th percentile for Hard Hit %. Some of that hard contact is likely due to the fact that Abbott throws his 4-seam fastball 50.8% of the time. For the most part, the faster a pitch comes in, the faster it goes out. However, not all of the concerns with that poor batted ball profile can be washed away by explaining that Abbot is fastball-heavy. Andrew has also only surrendered a .312 wOBA on his 4-seamer thus far, but his xwOBA of .380 and Hard Hit % of 48.1% on the pitch suggests that it will start to fall for hits sooner or later. Also concerning is the stark difference between Abbot’s ERA of 2.38 and SIERA of 4.08. Since SIERA accounts for the quality of contact a pitcher gives up and factors in only what is under his control, that discrepancy suggests that Abbott should be giving up quite a few more runs than he actually is. He is due for negative regression soon and will not continue his otherworldly pace. Fortunately, any negative regression on Abbott’s 4-seamer should be partially offset by positive regression of his secondary offerings. The xwOBA of Andrew’s curveball, changeup, and sweeper are all less than the actual wOBA, suggesting that those pitches are getting hit more than they should. While Andrew Abbott will not continue the otherworldly pace with which he began his career, he will still continue to put up good numbers and cement himself a spot in the Reds’ starting rotation.


This outstanding group of rookies is rounded out by super-prospect Elly De La Cruz. MLB Pipeline’s number 2 overall prospect, De La Cruz has quickly become a sensation sweeping through the league. He is rocking a .325/.363/.524 slash line, good for a .887 OPS. Blink and you might miss him do something incredible. He hit for the cycle in career game number 15 and recently stole second, third, and home in the same plate appearance. De La Cruz’s 98th percentile max exit velocity and 100th percentile sprint speed made both of those feats a little easier, though. Also, do not bother throwing him a curveball. Elly is sporting a Hard Hit rate of 78.6% and a .571 slugging percentage against them this season. Of course, there isn’t much you can throw him, as he sports a slugging percentage of .565 against sliders, .500 against 4-seamers, and .481 against changeups. Along with his exceptional skills on the diamond, he also has electrified the fanbase to another level. The level of excitement around this Reds team is the highest it has been in a while, and De La Cruz working wonders on the field is a large part of the reason why.


Unfortunately, De La Cruz will come back to Earth at some point. His monster start is in large part due to a .440 batting average on balls in play. That is unsustainably high. For reference, Luis Arraez, the man chasing a .400 batting average, has a BABIP of .398. Either Elly De La Cruz is better than the best player in the league when it comes to putting balls in play for hits, or he will see some regression. The latter seems a lot more likely. Additionally, Elly’s wOBA sits at .378, but his .300 xwOBA is much lower. Despite his aforementioned tendency to crush every pitch thrown at him, he is not launching them in the air, sporting a comical 59.1% ground ball percentage. Additionally, his xSLG and xwOBA of every pitch that he has seen at least 80 times (4-seamers, changeups, curveballs, and sliders) are much lower than his actual SLG and wOBA. Of course, a lot of the jarring differences between his surface numbers and underlying metrics are due to a small sample size. As he gets more plate appearances, De La Cruz will paint a clearer picture of the type of player he really is. He is obviously not a “hit everything thrown at him” guy, but his poor underlying metrics will probably rise with more games played.


The injection of youth into this Reds lineup has paid dividends already. McLain, Steer, Abbott, and De La Cruz would all have an incredible case for NL Rookie of the Year if not for Arizona’s Corbin Carrol being ridiculously good at baseball. Still, Cincinnati is 22-7 with McLain, Steer, Abbott, and De La Cruz on the roster. A playoff push seems possible just one season removed from a fire sale and 100 losses. The GM Nick Krall and manager David Bell have done a great job to build a bright future in Cincinnati and they should be commended. However, don’t hitch your wagon to the Reds just yet. All four of their star rookies are overperforming and should see some regression. Spencer Steer’s and Matt McLain’s impending drop-off is unlikely to be drastic. Andrew Abbott, however, is likely to see a steeper decline in performance. He shouldn’t become a liability but will likely go from outstanding to good. Elly De La Cruz is a mystery due to his small sample size, but early returns and common sense indicate that he will also regress.


Unfortunately for the Reds, even slight regression from three of your top offensive performers and best starting pitcher could have disastrous consequences for the team as a whole. There would be much less cause for concern if the rest of the team can pick up the slack. Joey Votto’s presence in the lineup and clubhouse should help, but injuries to starters Hunter Greene and Nick Lodolo have left the starting pitching staff thin. Additionally, the Reds’ team numbers indicate that the whole team is overperforming, not just the star rookies. Cincinnati’s success has come from a team .337 team OBP that is third in the league. Their team batting average and wOBA are tenth and seventh in the league, respectively. However, Cincinnati ranks 23rd in the MLB in xBA and 21st in xwOBA. Such underlying metrics, especially when coupled with a pitching staff that has poor standard metrics (27th in team ERA) and underlying numbers (26th in team SIERA), do not inspire much confidence. It seems unlikely that the Reds can remain atop their division and make a push to October.


The resurgence of the Reds has been fun to witness. Everyone wrote them off after their poor start, but their influx of young talent has made for some great headlines and exciting baseball. Regression unfortunately appears likely and a playoff push appears unlikely. However, there are many things about baseball that cannot be quantified. This team is having fun playing the game and could easily continue to make waves and charge toward October. Regardless of this season’s outcome, the Reds are far ahead of schedule. The future of baseball looks bright on the riverfront, and it will be exciting to watch if these incredible rookies can return the franchise to championship glory.


Sources:

Sports Illustrated

MLB.com

Baseball Reference

Baseball Savant

Fangraphs

MLB Trade Rumors

ESPN


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