Somewhere between expectation and reality lies excitement, and also the 2017 Cincinnati Reds.
The Reds weren't expected to be any good this year; Baseball Prospectus had them finishing 74-88, and last in the National League Central, and I had unkind words to say about them, too. Now that the season is well underway, however, the Reds display something bordering on promise. They still probably won't finish above .500, but look closely at their work so far and you can see the faintest outlines of what could be a solid team waiting to break out.
It all starts with the hitters, a fresh-faced collection of (mostly) young bucks who have, for the most part, managed to avoid the plague of swings and misses afflicting Major League Baseball in recent years. Would it surprise you if I said that the Reds—yes, the Reds!—have the highest contact rate in the National League? They do. In fact, the only two squads with better marks, over in the American League, are the Cleveland Indians and the Boston Red Sox, two offensive powerhouses.
The Reds are right up there with them. Zack Cosart is getting on base more than 47 percent of the time, and making contact at an 85 percent clip. Eugenio Suarez might be breaking out at age 25: he has five home runs already and is hitting out of his mind (just don't hold your breath about his .343 batting average holding up). Billy Hamilton is finally healthy again, and Joey Votto—well, he's still Joey Votto. The Reds are hitting the ball well, full stop.
They've bumped their contact rate up from last year by becoming better at a hitters' key task: swinging only at pitches they can drive. Last year, the Reds swung at 29.9 percent of pitches thrown outside the zone and made contact with 64.8 percent of them. Heading into Tuesday's game against the Milwaukee Brewers, they've swung at 27.4 percent of such pitches and made contact 71.7 percent of the time. In other words, they've stopped swinging at so many bad pitches, and gotten better at hitting the ones they're still going for.
That's not the kind of adjustment you'd generally expect to see from a young offense with a history of particularly low on-base percentages. The Reds, save for Votto, are probably never going to work especially long counts or accept all that many walks, but if they continue to avoid hacking at bad pitches, the offense might come along faster than many anticipated.
And maybe a little of that is happening already: the Reds, in the early going, have scored the fourth-most runs in the major leagues. I'm not too optimistic about their ability to maintain that pace—they've played 13 of their first 20 games at their bandbox of a home ballpark, and a contact-driven offense will always be subject to the vagaries of batted-ball luck—but an improving contact rate would at least allow the Reds' offensive performance to fluctuate around a higher mean.
There are even some reasons for optimism among the Cincinnati pitchers. The Reds have the fourth-youngest pitching staff in the major leagues: Amir Garret, Brandon Finnegan, and Rookie Davis, all 25 or younger, are getting regular rotation turns. They've thrown reasonably well, if not brilliantly, despite all those innings pitched at home. Garret, in particular, is an arm to watch—he's struck out more than a quarter of the batters he's faced.
The bullpen is something much closer to excellence, posting some of the highest velocities of any squad in the game. The most strikeouts, too, and by a country mile—they have 109; the next best team, 82. The leader there is Raisel Iglesias, who a year ago was running into injury problems in his quest to become a starter. He now has a 1.59 ERA and 14 strikeouts in 11.1 innings of relief. Another young international signee, Wandy Peralta, is also putting up strong numbers. Again, some of that won't hold up—the pen's walk rate has dropped this year in a way that's probably not sustainable—but for the moment, it's exciting to watch.
And that, in a nutshell, is the Reds' story so far. There's no particular reason to believe that they're a good team now, or that they are going to be a good team when 2017 ends, but there's no longer any particular reason to expect they'll be boring, either. Suarez is hitting well, and so is Cosart. The bullpen is young, high-powered, and exciting. Joey Votto is still Joey Votto, as good as they get. And so even though Cincinnatti's brief run at the top of the Central to start the year is almost certainly a mirage, Reds baseball in 2017 might be something a lot closer to exciting than we'd thought.
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