The Cincinnati Reds are on the cusp of a breakthrough playoff run. It has been far from an easy path, but it’s been one of the most gripping teams to follow with their comeback wins and thrilling youngsters. Here are three players who have played their best baseball when the Reds needed them most.
Nick Martini and Other Reds’ Heroes in Playoff Chase
The Reds have been in a bit of a squeeze lately. Covid troubles and injuries have left them to pick up the pieces of an oddly shaped puzzle. Waiver Wire Week gave them Harrison Bader and Hunter Renfroe, but the most surprising performer on this squad has been Nick Martini.
Martini spent 2022 in the KBO League, playing for the NC Dinos. Before that, he had 333 plate appearances in the MLB since 2018. Since joining the Reds this season, he has a 122 wRC+, tallying four home runs while rarely striking out.
His impact goes beyond just the face-value stat line. Martini has been showing up in the biggest moments of games, many being against their direct Wild Card competition.
August 25 @ Diamondbacks: Martini hit a solo home run in the first inning for 1-0 lead, and a two-run homer in the sixth to bring the Reds back into a 4-5 game. He went 2-for-3 with a walk and four RBI’s in a tight loss.
August 26 @ Diamondbacks: Martini had a 3-for-4 game with a walk and 2 RBI’s, including an RBI single in the eighth inning to bring the score to 2-4. In the ninth inning, he hit an RBI double to make it 6-4 in an eventual eleven-inning win.
September 1 vs Cubs: In the bottom of the ninth inning of the second game of a doubleheader, Martini mashed a solo home run to tie the game at 2-2. The Reds would win that inning as Noelvi Marte knocked a walk-off single.
September 5 vs Mariners: The Reds were down 3-6 in the eighth inning, and in his biggest moment as a Red yet, Martini jumped on a slider on the outside edge of the zone for a three-run home run to tie the game.
Martini’s success might not be this prolific or heroic forever, but he has been a hero for a lineup that has rotated through a wide variety of outfielders in recent weeks. Jake Fraley only recently returned from injury. Spencer Steer had to move to second base to fill in for Matt McLain. Nick Senzel and Stuart Fairchild were not producing. Martini isn’t a name that will get much recognition over players like Elly De La Cruz and McLain, but he will be part of any story of how the Reds reach the postseason this year.
The Reds have their hands full with rookies all over the diamond. McLain was behind only Corbin Carroll in the Rookie of the Year Race. Spencer Steer has displayed an advanced plate approach and leads the team in home runs. But Christian Encarnacion-Strand has been on the verge of a breakout, as well, and it looks like it is finally here.
“CES” had a rough run through the first few weeks of his MLB career. These are arbitrary breakoff points, but from July 17 in his debut to August 6, Encarnacion-Strand sported a 68 wRC+ over 67 plate appearances. He has had a high-strikeout, low-walk profile all season long, but he wasn’t tapping into his power to make up for that fact. He only hit one home run in that time.
Starting August 7, when he hit two home runs over the next three games, he has a 107 wRC+ while, most notably, hitting five home runs and five doubles. His strikeout rate is an unsightly 31.5% in that time, but with a .265 batting average, he is still getting on base at a decent clip and impacting the game with his power.
In the first section of his season, he had a barrel rate of 4.3% and a hard-hit rate of 45.7%. Those numbers have jumped to a barrel rate of 10.4% and a hard-hit rate of 50.7%. Those are considerable jumps in the consistent power he has been providing. He’s been able to pull the ball more frequently to turn fly balls into hits.
Looking at FanGraphs’ heat maps for Encarnacion-Strand’s production, he struggled to do damage on pretty much everything, even pitches in the heart of the zone. Since August 7, he has had a dramatic turnaround in his ability to punish pitches in the zone, especially pitches in the lower part of the zone and in on his hands.
It’s odd to look at Stephenson, a 27-year-old in only his third full season (eight games in 2020) as one of the most veteran players on the team. Stephenson has shown promise over the past few seasons but struggled to put everything together in the first half of 2023.
The Reds have been missing several key bats from their lineup, so Stephenson’s recent surge couldn’t be better timed. From the start of the season through the end of July, which is a sizeable portion of the season, Stephenson had an 85 wRC+. Since August 1, he has a .288/.350/.521 slash line for a 125 wRC+.
He has the potential to be one of the best-hitting catchers in baseball when he is playing like this. A 125 wRC+ over the full season would tie Stephenson with Yainer Diaz at fifth-best among catchers with at least 150 plate appearances. He has been making hard contact much more consistently and rarely chases, even if his strikeout rate is a little high.
His recent demonstration of his hitting prowess is key to his value in this lineup. He usually slots into the seventh spot in the order. Most playoff teams would be happy to take a 125 wRC+ hitter from that deep in their lineup. Focusing simply on his recent heroics, Stephenson has a .375 average since August 20 with three home runs in a stretch that included series against the Diamondbacks, Giants, and Cubs – all teams fighting for a Wild Card spot.
The Reds’ roster has seen some upheaval in recent weeks, but they have thrived with their players coming together to provide late-game heroics on a regular basis. The fascination with this team doesn’t end with these three players, they have made a monumental shift in the outlook of the Reds’ season when the team needed them most.
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