wild card spot

Three Reds Notes in Struggle for a Wild Card Spot

The Cincinnati Reds are really toughing it out lately. They have somehow managed to maintain their fight for a Wild Card spot despite injuries, starting pitching problems, and underperformance. With only a few weeks to go, the Reds dropped two of three to the St. Louis Cardinals and missed out on a sweep over the Detroit Tigers. Here are three notes on the exciting, yet frustrating, Reds’ playoff race.

Three Reds Notes in Struggle for a Wild Card Spot

De La Cruz’s Downturn

Elly De La Cruz has been struggling, and it’s not just been in recent weeks. He is an exceptional talent, but the results have severely lagged behind his potential.  Since the start of July, he has a 65 wRC+ over 279 plate appearances. That goes with a batting average of .209 and a 35.1% strikeout rate. Taking a closer look just at September, there is a stark contrast in his ability to even make contact at pitches in the zone compared to earlier in the season.

It isn’t necessarily a lost cause for De La Cruz to contribute this season. Even during this extended slump, he is still hitting the ball hard. He’s mostly been a good defender, although there have been a few oopsies in recent games. Without a doubt, the best version of this Reds lineup (and their best chance in the postseason) involves De La Cruz and his hard-hitting, baserunning, highlighting-self causing mayhem for opposing teams.

After an extended period of time with confidence in De La Cruz at the top of the order, he has been moved to the bottom half of the lineup. In Thursday’s game against the Tigers, he was batting eighth. He was batting seventh in Tuesday’s game in the series opener. De La Cruz has the highest groundball rate on the team. That could be a significant factor that could drastically help his production down the stretch. He is fast enough and hits the ball hard enough to put pressure on opponents if he can lift the ball just a little more often.

Bullpen’s Got Your Back

Since September 4, the start of the series against the Seattle Mariners, the Reds have had one start where their starting pitcher finished at least five innings. That was in Hunter Greene‘s six inning, one unearned run performance against the Cardinals. The Reds’ starters had an 8.35 ERA in that span, the worst in the majors. They also led all starting staffs in walks per nine innings in those games. Oof.

Yet, somehow, the Reds have kept themselves firmly in the playoff hunt. The credit for this is due largely to the bullpen’s heroic effort. The bullpen has had to show up in a variety of ways. For instance, the Reds’ 6-3 win over the Mariners on September 4 was a bullpen game involving seven different pitchers. In another game, Connor Phillips went four innings, but seven relievers were still used to finish the job in a 4-3 win.

The Reds’ bullpen has had to fill in for a lot of innings, given how short their starting pitchers’ outings have been. Since that September 4 marker, the Reds’ relievers had pitched 40 2/3 innings with an exceptional 1.77 ERA. Thursday’s 2-8 loss against the Tigers will make that number look a little less pretty, but the point is that the bullpen’s overall body of work has been crucial for Cincinnati. The relief corps has had its ups and downs, but there is still work to be done.

Roster Roundabout

The Reds have lacked many consistent star performers they can slot in everyday against any pitcher. For a while, they had to deal without players like Joey Votto, Jake Fraley, or Jonathan India. Matt McLain is still recovering from an oblique injury.

In absence of the high-flying offense that gave the division lead earlier in the season, they’ve relied much more on platoon splits and fitting together different rosters every night. In June, the Reds had the second-most runs scored in the majors. They rank twentieth in runs scored through the first two weeks of September.

The outfield exemplifies the puzzle the Reds have had to manage. Here are a few different ways the outfield was set up.

9/14 @ Tigers: Will Benson/TJ Friedl/Nick Martini
9/13 @ Tigers: Friedl/Harrison Bader/Spencer Steer
9/8 vs Cardinals: Nick Senzel/Bader/Stuart Fairchild

The infield might become more stable with India and Votto returning recently. Steer can slot in at third base most nights, with De La Cruz at shortstop, India at second base, and Votto at first. There is still flexibility with rookies Noelvi Marte and Christian Encarnacion-Strand, who have both taken steps forward in recent weeks. The overall depth is one of the reasons the Reds managed to find themselves fighting for the playoffs in a year they were not expected to be.

The offense will need to find a spark to truly become a threat. They have a spunky, exciting team when they are at their best and they could challenge almost anyone. But the way they have been performing won’t cut it. Since August 1, the Reds have been lackluster on offense. They have seven players with a wRC+ of 100 or better since then, but not a single hitter with a wRC+ of 120 or more. No one has been stepping up to carry this offense. That doesn’t lend itself to explosive games that might be necessary if the rotation continues to struggle.

We can take a look at recent weeks to see who might be hot entering the final stretch of the season. Will Benson was an important contributor early in the season, but had a poor August with a .219/.306/.328 slash line. Over his last fifteen games, he has seen those numbers tick up to .250/.325/.528. Cincinnati’s lineup starts to look a lot spookier when Benson is hitting like that from the nine-hole.

TJ Friedl has continued his mesmerizing display. Over his last fifteen games, he has a a 1.004 OPS, including three home runs and three triples. He bunts, he fields, he hits for triples (oh, and a few homers, why not?). He can be one of the catalysts for this team. The lineup maneuvering was on full display as Friedl even hit cleanup in Thursday’s game against the Tigers.

Finally, let’s not skip over Tyler Stephenson. He’s been striking out less and has the second-highest hard hit rate on the team in September, behind only Benson. His BABIP (average on batted balls in play) has been a little high over that period (.450), so expect some regression. However, his return to form has been a massive boon for the Reds. His ability to contribute at the plate is a welcome development for the Reds as they hunt for October baseball.

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