Will Cincy overtake Pittsburgh? And St. Louis?




Can a team 11 games over .500 in arguably Major League Baseball’s best division be underachieving?

At first glance, the Cincinnati Reds (53-42) appear to be ahead of their pre-All-Star Break pace from a year ago. However, though the 2012 version of baseball’s oldest franchise was nine games over .500, they had played 10 fewer games (47-38).

The first-half Reds have been sans their everyday left fielder and clean-up hitter since Opening Day (Ryan Ludwick) and without their highly-paid righty-lefty setup duo for most of the first half (Jonathan Broxton, Sean Marshall).

So is the sky falling? Not quite.

Dusty Baker’s crew is secure in the National League’s second Wild Card spot, five games ahead of Washington (48-47).

And while it’s unlikely St. Louis (57-36) and their run differential of +147 and team batting average of .337 with runners in scoring position will slow down anytime soon, it’s fair to expect regression out of Pittsburgh (56-37), whose overworked bullpen is bound to blow a handful of games in the coming dog days of August.

It’s likely the Reds and Pirates will go down to the wire fighting for home-field advantage in the Wild Card play-in game. And wouldn’t you know it, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh face off six times in their final nine games of the season.

With that, let’s hand out first-half awards for the Reds and dole out a few second-half predictions…

 

Most Valuable Pitcher: Mike Leake

Bronson Arroyo and Mat Latos have as many wins (eight). Tony Cingrani has six more strikeouts (77-71) despite pitching in 53 less innings. Aroldis Chapman was the staff’s lone All-Star. Homer Bailey threw a no-hitter.

Yet, no Reds hurler has been as consistently successful over the season’s first half as the 25-year-old Leake, a shocking development considering that Leake seemed destined for bullpen duty in 2013 until late March. It was then that the organization decided to ditch plans to convert Chapman into a starter and keep him entrenched as the team’s closer.

Leake has done his part to back up that move. His ERA+ (a refined measurement of earned run average that factors in ballparks) of 148 is 25 points better than the next best Cincinnati starter. His standard ERA of 2.69 is seventh-best in the National League.

After a rough first month (1-1, 4.34 ERA in April), Leake was masterful over May (3-1, 1.87) and June (3-1, 1.76).

Something to keep an eye on, Part I: Opponents are hitting .266 on balls put in play off the 5-10 righty — considerably lower than Leake’s career mark of .293. Time will tell if Leake’s stuff improved this season — per Fangraphs.com, he’s throwing his fastball, slider, cutter, curveball and changeup at similar rates and velocities as he has in his three previous seasons — or he’s benefitting rom sheer luck.

Something to keep an eye on, Part II: Unless the Reds decide to ink Leake to an extension, he will be arbitration-eligible for the 2014 season. So far, the front office has indicated it values possible deals for Bailey (arbitration-eligible in 2014) and Latos (signed through 2014, arbitration-eligible in 2015) ahead of a new contract for its 2009 first round pick.

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