None of the pre-season predictions for 2018 were kind to the Cincinnati Reds.
By April 19, those bleak forecasts appeared wise as the Ohio ball club parted ways with manager Bryan Price following a disastrous 3-15 start.
Before a pitch was thrown in anger this year, their over/under win total was set at 73.5, coming off the back of a 68-94 fifth placed effort.
It says it all about MLB’s taking ‘problem’ that there were still seven sides projected for poorer seasons.
However, expectations were considerably low at Great American Ballpark and made all the lower after a start that was as slow as an Albert Pujols attempt to beat out an infield single.
Enter Jim Riggleman though and the man who was placed in interim charge has set about revitalising the fortunes of the Queen City outfit, who have improved considerably to go 31-32 since then and essentially turn the shuffling Reds into a .500 club.
That is no mean feat either, considering the strength of their division and the fact that they play most of their games against the Chicago Cubs and Milwaukee Brewers, bona fide division contenders, and the St Louis Cardinals, who can never be written off and are as dangerous as any on their day.
So how have things turned and why are baseball’s oldest team and a side with a record of 34-47 deserving of your respect and, dare it even be suggested, fear?
Any team who sweeps the Cubs in four games is certainly worthy of that, as they did last weekend for the first time since 1983.
Well, it certainly isn’t thanks to their pitching staff, that much can be said.
Their starting rotation, a perennial problem in their hitter-friendly ball park, this season has a cumulative 5.64 ERA and a worryingly high 1.531 WHIP.
In addition, Luis Castillo who is something of an enigma but who certainly has the stuff to become the ace of the staff, has given up the most home runs of any league pitcher with 18, which is unlikely to aid their cause in avoiding being rock bottom in the league for long balls given up, as they have been for the past two years.
Until their pitching problems are resolved and they begin to develop some serious talent in that area, they will be unlikely to trouble the division’s top dogs any time soon.
But what will always give them a chance in games and what has been in evidence throughout their resurgence is that this is a Reds team who can really hit.
They are particularly good in that area. Very good. Almost sneakily good.
With few really paying attention to goings on in Cincinnati outside of their own fanbase, and even then there is likely an attendance figures joke to be made here, they may be missing out on a group of hitting talents who are as formidable as any.
Take a look at the 2-3-4-5 spots in their order and find any pitcher in baseball who would relish the prospect of coming up against that group.
They would be few and far between, particularly given that group are responsible for the highest WAR on the Reds roster, along with Scott Schebler.
Typically under Riggleman, batting after the leadoff man (surprisingly not speedster Billy Hamilton, who occupies last spot) is catcher Tucker Barnhart.
The 27-year-old’s defensive metrics have been well above average (he has been the hardest catcher to steal against in the game), while he also continues to far exceed expectations at the plate and has earned the main starting role on merit, even outside of Devin Mesoraco‘s trade.
He was likely allowed to leave for the New York Mets because of the confidence the club have in Barnhart, whose patience and knack for coming through in big spots could see him well on the road to becoming one of baseball’s most productive backstops.
In the #3 hole, there is the one and only Joseph Daniel Votto, a man who needs no introduction or additional praise heaped upon him, such is the love for him around these parts.
After a slightly sluggish start, he is back to his brilliant best and there is a genuine argument to be made that he is currently the game’s best pure hitter in the game.
Unsurprisingly, his 2.9 WAR leads the club (tied with the two men who hit behind him), his walks outnumber his strikeouts and possesses a staggering .429 OBP: production that any side would love to have.
The deadly duo behind him, Scooter Gennett and Eugenio Suarez, have also stepped up to the plate even more so this year (no pun intended) and made the Reds a side to be taken seriously by those who dismissed them early this year as a laughing stock unworthy of too much concern.
Last season, the second baseman belted his way into everyone’s attention with a stunning four home run game against the Cardinals and it is that blistering bat which has earned him a big role in this Reds outfit.
Given he was claimed off waivers on the eve of the 2017 season, Cincinnati can rightly pat themselves on the back for that piece of business because he has shown this year that his big day last June was no fluke outing.
He already has 14 long balls this year and although his somewhat alarming walk to strikeout rate suggests plate patience could again be a problem, when your .331 average is the highest in the National League, there will be few who are going to grumble too much about it.
Batting clean up and rounding out the fearsome four are Eugenio Suarez, a man who has really found his groove in the past 18 months or so.
Last year, he showed evidence of his ice veins and class in the clutch by posting the third best record in baseball among hitters when the bases were loaded in 2017.
He has picked up where he left off and no matter the situation, continues to drive runners in at a rate higher than any other National League player, with 59 RBIs to his name already this season.
In the past, collective groups of Reds players have earned intimidating and well-earned nicknames thanks to their brilliance and popularity in Ohio: The Nasty Boys bullpen, and The Great Eight of The Big Red Machine era are two memorable examples.
The 2018 top of the order may have even earned a moniker themselves with their displays.
Scooter’s Booters? The Blast-a-ball Quartet? Or even The Medium Sized Red Appliance (you can’t make Big Red Machine comparisons until they find themselves playing October ball), although I can’t see the latter effort catching.