The Reds won again tonight, maintaining a one game lead over the Cardinals. They crushed the Astros 15-6 in another blowout. Sam LeCure made his major league debut tonight and pitched quite well, allowing two runs on six hits with five strikeouts and four walks in six innings. He threw 98 pitches in picking up his first big league win. Johnny Gomes was 4 for 4, finishing a double shy of the cycle. (He had two singles.) Drew Sutton hit his first major league grand slam (pinch hitting for LeCure in the 6th). The Reds once again put the game away early and didn't look back.
With the Reds recent blowouts a couple of things have really come to my attention. First, the Reds are taking advantage of playing some really bad teams. They've owned the Pirates the last couple of times the two teams have played, going 6-1 with three shutouts. Even the one loss was a 2-1 game that the Pirates pulled out with a ninth-inning homer. The Reds have now beaten Houston all four games they've played this season, with none of the games being closer than two runs. The Reds swept Milwaukee in the two game series that was the only time the two teams have met this year. They've gone 2-1 against Cleveland and 4-2 against the Cubs (2-1 this month). Since April 25, the Reds are 22-9. They're 6-6 in that span against teams above .500 (the Padres, Cardinals, Mets, and Braves). That means they're 16-3 against teams under .500 (Astros, Cubs, Pirates, Brewers, and Indians). That four of the teams the Reds are beating up on are in their division certainly doesn't hurt. If the Reds end up winning a Wild Card spot this season, the unbalanced schedule may well be a major contributing factor.
The second thing that caught my attention is that the Reds are actually really good. I know, they're in first place; I should know they're good. The thing is, I've never really thought of the Reds as having a legitimate chance of beating the Cardinals for the division. I was hoping that maybe they'd get lucky and back into a Wild Card spot, but now, I'm starting to think they're for real. In May, they've been outstanding at the plate. According to fangraphs, they've got the highest-ranked wOBA of any team in the league in May at .371. That's been aided by a .333 BABIP, which is also highest in the league, so they've been a bit lucky. That's helped lift their OBP in May to .360, up from .322 in April. On the other hand, they've also really been clobbering the ball. Their ISO in May is .200, second only to the Blue Jays in all of baseball. That's considerably higher than their mediocre .146 ISO in April. They've basically gone from being an average to slightly below average hitting team in April to being one of the best hitting teams in baseball in May (and those stats don't even include tonight's game).
The funny thing is, I've looked at the Reds turnaround as being driven by their pitching. It has felt that way, but that's largely because the rotation had such an ugly start to the season. The starters are pitching much better now (3.90 FIP in May down from 4.69 in April), and the bullpen has gotten a bit better too (3.76 in May down from 4.18 in April). Still, this is an average to slightly above average team on the mound, and I suspect this month's performance is more what we should expect from them. (I should also point out that by "this month's performance" I mean the team FIP of 3.90 not the team ERA of 3.08. They're not that good.)
So, what should we expect going forward? I think we should expect the Reds to play somewhere between the way they played in May and the way they played in April. I think they'll fail to play to that May level because the batters have been pretty lucky in May, the starting rotation hasn't really performed as well as their ERA suggests, and the schedule has been quite favorable. On the other hand, the Reds were really bad in April, particularly in the early part of the month, and I don't think that was all that reflective of who this team is. If you throw out the games prior to April 25 (when the Reds really turned things around), the Reds' runs scored and runs allowed suggests they should be a .686 team. There's no way they're that good. Prior to that though, their pythagorean win percentage of .349 suggested that they should lose more than 100 games. They're not either of those teams. They do appear to be pretty good though, and I'm starting to think that the Reds will be right in the thick of the division race when the calendar turns to September.