Series 46 Preview: Cubs at Reds
Joey Votto has been a big source of the Reds’ offense this season. (Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images)
Four of the Cubs’ remaining six series put them squarely in the NL Central spoiler role, as they take on each of the division’s top three teams. All three are virtual locks to make the playoffs, but on the line is one berth directly into the NL Division Series round. Tonight’s opponent, the Reds, are 1.5 games back of the Cardinals and in a tie with the Pirates for home field advantage for the one-game playoff. Cincinnati’s season has been a tale of two sides of the ball, with the offense playing out as a stars-and-scrubs affair and the pitching having performed as one of the league’s best from No. 1 to 12. Over the last month, the Reds have been competitive in nearly every contest, with 19 wins in 30 games and just one loss by more than three runs.
HITTING: 4.3 Runs Scored/Game (2nd in NL)
After five months of play, it’s apparent that GM Walt Jocketty could not have done a better job of addressing his team’s most longstanding weaknesses: on-base percentage and the leadoff spot. He killed two birds with one stone by swapping Drew Stubbs for Shin-Soo Choo in center field. Whereas Stubbs brought outstanding defensive range and a huge hole in his swing and plate approach, Choo brings a plan to the dish that has overcome an adventurous year back in the middle of the diamond. Choo’s .291 AVG/.425 OBP/.471 SLG slash line is barely behind first baseman Joey Votto’s .303/.430/.494 performance so far. Both provide plenty of baserunners and power that help Cincinnati make the most of their entire lineup. Votto has a clear leg up against left-handed pitchers, however: Choo has hit .209/.347/.239 against southpaws this season, part of a dramatic downward trend over the last several years. Manager Dusty Baker hasn’t really elected to protect Choo against his platoon issues, however, so tonight’s starter Travis Wood, as well as bullpen lefties James Russell, Zac Rosscup, and Brooks Raley, will be expected to neutralize the top-of-the-order threat. Beyond Choo and Votto, only right fielder Jay Bruce has stood out (both for his production and his strikeouts). Second baseman Brandon Phillips is one of several players with an on-base plus slugging percentage right around .700, though some insightful lineup construction puts his pop in the cleanup spot, a great place to drive in Choo and Votto.
PITCHING: 3.6 Runs Allowed/Game (T-3rd in NL)
The Reds have assembled one of the game’s most unsung staffs, tied with the Pirates for third in run prevention but probably even better than they look considering the hitter’s haven Cincinnati calls home. The three starting pitchers the Cubs will see this series—Bronson Arroyo, Tony Cingrani and Mike Leake—won’t instill fear in any batters, but the numbers suggest they should. Arroyo is having yet another well-above-average season, the fourth in five seasons for the 36-year-old. The right-hander’s fastball doesn’t really get out of the 80s anymore, but a combination of pitching backward, deception and pitchability have him looking as good as ever. As a testament to his athleticism and ability to repeat his delivery, one need look no further than his walk percentage since 2008: 7.8%, 7.0%, 6.7%, 5.3%, 4.2% and finally 3.7%. Cingrani, on the other hand, is far from established, having thrown just five big league innings before this year. The 24-year-old is a 6-foot-4 lefty, who was a 2011 third-round pick out of Rice. He’s thrown his fastball over 80 percent of the time, according to Brooks Baseball, but it plays up due to good low-to-mid 90s velocity and great extension on the mound. The series closes out against Mike Leake, the 2008 first-round pick who is having his best season in his four big league campaigns. He’s another Reds pitcher with very good command and the ability to sink or cut his fastball to avoid barrels. The Reds bullpen has been just as outstanding as the rotation, though the relievers provide more firepower. Closer Aroldis Chapman, once again in the triple digits from the left side, leads a group that leads the majors with a 25.6 percent strikeout rate.