It's one thing for a team, even a first-place one, to reel off a 10-game winning streak. It's quite another for that team to do so with its best player on the sidelines due to injury. Yet that's what the Cincinnati Reds did from July 19-29 without star first baseman Joey Votto, who last played on July 15 and underwent surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his right knee two days later. Beyond the winning streak — a feat overshadowed by the run-up to the July 31 nonwaiver trade deadline — the Reds enter Thursday afternoon's matinee against the Padres in Cincinnati now a major-league-best 13-3 since Votto hit the disabled list, helping them surpass the Nationals and Yankees for the majors' best record at 63-41. They lead the National League Central by three games, and now have a 94.5 percent chance at reaching the postseason according to the Baseball Prospectus Playoff Odds report.
Votto, who won NL MVP honors in 2010, was in the midst of another MVP-caliber campaign, hitting .342/.465/.604 with 14 homers. Thanks in part to a league-high 13 intentional walks, his on-base percentage ranks as the league's highest for the third year in a row, while his batting average ranks third and his slugging percentage second; if they were to hold up for the rest of the season, all three numbers would represent career highs. Perhaps the most unique facet of his season is his MLB-leading 36 doubles; he was on a 66-double pace when he went down, one shy of the single-season record set by the Red Sox' Earl Webb in 1931.
Minus Votto, the Reds' lineup wouldn't figure to have much of a chance. Subtract his .465 OBP and his other offensive contributions, and the rest of the team is hitting just .245/.303/.408, numbers that would rank 13th, 14th, and seventh in the National League, respectively. The team's shortstops and third basemen have delivered sub-.300 OBPs, while their centerfielders were under that mark until the past few days, and their leadoff hitters have hit a godawful .201/.246/.311, numbers that rank 30th, 30th and 29th in the majors, respectively (Dodger leadoff hitters are "slugging" .271). Even with Votto, the Reds rank a middling seventh in the league in scoring at 4.33 runs per game despite playing in hitter-friendly Great American Ballpark, which increases scoring by about six percent.
As if on cue, the Reds' bats have come to life in the absence of their lineup's centerpiece, as Cincinnati has scored an even 5.00 runs per game on .273/.338/.468 hitting — not that trips to hitter-friendly venues and downtrodden pitching staffs in Houston and Colorado haven't helped. Leftfielder Ryan Ludwick has bashed six homers and hit .388/.444/.857 during Votto's absence, centerfielder Drew Stubbs has suddenly come to life (.357/.422/.625) right around the time that general manager Walt Jocketty went shopping for — but failed to land — an upgrade, and other once-dormant bats such as those of Scott Rolen (.302/.415/.535) and Brandon Phillips (.339/.367/.589) have awakened, too. Alas, Phillips suffered a strained left calf on Monday, and left Tuesday night's game after hitting what proved to be the decisive homer; he may yet hit the disabled list.
Todd Frazier, Votto's fill-in at first base, hasn't put up sterling numbers during this stretch (.267/.274/.417, with a 14/1 K/BB ratio), but he has been the Reds' unsung hero this season, batting .276/.331/.531 with 12 homers in 266 PA; the slugging percentage and home run rate both rank third on the team behind Votto and Ludwick. The 26-year-old, a 2007 supplementary first-round pick who ranked 43rd on Baseball America's top prospect list prior to 2010, is technically a rookie (one with better numbers than Bryce Harper, even); he accumulated 112 at-bats for the Reds last year, 18 shy of the cutoff. He established himself as a lineup presence during a five-week stint filling in at third base when the 37-year-old Rolen went to the disabled list with a left shoulder strain, and has squarely positioned himself as Rolen's heir apparent at the hot corner.
The offense hasn't been doing all of the work without Votto. During his absence the pitching staff has held opponents to 3.75 runs per game, more or less in line with their overall average of 3.68 per game, which ranks second in the league — outstanding given their surroundings. Led by Johnny Cueto (2.39 ERA, fourth in the league) the rotation ranks fifth in both ERA (3.71) and quality start rate (61 percent). Homer Bailey (3.85 ERA), Bronson Arroyo (3.87), Matt Latos (4.17), and Mike Leake (4.44) don't have terribly impressive individual numbers; Latos is the only one striking out more than 6.8 per nine, Cueto the only one allowing less than 1.1 homers per nine. But as a unit, the rotation has the league's second-best unintentional walk rate at 2.1 per nine, with none of the starting five — amazingly, Cincinnati hasn't had to tap any other pitchers for a single spot start yet — above Latos' 2.5 per nine.
Beyond the rotation, the bullpen has been a pillar of strength, running away with the league leads in both ERA (2.59) and strikeout rate (10.1 per nine); the next-best teams are at 2.81 and 8.5 per nine, respectively. Reds relievers have allowed just 18.5 percent of inherited runners to score, which is virtually tied for the league lead with the Pirates. Closer Aroldis Chapman has been ultra-dominant, with a 1.39 ERA and an eye-popping 16.7 strikeouts per nine; he has a 96/14 strikeout-to-walk ratio — nearly 7-to-1 — in 51 2/3 innings, and has converted 23 of 26 save opportunities since taking over the ninth-inning job from Sean Marshall in mid-May. Keep in mind, the Reds went into the season planning for Ryan Madson to close, but he tore his ulnar collateral ligament during spring training and underwent Tommy John surgery. Marshall, a lefty like Chapman, has whiffed 10.5 per nine himself as the team's top setup man, with a 6.9 strikeout-to-unintentional walk ratio, and none of the team's key relievers have ERAs above 3.26. To that core, Jocketty added Jonathan Broxton on Tuesday. Less than a year removed from surgery to remove bone chips in his elbow, the former Dodgers closer isn't what he once was, with a strikeout rate of just 6.3 per nine in Kansas City, but he has a shot at becoming the top right-handed weapon out of the bullpen given Logan Ondrusek's passing relationship with the strike zone (1.4 K/UBB). As for Votto, he is now eligible to come off the disabled list, but there's no official timetable for him to rejoin the lineup. He has yet to resume hitting, but is taking groundballs; a return could come sometime next week, though the team's surge is buying him time to fully heal. How Dusty Baker will divide the playing time at third base once Votto returns remains to be seen, though Frazier does have the ability to spot at the outfield corners as well, not that either Ludwick or Jay Bruce should be sitting too often. Such depth creates a nice problem for the Reds to have, and it points to why they've emerged as one of the NL's powerhouses. Expect them to remain in the hunt.