Plain Nasty

As if the rotation wasn't hell enough on opponents, the Reds' bullpen, anchored by its unhittable closer, is a machine built to dominate in October
August 13, 2012

Cincinnati's signature dish isn't chili the way most people know it. It's more savory, without the spiciness that defines traditional chili. But if you're in the Queen City and insist on heat, check out Great American Ball Park, where the Reds are torching the NL thanks in large part to the best flamethrower in the game. Lefthanded closer Aroldis Chapman, 24, whose fastball has been clocked at over 105 mph, has harnessed that velocity and become the most unhittable pitcher in baseball history (chart). Since June 26 he has converted 17 straight save chances and generally treated hitters like that 12-year-old with the suspicious facial hair treats Little Leaguers: 18 1/3 shutout innings, a 39-to-3 strikeout-to-walk ratio, with 57% of batters faced going down with a whiff. Overall he has a 1.34 ERA and 100 strikeouts in 53 2/3 innings.

Chapman is the most recognizable pitcher on a staff pulling off the unlikely trick of making the Reds, who had the best record in baseball through Sunday (66--42), a run-prevention team in a home park that favors hitters in a big way. Cincinnati has allowed the second-fewest runs in the NL; it begins with a rotation that could turn out to be historically healthy. The Reds have used only five starters, which if carried through to the end of the year would match the 2003 Mariners and the 1966 Dodgers for the fewest since the deadball era. Righthander Johnny Cueto is the ace, and he has the lowest ERA in the NL since the start of '11 (2.41). Cueto's ascent began last year, when he sharply improved his ground ball rate to more than half his batted balls in play, and he's followed that this year by cutting his walks to 5.8% of batters faced. (The NL average for starters is 7.5%.) Cueto is joined by former first-round draft picks Mike Leake (4.51 ERA) and Homer Bailey (3.98), who was selected out of high school in 2004 but is only now becoming an effective starter. Trade pickup Mat Latos (3.94) and veteran Bronson Arroyo (3.87) round out a group that is one of four NL rotations striking out at least three men for every one it walks—a key measure of effectiveness.

The offense hasn't matched the pitchers' performance: Despite that terrific home hitting environment, the Reds are just seventh in the league in runs. First baseman Joey Votto was the NL MVP favorite before undergoing July 17 knee surgery. Votto (.465 OBP), who is expected to return soon, and catcher Ryan Hanigan (.352) are the only Reds who treat getting on base as more than a chore. The leadoff spot has been a nightmare; Cincinnati has a horrific .248 OBP at the top of the order. Third baseman Scott Rolen's decline (.236/.312/.382 in just 61 games) and centerfielder Drew Stubbs's failure to develop (.239/.309/.408) have contributed to the Reds' OBP deficit. The key for this lineup will be finding someone—internally or externally—to get on base ahead of Votto and Jay Bruce in the middle of the order.

In the twilight of his managerial career Dusty Baker—never a favorite of the analytical crowd—seems to be applying lessons he learned in previous stops to build a winner in Cincinnati. Baker has been careful with his pitchers this season: Only Cueto has gone over 120 pitches, and he did so just once. Baker has been much more patient with young players in Cincinnati, sticking with Bruce and Stubbs in previous years and with shortstop Zack Cozart this season, and has expertly managed a bullpen that has a 2.81 ERA even without counting Chapman. Baker's still a bit too enamored of small ball, especially with a roster that has power in most lineup spots. But on the whole, he has been one of the reasons for the Reds' success.

Much of this roster was in place two years ago, when the Reds reached the postseason and were dismissed by the Phillies in three games in the NLDS. With a much deeper pitching staff, featuring an unhittable reliever and maybe the best hitter in baseball, a return trip this October is likely to last much longer.


How dominant has Aroldis Chapman been this year? He's on track for the highest strikeout percentage ever—and could become the first pitcher to whiff at least half the men he faces (min: 50 innings pitched). Here's how Chapman's season compares so far with the alltime strikeout percentage leaders

ROSTER San Diego has a core of hitters who haven't been productive in the majors, and you can't assign all the blame to Petco Park: Centerfielder Cameron Maybin, shortstop Everth Cabrera and first baseman Yonder Alonso haven't done much on the road, either. The Padres held on to their top bats at the trade deadline, an indication that they think third baseman Chase Headley and leftfielder Carlos Quentin—who, in fact, signed a three-year, $27 million extension—can be part of a winner there. The current pitching staff is shaky due to crushing injuries. Toronto has shown a real talent for turning reclamation projects into cleanup hitters, first with Jose Bautista and now Edwin Encarnacion. The team has had less success developing its own minor leaguers, something that has to change. A lot is riding on third baseman Brett Lawrie (.742 OPS this year, down from .953 in 43 games in 2011) and top prospect Anthony Gose, who was called up last month to play rightfield. Injuries have also wrecked their pitching staff, stalling righthander Brandon Morrow's breakthrough season and shelving prospects Kyle Drabek and Drew Hutchison for the year.
FARM SYSTEM They don't have the next Mike Trout, but there is depth: A handful of hitters could upgrade a major league offense that needs help. Infielder Jedd Gyorko (.960 OPS at Triple A) will be in the majors shortly and could be followed next year by speedy outfielder Rymer Liriano and second baseman Cory Spangenberg. They have pitchers galore, beginning with what might be the best staff in the minor leagues, at Class A Lansing: The trio of Noah Syndergaard, Justin Nicolino and Aaron Sanchez (combined 2.58 ERA and 281 strikeouts in 258 innings this year) could become the Canadian version of Hudson, Mulder and Zito.
RESOURCES The Padres have always been in a tough spot: They're a a big-city team with no secondary markets to speak of. The novelty of Petco Park has worn off, and San Diego fans are fickle: They show up when the team wins and stay away when it doesn't. Losing in 2012 will limit revenue—and next year's payroll. Canada's team should be able to tap into a national market and the deep pockets of the Rogers Corporation. Two decades ago the franchise carried the highest payroll in the game on its way to back-to-back world championships. Money shouldn't be an obstacle to adding that last piece—a No. 1 starter or a high-OBP leadoff man.
FRONT OFFICE G.M. Josh Byrnes is getting a second chance in San Diego after being undercut by ownership in his first gig, with the Diamondbacks. It may be happening again: There's little reason for the team to have signed Quentin and closer Huston Street to big-dollar deals last month. Those contracts are good bets to go bad. G.M. Alex Anthopoulos has been called a ninja for his ability to make big trades out of nowhere and create productive players from thin air. But now that he has presided over an impressive building project, can he shift gears and turn all the talent he's amassed into a contender?
COMPETITION The NL West has been getting stronger and now features a Dodgers franchise determined, under new ownership, to act like a big-market monster. But other than the Dodgers, no team threatens to vastly outspend San Diego, and no other NL West team has a top-tier farm system. In recent years the Jays have been almost as good as the AL Central's top teams, a fact hidden by an unbalanced schedule loaded with the AL East's two payroll beasts and the overachieving Rays. That's not going to change.
VERDICT The Jays have small to moderate edges in most categories—but the last one is the most important. Not having to beat out three of the best teams in baseball is a huge advantage for the Padres, who have the better chance at playoff contention in 2013.
PHOTOPhotograph by ANDY LYONS/GETTY IMAGESCONTROL FREAK Chapman has always thrown gas, but now he knows where it's going: His walk rate is nearly 70% lower than it was last year.