Welcome to the second installment of this list of the ten moments that defined the 2010s for the Cincinnati Reds. A reminder that this isn’t a list of the “best moments” or “most exciting” moments. This list takes a step back and looks at the broader picture of the organization as it worked its way through the decade. The first post covered numbers #7 through #10. This one looks at the next three, #4-#6.
6. Aroldis Chapman Strikes Out Andruw Jones (May 20, 2012)
The play itself: On a full count, Aroldis Chapman throws a 98.3 mph four-seam fastball to strike out swinging Yankee pinch hitter Andruw Jones. The teams had split the first two games of the series. On Saturday night, Homer Bailey and Joey Votto had given the Reds a 6-3 lead in the bottom of the 9th. Sean Marshall, the Reds closer, gave up two runs before Jose Arrenado came on to get the final two outs. This day, a Sunday afternoon, Baker used Marshall in the 8th for one left-handed batter and Chapman in the 9th. The Cuban Missile retired the side, ending with that whiff of Jones. Dusty Baker’s Reds were 21-19 and now a half-game out of first place.
The moment: If this had been a post listing the “best moments” of the Reds for the decade, Aroldis Chapman would have been feted for a 105.1 mph pitch in San Diego. It set the record for fastest pitch ever recorded in a major league game. Or, you could make the case that the organization’s catastrophic handling of trading Chapman in the aftermath of the reporting about his involvement in an incident of domestic violence should have made the list. It’s hard to watch Gleyber Torres for the Yankees without thinking how much the Reds botched that one.
But, of course, the most important Chapman legacy remains the way the Reds mishandled the role for the most talented pitcher ever to wear a Cincinnati uniform.
21-year-old Aroldis Chapman signed a $30 million deal with the Reds in January 2010. From the start, the Reds were equivocal about whether their prized Cuban acquisition would pitch in the rotation or bullpen. Chapman started 13 games in AAA before his September 2010 call-up to Cincinnati. That fall, Dusty Baker used Chapman out of the bullpen, including in two of the three NLDS games against the Phillies. In both the 2011 and 2012 spring training, the Reds brass continued to be divided about how Chapman would be used. GM Walt Jocketty seemed to favor deploying Chapman as a starter while Dusty Baker wanted those Chapman fastballs rocketing out of the pen. There were rumors that owner Bob Castellini loved watching Chapman burst through the bullpen gate at GABP to pitch the 9th inning.
It didn’t help that Chapman himself went back and forth on what role he preferred. Language and translation was an issue. It’s a shame Joey Votto never used his Spanish to advise Chapman to simply say the words “Whatever the team needs” when asked.
During the 2012 spring training, Jocketty seemed to have won the argument. Chapman prepared to be a starter. The Reds rotation was full, but Chapman would be sent to Louisville to develop and wait for an opportunity. In a terrific last-minute move, Jocketty had swooped in to sign Ryan Madson to a 1-year deal to close for the Reds. Madson had been a shut-down closer for the Phillies the previous season, but he became a free agent and negotiations between those two parties had collapsed. Madson suddenly was available. The Reds didn’t have much money to spend, but they did have $8 million for one season and that was enough.
But then Madson tore an elbow ligament before appearing in a single game and was lost for the season. (Perhaps that should be the “moment” here.) Nick Masset and Bill Bray, two others expected to log major relief innings were slowed down by injury and recovery. The bullpen became so strained, Chapman had to be assigned “temporarily” to the pen and Sean Marshall was named the closer. “Chapman is going to be a starter,” Baker said at the time. “He is going to be a very good starter.”
But after 14 appearances, Baker was already questioning Marshall in the closer role. Baker knew Marshall from when he managed the Cubs and the Reds skipper didn’t think closers should rely on curveballs and sliders. He preferred guys at the end of the game to throw blazing fastballs. Chapman was out of Baker’s central casting.
That brings us to that Sunday afternoon in the Bronx. That strikeout of Andruw Jones was Aroldis Chapman’s first save. And while the debate continued among the chattering class (I was part of it), it had been settled inside the organization. Dusty Baker had his closer.
In six years, the Reds didn’t try Aroldis Chapman as a starter even once. He logged 319 innings, instead of 1000 or more had he been put in a different role. Many of Chapman’s appearances, like this one in Yankee Stadium, were protecting a 3-run lead, which pretty much any pitcher can do 98% of the time. In win-or-go-home Game Five of the NLDS that year, even though the Reds were losing 6-3 by then, Dusty Baker saved Aroldis Chapman for the 9th inning. Because that’s when closers pitch.
5. Sonny Gray Throws a 3131 RPM Slider (August 10, 2019)
The play itself: Sonny Gray was pitching against the Chicago Cubs. He was facing OF Nick Castellanos in the first inning with an out and nobody on. On a 2-2 count, Gray threw this slider [video] and struck out Castellanos on a pitch well outside the strike zone. Gray whiffed Castellanos the two other times he faced him in this game.
The moment: The Reds won 10-1, improving their record to 56-59. It was the high-water mark of the season. They were only 6 games out of first place. The next day, behind the excellent pitching of Luis Castillo, the Reds led the Cubs 3-2 in the 7th, poised to cut the division lead to 5 games. Then Kris Bryant hit a home run off Michael Lorenzen that signaled the end of the Reds run. (The Bryant homer was considered for this list. Although steeped with tragedy, it likely only affected one season. I guess that’s an honorable mention.) The Reds would travel to DC and be swept by the Nationals and never regain momentum.
But the Reds 2019 mini-collapse isn’t the reason Gray’s slider made this list. It’s the spin rate and what it signifies. The right kind of spin affects the way the ball moves as it travels to the plate. Gray’s extremely high spin rate gave the ball its sharp break that had Castellanos swing and miss by more than a foot. Gray’s slider spin rate was among the best in MLB. He had gained more than 3 inches of horizontal break on the pitch compared to 2018. Gray’s average slider spin rate increased from 2710 rpm to 2868 rpm. This one, at 3131 rpm, was one of his best.
Gray’s slider signifies the revolutionary improvement the Reds pitching staff made this year under the direction of a new coaching staff using the latest technology and information. Reds pitchers as a whole went from 14th in the NL to 2nd, improving from 6% below league average to 8% above. Reds pitchers showed near uniform RPM increases over a variety of pitches compared to the previous season. In some cases, the gain was enormous.
Our knowledge of how to win baseball games has changed massively in the past 15 years. Nowhere is that more evident than pitching instruction. Technology and our grasp of the mechanics have produced sweeping gains in understanding. Effective coaching has become more science than art and barely resembles that practice just five years ago. Major league front offices have begun to get that. The local one is at the cutting edge, so to speak. Look forward to continued and accelerated development among Reds pitchers. If the Reds organization can sustain it, the new pitching instruction will have a profound effect both now and going forward.
4. Scott Rolen’s NLDS Fielding Error (October 9, 2012)
The play itself: The Reds lead the NLDS against the Giants 2-0, having won twice in San Francisco. The Reds needed just one more win and for games 3-5 the series moved to Great American Ball Park. In Game 3, Homer Bailey has pitched the best game of his life on the biggest stage. Over 7 innings, he struck out 10 Giants and walked only 1. The one Giants run Bailey had allowed had scored without benefit of a hit. He struck out six batters in a row starting in the 4th inning and took a no-hitter into the sixth. With two outs Bailey gave up a ground ball single. Sean Marshall and Aroldis Chapman had pitched clean innings of relief, adding 3 more strikeouts. The score was 1-1 heading into the 10th inning.
In the top of the 10th, Buster Posey and Hunter Pence led off with singles, but Reds reliever Jonathan Broxton followed with two clutch strikeouts. Ryan Hanigan gave up a passed ball, allowing both runners to advance. Then light-hitting Joaquin Arias hit a two-hop ground ball to 3B Scott Rolen [video]. Rolen got hand-cuffed by the in-between bounce, took the ball off his chest and couldn’t make the play. Buster Posey scored the go-ahead run.
The moment: The Giants won that game 2-1 and ended up winning the NLDS 3-2. Game 3 proved to be the Reds best chance to win the series and the Giants went on to win it all. That series loss, on a ball that initially hit just a foot or two from home plate off the bat, has defined the Reds ever since. That bobbled ball (and, to be fair to Rolen, a million other things) proved to be a turning point in the organization’s fortune, triggering a slump from which they are still fighting to recover.
Scott Rolen had won 8 Gold Gloves at third base. Arias’ grounder was a tough play although the error ruling was fair. Rolen retired at the end of 2012.
Another import of the moment was that Rolen was in the game because of Dusty Baker’s well known preference for veterans. Scott Rolen was a vital pillar of the Reds 2010 team that won the NL Central. But by 2012, Todd Frazier had emerged as a better player. Frazier had played nearly 80 games that season, in part replacing Joey Votto at 1B. Frazier had out-produced Rolen 121 to 94 (wRC+).
Would Frazier have made play? Who knows. He did become an excellent 3B in his own right. But Frazier’s bat might have made the difference in a game where the Reds scored only one run in 10 innings. Rolen had gone 0-4 with a throwing Error in Game 1.
Yet Dusty Baker chose to play the veteran in four of the five NLDS games. Baker’s reputation as a player’s manager was only partly correct. He was a veteran player’s manager and tough on younger players. That might have been a successful formula over the long haul of a regular season. But Baker’s choice at third was crucial in this big moment.
Dusty Baker was the manager for both of the Reds’ divisional championship teams in the past ten years. The club hasn’t come close to winning 90 games since Baker was fired at the end of 2013. A segment of Reds fans will say the Reds should have never let Baker go. Whichever side is right about that, it’s impossible to question that Dusty Baker’s management style and his strategies — and fan arguments about them — came to define the early part of the decade.