RED MONDAY: Big week ahead, a better Alexis Diaz, Matt McLain, a look at last week and more!

Welcome to Red Monday, where Reds fans can start their week with clear-eyed analysis of how the team is doing and where it’s headed.

The Week That Was 

The Reds were 1-5 last week and are now 19-27 overall and back in last place in the division. 

The Reds dropped two of three in Colorado to the last-place Rockies. 

  • Monday The Reds tried to win a classic Coors Field slugfest without homering. It wasn’t enough as the Rockies hit three long balls to take the series opener 9-8. Hunter Greene had a rough start and each of the three relievers gave up a run. The main excitement for the Reds came from Matt McLain’s debut, when the young infielder doubled, walked and scored two runs. 
  • Tuesday The Reds got a terrific, if surprising, debut start from Brendon Williamson. The tall lefty gave up one run in 5.2 innings while striking out six and walking two. A quartet of Reds relievers shut the Rockies out the final 3.1 innings. Nick Senzel hit a huge 2-run homer in the 7th. 
  • Wednesday Graham Ashcraft and Lucas Sims succumbed to Coors Field as the Rockies pummeled the Reds 11-6. Stuart Fairchild had three RBI and Luke Maile hit his second homer of the season. 

After an off-day Reds hosted the New York Yankees. 

  • Friday The Yankees only led 3-2 going to the 9th, but two bullpen newcomers Alan Busenitz and Silvino Bracho gave up three runs to make the final 6-2. Ben Lively had a strong start, allowing two runs over 5.2 innings. Lively struck out eight and walked one. Ian Gibaut gave up a run. Jake Fraley drove in both Reds runs. 
  • Saturday The game went into extra innings tied 4-4 before Yankee sluggers Aaron Judge and Anthony Rizzo knocked in three in the 10th of Gibaut. The two Yankees were 6-9 with six RBI. Luke Maile blasted his third homer. 
  • Sunday The Reds offense was a no-show against the home-run power of the Yankees, who out-homered the home team 6-1 in the series. Hunter Greene pitched well, with ten strikeouts and going seven innings. Final: 4-1 Yankees. 

A huge NL Central week for the Reds:

  • Four-game home series against the St. Louis Cardinals (6:40, 6:40, 6:40, 12:35)
  • Three road games at Wrigley against the Chicago Cubs (2:20, 7:15, 2:20)
A Big Week Ahead

As of this morning, only six games separates first and last place in the NL Central. The bottom three teams are bunched within a game of each other. The week looms large for the Reds in the division battle. They face the red-hot St. Louis Cardinals for four games and then travel to the Windy City for three against the Cubs. Let’s look at how the three teams stack up in various categories.  

First, overall offense.

The composite stats of wRC+ and xwOBA show the Cardinals have an edge overall in run creation. So whether you look to the scorecards (wRC+) or contact quality (xwOBA, St Louis has had the best lineup. The Cubs are close behind while the Reds lag behind, last in MLB in xwOBA. That’s due mainly to a power deficit. The Cardinals have hit almost twice as many homers as the Reds. The three teams are fairly even in stolen bases. One final category in the chart is the FanGraphs composite defensive metric (fDef). All three teams are below average but the rank 28th.

Next is a look at individual positions (based on the team’s regular starters vs. a RHP).

The Reds catcher in this chart is Luke Maile, who doesn’t have many at bats. Tyler Stephenson is the DH. Paul Goldschmidt, the Cardinals first baseman, is having another MVP season. Their outstanding second-year hitter Nolan Gorman has been a powerhouse. The Cubs are led by 3B Patrick Wisdom and LF Ian Happ. The Cubs CF shown here is Christopher Morel, who has replaced the injured Cody Bellinger in recent days.

We turn to starting pitching.

The three teams are close in strikeouts and walks. Pay attention to xERA which accounts for quality of contact and SIERA which assumes pitchers have somewhat less control over how hard the ball is hit. The three staffs are close in SIERA. The Reds super-high ERA is largely due to their lousy defense.

And finally a look at the three teams’ bullpens.

All three teams have better-than-average bullpens, with xERAs below league average. The Cardinals bullpen has several big arms, which explains their strong S+ (stuff) number and their high strikeout rate.

Big picture: The Cardinals offense stands out in the group with the Cubs second and both significantly better than the Reds. The Cardinals have the weakest starting staff although none have been particularly good. The bullpens are about the same.

An Even-Better Alexis Diaz

As a 24-year-old pitching at the Double-A level in 2001, Alexis Diaz didn’t set the world on fire. He’d been a 12th-round draft pick back in 2015 out of Puerto Rico. He missed the 2016 season after Tommy John surgery. The Reds didn’t decide on his role as a reliever until 2021. Heading into the 2022 season, he wasn’t on anyone’s Top Prospects list for the Reds. Even as the club broke from spring training, Doug Gray (the #1 expert on Reds prospects) didn’t have Diaz in his top 25

We watched as injuries and ineffectiveness befell the expected pillars of the Reds 2022 bullpen. The team wasn’t winning much, so save opportunities were scarce. When Diaz picked up a save on May 17, thirty-six games into the regular season, he joined Tony Santillan, Lucas Sims and Art Warren leading the club with just one. Even with Sims sidelined due to injury, another month passed until Diaz gathered his second save. Over the following three weeks, the two guys who had been closing — Santillan and Warren — went on the IL. Even then, more time passed as the Reds inexplicably gave the closer role to Hunter Strickland. 

The turning point came during the 2022 All-Star break when Alexis Diaz decided to throw his slider more. He became the dominant pitcher he is today. Prior to the break, Diaz had been using his fastball 71% of the time leaving the slider for 29%. After the break, Diaz boosted the slider count to 43%. In 2023, he’s nudged it even a bit higher, to 47%. 

You can point to all the stats where Diaz has improved in 2023 over 2022:

  • Strikeout rate up from 33% to 49%
  • Walk rate down from 13% to 11.5%
  • xERA down from 2.76 to 1.61
  • Ground ball rate up from 30% to 39%
  • Swinging strikes up from 16% to 18%
  • Called strikes plus whiffs up from 30% to 34%
  • SIERA down from 3.29 to 1.87

Don’t misunderstand. Alexis Diaz was terrific last year. But in 2023, he’s been dominant. First in strikeout rate among MLB relievers. Second in K%-BB%. Third in SIERA. Fourth in batting average against. Ten saves out of ten opportunities. 

Let’s celebrate by looking at a couple of his best pitches in 2023. Here, a Diaz slider locks up Middletown’s favorite son Kyle Schwarber:

Fernando Tatis Jr. hits air on a Diaz fastball.

Simply put, in the space of less than two seasons, Diaz has gone from off the radar screen to one of the top five relievers in the game. 

In Case You Missed It

Matt McLain’s debut line drive hit that he stretches into a double, flashing his hit and speed tools. 

[Image: MLB]

Steve Mancuso

Steve Mancuso is a lifelong Reds fan who grew up during the Big Red Machine era. He’s been writing about the Reds for more than ten years. Steve’s fondest memories about the Reds include attending a couple 1975 World Series games, being at Homer Bailey’s second no-hitter and going nuts for Jay Bruce at Clinchmas. Steve was also at all three games of the 2012 NLDS, but it’s too soon to talk about that.