RED MONDAY | Hunter Greene’s rough return, offensive struggles continue, Fernando Cruz emerging

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

The Week That Was 

We offered our thoughts on Noelvi Marte’s promotion to the big leagues, as well as Tyler Stephenson’s offensive performance and Alexis Diaz’s slide from early-season dominance.

On the field, the Reds split a two-game series with the Guardians and lost two of three games to the Blue Jays.

  • Tuesday: The week started with a thud as the Reds were shut out 3-0 by Cleveland, wasting another solid start by Graham Ashcraft. In the first inning, left fielder Spencer Steer lost a Jose Ramirez line drive in the sun. What should’ve been a routine out wound up as a double to put runners on second and third base — both of whom would score on a bloop single. That proved to be all the offense the Guardians needed, because the Reds could only muster six hits (only one extra-base hit) against the combination of Logan Allen, Enyel De Los Santos, Trevor Stephan, and Emmanuel Clase.
  • Wednesday: The offense got back on track in the series finale and Andrew Abbott pitched through some hard contact, thanks in part to TJ Friedl’s home-run robbery. Stuart Fairchild blew the game open in the fourth inning with a three-run home run, and Matt McLain hit a two-run bomb later in the inning for extra insurance. The Reds would go on to win 7-2.
  • Friday: In a spot start, Brett Kennedy held the mighty Blue Jays offense in check with five shutout innings. The bullpen — Buck Farmer, Ian Gibaut, Lucas Sims, and Alexis Diaz — followed with four scoreless frames. Unfortunately, the Reds had no answers for Toronto pitching, either. That is, until the bottom of the ninth inning. Christian Encarnacion-Strand stepped to the plate in a scoreless game and crushed a 411-foot home run to left field to give the Reds a 1-0 win, their only victory of the weekend.
  • Saturday: Brandon Williamson’s strong run hit a speed bump as the Blue Jays got to him for four runs on nine hits in 5.2 innings. The Reds overcame a 3-0 deficit when Friedl hit a solo home run in the fourth inning and Elly De La Cruz hit a Little League inside-the-park home run to tie it. But Toronto rookie Davis Schneider hit a go-ahead home run against Williamson in the fifth inning and the Reds squandered opportunities to tie the game or take the lead in the seventh and ninth innings, ultimately falling 4-3.
  • Sunday: Hunter Greene made his long-awaited return from the injured list, and it couldn’t have gone much worse. He lasted just three innings and gave up nine runs (eight earned) on 10 hits and three walks, including five home runs. All five home runs could be classified as GABP specials, as all were hit under 368 feet and just snuck over the wall. Brandon Belt’s homer had the lowest exit velocity of any dinger in MLB this season. But that’s not to say Greene was sharp. He left pitches over the plate consistently and paid for it. The Reds’ defense was also abysmal. Friedl misplayed a flyball in the first inning that became a triple. The young infield struggled badly, committing four errors (two by De La Cruz, and one each by McLain and Noelvi Marte). The Reds ultimately lost 10-3. Silver linings: Tyler Stephenson hit his ninth home run of the season and the bullpen (Farmer, Sam Moll, Derek Law, Alex Young) allowed just one run in six innings.
The Week to Come

The Reds start a 10-game West Coast road trip this week, with this weekend’s series carrying big playoff implications:

  • Monday-Wednesday: 3-game series in Anaheim against the Angels (9:38 p.m., 9:38 p.m., 4:07 p.m.)
  • Thursday-Sunday: 4-game series in Phoenix against the Diamondbacks (9:40 p.m., 9:40 p.m., 8:10 p.m., 4:10 p.m.)
Fernando Cruz’s Emergence

Fernando Cruz is one of the best stories in baseball, making the big leagues last season with the Reds over 15 years after he was drafted. He then made the Opening Day roster in 2023 and got off to a rocky start, beginning with a rough outing on Opening Day. He then missed almost the entire month of May on the injured list with a shoulder strain and continued to struggle for a couple of weeks after his return.

Under the surface, there were positive signs for Cruz — namely that he was striking out over one quarter of the batters he faced. Control issues sometimes got him into trouble, but his 7.29 ERA was in stark contrast to his sub-4.00 FIP, xFIP, and SIERA. Quietly, Cruz has brought his ERA down and been one of the Reds’ best relievers for the last two months. In his last 29.1 innings, Cruz has a 2.45 ERA, 2.86 FIP, 3.26 xFIP, and 2.64 SIERA.

But it hasn’t just been positive regression for Cruz — he’s also gotten better as the season rolls along.

Although Cruz is still walking more batters than the Reds would like to see (22nd percentile), missing bats has made up for it and fueled his success. Since June 12, Cruz has struck out 39.1% of the hitters he’s faced. That ranks fifth among all relievers, trailing only Aroldis Chapman, Josh Hader, Felix Bautista, and old friend Robert Stephenson in that span.

For the season, Cruz is less than a percentage point behind Alexis Diaz in strikeout rate (34.1% vs. 33.8%). He ranks in the 96th percentile in strikeout rate, 90th in whiff rate, and 81st in chase rate.

Much of the credit goes to Cruz’s wicked splitter. The pitch is almost impossible to hit, boasting an absurd 54.2% whiff rate. That means hitters have missed more than half the time they’ve swung at it this season. Only one pitcher, Bautista, has a higher splitter whiff rate in 2023. Cruz has given up only eight hits with the splitter this season, as opponents are hitting a mere .096 and slugging .169 against it. The only pitcher with a better run value on a splitter than Cruz (9) this season is Blue Jays reliever Erik Swanson (12). Run value is the run impact of an event (i.e., a pitch) based on the runners on base, outs, and count.

Another element fueling Cruz’s success: he’s throwing his fastball harder.

In his first 39 games, his fastball averaged 93.9 mph. Over his last five appearances, his fastball has sat at 95.8 mph. Nineteen of his 25 fastest pitches of the season in his last five games. Cruz also gets 80th-percentile extension, meaning he’s closer to home plate when he releases the ball than 80% of other pitchers, which only makes the extra velocity tougher to catch up with. The average perceived velocity on his fastball over the last five games is 96.7 mph.

Although he’s flashed dominance, Cruz has received sparse high-leverage opportunities. Cruz continues largely appearing in middle relief as David Bell opts for Lucas Sims, Ian Gibaut, and Buck Farmer as the right-handed high-leverage options. In the second half, Cruz has appeared in only two games that FanGraphs classified as a high-leverage situation. With Farmer struggling since late in the first half and Sims battling significant control problems, it’s past time to see if Cruz can handle these spots.

In Case You Missed It

Stuart Fairchild suffered a concussion in Sunday’s game after crashing into the outfield wall, and he will go on the injured list.

Fairchild’s absence could prompt the Reds to bring Nick Senzel or Jose Barrero back to the majors. Outfielder Michael Siani is also on the 40-man roster. If the Reds choose an option who isn’t on the 40-man roster, it could be Matt Reynolds, who can play everywhere and has mashed in Triple-A this season (57 extra-base hits, 124 wRC+ in 421 PA).

Tejay Antone had his rehab assignment extended by 10 days, a rule put in place for players coming off of Tommy John surgery. This means we likely won’t see him return to the big leagues until the Reds return home from their upcoming 10-game road trip. Antone has made nine rehab appearances to date, two in the Arizona Complex League and seven with Triple-A Louisville.

If you tuned out Sunday’s blowout loss to the Blue Jays, you weren’t alone. But you did miss the first career hit of Noelvi Marte, a hustle double.

Featured photo by Joe Robbins/Icon Sportswire

Matt Wilkes

Matt Wilkes got hooked on Reds baseball after attending his first game in Cinergy Field at 6 years old, and he hasn’t looked back. As a kid, he was often found imitating his favorite players — Ken Griffey Jr., Adam Dunn, Sean Casey, and Austin Kearns — in the backyard. When he finally went inside, he was leading the Reds to 162-0 seasons in MVP Baseball 2005 or keeping stats for whatever game was on TV. He started writing about baseball in 2014 and has become fascinated by analytics and all the new data in the game. Matt is also a graduate of The Ohio State University and currently lives in Chicago. Follow him on Twitter at @_MattWilkes.