Relentlessly consistent Reds clinch Central

September, 23, 2012
9/23/12
2:06
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The Reds came away with the National League Central title, a triumph of consistency that we could have anticipated for weeks. But that shouldn’t take anything away from their triumph -- indeed, the absence of drama in a feat built over 5½ months might represent a relief for a team that’s just going back to where it was in 2010, putting away a division it had the talent to win. Again.

There’s an easy mistake to make on the subject of consistency: You might recall that Ralph Waldo Emerson called it the hobgoblin of little minds, but you might have forgotten that it was "foolish consistency." There’s nothing foolish about the Reds’ brand of consistency, which is why they’re hoisting a tri-pennant as NL Central champs this weekend.

The Reds haven’t suffered a losing month all season. So far, they’ve won or split their season series with every opponent in the division, notably clobbering the Cubs and Astros for a combined 22 wins in 29 games. It would be hard to say anyone’s got their number, because they’ve been winding with the grinding reliability of death and taxes. If unaligned actuaries wanted to pick a ballclub, they ought to root for the Reds.

Consider their strengths, the stuff victories are made of, now as ever, forever. After Mat Latos’ Saturday gem and a 6-0 victory, the Reds are neck-and-neck in the race for league lead in quality starts from their rotation with 93, one back of the NL-leading Phillies and Mets totals (94), while the Giants are a few steps behind with 89.

Now sure, it’s easy to pick on the quality start as a standard for starting pitching, especially if you’re old enough to be hung up on standards set in the low-scoring 1970s or the high-mound ’60s, with the expectations that starters pitched deeper into games, and before the hyper-specialization and expansion of bullpen responsibilities. My advice? Get over it. Fundamentally, if you’ve gotten six innings or more and three runs allowed or fewer from your starting pitcher, that’s a game your team can win, anywhere, against anybody.

The Reds’ tally is all the more remarkable because of some of the challenges they have to deal with, perceived and real. Perceived, in that Dusty Baker was the skipper who went to the whip down the stretch with the starting pitchers on his 2003 Cubs, a decision that didn’t work out so well then, or shortly thereafter for Mark Prior or Kerry Wood. But give Dusty his props: He isn’t the same manager when it comes to running a rotation, and as a result starters with troubling injury histories like Latos and Johnny Cueto have had excellent seasons with the Reds, just the way general manager Walt Jocketty expected when he was drawing up this season on a chalkboard.

And real challenges? Well, remember, the Reds have to call the Gap, one of the best hitters’ parks in baseball, home. Nevertheless, as a staff they’re allowing just 3.8 runs per game there, against 3.6 on the road. That adds up to a good-sized stack of winnable games over the 152 they’ve played.

Another thing the Reds do exceptionally well is field, and like having starting pitching in depth, that’s a gift that keeps giving, game after game, week after week. Whether you want to use a metric as simple as Defensive Efficiency -- how many balls in play they turn into outs -- or Baseball Info Solutions’ Defensive Runs Saved, with the Reds you’re talking about one of the better fielding crews in the league, thanks in large part to premium defenders like second baseman Brandon Phillips, center fielder Drew Stubbs and shortstop Zack Cozart.

Pair their contributions in the field with the serious boppers that the Reds carry in the corners, and you’ve got a lineup that lacks many black holes, keeping things simple on the offensive side of the equation. Thanks in part to their home park, they’re one of the three best teams in the league in Isolated Power and in scoring runs on homers, which they’re also third in the league in. That’s because even their most glovely defenders, guys like Stubbs and Cozart, can exploit that ballpark. That’s no faint praise -- not every team in baseball has a shortstop and a center fielder with some power. When you win as consistently as the Reds have, credit the design, because it works.

If there’s one cause for complaint about the Reds, it’s the absence of a high-OBP leadoff man. That problem’s big enough that Dusty has been giving Phillips a whirl atop the order since Joey Votto came back from the disabled list, but Phillips’ .328 OBP still leaves plenty to be desired there.

But will that matter in October? To take it back to the starting pitching, maybe not, because if Cueto and Latos and the defenses behind them keep opposing hitters in check, it only takes a mistake or two to put a win in the ledger -- the same as has worked for the Reds for more than five months, consistently and relentlessly on the road to October.

PHOTO OF THE DAY
Bronson ArroyoAP Photo/Tom UhlmanThe Reds' Bronson Arroyo can't help thinking, how sweet it is!
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.

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