When you look at the Reds and Pirates, it’s easy to get caught up in the big stars: Andrew McCutchen and Joey Votto, both National League MVPs, both leading candidates for the face of the game, both of them engines to power the possible in two NL Central cities with postseason expectations. But after completing Monday’s slugfest and then seeing Mike Leake outpitch Pirates ace apparent Gerrit Cole on Tuesday night, it’s important to remember that there’s a lot more to both ballclubs.
If either team is going to make it to October, they’ll need more than just Votto or McCutchen doing their thing, so perhaps the most interesting things to take from two bruising boxscores were the performances of some of the other guys. A big part of any Reds’ bid to contend is going to be their getting big years from that young, sturdy rotation, and whether Leake can repeat last year’s breakout season is a big part of that.
So far, the indications are strong that he’s going to be able to continue beating people with that big sinker-change combo that started coming together for him last season after he worked hard to add a changeup to his repertoire in the spring. Beyond eight strikeouts Leake got nine ground-ball outs on Tuesday against just three in the air, a nice encore after a 17-5 grounder/fly split in his eight shutout innings against the Cardinals last time out. Short right-handers without a big fastball may never be reliably popular, but if Leake keeps inducing ground-ball outs at this rate, the Gap’s fences will end up seeming that much farther away. Add in his outshining Cole, and it had to be an especially satisfying game for Reds fans.
Another nice development for Cincinnati? Seeing Jonathan Broxton nail down his first save of the season. Not that we should get too worked up about it -- the Broxton bandwagon might only come in a subcompact after several disappointing seasons since his Dodgers heyday -- but with so many teams struggling to find a serviceable guy to finish games, if Broxton can be adequate for a couple months, or even split the gig with Sean Marshall until Aroldis Chapman comes back, they could be better off than many teams with bigger names blowing ballgames in the ninth.
The other guys worth following closely in the early going were part of the reason why there so many crooked numbers in both boxscores. That’s because they both might have some breakout potential in them: Reds third baseman Todd Frazier and Pirates second baseman Neil Walker.
Frazier's happy news was his clouting the sixth-inning two-run homer to right field off Cole that gave the Reds the lead (cemented by Leake's two-run blast). It was his fourth homer of the year, a great start for a guy looking to forget his 2013, not to mention his epic collapse in September 2012. Not that it took much, but Frazier is already one of the most reliable righty power sources in the brief history of the Great American Ballpark since it opened for business in 2003. Among right-handed hitters with 500 or more career at-bats in the Gap, he’s fifth all-time in slugging percentage (.467) and Isolated Power (.210), trailing Rich Aurilia, Scott Rolen, Jonny Gomes and Edwin Encarnacion -- none of them still with the Reds. (Heck, Aurilia and Rolen are both out of baseball.) And while Brandon Phillips has lost sixty points of slugging when he’s hitting anywhere but in his home park (.463 home, .402 everywhere else), Frazier’s career .186 ISO on the road reflects a power stroke that should play anywhere.
Thanks to his hot start, if Frazier can put up something more like the .500 SLG he almost delivered as a rookie, he’s going to be a more important part of the Reds’ offense batting behind Votto and Phillips and Jay Bruce than headline hog Billy Hamilton will ever be starting in front of them. Indeed, as Mark Simon noted earlier today, Bruce is fighting a war of adjustments he isn’t winning early as infields shift heavily against him, while Phillips is being Phillips. The guy who might be able to step up for the Reds is Frazier.
As for the Pirates' Walker, they know something about anticipation too. In the broad strokes, you might wonder what happened to him after his rookie season in 2010, when he put up an .811 OPS. In the three years since, he’s bounced around on a slightly lower level, from .742 to .768 to .757, all good seasons, all reflecting a good player, but all that notch below his big rookie season and the expectations you might have spun from it. It’s the difference between a good player and the second star player the Pirates don’t really seem to have in their lineup beyond McCutchen. It’s the kind of seeming stability that encouraged a projected .748 OPS for him from Dan Szymborski before the season.
However, not that Walker is on a tear after ripping three home runs in his last two game, it’s worth identifying trends in his performance record that can make you think that maybe he’s just now putting it all together. Last year, his walk rate went past nine percent for the first time. His .167 Isolated Power in 2013 matched that of his career high from his rookie season. If not for a 50-point tumble in BABIP that same season, we might have been talking about a guy coming off a classic age-27 peak season last year. Instead, we got those aggregate numbers over the past three years that make it seem as if he’s been standing in place.
Which is a long way of saying we’re little more than two weeks into what should be an exciting season in the NL Central, and there’s a lot to look forward to.
Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.