The Reds are still up 1.5 games in the NL Central, which is a 2012 record for most games leading the division by a team from Cincinnati. Still, at the end of May, 1.5 might as well be zero. Fans should be glad the Reds are showing every indication they'll be a contender through the fall, but the team can't help but look over their shoulder - especially with the injury luck of at least one other division rival bottoming out and key players due back before the end of the summer.
The Reds' pitching has posted an ERA+ of 120 through the first two months of the season, which - if it held - would make this one of the best-pitching Reds teams in history. Oddly enough, they've done it while getting slightly-below-average performance from their two marquee offseason acquisitions. That fact alone makes me optimistic that the pitching can remain above average.
The pitching (and defense) has allowed only 184 runs, which has them on pace for 596. That's a mark that puts them in pretty good company. It would tie them for 28th lowest in modern Reds history - just ahead of the 1990 World Series team and just behind two other teams that made it to the World Series ('39 and '75).
What those three great teams also did was score runs. Like the 2012 squad to date, the 1990 team had a great bullpen, but while the 1990 team is the lowest-scoring of any Reds' postseason team (except 1919), they put 42 more runs on the board than the current team's pace.
The '90 squad and the current vintage both hit for extra bases at a similar rate. In fact, the Reds of today are around league average in slugging and 8th in the majors in ISO (isolated power). Where they fall short is getting on base. The '90 squad avoided outs at about league-average rate, while 2012 (at .306) is ahead of only the Pads, Mariners, A's and Pirates in OBP.
It should get at least a little better on its own. Brandon Phillips, Jay Bruce and Drew Stubbs should improve, though Stubbs may not improve much. We don't know what kind of major league hitter Cozart will be, but I don't believe him at .281. It could also get better by making cheap or virtually cost-free upgrades to the bench. Before last night, Valdez and Costanzo both had yet to draw a walk.
Still, if the team doesn't stop swinging so early and indiscriminately, there's a limit to how much better things can get. It might be simply a question of talent, rather than anything the Reds can change systematically. Chuck gave us a great look at the trade winds yesterday and I would hope on-base skills would influence any deal the Reds try to make.
Last season, the Braves were in an almost identical position, OBP-wise. They were contenders until the last day of the season (a nice way of putting it). In a lower run environment, the Reds can stay competitive without much improvement on this front - especially if the rest of the division either hobbled or in rebuilding mode. But the Braves' near miss is the best case of a "successful" low OBP team from recent, post-steroid years. It's hard to say it's a good example.