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The best surprise of the season

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Even in a down year, there are things to be excited about in Cincinnati.

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Cincinnati Reds David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

The front office and fans both had a pretty good idea this was going to be a long season. As expected, the Reds are currently 60-82. That comes out to a .423 winning percentage which would be the franchise’s third worst result since 1983 (2001 and 2015).

However, one of the things I love most about baseball is that you can always find things to be excited about, even on a losing team. There won’t be post-season baseball in Cincinnati this season, but there were a handful of surprises over the past six months that were genuinely worth getting excited about.

Dan Straily

Of all of the surprises listed here this gets my vote for the most surprising development of 2016. Straily wasn’t even a member of the Reds until April 1. The San Diego Padres placed the right hander on waivers, and Cincinnati decided to take a chance on him. If fans knew anything about him at this point it was probably that he went from the A’s to the Cubs, along with Addison Russell, in the trade for Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel.

Prior to 2016 Straily’s production had gone from average to poor. In his first full season in Oakland (2013) he made 27 starts and finished with a 98 ERA+. Unfortunately his 2014 season was a disappointing followup. In 52 innings with the A’s and Cubs he ran a 6.75 ERA, and Chicago shipped him to Houston after the season. He spent most of 2015 pitching for Houston’s Triple-A club. The Astros dealt Straily to San Diego on March 28 of 2016, and just four days later the Reds claimed him on waivers.

While Straily’s success in Cincinnati has been surprising, there were whispers that he was starting to put it together prior to the season. August Fagerstrom at FanGraphs wrote about Straily during Spring Training. Fagerstrom specifically highlighted Straily’s increased velocity. On Opening Day Straily was 27 years old and playing for his fifth team (six if you count San Diego). His track record didn’t project success, but was it possible that Straily was a new man?

In 156 innings Straily is 11-8 with a 3.91 ERA (4.77 FIP). Among Reds starters he’s second in strikeouts (129), second in fWAR (1.2), and he’s on pace to be an above average major league starter (110 ERA+). For a pitcher who wasn’t expected to be on the roster, Straily has provided quality major league innings for half a million dollars. That’s a hard surprise to top.

Adam Duvall

Much has been written about Adam Duvall at Red Reporter this year. Prior to the 2016 season, fans weren’t sure who the regular left fielder would be in Cincinnati. Many wondered if there even would be a regular starter at the position.

Duvall trotted out to left field on Opening Day, and he never looked back. He quickly established himself as the answer to Cincinnati’s left field question thanks to his power bat and prowess in the field. By the time the All-Star break rolled around he had smacked 23 HR, and was ranked as one of the top defensive left fielders in baseball by several advanced metrics (DRS and UZR).

As some expected, Duvall has experienced some regression in the second half. Since July 15 he’s hitting just .224/.308/.420 with 7 HR. Still he’s been a 2.5 win player this season, and his big first half was a needed distraction from Cincinnati’s early season woes.

Billy Hamilton

Over the past few seasons there were a handful of questions that Reds fans regularly debated. Few were debated as passionately as whether or not Billy Hamilton could improve at the plate. Since he arrived in the majors fans knew how devastating his speed could be. However, it was going to be a wasted asset if he couldn’t get on base more.

This season started as many feared. In April, Hamilton racked up a groan inducing .283 OBP, and in May he was only slightly better (.294). Both of those numbers were well below the league average OBP of .316. However, in June something began to change. His OBP shot up to .319, and he finished the month with an OPS of .759. Unfortunately he regressed some in July (.299), and fans were left to wonder if June was simply a flash in the pan.

August brought one of Hamilton’s best offensive months as a major league hitter. He finished the month hitting .270/.360/.320 and swiped 19 bases. September started off even better, but fans were left wondering what might have been following his recent oblique injury.

It would have been fun to see how Hamilton finished this season. At the very least, fans have been left with some encouraging signs heading in to 2017. Hamilton will never be one of the top two or three hitters in a lineup, but if he can get on base at a league average rate he will be a nightmare for opposing teams.

Michael Lorenzen & Raisel Iglesias save the bullpen

I’m not going to spend much time rehashing the Reds early-season bullpen struggles. For several months Cincinnati had an historically bad pen. Few moments in the season captured this futility like Steve Delabar’s performance on May 17. With the Reds trailing the Indians 8-0, Delabar entered the game and walked five of the first six hitters he faced. This included four straight bases loaded walks.

Fans can probably name a host of other moments like this. However, in recent weeks the bullpen hasn’t been nearly as cringe inducing. A major reason for that development has been the addition of Michael Lorenzen and Raisel Iglesias as relievers.

Lorenen returned on June 24, and in 40 innings he has a 2.70 ERA to go along with 8.6 SO/9. Iglesias was the Reds Opening Day starter, but he missed almost two months with a shoulder injury. In order to lighten his load once he returned, he was moved to the bullpen. With only 40 innings of relief work under his belt this season, Iglesias has led Reds relievers in fWAR at 0.6, and he’s held his ERA to 1.35.

The surprise factor of Lorenzen and Iglesias had less to do with their success, and more to do with the team’s circumstances. Fans knew these two were capable pitchers, but they entered a bullpen situation that was a complete mess. Over the past few months it’s been much more enjoyable to watch Cincinnati in late inning situations. These two are a major reason why. Some are still holding out hope that Iglesias can return to the starting rotation in the future, but for just this season he (and Lorenzen) were just what the bullpen needed.

Jose Peraza

The final option for surprise of the season has been the recent play of Jose Peraza. As the centerpiece of the Todd Frazier trade, fans were hopeful that Peraza would eventually produce at a high level. However, few expected him to be as good as he’s been over the past few weeks.

Many were frustrated when the Reds called up Peraza earlier in the season, but primarily left him on the bench. The recent injury of Billy Hamilton freed up some regular playing time for the rookie, and it’s safe to say he’s taken full advantage of the opportunity.

In his last twenty games (since Aug. 20) he’s hit an eye raising .425/.436/.562 with 5 stolen bases. While it’s still a small sample size, this recent run has changed some of the narrative around the Frazier trade (along with Frazier’s struggles this season). Peraza is making a strong case for regular playing time next season. Our own Wick Terrell recently tried to find room for him in the 2017 lineup. If nothing else, this recent stretch by Peraza has given fans something to look forward to heading in to next year.