In Thursday’s game against the Chicago Cubs, the Cincinnati Reds used a starting outfield combination that would have been very difficult to predict when the calendar turned to 2019. Nick Senzel was in center field, and he was flanked by Phil Ervin in left field and Aristides Aquino in right. Senzel has played 77 games in center this season, so it’s tough to remember that he didn’t appear in that position a single time as a professional until spring training of this year. Ervin, meanwhile, was coming off his first extended look at big league playing time in 2018 and had been below replacement level for his career entering this year, and Aquino had received just one MLB at-bat last season while otherwise slumping his way through another subpar season in Double-A. At this point in the year, this outfield was supposed to boast Jesse Winker enjoying a breakout season in left and Yasiel Puig smashing skulls in right. And yet, in the first game of the biggest series the Reds have played in ages, it was Ervin and Aquino manning the corner outfield spots. And to be honest, it was the most exciting outfield combo the team could have drawn up.
That’s because both Ervin and Aquino have each come a long way toward proving themselves worthy of attention in a short period of time. Ervin has made 113 PAs this season in a bench role, and has put together an incredible batting line: .363/.425/.578, good for a 159 wRC+ and 1.1 fWAR. Aquino, meanwhile, spent most of the season in Triple-A Louisville, but put on his own show there, hitting .299/.356/.636 with 28 homers in 78 games. He’s continued to knock the cover off the ball since getting called up to the majors, collecting nine hits in 21 at-bats, three of which have been dingers.
Both seasons have come with their own caveats, of course. In Ervin’s case, his numbers have been fantastic, but they’ve come almost entirely against left-handed pitching. He’s hit an astonishing .488/.551/.860 in 49 PAs against southpaws, but only .271/.328/.373 in 64 PAs against righties. That’s the difference between a 258 wRC+ and a 83 wRC+. His Statcast data, meanwhile, doesn’t paint a promising picture. While his actual wOBA is .404 this season, his xwOBA is .290. His xSLG also sits at just .325, and he’s barreled up just three of the 68 batted balls he’s put in play this season. All of which is to say that, even in a breakout season, Ervin has been a platoon bat, and a lucky one at that.
Aquino comes with his own concerns. While he was great in Louisville this season, he was doing his damage against a ball that is now every bit as juiced as the one at the big league level. It had never been the power that had been in question, either. Rather, it was Aquino’s struggles to get on base — in two AA seasons, he put together OBPs of .282 and .306. Even an elite power hitter would struggle to justify a starting role with values that low. He also hasn’t logged anything close to Ervin’s playing time in the majors, so there is still a lot that is unknown about the way he responds to big league pitching.
There’s the list of reasons for you to be pessimistic about these two resurgent outfielders. It’s not an exhaustive list, but it’s pretty close. Look it over, and feel bummed out. Now, watch this.
That felt pretty good, right? Since Statcast began tracking data in 2015, that is the hardest hit ball by a Reds player by more than 2 mph. The list of players who can register an exit velocity that high while also elevating it out of the park is very, very short.
Players to hit a HR harder than 118.28 mph:— Jay (@MisterJHuffman) August 9, 2019
That’s it. That’s the list.
Aquino is a part of that club now, and that’s only the latest example of underlying metrics supporting his torrid start at the plate. Out of 14 batted balls at the major league level, Aquino has barreled up four of them. In an extremely small sample size, his xwOBA is .512, and his xSLG is .768. In his first serious shot at seeing big league pitching, Aquino is crushing the ball.
That’s certainly encouraging, but it isn’t coming out of nowhere. You may remember that, back in 2016, Aquino won Reds minor league Player of the Year when he hit for a 143 wRC+ in the extremely pitcher-friendly Florida State League. That year, his .246 isolated power was second only to Detroit Tigers slugger Christin Stewart in the FSL. Fast forward to this season, and despite even conceding the fact that the Triple-A ball is more livelier than at any other minor league stop, Aquino was still leading the International League in slugging at the time of his promotion. His power has stood out among his peers at multiple stops of his career, so it makes some sense that he would continue to flex his muscles at the highest level.
It isn’t as though this season happened on its own, either. Just after Aquino’s call-up, The Athletic’s C. Trent Rosecrans wrote about the changes to his swing and his approach he went through with Reds assistant hitting coach Donnie Ecker. The open stance Aquino utilizes while awaiting the pitch is new this year, while other mechanical tweaks have helped him keep the barrel of the bat in the zone much longer than it used to be.
Ervin deserves some faith too. While the contact data doesn’t paint a rosey picture, he did smack another four hits on Thursday, and his walk rate has hovered above 8% for a second year in a row. Because of the left-handed corner outfield possibilities in Winker and Josh VanMeter, Ervin represents a great option for Cincinnati when the situation calls for it, even if he remains just a platoon hitter. There’s also reason to believe his defense has improved, as his dWAR on Baseball-Reference has gone from -0.9 in 2018 to 0.1 in 2019.
Whether you believe in them or not, the Reds have gotten some very exciting performances out of these two outfielders, and they’ve come at a reassuring time. This organization, of course, just traded away its top outfield prospect in Taylor Trammell in order to bring in starting pitcher Trevor Bauer, sacrificing years of a potential star in left field. They did so despite Winker having yet to reach 1.0 fWAR in a season, and without having an obvious third outfielder in line to take the reins on a starting spot. Instead, Cincinnati was content to try its luck with a long list of talented outfielders in a system that also includes Jose Siri, T.J. Friedl and Stuart Fairchild. That list begins, however, with Ervin and Aquino. Not long ago, it seemed the best either could expect to achieve in the big leagues was a consistent bench job. Now, they’re making the case that they can do more. It’s time to take them seriously.