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Series Preview: Cincinnati Reds @ Milwaukee Brewers

MLB: Los Angeles Dodgers at Cincinnati Reds David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

Over the years, we’ve gotten used to the Cincinnati Reds being the kind of team that could go toe-to-toe in a slugfest, but couldn’t keep teams off the board.

That’s changed in a big way this year.

How much of that is due to pitching coach Derek Johnson is up for debate -- from an outsider’s perspective it’s hard to tell if Reds pitchers are pitching differently than they did last year, or are just benefitting from another year of experience and better luck -- but the Reds have legitimately had one of (if not the) best staffs in the National League to this point in the season, and we’re almost to Memorial Day.

They’ve put up 8.0 fWAR as a team, second in the majors only to Tampa Bay’s 8.2. Their pitchers are piling up 9.82 strikeouts per 9 innings, ranking fourth in the majors. Their 3.41 team ERA is third-best.

And they’re still in last place in the NL Central.

The problem this time? They can’t hit. At all.

We got a taste of that earlier in the year, when a Brewers pitching staff that was licking its wounds from a four-game bloodbath against the St. Louis Cardinals held Cincinnati to 6 runs over 3 games -- and none in the series finale.

Reds hitters have the 6th-worst fWAR in the majors, while the Brewers rank in the top 10. They also have the 5th-worst wOBA and 6th-worst wRC+ in baseball. Scooter Gennett has been out all year with a severe groin strain. Joey Votto is off to another slow start this year, hitting just .208/.323/.340. Yasiel Puig is only hitting .206/.253/.358. Matt Kemp was released after hitting just .200/.210/.283 in 20 games as a Red.

Probable Pitchers

Tuesday, May 21st - 6:40 p.m. CDT
Sonny Gray vs. Gio Gonzalez

Gray has largely been solid after getting out of New York and being reunited with his college pitching coach in Derek Johnson, although he’s been more average than the All-Star a few were predicting before the season. His underlying numbers suggest his 4.30 ERA should be better than what it is (3.25 FIP, 9.8 K/9, only 4 home runs allowed despite playing in Cincinnati), but he’s only managed 2 “quality starts” this year -- largely because the Reds have frequently pulled him after 5 innings and only allowed him to make 90 pitches once.

Wednesday, May 22nd - 12:10 p.m. CDT
Luis Castillo vs. Zach Davies

After a sophomore slump, Castillo is back to looking like the potential ace he looked like during his 2017 rookie campaign. He has a 1.90 ERA in 10 starts this year, striking out 76 in 61.2 innings -- averaging out to 11.1 per 9. He started the series finale the first time these teams met, holding the Brewers to 1 run on 1 hit in 7 innings while striking out 9, only to be outdueled by Freddy Peralta’s 8 shutout inning gem. He’s been one of the best pitchers in the NL this year by keeping hitters guessing with a 4-pitch pitch he uses almost equally, headlined by a changeup he throws 31.7% of the time that’s graded out as one of the best in baseball.

Previous Series

In a rare April series that wasn’t against the St. Louis Cardinals or Los Angeles Dodgers, the Brewers swept the Reds in Cincinnati in the season’s second series. It was actually a pretty uncharacteristic series considering these teams’ history with eachother -- instead of the 11-10 slugfests we’ve come to expect over the years, all three games were relative pitchers duels, including the Castillo-Peralta 1-0 battle referenced earlier.

Player to Watch

Derek Dietrich may be the Reds’ biggest power threat right now, hitting .240/.345/.625 with 11 home runs (and likely 11 glorious bat flips/staredowns) in 113 plate appearances. He was one of many free agents this past offseason that curiously didn’t get any major league offers, despite being 29 and previously showing good power for a utility player.

Granted, he’s a poor defender, but the fact he had to settle for a minor league contract is a little bizarre, especially since he likely wasn’t looking for a large contract as a role player. He’s also largely a platoon player, with just 8 at-bats against left-handers all year — meaning we likely won’t see him until late in the first game of this two-game set, if at all.

Still, he doesn’t hold much back on his swings, and as we saw last year when he was with the Marlins, he’s capable of having some big games at Miller Park.

Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference