Infield Shift: Cincy’s Now Rules the NL

Before this season, which team would you have said had the best infield in the National League? Likely answer for most baseball fans: the Philadelphia Phillies. Their infield has two former NL MVP winners in Jimmy Rollins and Ryan Howard; you also could make the case that Chase Utley probably could have won that award once or twice. On top of that, Placido Polanco was replacing the light-hitting Pedro Feliz at third base.

As expected, Philadelphia’s infield has been solid, posting 8.7 wins above replacement to date this season.

However, the best infield in the National League right now isn’t in Philly; it belongs to the Cincinnati Reds. No wonder Cincy is the surprise leader of the NL Central.

With Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips, Scott Rolen and Orlando Cabrera, the Reds’ infield already has been worth 10.6 WAR; that’s more WAR than all the batters from nine different teams, including the Chicago White Sox and Los Angeles Angels. It’s also the best of any starting infield in the National League. Among all MLB clubs, only the Boston Red Sox’s infield (WAR of 12.3) is performing better; the Reds are even ahead of the highly paid New York Yankees infield, which is registering a WAR of 10.5.

Votto’s .429 wOBA leads the entire National League — including Albert Pujols — and is third to only Justin Morneau and Miguel Cabrera in MLB overall. Plus, but by all accounts, Votto is a tremendous fielder. Ultimate zone rating (UZR) has Votto as four runs better than the average first baseman to date this year and 14 runs better over his career, both fantastic numbers.

With the presence of Utley and Robinson Cano‘s breakout this season, Phillips has fallen under the radar a bit, but he’s still among the elite second basemen in the league. Phillips always has had decent contact skills, but he’s doing a bit more with them this season, posting a .358 wOBA; that currently ranks as the highest of his career. The reason he doesn’t get as much play as Utley, Cano or players like Ian Kinsler is that much of his value comes from his fantastic glovework. Phillips won a Gold Glove in 2008 and pretty clearly deserved it: He posted a plus-16 UZR that season. Phillips has finished in the top eight in the Fielding Bible award voting every season since 2007, and his plus-4 UZR to date suggests that he’s well on his way to another top-caliber season with the glove at second base.

Rolen’s 2010 performance is more of a surprise, given that he turned 35 the day before Opening Day and hasn’t hit for big-time power since 2004, when he hit 34 home runs and posted a tremendous .284 ISO (isolated power, as explained here). He has 17 homers to date this season, although he’s out indefinitely with hamstring issues. His absence is the biggest reason to worry about the Reds’ ability to stay atop the NL Central.

Even while healthy, Rolen is unlikely to maintain his late-career power surge. His 14.7 percent homer/fly ball rate is his highest since that 2004 season and is more than 8 percent higher than his average from the past three seasons. Not only that, but according to HitTracker Online, Rolen’s average home run speed of 101.6 mph is 1.6 mph slower than the league average; this suggests he’s not hitting the ball as hard as most other power hitters. Still, even if Rolen regresses in the second half, he should be an above-average hitter thanks to his solid plate discipline and contact skills, and his always-great defense (plus-26 UZR since 2006) will be valuable.

That said, with the trade deadline approaching fast, there is still room for improvement. Cabrera has been awful at shortstop, as his .286 wOBA ranks only above Ryan Theriot and Alcides Escobar among qualified NL shortstops. And the fact that the Reds still have the NL’s best infield in spite of Cabrera is a testament to the excellence of Votto, Phillips and Rolen. Cabrera still brings roughly average defense to the table, but he’s a black hole at the plate. He doesn’t walk (20 this season) and has little to no power (three homers thus far). As such, he’s been only a 0.5 WAR player. If the Reds want to outlast the St. Louis Cardinals, shortstop is one position that they could look to upgrade before July 31, possibly with Stephen Drew or other shortstops on the market.

The Reds have Rolen and Phillips under contract until 2013, and Votto is under team control until 2014. The core of this infield and this stunning Reds team will be around for at least the foreseeable future. Even without a solid regular shortstop, this infield has performed as the best in the National League and should be one of the best for years to come.




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