The Reds will finally kick off their 2020 season in 3 days by hosting the Detroit Tigers. As players have come back to Cincinnati to prepare for a season that would have normally started three-and-a-half months ago, fans have restarted the hype train that was chugging along for most of the offseason around the team. The new offensive additions paired with an elite pitching staff will mean that for the first time in a while, the Reds will have a legitimate shot at the postseason, providing that there is one this fall.
The weird thing about this season, though, is that every game is going to have a postseason feel to it. First off, the Reds will be in contention in August for the first time in forever. The amount of anxiety that I’m going to have for every game might be unhealthy because of how important each game will be. We won’t have many blowouts this year between teams that believe they can get to October. If Sonny Gray gives up three runs in the first two innings on Opening Day, you might see the bullpen warm up and enter the game early. With the new 3-batter minimum rule for pitchers being instituted this year, you’re definitely going to see starters being pulled earlier to get the best matchup in a high-leverage situation. No lead will truly be safe, but there won’t be an opportunity to stack runs on a starter this year because of how few games there are. In the crucible of a 60-game season, there won’t be any margin for error. Usually a team like the Reds might “give up” on a game where they’re down by ten runs in the fifth inning in a normal 162-game season and try again the next day. But with there being so few games this year, they won’t be able to concede a game to anyone.
It’s going to be a test of David Bell’s managerial ability to see if he knows how to pull the strings correctly this year. A loss this year would count for 2.7 losses in a regular season. That means that if the Reds were to start 1-8 like they did in 2019, that would be equivalent to starting 3-22 in a 162-game season. That putrid start all but doomed the Reds’ chances of being competitive last year, as they had to fight that deficit the rest of the way and never were able to reach .500 again. As long as the rotation and bullpen can stay healthy, the Redlegs should have a good chance at making the postseason.
If the pitching staff can replicate what they did last year, all that the hitters will need to do is to just be better than they were last year. The new guys should provide a jolt to the existing core that underperformed last year. How many times last year did we see the starter hold a team under four runs but the offense couldn’t scrape together enough to win that game? The amount of one-run games that the Reds lost was insane. They were 24-36 in those games, to be exact. Even though the DH is in place this year, Dave Bell might still use the pinch hitter in a prime situation to win a late-August/September game. If they win more of those close games, winning the division is a real possibility.
We might also see more rotation manipulation this year. When Sonny Gray was named the Opening Day starter, the rotation was set so that he and Luis Castillo would pitch the first two games against the Tigers and the last two games against the Cubs in the first week. Trevor Bauer’s years of experience with AL Central teams will make him an optimal starter against those teams, and because he has mentioned he would prefer to pitch every four days, he might be able to give Gray and Castillo an extra day off so that they could be saved for a division opponent. Lucas Sims will definitely start one game this year as well because of his development in the offseason and in spring training.
MLB kept the number of playoff teams at ten for this year, but with each team’s schedule being only division and cross-division opponents, the Wild Card spots are not as controlled as they would be in a normal season. The path to the playoffs for the Reds depends on their ability to win the division. They control their own destiny in the NL Central. While the games against the AL Central definitely matter, the Reds need to make hay against their division rivals. They’ll take every game they can get against the lowly Tigers and Royals, but beating up on the Cardinals and Cubs will be infinitely better for their chances of reaching the postseason. That’s more fun anyway. If they are able to win 14 of their 20 games against the Pirates, Tigers and Royals, and just go .500 in the other 40 games, that puts them at 34 wins, which just might be enough to make the playoffs.
For a fanbase that has experienced so much agony after 1990, Reds fans are probably more prepared to deal with the anxiety of every game meaning life or death in the race for a playoff spot. The weird pitching changes, the different daily lineups and the rule changes are all going to mix in for a season-long concoction of anxiety.
The Reds’ first game is Friday. Hopefully you bought your nitroglycerin pills in bulk.