Coming into the 2013 season, Cincinnati Reds fans expected Johnny Cueto, not Mat Latos, to contend for the National League Cy Young. With an injury to the ace, things have changed in a hurry.
Latos, who was involved in a 2011 trade with the San Diego Padres, has turned into the best No. 2 starter in baseball. He has worked through some of his struggles and shown why the Reds pulled the trigger on the blockbuster deal.
The right-hander entered the 2013 season with the reputation of getting off to a slow start. From the beginning of his career to last season, he went 2-8 with a 5.63 ERA in the month of April. He went 2-0 with a 1.89 ERA this time around, but he should have had more wins.
Cincinnati expects its pitchers to come up big in rivalry games, especially against the St. Louis Cardinals, but Latos had struggled doing that in recent years. Last year he went 1-2 with a 7.84 ERA in four starts against the Cardinals.
This season has seen that trend turn around as well. The 25-year-old is 1-0 and has an ERA of 0.75 in two starts against the Cardinals in 2013, including Monday night's six-inning gem (game recap via MLB.com).
After last April, Latos went 13-2 through the end of the regular season. He didn't have an ERA above 3.34 in any month after June, and sported a 2.42 mark in the final 12 starts. It would be hard for anyone to forget his Game 1 playoff performance against the San Francisco Giants after Cueto left with an injury.
One big reason Latos has fared much better this season is that he has been striking out hitters with great frequency. He has 36 strikeouts through the first month, which is double what he had through April last season.
His numbers are just getting better as the games go on. Check out this stat that the Reds tweeted after Monday night's outing.
Latos’ scoreless streak now at 17 innings, the longest by Reds pitcher in 2013. His career high is 21ip. Reds lead, 2-0 through 6th inning.— Reds (@Reds) April 30, 2013
If his seven earned runs in his first three outings are going to be his "slow" start, Reds fans should be thrilled.
Latos has kicked off the season with six consecutive quality starts, and ranks fourth in the NL with a 1.88 ERA, according to MLB.com.
Bad defense, no run support and two blown saves cost Latos wins in his first four starts, but he has turned it up a notch. In his last three outings, his offense has given him a total of four runs. He has allowed only one run in 20 innings during that stretch.
The right-hander will have to keep it up if he wants to work his way into the NL Cy Young conversation. He will have to outperform Clayton Kershaw of the Los Angeles Dodgers and the New York Mets' Matt Harvey, as both pitchers currently have an ERA lower than Latos. They benefit from playing in big ballparks in big markets.
Latos has allowed only one home run in 20.2 innings at Great American Ball Park. For what's supposed to be his worst month, that's not too shabby. Now he has the difficult task of continuing his hot start and overtaking some of the stars in more prominent markets.
Mat has stepped up yet again when the ace of the staff got hurt, so he should start receiving more national attention as his team gets healthy and heats up.
*All stats are from MLB.com