One month ago, few baseball fans outside of prospect hounds or regular followers of the Louisville Bats had heard of Cincinnati Reds outfielder Aristides Aquino. That's not a criticism. Aquino had made some minor waves on prospect lists a few years ago, but after hitting .216 at Double-A in 2017 and .240 while repeating the level in 2018, he had fallen off the radar.
In fact, for 24 hours last offseason, any team could have signed Aquino. He had appeared in one game for the Reds in August and struck out in his lone plate appearance but wasn't called back up when rosters expanded in September. On Nov. 30, the Reds non-tendered Aquino, needing space on their 40-man roster for other moves. The Reds let him know they wanted to bring him back, but he was technically a free agent and could have signed with any other team.
"When you take a guy off the roster, you are exposed," Reds general manager Nick Krall told John Fay of the Cincinnati Enquirer earlier this month. "We told him we were going to take him off, but we also expressed, 'Hey, we want to bring you back.' It was pretty quick. We signed him that night."
Even then, it was just a minor league deal, which meant the Reds exposed Aquino in the Rule 5 draft in December. Any team could have selected him. Nobody did. He remained with the Reds, tore it up at Triple-A Louisville for four months, and after Yasiel Puig was dealt to the Indians at the trade deadline, Aquino was called up Aug. 1.
Fourteen home runs later, Aquino is most definitely on the radar of baseball fans with one of the most impressive debut months in major league history. There are still a couple of days left in August, but consider these totals:
Most home runs in one month by a rookie:
Rudy York, August 1937: 17
Mark McGwire, May 1987: 15
Aaron Judge, September 2017: 15
Aristides Aquino, August 2019: 14
Most home runs in a calendar month, Reds history:
Aristides Aquino, August 2019: 14
Greg Vaughn, September 1999: 14
Frank Robinson, August 1962: 14
Aquino isn't a kid. He's 25, making his professional debut with the Reds back in 2011 in the Dominican Summer League at age 17. He played two seasons in that league, hitting .188 and .197, which would have meant the end of big league dreams for many prospects, but the Reds liked Aquino's power potential and stuck with him. It was a slow grind through the minors before everything finally came together at Louisville this season, where he hit .299/.356/.636 with 28 home runs in 78 games.
With the Reds, he has hit even better, with a .330/.393/.804 line after going 3-for-5 with that 14th home run in Thursday's 4-3 loss to the Marlins. Given his size and strength, the first guess might be -- especially given some of the low batting averages in the minors -- that Aquino is a strikeout-prone all-or-nothing slugger who has managed to run into a few meatballs his first month in the majors. Actually, his improvement can be traced in part to cutting down his strikeout rate even as he has faced tougher pitching:
2017, Double-A: 28.8%
2018, Double-A: 25.2%
2019, Triple-A: 25.1%
2019, MLB: 23.4%
The overall MLB strikeout rate is 22.8%, so he's just about average in this regard. His walk rate his first month has been 7.5%, just a tick below the MLB average of 8.5%. So he's solid in those important categories plus he's mashing all these home runs. All good, right? Maybe, or maybe not, because there are some red flags in Aquino's game that help identify why it took him so long to reach the majors.
MLB average: 47.3%
MLB average: 25.5%
MLB average: 28.7%
He does chase out of the zone more than you'd like, and he does have swing-and-miss in his game. Pitchers haven't learned to exploit that just yet. Maybe they won't. Aquino's power on contact has simply been so impressive that when he connects, it flies. As you might expect from an aggressive hitter, most of his home runs have come early in the count:
Aug. 3, vs. Dallas Keuchel: 0-0 changeup (404 feet)
Aug. 6, vs. Jose Suarez: 1-1 fastball (448 feet)
Aug. 8, vs. Cole Hamels: 1-1 changeup (445 feet)
Aug. 9, vs. Yu Darvish: 1-0 cutter (373 feet)
Aug. 10, vs. Kyle Hendricks: 0-0 sinker (344 feet)
Aug. 10, vs. Hendricks: 0-0 sinker (385 feet)
Aug. 10, vs. Dillon Maples: 1-2 fastball (452 feet)
Aug. 12, vs. Tanner Rainey: 1-0 fastball (425 feet)
Aug. 14, vs. Javy Guerra: 0-1 slider (387 feet)
Aug. 16, vs. Adam Wainwright: 1-0 cutter (396 feet)
Aug. 17, vs. Miles Mikolas: 0-0 slider (408 feet)
Aug. 23, vs. Mitch Keller: 1-0 slider (401 feet)
Aug. 28, vs. Sandy Alcantara: 2-2 changeup (418 feet)
Aug. 29, vs. Robert Dugger: 0-1 curveball (393 feet)
Want to see some of those home runs? Here are his first nine -- in his first 14 career games:
Anyway, what's the deal here? Is Aquino for real? Like so many players in 2019, the juiced ball makes evaluation extremely difficult. At first glance, it's easy to attribute Aquino's improvement at Triple-A and with the Reds to the ball, more so than any changes in his approach or maturity.
Plus, as fun as this month has been, it's only one month. Consider the exploits last season of Ryan O'Hearn and Luke Voit, older players with little experience in the majors who tore it up for short spells:
O'Hearn: 149 AB, .262/.353/.597, 12 HR, 154 OPS+
Voit (with Yankees): 132 AB, .333/.405/.689, 14 HR, 193 OPS+
Aquino: 97 AB, .330/.393/.804, 14 HR, 192 OPS+
O'Hearn was making his debut, and Voit had 124 plate appearances with the Cardinals in 2017, but the comparisons are somewhat similar. O'Hearn has been terrible this season and Voit has been very good with a 135 OPS+.
Is Aquino more O'Hearn or more Voit? I would lean toward the latter, even if there's nothing in his track record to suggest he's anything close to a .300 hitter in the majors -- let alone .330. He hasn't been awful in the field and he actually has had the second-highest top sprint speed on the Reds, behind only Nick Senzel, so there's some real athleticism here. (He's a better fielder and runner than, say, Franmil Reyes, a young guy with a similar powerful build.)
Add it up and I'm cautiously optimistic that there's something here -- nothing like what we've seen, of course, but a player who can be an above-average hitter even if he hits .250. The rest of the season forecasts from the various projection systems are even less optimistic than .250, but I'm not sure they've incorporated "ball, lively" into their algorithms.
So maybe Aquino isn't a future All-Star. For now, just enjoy the ride.