Former Ashland baseball coach Jeff Wilcox rarely failed to mention what he deemed the sport’s three keys in postgame interviews.

“Pitching, defense and timely hits,” he would utter in that order.

So, when one peruses the Major League Baseball statistics at the All-Star break, and they ask why the Reds are somehow five games below .500 despite ranking third in MLB in earned run average and fifth in fewest errors committed, you can point to Wilcox’s third key.

At 41-46, it’d be easy to hand the Reds a less-than-stellar grade if penning a report card. However, they’re just 4 1/2 games back of the National League Central lead, and a wild-card spot is very much attainable.

Let’s break down the “first-half” assessment in five categories: pitching, fielding, hitting, baserunning and coaching.

Pitching: A

Eleven of the top 12 teams in ERA own winning records. The Reds are the only exception.

Even with offseason-acquired Alex Wood on the shelf, Cincinnati has managed to compile the third-best ERA in all of baseball. At 3.77, it ranks behind only the Dodgers and Rays.

That’s a remarkable feat considering Great American Ball Park’s propensity to dwell in daydreams of hitters.

All-Stars Luis Castillo (8-3, 2.29 ERA, 124 strikeouts in 106 innings) and Sonny Gray (5-5, 3.59 ERA) have been superb and solid, respectively. Castillo is fitting the bill as an ace, the first legitimate No. 1 the Reds have had since Johnny Cueto. Gray is rebounding after a forgettable season in New York. Gray, who declared his love for Skyline Chili upon signing, has been quite compatible with the Queen City.

Anchored by veteran Tanner Roark, the rest of the starting rotation has been dependable, too. The biggest question mark perhaps involves Tyler Mahle’s durability, which will undoubtedly be tested.

The bullpen has certainly been bend-but-don’t-break frequently, but Raisel Iglesias and Michael Lorenzen are showing encouraging signs in the back end.

Fielding: A

Cincinnati is averaging an error every two games, which is a splendid number.

In the infield, shortstop Jose Iglesias is as smooth as Don Juan.

In the outfield, Yasiel Puig possesses a cannon for a right arm and a relentless motor in right field.

Another offseason acquisition, Derek Dietrich, isn’t too shabby with the glove, either. But he’s more well-known for his power and swagger (and gold chain).

Hitting: D-plus

The Reds brought in Iglesias primarily for his leather. His lumber has provided a pleasant surprise.

But the fact that he is pacing the pack in batting tells an unfortunate tale.

The good news is Puig and Joey Votto seem to be heating up. Votto’s production (22 RBIs) is thoroughly disappointing, but if he continues to put together (mostly) quality at-bats, it will bode well for the rest of the season.

Eugenio Suarez May never hit .300, but he is a dangerous, reliable stick.

If Scooter Gennett continues to deal with a lingering groin injury, manager David Bell should regularly put Jose Peraza and Jesse Winker in the lineup. Philip Ervin and Dietrich can jump in there from time to time or ignite offense off the bench.

Perhaps of highest note is rookie Nick Senzel solidifying the leadoff spot in the lineup.

Overall, Cincinnati ranks 27th in MLB in average (.235), 28th in runs (368) and 18th in homers (117).

Baserunning: C

The only reason Cincinnati is even average in this category is Puig. He hustles as hard as anyone in the game, which is captivating for fans and contagious for teammates.

Puig plays with rarely matched fire, which has kept him among the league leaders in steals. He’s grabbed a few extra bags with his aggressive style, too.

If Peraza can hit in the second half like he did last season, he’ll start racking up thefts as well.

Coaching: C-plus

Look on the bright side: manager David Bell is 41-40 in games he’s actually finished. The first-year skipper has been tossed six times — all were losses.

Bell has made his share of head-scratching moves, but it appears he cares deeply for his players, which is promising.

Highly touted pitching coach Derek Johnson has obviously done his job. Reds hurlers have voiced as much.

If they sustain collective success on the mound, the Reds may just make a pitch for a playoff spot in the coming months.

Reach AARON SNYDER at or (606) 326-2664. Follow @DIndependentQB on Twitter.

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