Sunday, September 9, 2012

Game 27: The Big Fundamental

Phillies 6, Reds 2

When I think of the best players in baseball, I typically think of the most exciting players to watch; players like Mike Trout and Andrew McCutchen immediately come to mind. And while both are having MVP-caliber seasons, I often overrate players of a similar playing style. The allure of five tool players — players who can run, throw, field, hit for power and hit for average — creates the misconception that players who can affect the game in all five areas are more exciting, or even better, than players who are among the best in the league in just two of those areas. Players who hit for power and hit for average and do it while playing for smaller market teams are most often the players who do not get enough credit for their talent. Take Joey Votto, for example. Votto can't run like Eric Hosmer, let alone future teammate Billy Hamilton, but what Votto does well, he does better than anyone in the Major Leagues. In six seasons, Votto has a career average of .317 and an OPS of .970 with an MVP to go with it. But even after winning the 2010 NL MVP Award, Votto is as overlooked and underrated as ever. Earlier this year I read an incredible piece written by Sports Illustrated's Tom Verducci on Votto. Among the highlights: the Reds first baseman has yet to pop up to the infield this season and has only popped up to the infield three times in his entire career; Votto has only pulled one ball foul into the stands in his career, during his rookie season — and has never hit a foul ball home run; and when behind in counts the Canadian born slugger hits .300 — 102 points better than the National league average of .198.

After a strong start to the season, Votto has been on the DL for the last two moths recovering from a meniscus tear. As a result, he sat out each of the first two games we saw the Reds play. Wednesday, however, he returned to the Reds lineup and was back in true Joey Votto form.

Even in person, it's easy to miss Votto's unique approach at the plate if you don't pay close attention. The secret to his success — if you could call it that — is not based on any one thing he does, but rather a number of characteristics and his consistent approach, the combination of which makes Votto less likely to make an out than almost anyone in baseball.

Great Eyes: Votto led the league in walks last year, racking up 117 of them en route to the best on-base percentage in the MLB. Hitting coaches tell you to watch every pitch you take, good or bad, all the way from the pitcher's release point into the catcher's mitt. Some players do it, many don't. Votto does it with every pitch he takes, giving himself as much information about the pitcher as he can. 

Plate Discipline: Votto is as disciplined a hitter as there is. He is rarely fooled by pitchers because he allows pitches to get so deep, giving him more time to diagnose a pitch before deciding to swing or not, leading to fewer "bad" swings and higher contact and walk rates. 

Opposite Field Power: The combination of Votto's quick hands, smooth swing and tremendous power        means that the Reds' slugger is probably the best opposite field home run hitter in the Majors. Of Votto's 14 home runs this year, only two have been pulled to right field. 

Hitting with Two Strikes: When people first learn to play baseball, coaches teach hitters to choke up on the bat with two strikes in order to shorten their swing, sacrificing power to maximize contact and avoid strikeouts. By the time players reach the Majors, however, very few of them change their plate approach significantly with two strikes. Today, baseball is a home run or strikeout league. Pitchers are "missing" bats at a higher rate than ever before and — steroid era notwithstanding — hitters are as home run focused as ever. The difficulty or unwillingness of hitters to make in-bat adjustments is evident by a .198 average among National League hitters when behind in the count. Votto, meanwhile, hits just 17 points below his career average when trailing in the count. 

Having seen him hit live, Joey Votto is now my favorite player to watch. His attention to detail and desire to give himself the best chance to get on base every time he steps to the plate is second to none. His ability to hit with power to the opposite field and hit for a high average when behind in the count by slapping pitches the other way reminds me of a combination of Adrian Gonzalez and Ichiro Suzuki in his prime. Above all, however, what separates Votto from other hitters are his fundamentals. Perhaps the closest comparison to Votto is a guy who plays a different sport; for no baseball player is more suited to Tim Duncan's nickname — the Big Fundamental — than Joey Votto.

There are certainly flashier players who may bring more excitement to the game, but while raw speed and power put fans in the seats, the Reds' first baseman will be patiently waiting, sizing up one pitch after the next until he finds one that he likes.

Games Watched: 27
Games to Go: 3
Stadium: Great American Ballpark is a sight for sore eyes from the outside. Once inside, however, the park has a midwest charm to it, similar in some ways to the feeling at PNC Park in Pittsburgh. The stadium is located on the river, which is shown throughout the ballpark. In addition to its location, I liked Great American Ballpark for its thoughtful design. The scoreboard was one of the strongest we've seen so far and displayed all the necessary information clearly and concisely, while also using smaller, more discrete screens throughout the park to display other stats as well as the National League standings.
Concessions: The Queen's City bratwurst was, in my mind, one of the three best hotdogs/sausages that we've eaten during this trip.
Fan Atmosphere: We were generally impressed by the fans. Despite a weekday game with nearly 100-degree temperatures, a strong number of fans showed up for the game and were active throughout, particularly in support of Votto. 
Thuuz Score: 23
Tim Kurkjian Award: In the top of the third inning, Ryan Howard took what he believed was ball four and started walking toward first base. Momentarily unsure, he turned back to home plate umpire Chris Guccione to confirm that the pitch was ball four, and, after receiving a quick nod from Blue, turned and trotted down to first base. After Howard was awarded the base, the Reds called time and pitching coach Bryan Price went to speak with struggling starter Mike Leake, allowing the umpires to have a brief conference at home plate. During their discussion, one of the other umpires alerted Guccione that Howard had in fact walked on three pitches, something that no one else in the ballpark had noticed. After the mound visit, Howard was then recalled back to home plate where he subsequently flew out to deep left center field.
Miles Traveled: 13520
Miles to Go: 523 (Yankees @ Orioles, September 7, 7:10 pm)

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