GOODYEAR, Ariz. – The debate still rages and plays out every day for the Cincinnati Reds, inviting intrigue, discussion and even divisions within their own organization.
From the corner of power and patience: First baseman Joey Votto’s hitting philosophy.
From the corner of opportunity and aggression: Second baseman Brandon Phillips’ hitting approach.
Feel free to weigh in yourself – everyone else sure is – trying to figure out this odd dynamic in the middle of the Reds’ batting order.
Where else could you have a team paying $225 million to a four-time All-Star first baseman who’s their greatest power hitter, but since he thrives on his on-base percentage and passes up RBI opportunities for walks, he’ll bat second?
And where else could you spend $72.5 million on a three-time All-Star second baseman who despises walks and loathes on-base percentage but will do everything possible to drive in runs, so he’ll bat third?
They’re the odd couple of baseball, teammates who certainly appreciate one another but also can’t understand one another.
Nothing against Votto, Phillips says, but he’s up there swinging the bat, believing driving in runs is the best way to help your team win.
Nothing against Phillips, Votto says, but he believes the best way to score is simply getting on base, no matter the situation.
And regardless what statistics might say, they’ll never change their ways, believing their method is best.
“I don’t do that MLB Network on-base percentage (stuff),” Phillips told USA TODAY Sports. “I think that’s messing up baseball. I think people now are just worried about getting paid and worrying about on-base percentage instead of just winning the game.
“That’s the new thing now. I feel like all of these stats and all of these geeks upstairs, they’re messing up baseball, they’re just changing the game. It’s all about on-base percentage. If you don’t get on base, then you suck. That’s basically what they’re saying. People don’t care about RBI or scoring runs, it’s all about getting on base.
“Why we changing the game after all of this time? If we all just took our walks, nobody would be scoring runs. Nobody would be driving anybody in or getting anybody over. How you going to play the game like that? People don’t look at doing the things the right way and doing things to help your team win.
“I remember back in the day you hit .230, you suck. Nowadays, you hit .230 with a .400 on-base percentage, you’re one of the best players in the game. That’s amazing. I’ve never seen (stuff) like that. Times have changed. It’s totally different now.
“But that’s just me.
“And I don’t give a damn what people think about me.”
Votto takes the other extreme and gets vilified for his approach – even by Reds Hall of Fame broadcaster Marty Brennaman – but couldn’t care less what people think of him.
He’s gone from a power hitter and National League MVP (37 homers with 113 RBI in 2010), to the king of on-base percentage. He is baseball’s active on-base leader at .417 and has led the league in walks three consecutive years, with injuries ending his streak last year.
Sorry, he’s not changing, either.
“I still don’t understand the conversation,” Votto says. “I’m like (fifth) in active players in slugging percentage (.533), second in batting average (.310), and the on-base percentage just happens to be the one thing everyone highlights because I’ve had some success with that.
“Hopefully, after this year, it will be a thing of the past, and people will stop being fixated on just one part of my game.”
Yet you can’t help but be mesmerized by a guy who hit 37 home runs playing at Great American Ball Park suddenly morph into Wade Boggs. He has the highest active on base-percentage (.417) of any player since he broke into the big leagues in September 2007 and is the sixth player in major league history to lead his league in on-base percentage four consecutive years.
Yet by taking all of his walks, Votto sacrifices some power. If the pitch isn’t in the strike zone, he’s not swinging. If a runner is on third base with less than two outs, he’s just as content to take his walk rather than drive him in, taking nearly as many pitches in the zone than outside with runners in scoring position.
The dilemma, of course, is that Votto is the best power hitter on the team, but he’s been hitting in the No. 2 hole all springwithout a true cleanup hitter behind him.
When asked if this simply is a matter of Votto showing confidence in his teammates or if he would change his approach if he was in a weaker lineup, he shakes his head.
“No, I don’t care about the people around me,” Votto says. “It wouldn’t matter to me. It just doesn’t make a difference. It’s never made a difference in my career. I’ve never been in a situation where I was getting pitched differently except when Billy (Hamilton) is on first.
“Our lineup should be perpetual. It shouldn’t stop. It should just continue to roll through.”
So Votto takes his walks, with the third-most in baseball since his arrival, and he’s proud of them.
If he had the desire, Votto believes he could lead the NL in homers. But the days of a .400 on-base percentage and .300 batting average would be gone, too. His batting average would likely plummet to .250, Votto says, if he focused on his power game.
“I don’t think that style of hitting is sustainable for me,” Votto says. “It’s proven my skill set is not to be a 35- to 40-homer guy. But if I sold out and just tried to hit home runs, I could probably hit 40 to 45.
“But I was 26 when I hit all of those homers (37 in 2010). I felt unbelievable daily. But as you get older and tack on a few injuries, that starts to disappear. You don’t feel quite as fresh, as springy. So you’ve got to figure out other ways.”
And that way has a tendency to drive folks batty, with Brennaman echoing the sentiments of many frustrated Reds fans, and some club officials, by saying the Reds won’t be a contender if Votto is content leading the league in on-base percentage.
“I don’t want people to think I’m hating on Joey, because I’m not,” Phillips says. “There’s nothing wrong with how he plays the game. He does what’s best for him. He’s going to do what makes him successful. So you can’t get mad at somebody’s approach.
“They have to eat, too. And he’s eating real good.”
Phillips, 33, laughs. He never has cared about on-base percentage. He has a career .319 OBP, but with 168 homers is the greatest power-hitting second baseman in Reds history. In 1,600 more plate appearances, he has 202 more career RBI and 11 more homers than Votto.
“I play the game the best way I know how,” Phillips says. “If I need to adapt to a situation, I’ll adapt. If you need me to get on base and I’m leading off an inning, I’ll do that. If you need me to swing the bat, I’m swinging the damn bat. I’m a guy that drives in runs. If you give me an RBI opportunity, a guy on third base and less than two outs, I’m getting that guy in. I’m not walking. I’m getting that guy in.
“That’s just how I am. I play the game to win. I don’t play the game for stats.
“I’m not talking about nobody else. I don’t penalize nobody. I don’t talk negative about nobody. I’m just talking about me.
“Maybe, I’m just different.”
Maybe he’s right.
You just won’t get a certain teammate to agree.
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