Cincy’s Splendid Splinter

CHICAGO – Some years ago, the great Reds reporter Hal McCoy was talking with a young Joey Votto. The conversation was going slowly – Votto is a generally quiet person with the press. “Baseball is just my job,” he has said, so many times that it has become something of a motto.

Only then McCoy mentioned how Votto’s hitting approach reminded him of Ted Williams, and Votto’s face lit up. He reached into his bag and pulled out a dog-eared copy of Williams’ classic, “The Science of Hitting.” He carried the book with him wherever he went and memorized entire sections. Votto said that when he was growing up, he had a Ted Williams poster on his wall.

You will ask: What kid, born in 1983 – more than two decades after Teddy Ballgame hit his last home run – would have a Ted Williams poster on his wall? Well, you see, from the start Votto dreamed big about hitting. It has been an almost spiritual journey. Votto is not the brash type, like Williams, so he would never say that he wanted people to see him walk down the street and say, “There goes the greatest hitter who ever lived.”

“Baseball is just my job,” Votto says.

But, make no mistake, Votto has been after something large with his hitting. There is a purity in his lifelong chase of hitting greatness. He has studied at the feet of Williams (“Don’t hit at anything you haven’t seen,” Williams wrote.) and Pete Rose (who told him to greedily chase every hit). Votto has analyzed the numbers as thoroughly as any hitter in the game, focusing much of his attention on Weighted Runs Created. He has endured injuries and depression and boos and criticism of the very way he plays the game. Through it all, he has continued to work obsessively hard and hit his own way.

At the All-Star break this year, Votto was hitting .277 with 15 homers and 42 RBIs. Eh. His on-base percentage was sub-.400, his slugging percentage was sub-.500 and the Reds were in the tank. Votto’s season wasn’t much fun. He uncharacteristically bumped an umpire and was suspended for a game (his apology afterward was earnest). He drew general criticism for not carrying the Reds to better things. Nothing good seemed likely to come out of this season.

And then, the All-Star Game happened (without Votto), the teams returned, and he began one of the most remarkable stretches of hitting in memory. In 43 games since the break, Votto is hitting .393 and slugging better than .700. He has 13 doubles, 10 homers and an almost impossible to believe 58 walks. Monday night, at Wrigley Field, he walked three more times in the Reds’ victory over the Cubs.

Add it all together, it means Votto has a .577 on-base percentage since the All-Star Break. Repeat that: He has a .577 OBP. He’s basically getting on base six out of every 10 times he comes to the plate. As pointed out on Twitter, this is an historic run. If he can keep that preposterous pace going for the last month, his second-half on-base percentage will rank seventh all-time for a half-season, behind only Barry Bonds and, yes, that man, Ted Williams. Votto is now on pace to walk more than 140 times, which would be the highest single-season total since managers everywhere decided to pitch around Barry Bonds.

Williams famously was a big believer that you do not swing at pitches out of the strike zone. He was fanatical about it. “After pitchers find out you’re not going to bite at bad balls,” he wrote, “they have to make a choice: Give you a better pitch or pitch around you.”

Votto has embraced that philosophy, often to a chorus of condemnation. Marty Brennaman, the legendary Reds announcer, said before this year that if Votto were content to lead the league in on-base percentage, the Reds would be in a lot of trouble. Longtime Cincinnati columnist Paul Daugherty has written numerous columns questioning Votto’s value as a walk machine. The words “Joey Votto should be more aggressive,” have been uttered so many times in Cincinnati, someone could make a killing with a T-shirt to that effect.

But this is why Votto has always been one of my favorite players: He does not bend to their will. He hits the way he hits. This year, according to Fangraphs, he swings at just 19 percent of pitches outside the strike zone, the lowest in baseball. The style probably costs him some cheap RBIs (he has just one sacrifice fly this year, for instance) and, in general, diminishes his number of hits and extra-base hits. But it also means he makes absolutely as few outs as possible. And, as has been written before, outs are the currency of baseball. If you don’t make outs, you can live forever.

In looking back over Votto’s career, I came across a curious story written in Dayton, Ohio, back in 2003. Votto was just 20 then, and he was playing in Class A ball, and he wasn’t playing very well at all. For the first month of the season, his batting average was less than .200. His big problem then seemed to be that he was trying to hit home runs. But there was also a sense that, yes, he was too patient. The Dayton hitting coach, Billy White, was asked by a reporter how he felt about young hitters working the count.

“You want to work the count, but you don’t want to work it just so you can get a walk,” White said. And then, he added this: “Ted Williams is dead and there are no Ted Williamses walking around here.”

He wasn’t entirely right about that.

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