Joey Votto at center of scouts vs. stats debate
The old school scout is tanned and paunchy. His face is leathery from decades of sitting in sunburned high school bleachers; his eyes are wrinkled from all the squinting. Cut him open, he bleeds rosin. He has a radar gun, a notebook and some binoculars. He knows what he knows.
"Joey Votto is supposed to drive in runs,'' he says. "The guys in front of him are paid to score them. When you're batting third in any lineup, if you're taking close pitches with runners on base, you're not doing your job.''
The new age executive is young and lean. He wears a tie. He has a laptop, which he opens to reveal the secrets of baseball. His secrets, anyway. He looks at the old scout and says, "Tell me again where you got your Economics degree?''
The young exec uses terms the scout finds exotic. He seems to talk in code: WAR. OPS. BABIP.
The exec loves Joey Votto. He thinks Votto earns every penny of the $9.5 million he's making this year, and the $225 million he will make through 2023, if he plays out his current contract. The young exec knows what he knows.
"Look how much better he makes the hitters around him,'' he says. "Look at the opportunities he's creating to score runs, not just for himself, but for others.''
The debate rages. Scout says, "He has 22 RBIs in 47 games. That's a 75-RBI pace. Unacceptable.''
Young exec says, "He's in the top five in nearly every offensive category directly related to run production. RBIs are a dated way to measure a player's offensive ability.''
Scout pauses, arms his mouth with a bit of Skoal Wintergreen to pouch his lower lip. Momentarily, he will line a fine stream of brown at the executive's Cole Haans. "My number three hitter isn't walking with runners in scoring position. Not on a pitch that's a quarter-inch off the plate,'' he says.
And so it goes. The Cincinnati Reds first baseman, a former NL MVP and a current cornerstone of one of the best teams in the game, is at the center of a fascinating discussion between old and new, Skoal and Skype, traditional and innovative. The narrative is ongoing, and won't change until Votto starts crashing balls into the seats and the gaps. Until he has more RBIs than, oh, Yuniesky Betancourt.
Votto has seven homers and 22 RBIs. He needed three homers and 5 RBIs in the past week, just to reach those modest totals. Nine National League first basemen have driven in more runs. Three of Votto's own teammates have more RBI. Miguel Cabrera alone had 55 driven in after Thursday's games.
This has caused some consternation in Cincinnati, where worrying about the Reds -- regardless of their success -- is something of a birthright. "I definitely fall on the old school side. He's not paid to walk,'' says Reds Hall of Fame announcer Marty Brennaman. "Walking is a byproduct of being a good hitter. He's paid to drive in runs.''
What do you want from a No. 3 hitter?
If Votto batted second, there would be no discussion. Best two-hole hitter in the game. If he led off, ditto. In fact, if Votto batted anywhere but 3rd or 4th, the old scout would sooner mix the Skoal in with his corn flakes than say a discouraging word.
Even so, no one thinking clearly would suggest Votto isn't one of the four or five best hitters in baseball. The exec opens his laptop. Numbers appear:
Average: .358, second-best in the game.
On-base percentage: .484, best in the game.
On-base plus slugging: 1.030, third.
Runs: 38, second.
Hits: 63, fourth.
Next case, counselor.
Votto also leads this world and possibly several others in bases on balls with 41. He's like the kid who scrapes the lima beans out of the succotash. Votto is discriminating. Some would say overly so.
Marty Brennaman: "Votto will take a 3-0 pitch an inch off the outside corner, when he could do with it what he did (Wednesday),'' when he drilled said pitch into the lower deck at Citi Field, for his seventh homer. "I believe in expanding your strike zone when you have guys on base.''
"He's frustrating if you're solely attached to traditional stats,'' says Jay Jaffe, an SI.com baseball writer and stats guru. "Look at the entirety of his production. I'll gladly pay a guy (Votto's salary) who has an OPS of 1.000. He's keeping the line moving.''
Personally, Votto doesn't care what others think, unless the other is Ted Williams. When he was in the minor leagues, Votto carried a dog-eared copy of Williams' classic book, The Science of Hitting. Now, he not only has it memorized, he lives it. When you ask Votto what homers and RBIs mean to him, he'll say, paraphrasing, "Not much. The process matters. Hitting your pitch matters. If I do that, those numbers will be there.''
It's hard to dispute. There's no SABER-stat for Best Eye in the Game. Votto would certainly be in the center of that photo. Because he's so keen, umpires give him the benefit of the doubt on close pitches. That only encourages his keenness.
And yet. . .
Votto has 22 RBIs, even as he has baseball's current best leadoff hitter, Shin-Soo Choo, setting his table. The biggest beneficiary of Votto's pickiness has been Brandon Phillips. The Cincinnati second baseman and cleanup hitter leads the NL in runs batted in. He's doing the work some think Votto ought to be doing. But as Jaffe says, "You can nitpick. They're winning. They're scoring runs. It's a team game. As long as he's not the only guy hitting. . .''
For the moment, Votto is what Jaffe calls "a flashpoint in the culture war between" old and new ways of thinking. He has Ted Williams' eye. He's not hitting Ted Williams' home runs, though, or producing the Splinter's RBIs. Until he does, new age executive is flashing his laptop, and the old school scout is loading up with Skoal.