SweetSpot: Joey Votto

Steve Mancuso of Redleg Nation wrote about Jay Bruce playing first base in Monday's game for the Reds:
First of all, if you think Joey Votto isn’t going on the DL, I’ve got some World Series tickets from 2013 to sell you. Face value.

Second, this is a huge, gigantic, enormous hit defensively in the OF and likely at 1B, as Jay Bruce *plays the infield* for the first time in his career.

Third, in the short run, all this means is that we get double the crappy left-field platoon. This was always the problem with the plan to play Devin Mesoraco at 1B; it just meant we got a light-hitting catcher in the lineup. The "Hey, we can play so-and-so for Joey Votto" works best when the new player in the lineup isn’t a terrible hitter.

The most important issue is the first one. It doesn't matter how the Reds ultimately patchwork the lineup once Votto lands on the DL as expected. The Reds need Votto if they are going to make the playoffs; better yet, they need a healthy Votto. He has essentially been playing on one leg, and it's showed in his numbers. Since returning from a DL stint earlier this year, he has hit .250 with zero home runs and a .699 OPS, as opposed to .859 before the DL.

"It's becoming apparent in the quality of his play that it's not just something that's an inconvenience," Reds manager Bryan Price said. "It's getting to the point where it's very difficult for him to compete."

Justin Havens of ESPN Stats & Information and "Baseball Tonight" host Jon Sciambi also pointed out that Votto hasn't been the same hitter since he injured his knee sliding into third base in a game against the Giants on June 29, 2012. Before that, he had a career slugging percentage of .559, including .600 in his 2010 MVP season, .531 in 2011 and .639 in 2012 before that slide. Since then, he owns a .459 slugging percentage, and the numbers show he's especially been less effective on outside pitches.

Critics have suggested Votto is too passive at the plate. As Justin points out, however, Votto has actually swung more often at outside pitches; he's just not getting the ball in the air and driving it with power as often. This could be because of the knee and hamstring injuries.

The immediate problem for the Reds is that, without Votto, this is a lineup with OBP issues. Entering Monday's game, Billy Hamilton had a .301 OBP, Brandon Phillips .308 and Zack Cozart .274. Bruce has yet to get on track with a .312 OBP and eight home runs, but he's never been a big OBP guy anyway (.329 career). Mesoraco and Todd Frazier made the All-Star Game with big first halves, but can they repeat those performances?

The long-term problem for the Reds is that this is the first season of the 10-year extension Votto signed in April 2012, and the Reds will owe him $213 million after this season. A first baseman without much power and a bad knee isn't going to be worth that kind of money, even if Votto can continue to post OBPs around .400.

That's in the future. For now, I'm not sure the Reds can score enough runs to stay in the tough National League Central race. The rotation has kept the Reds over .500 with the second-best ERA in the majors, but what are the odds Johnny Cueto runs a 1.99 ERA in the second half and Alfredo Simon goes 11-3 with a 2.78 ERA?

Hey, it could happen. Bruce could swat 20 home runs in the second half, Mesoraco and Frazier could stay hot, and the Reds could pick up an outfielder who provides value for two months. Maybe Votto just needs to rest his hamstring for a couple weeks.

The NL Central is a four-team race right now. But if Votto's injury issues limit him the rest of the way, I see it turning into a three-team race.
Some stuff to check out as you take a break from watching the World Cup ...
  • Remember the great throw by Yoenis Cespedes a couple weeks ago? The next day, I wrote about some of history's great throws. Eric Lang of The Hardball Times examined the physics of a few of these great throws. Of the eight throws Eric looked at (including three from Rick Ankiel), Cespedes' throw had the second-fastest release speed and third-longest distance. Eric doesn't declare a best throw but does have some cool charts. Plus you can watch the videos again.
  • Grantland's Jonah Keri with a look at the evolution of the Cuban pipeline.
  • Missed this from a couple weeks ago, but Jonah had a list of the 15 BestCoolest teams he's seen in his baseball-watching lifetime. Surprisingly, he didn't have the 1994 Expos No. 1. He mentions the 1995 and 2001 Mariners, although I'd arguably suggest the 1997 club, while not as good as the 2001 team, was the coolest with Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriguez before we despised him, Edgar Martinez, Jay Buhner, Randy Johnson, Little Joey Cora, Paul Sorrento ... good times. Until the playoffs.
  • Matt Swartz of The Hardball Times had an interesting two-part look at the declining percentage of African-American players in the majors. Here's part 1 and part 2.
  • Good feature on Joey Votto by Mark Zwolinski of the Toronto Star. Votto: "I was always concerned about having the feeling — there’s nothing like seeing the fans and knowing you can’t go anywhere. It never made me feel comfortable. If I go out to dinner in Cincinnati, I know everyone’s eyes are on me, or at least the people who recognize me. Eyes are on me, judging me, and I can’t relax. I can’t be at ease. I don’t like that feeling. Over time, I’ve realized those things are few and far between, that those are isolated circumstances and my life can be completely normal. I wanted to open up because I do like to talk baseball. I love talking baseball. I think it’s an interesting subject, I think it’s something I’m familiar with. It’s something I can constantly learn about. I do like talking with the fans."
  • The Indians inducted Omar Vizquel into their Hall of Fame. Zack Meisel of Cleveland.com has the story of how Vizquel matured from an 18-year-old who couldn't hit the ball out of the infield to a potential Cooperstown Hall of Famer. Related: This is great, how the Indians turned an infielder from the '70s named Jack Brohamer into Vizquel, via Ryan McCrystal of It's Pronounced "Lajaway."
  • Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs with a look at Alex Gordon's arm. It's a pretty awesome weapon for the Royals.
  • Joe Posnanski with some thoughts on Barry Bonds and the Hall of Fame.
  • The Orioles need to fix left field. Matt Perez of Camden Depot suggests Seth Smith of the Padres.
  • Brad Vietrogowski of It's About the Money ponders the idea of Adam Warren in the Yankees rotation.
  • Matt Adams of The Catbird Seat looks at the history of Home Run Derby participants to see if Jose Abreu could be affected by participating. That's something you hear all the time if a player regresses in the second half. Some of said that's why they don't want to participate, that it could mess up their swing. Matt's study shows 65 hitters improved in the second half and 141 declined in terms of OPS. Evidence of anything? I don't think. Aren't players who had a good first half more likely to be invited? So they would be good bets to regress anyway? I think Abreu will be if asked (and he should be).
  • Eric Reining writes that it's OK if the Rangers end up tanking this season. At this point, I agree. Too many injuries. Too many teams ahead of them in the standings. Take your lumps and look ahead to 2015. But do they really have anybody worth trading?
  • Nothing like a foul ball at a game, right? Here are some recent highlights: A fan gives a young girl a ball, only to see her throw it into the lower deck; a fan catches a foul ball while holding his kid; an A's fan is upset after missing a catch; a father and son are really excited about catching one; finally, Robinson Cano is out to protect Felix Hernandez. As he should. He is, after all, the King.
  • Finally, the memorial service for ESPN colleague Richard Durrett was held Monday. Hundreds packed the church in Dallas, including Rangers manager Ron Washington and GM Jon Daniels. He'll be missed.

The first rule of Opening Day: Don't overreact to Opening Day. So these are merely observations from flipping around watching a bunch of different games.

1. At one point during the Cardinals-Reds opener, Adam Wainwright looked a little perturbed, presumably at the strike zone of plate umpire Gary Cederstrom. After all, Wainwright walked three guys unintentionally in his seven innings (plus another intentional walk). This was a guy who walked just 35 batters in 34 starts last year, just once walking three guys in a game. So he may have been unhappy with the balls and strikes … and yet still threw seven scoreless innings with nine strikeouts and just three hits allowed in the Cards’ 1-0 victory. Whenever the Reds threatened, Wainwright got the big outs -- a Joey Votto double play on a 2-2 fastball in the third and Zack Cozart on a tapper in front of the plate with two runners on to end the sixth. He threw 105 pitches, including 22 of his famous curveball -- the Reds went 0-for-6 with a walk against the curve, including Cozart’s out. Here’s the thing about the Cardinals: While I (and others) have spent a lot of time discussing their depth and versatility, they also have two of the best players in the game: Wainwright and Yadier Molina. Their lone run off Johnny Cueto: Molina’s home run in the seventh off a 0-0 cutter that didn’t cut.

2. I don’t know if Billy Hamilton will hit, but I know he can’t hit Wainwright. The Reds’ rookie went 0-for-4 with four strikeouts against Wainwright to register the dreaded golden sombrero -- the 17th player since 1914 to go 0-for-4 with four strikeouts on Opening Day. The potential bigger picture: If Hamilton and Brandon Phillips don’t get on base enough -- a distinct possibility -- Votto is going to draw 100-plus walks no matter if he has Jay Bruce, Johnny Bench or Frank Robinson hitting behind him. Which will lead to the haters complaining about Votto’s RBI total.

3. The Tigers beat the Royals 4-3 thanks to a big day from emergency shortstop acquisition Alex Gonzalez, who tripled in the tying run in the seventh and singled in the winning run in the ninth. Justin Verlander scuffled through his six innings, giving up six hits and three walks with just two strikeouts, but that’s not my initial concern. The concern is that Opening Day roster, which includes Gonzalez, Andrew Romine, Bryan Holaday, Tyler Collins, Don Kelly, Ian Krol and Evan Reed. Besides Krol and Reed, the bullpen includes Phil Coke (1.6 WHIP over the past two seasons), Joba Chamberlain, Al Alburquerque and Luke Putkonen. In other words: The final 10 spots on the roster could be a disaster. It could work out -- Chamberlain and Alburquerque will probably be OK if they stay healthy, for example -- but the lack of depth on this team could be an issue. Detroit's star players -- Verlander, Miguel Cabrera and Max Scherzer -- have been very durable, but a lengthy injury to any of those three or Anibal Sanchez, Austin Jackson or Ian Kinsler could be crushing.

4. The Pirates picked up with the kind of game they won last year, beating the Cubs 1-0 on Neil Walker’s walk-off home run in the 10th inning. The Pirates won five 1-0 games last year (there were only 48 such games in the majors last season, so the Pirates had over 10 percent of all 1-0 victories). The major league average when scoring one run, two runs or three runs was a .270 winning percentage; the Pirates were 25-39 (.390) when scoring one to three runs, so they won a lot of low-scoring games. The big positive besides the bullpen throwing four scoreless innings was the six dominant innings from Francisco Liriano, who tied a Pirates club record with 10 strikeouts on Opening Day. With the loss of A.J. Burnett, the pressure is on Liriano to repeat his 2013 performance.

5. Showing early confidence in B.J. Upton, who hit .184 last year while striking out in 34 percent of his plate appearances, Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez hit his center fielder second while moving Justin Upton down to fifth (Chris Johnson hit cleanup). I can’t say that’s the lineup I’d go with -- Justin Upton seems the logical choice to bat second behind leadoff hitter Jason Heyward -- but no matter what order Gonzalez chooses there are going to be some OBP issues if B.J. Upton, Dan Uggla and Evan Gattis don’t get on base more often. Yovani Gallardo kept the Braves in check with six shutout innings -- a good sign for the Brewers considering Gallardo’s inconsistency and drop in velocity last year -- while Francisco Rodriguez was called on for the save in the Brewers’ 2-0 victory.

6. One reason I’m a little wary about the Orioles is new closer Tommy Hunter’s struggles against left-handed batters -- he gave up 12 home runs last year, which is way too many for a reliever to begin with, and all 12 were against lefties. He scraped through the save in the O’s 2-1 win over the Red Sox, hitting Will Middlebrooks with a pitch and giving up a one-out single to Dustin Pedroia, but he got ahead of David Ortiz 0-2 before getting him to fly out to medium-deep left center, and then struck out Jackie Bradley looking on a fastball at the belt. (Bradley was hitting after pinch running for Mike Napoli in the eighth).

7. I was dubious about Tanner Scheppers as a starter and his performance in the Rangers’ 14-10 loss to the Phillies didn’t alleviate any of those concerns. His fastball averaged 96.3 mph last year as a reliever but 93.3 on Monday as a starter. His strikeout rate as a reliever didn’t scream “try this guy as a starter” and he fanned just two in his four innings, which required 93 pitches to get through. It's just one start and considering it was his first in the major leagues and on Opening Day -- a strange choice by Ron Washington -- let’s give him a pass and keep an eye on his next outing.

8. Tough loss for the Mets, blowing leads in the seventh and ninth innings and then losing in 10 to the Nationals. As Mets broadcaster Gary Cohen said after Anthony Rendon hit a three-run homer off John Lannan in the 10th, “What an atrocious day by the Mets' bullpen.” Something Mets fans have witnessed all too often in recent seasons.

9. While flipping through the various games, it’s pretty clear we're going to see even more defensive shifting. According to Baseball Info Solutions, the number of shifts has increased from 2,358 in 2011 to 4,577 in 2012 to 8,134 in 2013.

10. Jose Fernandez. He looked brilliant in his six innings, throwing 73 of his 94 pitches for strikes, and smiling when Carlos Gonzalez homered in the sixth off his one mistake. I think I may watch 33 Marlins games this year.

First base regained some luster last season as Chris Davis and Paul Goldschmidt had monster years that put them in the MVP discussions in their leagues and Freddie Freeman had a breakout year for the Braves. The position gets even stronger this year as Miguel Cabrera moves back over from third base, Joe Mauer moves from catcher to first on a full-time basis and Jose Abreu looks to make a big impact for the White Sox. Who are the top 10 first basemen? Eric Karabell and myself discuss the BBTN 100 rankings.
Richard Fitch at Redleg Nation wrote a great piece last week on Joey Votto, centered around this question and response from Dennis Janson of WCPO and Reds GM Walt Jocketty: "I asked Walt Jocketty if (new manager Bryan) Price is up to the task of disabusing Joey of the notion that a base on balls is as beneficial as a run scoring sacrifice fly. Walt gave me an emphatic ‘Yes,' but added, 'that is something many more of us in the organization will also try to convey.'"

Votto walked 135 times last season, most in the majors and the highest non-Barry Bonds total since Brian Giles also walked 135 times in 2002. Votto has led the National League in walks the past three seasons (doing so in 2012 despite playing just 111 games) and in on-base percentage the past four seasons. He won the MVP Award in 2010 and finished sixth in 2011 and 2013. Most people believe he's an enormously valuable player.

But those RBIs. Votto had just 73 this past season, even though he hit .291 with runners in scoring position. Still, 73 RBIs, not what you expect from your No. 3 hitter. Based on the response above, apparently Jocketty thinks Votto should focus on hitting more sacrifice flies. Or something. Richard sums up the fallacy of this idea:

Players are never trading a run for an out simply because the run is never a given. If Joey knew the outcome in advance, yeah, he'd score the run and take the out. But, he's no Kreskin. He knows that swinging at sub-optimal pitches leads to infield pop-ups and rolling over on balls to the pitcher, too. He knows it's a loaded question -- begging for a certain answer. He's done his homework. Has Walt?

The argument that any player should be willing to expand the strike zone is a frightening one that plays straight into the hands of today's overpowering pitchers, more and more of whom can throw a pitch that has "ball outside" written all over it as it heads to the plate, only to move the last few feet and find the corner -- the backdoor cutter -- a pitch increasingly used in the game today. After seeing a couple of those, all but the best hitters with a rock solid plate approach will soon be swinging at pitches half a foot off the plate.

There is the perception that Votto is too passive at the plate, that he should be more of an "RBI guy." Now, there are two ways to approach that statement:

1. Some take it to mean that an RBI guy should expand the strike zone.
2. It could also mean that an RBI guy should just be more aggressive early in the count.

Jocketty's answer to the question is unclear, although the implication is certainly that Votto should change his approach, at least in sacrifice fly situations.

As for Votto being too passive at the plate, that's utter nonsense. FanGraphs tracks a stat called Z-Swing% -- the percentage of pitches in the strike zone that a batter swings at. Votto swung at 67.0 percent of such pitches in 2013, which ranked 55th out of 140 qualified hitters. In other words, Votto ranked in the top 40 percent of aggressiveness, at least in terms of swinging at strikes. What Votto doesn't do, of course, is swing at balls. He swung at just 20 percent of pitches outside the strike zone -- the lowest percentage of those 140 hitters, just ahead of Marco Scutaro's 20.1 percent.

What happened when Votto swung at a pitch outside the strike zone? According to date from ESPN Stats & Info, he hit .136 -- 16-for-118, with no home runs and three doubles. Votto isn't good when he swing at balls.

At the All-Star Game, I asked Joey Votto about the Pittsburgh Pirates. This was back when everyone was still skeptical about the Pirates, or at least a little skeptical given their second-half collapses in 2011 and 2012.

"They're 100 percent legitimate," Votto said. He then brought up Francisco Liriano. "For all the complaining people do about player contracts and players getting hammered for bad one-year deals or bad 10-year deals or whatever, there isn't enough being written about Francisco Liriano," Votto said. "That guy is so valuable to them."
[+] EnlargeFrancisco Liriano
Jared Wickerham/Getty ImagesWith a win in the books, Francisco Liriano can afford to applaud Clint Hurdle's decision to start him against the Reds.

Prophetic words, because on an electric night in Pittsburgh, Pirates fans filled PNC Park with cheers, chants and the pure joy of watching October baseball for the first time since 1992. Andrew McCutchen’s mom sang the national anthem, former Cy Young winner Doug Drabek threw out the first pitch, and then Liriano threw down the gauntlet.

He retired the first nine Reds in dominant fashion, needing just 28 pitches. When Marlon Byrd and then Russell Martin homered off Reds starter Johnny Cueto in the second inning, the park exploded in a symphony of exultation and derisive chants of "Cue-to, Cue-to." It was good to be a Pirates fan.

After the Pirates made it 3-0 in the third, the key at-bat of the game arguably came in the top of the fourth. Liriano hit Shin-Soo Choo to start the inning and Ryan Ludwick singled, bringing up Votto, a chance for the Reds to have a big inning and get back in the game.

The Reds' three best hitters are Votto, Choo and Jay Bruce, all left-handed, which is why this was a tough matchup for them: Liriano destroyed lefties this season, holding them to a .131 average with just two doubles and no home runs allowed. Basically, he turns left-handed hitters into pitchers. But this is Votto, the guy who knows how to work the count and wait for his pitch better than any hitter in baseball. Back in July, he talked about Liriano's fastball/slider combination and how much better he looked than when he had faced him when Liriano was with the Twins. He thought Liriano had simplified his approach, focusing more on just those two pitches, at least to left-handed hitters.

Slider, fouled off; swing and miss at a slider low in the dirt; slider off the plate, swing and miss. Three sliders, goodbye Votto.

The Reds did manage to score a run in the inning, and Todd Frazier cracked a long foul ball that just missed being a three-run homer and giving the Reds a lead, but that inning was the Reds' missed opportunity.

After that, things fell apart for Cincinnati. Cueto was lifted in the bottom of the fourth, Neil Walker, who had one extra-base hit off a left-hander all season, doubled off Sean Marshall, Brandon Phillips booted a routine double-play ball, getting one out instead of two and allowing a run to score. It was 5-1 and Liriano was just too good this game.

He went seven innings, allowing just four hits and one walk, striking out five. Choo, Votto and Bruce went 1-for-8 with a hit batter and four strikeouts. The pitcher who had trouble throwing strikes during much of his Twins career threw 64 strikes in his 90 pitches.

It's interesting to note that the stars of this game were Liriano and Martin (who added a second home run), two offseason under-the-radar free-agent signings by general manager Neal Huntington; Byrd, the astute late-season pickup from the Mets acquired to fill a hole in right field; and then veteran Jason Grilli, the guy trusted as the closer despite having only five career saves beforehand, who finished it off in the ninth. This team is built around likely National League MVP Andrew McCutchen, but Huntington's deals (last year's closer Joel Hanrahan was traded for setup man Mark Melancon) added the depth the Pirates teams of the past two years lacked.

After the game, Martin had a grin as wide as the Allegheny as he was interviewed on TV. He looked around the ballpark and said, "Hopefully we can keep this atmosphere late into October."

The Pirates have been the story of the year in baseball. It gets to continue, at least for a few more games, and hopefully for more than a few more games. On to St. Louis, the next step in the long haul to the World Series.

Reds-Pirates: What to watch for

October, 1, 2013
Whether or not you like the one-and-done format of the wild-card game, it does present a great opportunity to second guess everything the managers do, from roster management to pitching changes, bunts and, of course, when to use your closer.

Tim Kurkjian has five key questions for the game, but here some other key components on how this game may play out.
  • Obviously, to a large degree the outcome rests on the starting pitchers, even knowing quick hooks are in order. The Reds' three best hitters are Joey Votto, Shin-Soo Choo and Jay Bruce, all left-handed, so that's why Clint Hurdle is going with Francisco Liriano, who held lefties to a .131/.175/.146 batting line. He allowed just two extra-base hits to left-handers, both doubles. Liriano had one blow-up 10-run start against the Rockies, but he's been very consistent all season. He had just one other start where he allowed more than four runs -- and that was against the Reds. Still, to beat Liriano, it's likely the Reds' right-handed batters that will have to do some damage.
  • Meanwhile, Mat Latos was the likely starter for the Reds until he admitted he had pain in his elbow, diagnosed as bone chips. So Johnny Cueto draws the start. He's made just two starts since missing three months with an oblique strain, similar to the injury that knocked him out of Game 1 of last year's Division Series. He pitched well in those two starts, but they came against the Astros and Mets, so it's hard to read too much into those. While he's made just 11 starts this season, don't forget how good this guy has been: 2.61 ERA over the past three seasons. Cueto throws a fastball, slider and cutter, but his big pitch is a changeup that induces a lot of groundballs. Over the past two seasons, batters are hitting just .217 against the changeup (and .097 in 2013 in 62 at-bats). He threw 99 pitches his last start, so he's ready to go as deep as Dusty Baker needs.
  • This is going to be an armchair manager's dream because there are going to be a ton of potential matchups that could come into play. For Hurdle, he's gone with a nine-man pitching staff. Gerrit Cole is the long man/extra-inning guy, with lefties Justin Wilson and Tony Watson available to face the Choo/Votto/Bruce section of the lineup. Wilson and Watson can both get righties out, so Hurdle doesn't have to treat them as LOOGYs. The right-handers are Mark Melancon and Jason Grilli, plus Vin Mazzaro, Bryan Morris and Jeanmar Gomez. Basically, assuming Liriano goes even just five innings, Hurdle should be able to get the matchups he wants in the late innings, as Baker doesn't really have many pinch-hitting/platoon options on his bench.
  • You could argue that Chris Heisey should be in the starting lineup over Choo, who hit .215 with no home runs against lefties. He did post a .347 OBP, but part of that was HBP-induced (he was hit by a league-leading 26 pitches) and Liriano didn't hit a batter. I realize Baker isn't going to suddenly change, but the numbers say this is a bad matchup for Choo.
  • The Reds are carrying four left-handers in the bullpen -- Aroldis Chapman, Sean Marshall, Manny Parra and Zach Duke -- and 10 pitchers overall (Mike Leake is the long man/extra-inning guy). The extra lefties give Baker the ability to match up with Pedro Alvarez, Justin Morneau and Garrett Jones, all of whom have big platoon splits. Alvarez and Morneau will start with Jones coming off the bench. But Baker has to be worry about getting too cute here. Hurdle won't hit for Alvarez, but Gaby Sanchez is a platoon bat for Morneau and Jose Tabata is another right-handed bat. Keep in mind the Pirates are carrying an extra position player -- they have three catchers in Russell Martin, John Buck and Tony Sanchez -- so Hurdle has a deeper and more usable bench.
  • As home team, the Pirates have an advantage in using the closer in a tie game. If Baker waits to save Chapman for a save situation, he may never get him in the game. Of course, this doesn't have to be an advantage for the Pirates. Baker doesn't have to wait use Chapman until the Reds take the lead. Look at what happened to the Braves last year: Craig Kimbrel had maybe the greatest closer season of all time but didn't get in the game until it was already 6-3 in the ninth. In the meantime, the Cardinals scored two runs in the seventh inning (some shoddy defense hurt, but Kimbrel could have been used to potentially get out of the inning).
  • Billy Hamilton versus Martin. The rookie speedster is on the roster. Martin threw out 40 percent of base stealers.

Prediction: Liriano is tough, the Pirates have the ability to counteract Baker's moves, the bullpen does the job and Chapman doesn't make an impact. Pirates 4, Reds 2. (And I didn't even mention Andrew McCutchen!)

Keys to watch for in Reds-Pirates series

September, 20, 2013
The NL Central is the nexus of competitive baseball in the National League. Two of the Central's heavyweights, the Cincinnati Reds and Pittsburgh Pirates, will match up against each other over the weekend. With nine games left in the season, the Pirates trail the first-place Cardinals by a game and the Reds trail by two, so this series has a litany of postseason implications.

If the Reds, who have been stuck in third place since late June, should happen to sweep the Pirates, could they also jump ahead of the Cardinals? If the Pirates sweep the Reds, could they finish in first place for the first time since 1992? To quote Terrell Owens, "Get your popcorn ready." As you prepare for a fun weekend of pennant-race baseball, here are some keys you should be paying attention to in the Reds-Pirates series.

1. Billy Hamilton. The 23-year-old speedster has made waves throughout his minor league career, racking up 395 stolen bases in 479 attempts since 2009. Between Single-A Bakersfield and Double-A Pensacola last year, Hamilton hit .311 with a .410 on-base percentage. Those numbers dropped this year in his first stint with Triple-A Louisville, but that didn't prevent the Reds from giving him a taste of the big leagues, calling him up at the beginning of September. He made his first start on Wednesday against the Astros, going 3-for-4 with a double, two walks and four stolen bases. Otherwise, the Reds have mostly been using him as a pinch runner. Hamilton is a 9-for-9 stealing bases overall. Hamilton's speed could make the difference in a close game. Pirates catchers have thrown out runners at the third-highest rate in the National League this year at 33 percent, trailing only the Cardinals and Dodgers.

2. Andrew McCutchen. He has a strong case for the National League MVP award, sitting on a .325/.408/.520 line with 27 stolen bases and plus defense in center field. Players like Starling Marte and Russell Martin have been huge for the Pirates, but the Bucs have gone as McCutchen has gone. It will be up to Reds manager Dusty Baker and his pitching staff to neutralize the 26-year-old throughout the series.

3. The Reds' on-base machines. Joey Votto and Shin-Soo Choo have on-base percentages north of .425, which would make them the first teammates to accomplish the feat since Todd Helton and Larry Walker in 2001. Votto, at .433, has had an MVP-caliber season, leading the league in walks and OBP while hitting .307 with 23 home runs. As much as people have lauded Brandon Phillips and Jay Bruce for the Reds' success, the primary credit should go to Votto and Choo. If the Reds are able to score a bunch of runs against the Pirates, it will be because Votto and Choo continue to get on base. The Pirates will attempt to neutralize them by starting lefties Francisco Liriano and Jeff Locke in the series. Votto hits .262 against left-handers, while Choo is hitting .207 with no home runs.

4. Pirates' defensive shifts. Recently, Travis Sawchik of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review published a fantastic article detailing the ways in which the Pirates have succeeded since adopting a more modern view of defense. Thanks to Baseball Prospectus alum Dan Fox and his use of historical batted-ball data, the Pirates changed their approach to defense and began repositioning their players based on a number of factors. According to Sawchik, the Pirates have shifted their infield well over 400 times this season compared to 105 last year and 87 times in 2011. Will it matter against the Reds, who lead the league in walks but rank eighth in batting average?

5. Homer Bailey. Last month, Chad Dotson wrote about how Bailey has turned into an ace for the Reds. The right-hander has had two no-hitters within the span of one year (September 2012 and July this year). Dotson pointed out that Bailey has added velocity to his fastball, which has improved his strikeout rate, and has mastered a split-fingered fastball that has improved his ground ball rate. Bailey is slated to go up against Pirates veteran A.J. Burnett on Saturday.

6. Francisco Liriano. Liriano has been a great find for the Pirates, rebounding from an ERA north of 5.00 in each of the past two seasons to 2.92 this year. As good as he has been, though, he is prone to a blow-up every now and then. On Sept. 4, he allowed seven runs in three innings against the lowly Brewers. On Aug. 24, the Giants tagged him for four runs in four innings. At Coors Field on Aug. 9, Liriano was charged with 10 runs while recording just seven outs. Overall, Liriano has averaged exactly a strikeout per inning pitched while drastically lowering his walk rate. If the Pirates get the good Liriano on Friday night against Mat Latos, they will be in good shape.

Bill Baer is a regular contributor to the SweetSpot blog.
It's remarkable how some narratives take on a life of their own.

For the past few years, Joey Votto has been the Reds' best player by almost every objective measure. (He even has an MVP to show for it.) But because his RBI totals have remained relatively low for someone with the reputation of a middle-of-the-order slugger, there is a sentiment out there that Votto is too passive. (This is a sentiment that is perpetuated by Votto's own manager.)

This narrative is silly for reasons I'll explain in a moment, which is why it was refreshing to see him hit a game-changing two-run homer off J.P. Howell in the fifth inning on Friday that would provide the tying and winning run in a 3-2 Cincinnati win against the Dodgers.

It was vintage Votto. He's one of the few left-handed hitters who is adept against lefties (career .883 OPS), and he deposited a pitch on the outer half to the opposite field, but increased his RBI total to only 66 in the process.

So why does he have so few RBIs? Well, it's no secret he's not afraid to take a walk, and after taking two free passes on Friday he now has a league-leading 113 on the season. That's just the type of hitter he is. He knows that teams will pitch him carefully when runners are on base, and he's not going to give up an out. As a result, he has 40 walks when he comes to the plate with runners in scoring position, which is the most in MLB. (He's also hitting .294 in such situations, which isn't so bad.)

Sure, he could be more aggressive with men on base, but the end result would be more outs and (likely) fewer runs. And per Baseball Reference, Votto has a career line of .308/.430/.532 in situations defined as "late and close," so it's not as if you can even tie yourself in knots making a "Votto's not clutch" argument.

Votto had been in a bit of a slump of late, as he's hitting just .254 since the All-Star break -- albeit with a .404 OBP -- so his teammates and manager must have been thrilled to get a hit of any kind.

Of course, part of what makes Votto so effective is that he's productive on offense even when he isn't hitting, and no one should try to change that. And hopefully he can hit a few more homers like this one over the next few weeks and put this silly "passive" narrative to rest for good.

Some quick thoughts on the most important results and plays of the day, and a look forward to Thursday.

Key at-bat of the day: Well, besides Matt Adams' two extra-inning home runs for the Cardinals, how about this one: Mariano Rivera versus Alejando De Aza ... in the eighth inning. It was the first time Joe Girardi had summoned Rivera in the eighth inning since Sept. 27, 2011 -- and that was just to get Rivera some work in before the postseason. His last four-out save came in July of 2011 (his only one that season). But with the Yankees desperately crawling back into the wild-card crawl, desperate measures are needed. The White Sox had scored four runs to cut the Yankees' lead to 6-5, and they had two on and two outs. Rivera struck out De Aza -- with the help of two generous strike calls from home-plate ump Tim Welke, including a called third strike zone on a pitch low and away off the plate. Rivera cruised through the ninth and the Yankees managed to stay even at 2.5 games behind the Rays.

Pitching performance of the day: Yu Darvish ... in a bad way. Darvish gave up five hits, two home runs, five runs and six walks in an 11-4 loss to the A's, putting the two teams back in a tie for first. Via the Game Score tabulation method, it was Darvish's worst start of 2013.

Most important win: A's beating Darvish. Brandon Moss got the A's started with a two-run homer, Daric Barton hit a big two-run shot off Darvish in the sixth and then scorching hot Coco Crisp hit his 18th -- and eighth in 14 games. Jarrod Parker was very good again

Most important loss: Baltimore's 6-4 loss to Cleveland, dropping the Orioles behind the Indians in the wild-card race and 4 games behind the Rays. Buck Showalter took a chance on starting Zach Britton, wanting to give his starters an extra day of rest, but it backfired as Britton didn't get out of the third. I called it a questionable choice in this space last night as it seemed like a low percentage of working of out based on Britton's recent Triple-A performances (one good start, mostly mediocre).

Awards watch: Girardi seems to be pulling all the right moves these days. Manager of the Year?

Thursday's best pitching matchup: Jake Peavy versus Ivan Nova (Red Sox at Yankees, 7:05 p.m. ET). It's a light schedule and the Yankees kick off their big four-game series with their hottest pitcher. In his past 10 starts, Nova is 6-2 with a 2.06 ERA and just three home runs allowed. Peavy is 3-1 with a 3.18 in his six starts with Boston, allowing two runs or fewer in five of them. With both pitchers on a roll, should be a tight, low-scoring game.

Player to watch: Joey Votto is coming off an 0-for-7 effort in the Reds' 16-inning loss to the Cardinals and is hitting just .245 since the beginning of August. He's still drawing his walks (.404 OBP in that span), but as the superstar hitter in the middle of the lineup, a few more hits to go with the walks would be nice.

Despite RBI total, Votto is MVP candidate

August, 16, 2013
The appreciation of objective analysis in baseball has never been higher. Most clubs have an analytics department, or have at least added a couple of math whizzes who know the ins and outs of baseball stats to their payrolls. The Baseball Writers Association continues to get more statistically savvy writers in its membership. Wins Above Replacement and Win Percent Added are two of a handful of sabermetric stats regularly cited during live broadcasts and recap shows such as "Baseball Tonight."

As far as we have come, we still have a long way to go. Here is why -- and I need your participation. Without cheating, name the two best hitters in baseball dating back to 2009 going by weighted on-base average (minimum 1,000 plate appearances). No. 1 is quite easy, as Miguel Cabrera won the Triple Crown last year and is having an even better season in 2013.

The second-best hitter over the past five years, however, may be more of a surprise: Joey Votto. In fact, it's not even close -- Cabrera and Votto have been in a league of their own. Cabrera has posted a .431 wOBA, Votto .420, Mike Trout ranks third at .405, and Ryan Braun fourth at .402.

[+] EnlargeJoey Votto
Mike McGinnis/Getty ImagesJoey Votto helps the Reds score runs even if he's not driving them in.
How is it that Votto has been so good and so underrated? The answer is many people still rely on runs batted in as the primary gauge of offensive success. This is true even in Cincinnati, where Reds broadcaster Marty Brennaman has made a habit of disparaging the first baseman. Earlier this season, Brennaman said of Votto, "He's not paid to walk. ... He's paid to drive in runs." Later, he said "Saber people get all worked up" over walks.

Votto is currently sitting on 57 RBIs after his go-ahead home run in Thursday's 2-1 win over the Brewers. That ranks tied for 54th out of 148 qualified hitters -- and half of Cabrera's 115. For someone hitting .320/.434/.511, one would certainly expect more RBIs, especially when you look at his teammate Brandon Phillips with 89 and a .259/.308/.404 slash line. There are three factors influencing Votto and Phillips' disparate RBI totals:
  • Zack Cozart: For most of the season, Cozart was hitting second in front of Votto. Cozart has a .272 on-base percentage, meaning he rarely got on base in front of Votto.
  • Votto's walk rate: It's true that Votto walks a lot, and that's a fantastic thing. Walks aren't as sexy as home runs or doubles, but they always help. Votto has walked in nearly 17 percent of his plate appearances this season (he has the highest walk rate in the majors). However, because a walk does not produce a ball put in play, the opportunity for other runners to advance other than by force is lost. So Votto isn't taking advantage of leadoff man Shin-Soo Choo's .411 on-base percentage the way ...
  • ... Phillips is taking advantage of Choo's OBP and Votto's OBP. Phillips has batted with 382 runners on base -- the second most in the majors. Votto has batted with 325 runners on base (13th). However, Votto's walks and Phillips' aggressiveness means Phillips puts more balls in play -- 79 percent of his plate appearances to Votto's 64 percent. Putting the ball in play is good in theory, but remember that an elite hitter gets a hit in only three out of every 10 at-bats. While putting the ball in play is conducive toward padding that RBI total, Phillips' frequency of making outs has hurt the Reds' ability to score runs. Going by wOBA, the gap between Votto (.406) and Phillips (.307) represents about 45 runs created over 600 plate appearances.

Given the wealth of information at our disposal, there is absolutely no reason anyone should still be using the RBI stat as part of any semi-serious analysis. In most cases, it paints an unclear picture, but in the case of Votto, it is wildly misleading -- the "Dewey defeats Truman" of baseball statistics, if you will. (Votto, by the way, is hitting .308 with runners in scoring position and .298 with runners on base.)

Votto is leading the National League in on-base percentage for the fourth consecutive year. Since 2000, the only players with more .300/.400/.500 or better seasons are Albert Pujols, Manny Ramirez, Chipper Jones, Todd Helton, Cabrera, Lance Berkman and Barry Bonds. By FanGraphs WAR, the only players more valuable to their teams than Votto since 2009 are Cabrera and Evan Longoria. By focusing on RBIs, Votto's generationally great offensive skills are going unnoticed and unappreciated.

Saberists celebrated when Felix Hernandez went home with the American League Cy Young Award in 2010 -- because he had posted a 13-12 record. Since the inception of the award in 1956, it was unheard of for a pitcher to win the award without crossing the 20-win threshold or otherwise having a hefty win-loss differential and a great ERA. Not only did Hernandez win in 2010, he took home 21 of 28 first-place votes. It was only five years prior when Bartolo Colon, then of the Angels, won the award despite a 3.48 ERA (compared to third-place Johan Santana's 2.87) because he had a 21-8 record.

Just as baseball fans and pundits weaned themselves off of the pitcher win-loss record, they must now wean themselves off a hitter's RBI total. The stat is often more reflective of the players around a particular hitter than that particular hitter himself. If it happens in the next few months, perhaps Votto -- debatably deserving -- will wind up with the NL MVP and become the Felix Hernandez of RBIs.
Eric Karabell and myself once again pinch-hit on the Baseball Tonight podcast and we had much fun talking about the great Yu Darvish, the AL Cy Young race, A.J. Pierzynski's ejection, Miguel Cabrera, Joey Votto's RBI total compared to Brandon Phillips' RBI total and, of course, Nick Punto!

Wins still matter. Well, of course wins matter, you know that. That's why we play the game. I mean wins for pitchers still matter in things such as Cy Young or MVP votings.

Which gets us to Clayton Kershaw.

With about 50 games remaining, the National League MVP race is as wide open as we've seen in years. Andrew McCutchen may be the favorite right now, but he's not an on-paper landslide candidate just yet as he's on pace to drive in fewer than 100 runs (MVP voters love RBIs) and voters often overlook defensive value. Yadier Molina was a strong candidate until his recent knee injury. Joey Votto has the sabermetric numbers but not the RBIs. Paul Goldschmidt has the RBIs but the Diamondbacks may not make the playoffs. Carlos Gomez may have been the best all-around player in the league so far but players from losing teams rarely win MVP awards (the last one was Alex Rodriguez in 2003).
[+] EnlargeClayton Kershaw
Jeff Curry/Getty ImagesTake a pitcher seriously as an MVP candidate? In Clayton Kershaw's case, absolutely.

So, Kershaw. Only one starting pitcher in the past 25 years has won the MVP award, Justin Verlander in 2011, and he won 24 games. As dominant as Kershaw has been with that fancy 1.91 ERA, he has only 10 wins. Not his fault, of course. On Tuesday, he pitched six solid innings against the Cardinals; not a classic Kershaw effort, but he gave up just two runs, leaving in the seventh when Don Mattingly pinch-hit for him with a runner on first base and one out, removing Kershaw after just 90 pitches. I thought it was an inning early to hit for him; Kershaw was working on five days of rest, he'd thrown just 97 pitches his previous start, the Dodgers were down just one run, and it wasn't really that high leverage of a scoring situation. Anyway, Kershaw left trailing 2-1 and ended up with the loss as the Cardinals won 5-1.

That's now seven games this year in which Kershaw has allowed two runs or fewer and not earned a win. He has no wins in any starts in which he has allowed three or more runs. Compare that to, say, Detroit's Max Scherzer, who has five wins when allowing three or more runs.

Anyway, my argument is this: Ignore Kershaw's 10-8 record. He not only should be the Cy Young favorite right now, he should also be in the MVP discussion.

His chances, however, are probably slim. As we break down the NL MVP race, consider the different types of MVP winners.

The RBI Guy
Recent examples: Ryan Howard, Phillies, 2006; Justin Morneau, Twins 2006.

The first stat column many voters usually turn to is the RBI column. It’s why leadoff hitters or No. 2 hitters rarely win the award. Even more than his Triple Crown, it’s why Miguel Cabrera beat out Mike Trout last year. Even though the stat is team- and lineup-dependent, the RBI altar is still a popular place to worship.

Howard led the NL with 149 RBIs and, even though the Phillies missed the playoffs, he beat out Albert Pujols of the division-winning Cardinals with 20 first-place votes to Pujols' 12. Pujols beat out Howard in Wins Above Replacement, 8.5 to 5.2. Howard also led the NL in RBIs in 2008 and 2009 and finished second and third, respectively, in the voting.

Morneau finished second in the AL in RBIs but was named MVP even though he ranked just 23rd among AL position players in WAR. Teammate Joe Mauer was more valuable but had fewer RBIs.

Helps/hurt: This is the big advantage for Goldschmidt. He leads the NL in RBIs with 27 more than McCutchen, 35 more than Molina and 37 more than Votto.

The Best Player On a Team That Made the Playoffs Guy
Recent examples: Joey Votto, Reds, 2010; Ryan Braun, Brewers, 2011.

Votto and Pujols had basically identical numbers, so it should have at least been a toss-up. But the Reds made the playoffs, the Cardinals didn’t, and Votto collected 31 of 32 first-place votes. Braun beat out Matt Kemp in 2011 because the Brewers made the playoffs and the Dodgers didn’t.

Helps/hurt: Big advantage here for McCutchen, as most of the other leading position player candidates via WAR are on non-contenders: Carlos Gomez, David Wright, Carlos Gonzalez, Buster Posey. Plus, the Pirates are a surprise playoff team, which is kind of like earning extra credit.

The Out-of-Nowhere Surprise Guy
Recent example: Dustin Pedroia, Red Sox, 2008; Ichiro Suzuki, Mariners, 2001.


Predict: Who will win the NL MVP Award?


Discuss (Total votes: 4,854)

The voters love this kind of player, especially if he’s small and scrappy. Pedroia had won Rookie of the Year honors but certainly nobody would have projected him as an MVP candidate heading into 2008. Pedroia was actually a good choice in a year when no player had statistical dominance, but his surprise season pushed him over the top. Same thing with Ichiro in his rookie year. Teammate Bret Boone was probably the better choice but he couldn’t match Ichiro in surprise factor.

Helps/hurt: This would normally help Gomez, but the not-playing-for-a-playoff-team factor trumps the surprise factor. Hanley Ramirez and Yasiel Puig could be helped here, as everyone figured Ramirez was on the decline and Puig would spend the season in the minors.

The Hot in September Guy
Recent example: Vladimir Guerrero, Angels, 2004.

This is often a decisive factor for voters, who have determined that a win in September counts more than a win in April, and thus helping your team in September is better than helping your team in April. Guerrero ranked sixth among AL position players in WAR but hit .363 with 11 home runs in September and the Angels beat out the A’s by one game to win the West. Gary Sheffield, Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz were 2-3-4 in the voting with similar offensive numbers but the Yankees and Red Sox cruised into the playoffs. In an otherwise close MVP race, a big September can push a player over the top (see also: Chipper Jones, 1999; Jason Giambi, 2000).

Helps/hurt: To be determined. Keep in mind, however, this only helps guys who are in a tight race. Freddie Freeman could have a monster final two months but it doesn’t really matter because the Braves already have a huge lead in the NL East.

The Momentum Guy
Recent example: Justin Verlander, Tigers, 2011.

This is when groupthink starts to develop and that player rolls to the MVP award. Verlander went 24-5 with a 2.40 ERA and became the first starting pitcher since Roger Clemens in 1986 to win the MVP. Baseball-Reference.com values him at 8.4 WAR; a great season, no doubt. But B-R rates 28 other pitcher-seasons at 8.5 WAR or better since 1987, and none of those guys won MVP awards. Only one of them (Randy Johnson in 2002) won 24 games, and he finished seventh in the voting. Behind the RBI guys. It's hard for a pitcher to get that momentum vote, but it happened with Verlander.

Helps/hurt: Kershaw isn’t going to win 20 games, let alone 24. If I had to predict, McCutchen will probably be the momentum guy. Everyone loves the Pirates' story and that will help McCutchen. But if Ramirez or Puig keep going -- despite missing two months -- they could be sneaky candidates.

The We Can’t Give the Damn Thing to Willie Mays Every Year Guy
(Also applied in various eras to Mickey Mantle, Barry Bonds and Albert Pujols.)

Recent example: Jimmy Rollins, Phillies, 2007.

Rollins did have an excellent season at 6.0 WAR, but he also led the NL in outs made, which is a pretty amazing feat for an MVP.

Helps/hurt: Votto is the guy who has won before, but since he’s having just another Joey Votto year, he's probably a long shot.

The Glue Guy
Recent example: Buster Posey, Giants, 2012.

This is a guy with something that goes beyond the stats: leadership, toughness, recovery from horrific injury, you name it. The all-time glue guy MVP was probably Kirk Gibson of the Dodgers in 1988.

Helps/hurt: Definitely Molina, although he needs to get healthy soon and back in the lineup.

The Best Player in the League Guy
Recent example: Mike Trout, Angels, 2012.

Oh, wait ...

Helps/hurt: This may be the strongest argument for Kershaw. Who is the best player in the National League? The one guy you would build a team around for 2013? I believe that's Mr. Kershaw. And that's the MVP.

(Tip to DJ Gallo for the idea.)

Tristan Cockcroft joins me to discuss the wide-open NL MVP race. Starting pitchers rarely win but is Clayton Kershaw a strong candidate?
From Buster Olney's blog today:
Albert Pujols is likely out for the year, given the amount of time he will miss. From ESPN Stats & Information, the most money owed to a player based on where deals will be at the start of the 2014 season:

Joey Votto: $225M (signed through 2023)
Albert Pujols: $212M (2021)
Prince Fielder: $168M (2020)
Buster Posey: $164M (2021)
Justin Verlander: $160M (2019)

Pujols' salary takes a sizable increase next year -- from $16 million to $23 million, with $1 million annual raises from there until 2021, when he'll be making $30 million at the age of 41. Pujols' value, meanwhile, is trending in the opposite direction:

2009: 9.7 WAR
2010: 7.5 WAR
2011: 5.4 WAR
2012: 5.0 WAR
2013: 1.4 WAR

As mediocre as he's been this year -- .258/.330/.437 -- it doesn't mean he can't reverse course next year. He was still pretty effective in 2012 and no doubt has been affected by his foot problems all season. Keep in mind that David Ortiz hit .257/.356/.498 from ages 32 to 34 but has hit .317/.407/.584 over the past three seasons. I would suggest a Pujols renaissance isn't an impossibility (not that I'd bet on it happening to the extent of Ortiz's improvement).

Still, it seems pretty clear the Angels aren't going to extract anything close to $212 million of value from Pujols over the next eight seasons. It doesn't mean the contract will cripple the Angels' future -- it's just too difficult to look that far into the future. And the biggest problem with the Angels right now isn't the money they paid Pujols and Josh Hamilton in 2013 but their production.

You do wonder, however, if there will be ripple effect from the Pujols deal and the similarly bad Alex Rodriguez contract signed after 2007. The Reds may be enjoying Joey Votto's production right now, but he's making $17 million this year, $12 million next year, $14 million in 2015 and then $20 to $25 million from 2016 to 2023 -- when he'll be 39.

Prince Fielder is on the list above and he's not having a Prince Fielder season. Once you look past the 75 RBIs (it helps hitting behind Miguel Cabrera!), he's hitting .261/.353/.440, far below his career line of .284/.389/.529, and numbers unacceptable for a guy who brings no value in the field or on the bases. He's hitting .249/.332/.395 since May 1; maybe it's just a three-month slump or maybe it's the beginning of something more ominous.

Maybe the moral of the story is to be careful about signing players on the left end of the defensive spectrum. Maybe there is no lesson to be learned here and teams will continue to offer contracts to players that run well past their prime years. Impending free agent Robinson Cano is one of the best players in baseball right now at age 30. Will he still be one of the best in three years? Five years? Eight years? Does it even matter if he can help you win in 2014 and 2015?

ESPN Insider Dan Szymborski reports that each Win Above Replacement is currently worth about $4.9 million on the open market. Assuming 4 percent inflation, Dan estimates Cano will be worth $181 million over the next eight seasons, using projected WAR totals from his ZiPS projection system. Considering Dustin Pedroia just signed a $100 million extension, that total seems reasonable with $200 not out of the realm of possibility.

Whether he returns to the Yankees or goes to the Dodgers or some other deep-pocketed team, everyone will undoubtedly be delightfully happy the day Cano signs. Of course they will be. Angels owner Arte Moreno was the day Pujols signed: "This is a monumental day for Angel fans and I could not be more excited."