Baseball's elite hitters are a step above the crowd, in part, because they rarely if ever "give away" at-bats. Quick wrists, hand-eye coordination and patience are valuable attributes, but so is the discipline to lay off the borderline pitch and approach each plate appearance with the same machine-like intensity as the one before it and the 300 or 400 still to come.
Cincinnati first baseman Joey Votto has an obsession with maximizing the hitting experience and cranking the volume to "11" each time he steps in the box. And if he ever strays from that mission, the words of a baseball sage drift into his subconscious and keep him on the right path.
Votto has committed large chunks of Ted Williams' book "The Science of Hitting" to memory and frequently been mentioned in the same breath with Larry Walker as an accomplished hitter with Canadian roots. But his baseball muse is a hard-charging, Ray Fosse-steamrolling, Prince Valiant-haircut-wearing, malapropism-dropping, autograph-hawking pariah with a tenacious approach from both sides of the plate.
Several years ago, Votto was standing in the on-deck circle at Great American Ball Park while Pete Rose was watching from a box seat. The two men struck up a conversation, and the Hit King passed along a few pearls of wisdom that resonated. Among other things, he told Votto that it's no sin to reach for the last cookie in the jar. Rose would never have amassed 4,256 hits if he didn't have a touch of the greed-monger in him.
"Early in my career, Pete kept an eye on me," Votto said, "and the one piece of advice he gave me was, 'When you get the second hit, get the third hit. And when you get the third hit, get the fourth hit. And when you get the fourth hit, get the fifth hit.' That really stuck with me, because it's a genuine challenge when you're tired, or you're sick, or the score is mismatched, or you're facing a tough pitcher, or you're not in a good mood that day. Whatever it is.
"What I took away from Pete's advice is, 'You're playing for yourself. You're competing for your team. You're doing the best you can every day to get the most out of your abilities.' So when I have that at-bat when the score is 10-0, yeah, I usually check in with myself and make sure I'm in a prime place to hit and I'm ready to go and I'm not about to give away this at-bat. I'll take my time before the at-bat or call timeout so there's no excuses and nothing I can look back and regret."
Votto doesn't harbor many regrets -- or much compassion, for that matter. Since finishing second to Cubs catcher Geovany Soto in the National League Rookie of the Year balloting in 2008, he's pocketed an MVP award, made three All-Star teams and been enriched beyond his dreams with a 10-year, $225 million contract extension that will keep him with the team through 2023.
Votto has left behind a trail of demoralized pitchers and swollen ERAs along the way. This year, he's back and as formidable as ever, with a fully healed knee, a comfortable stroke and a new pal riding shotgun.
The Reds rank second in the league in runs to Colorado even though they lost cleanup hitter Ryan Ludwick to a shoulder injury in April, their catchers are batting a combined .183 and third baseman Todd Frazier and shortstop Zack Cozart are both off to slow starts offensively. They're thriving because center fielder Shin-Soo Choo and Votto are getting on base at a ridiculous clip in the first and third spots in the batting order, and Brandon Phillips and Jay Bruce are living it up in RBI heaven.
Entering Wednesday's matinee with the Mets at Citi Field, Votto was hitting .353 with a .477 on-base percentage. Then come Miguel Cabrera and Choo at .455. The Cincinnati teammates have spent enough time standing on first and second base that they can use it as a P.O. Box.
At their current pace, Votto and Choo will both reach base more than 300 times each this season. If they pull it off, they will join Derek Jeter and Bernie Williams of the 1999 Yankees and Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell of the 1997 Astros as the only teammates to achieve the feat since Hank Greenberg and Charlie Gehringer did it for Detroit in 1937. The concept of making every at-bat count has often been ascribed to Rose, Tony Gwynn, Wade Boggs, Rod Carew and other serial batting champions. "That's what the good hitters do," said Reds manager Dusty Baker. "This didn't just start now. Luke Appling told me that 30-something years ago [with the Braves]."
In terms of his approach, Votto is distinguished by his ability to judge himself by his own internal metrics rather than the commonly accepted measures of success. For decades, the RBI was the holy grail for the middle-of-the-order "run producer," and it was customary for sluggers to expand their zones and do everything in their power to get that runner home. Andre Dawson is one of only four players in history with at least 400 homers and 300 stolen bases, but he languished on the Hall of Fame ballot for nine years in large part because of a .323 on-base percentage. Like many sluggers of his era, Dawson justified his paucity of walks with the explanation that it wasn't part of his job description.
Just for fun, we did an Internet search, and George Bell, Pedro Guerrero, Ken Griffey Jr., Adam Dunn, Greg Vaughn, Matt Williams, Jose Canseco and Albert Pujols are among the hitters through the years who have uttered the phrase, "I get paid to drive in runs." Joe Morgan once told the story of how he stole home and was lying at home plate, and teammate Tony Perez admonished him: "Don't ever do that again. I get paid to drive in runs. Next time, I'll swing."
Now along comes Votto, who pays zero attention to conventional stats like runs scored and RBIs and focuses strictly on having the most productive at-bats possible in his quest to make life hell on pitchers. Votto doesn't step in the box looking to draw walks, but he does adhere to a standard that many new-school bloggers and statistical types hold dear. In an insightful ESPN the Magazine piece by Buster Olney in March, Votto explained his philosophy and talked about "reframing the challenge."
Votto's ability to execute so efficiently is what places him in a different realm from mere All-Stars. He practices his craft in a place where Cabrera, the St. Louis version of Pujols and a select few others dwell.
"He's such a good hitter," Cozart said. "In spring training, he'll hit a rocket in the 4 hole [between first and second base], and he might be disappointed because that's not what he wanted to do in that at-bat. Maybe he wanted to hit a line drive to left-center, and he got out in front of it a little bit. That's what's so fascinating to me. If I hit a ball hard anywhere and it's a base hit, I'm happy with it. But he's a perfectionist, and that's why he's so good.
"I think he puts himself in a position to be successful more than any player in the league. The crazy part about it is when you talk to Joey, he'll be hitting .320 and he's like, 'Man, I'm searching for it right now.' And I'm thinking, 'You're hitting .320 and getting on base at [a] .470 [clip].' It's pretty scary to think about. Once he starts feeling it and he's confident with his swing, you'll see his power take off. I always tell him he can hit 50 homers, and he just laughs about it."
When Votto hit only four home runs in April, it fueled an Internet debate over whether Baker should bump him from third to second in the Reds' order. Meanwhile, Votto's teammates watch him perform and seem baffled that he takes occasional grief for not hitting more long balls.
"I don't understand why people say he's not doing this or that," Bruce said. "He's [slugged] .600 before. If you're hitting doubles and homers, that's still doing plenty of damage. You don't have to hit 40 or 50 homers to be a power hitter. Being efficient and making the best of your at-bats and taking everything you get is what makes a player good. Joey's good. Brandon Phillips is good. Choo is good. There's not one cookie-cutter way of being good."
Cut from the same cloth
Votto appears to have found a kindred spirit in Choo, who has remained a model of efficiency while learning new pitchers, parks and hitting backgrounds in his first year in the National League. In addition to a keen eye and a compact line drive swing, Choo is oblivious to bumps and bruises. He has already been hit-by-pitch a major-league high 12 times this season, and is on track to obliterate his single-season high of 17 HBPs with Cleveland in 2009.
Choo has used Votto as a major resource in his acclimation to the National League. If he's not picking Votto's brain on the pitcher he's about to face, he's eyeballing Votto's at-bats from the dugout or the basepaths for subtle tips on how to approach different situations.
Once they're in the box, the fellow Reds are similarly methodical with their routines. As Choo explains, he wipes his mind clear and basically hits the "re-set'' button before every pitch.
"I can't tell you my approach for your article, but I have a plan,'' he said with all due politeness.
It always comes back to the Ted Williams mantra of getting a good pitch to hit. Votto swings at the first pitch 29.3 percent of the time, which ranks 62nd out of 171 big league hitters and is well above the MLB average of 26.4 percent. But he and Choo both prefer to linger in the box under the theory that every take, swing and snippet of information collected helps tilt the pendulum in their favor. Choo ranks 20th in the majors with 4.19 pitches per plate appearance, while Votto is 22nd at 4.17.
Their most impressive attribute is the ability to lay off sliders in the dirt, fastballs above the letters and other pitches that most hitters find too tantalizing to ignore and too nasty to put in play with authority. Choo has the fourth lowest "chase rate" in the majors at 16.9 percent, and Votto ranks 13th at 18.6 percent.
As the ESPN Stats & Information folks point out, the average big league hitter chases 27 percent of the pitches he sees outside the strike zone. When you consider that Votto saw about 1,400 pitches per season from 2010-12, he chased about 120 fewer balls out of the zone per year than the typical big leaguer in that span.
On the flip side, Votto's steadfast devotion to selectivity is bound to put a crimp in his homer and RBI totals -- a tradeoff that he's come to accept. He has driven in fewer runs this season (20) than Yuniesky Betancourt, Kelly Johnson and Matt Dominguez, to name only a few.
"My favorite ability in a player is the combination of aggressiveness and patience," Votto said. "I think it's very difficult to have fewer opportunities to have success and still execute. My favorite player was Barry Bonds, and he got so few opportunities.
"If you give a guy 1,000 opportunities and he hits 30 home runs or 500 opportunities and he hits 30 home runs, it's not the same thing. I know. This is what I do for a living, and I know who is better at what I do. What I've seen in Choo this year is the ability to be patient and aggressive and still do damage."
Health and durability factor into the equation, obviously. Votto played in 161 games in 2011 before missing 51 games last year with a knee injury. If there were any doubts that he would return to full strength this season, he's dispelled them by starting 46 straight games out of the chute. The only thing he hates more than a funky swing is a day off.
That desire to be great, to squeeze the most out of his career and treat every at-bat as a potentially life-altering experience, has helped Votto forge a lasting bond with Rose. They've stayed in touch since that first encounter in Cincinnati and routinely exchange texts on hitting. As Rose revealed in a 2011 interview, he is happy to share his insights with Alex Rodriguez, Votto, Bruce or any other hitter who cares enough to listen.
"I'm very fortunate I had that encounter with him," Votto said. "I've looked at his career, and to be honest with you, I can't imagine a player got more out of himself. I can't imagine a player was tougher. We're talking about a guy who averaged 160-162 games even after he was 35 years old. We always talk about guys 'falling off a cliff' nowadays when they're older. Here we're talking about a guy who got better as he aged."
Votto turns 30 in September, and his commitment to his craft has never wavered. His peers might regard him as a great hitter, but he's putting a lot of time, energy and sweat equity into making himself even better. The Hit King would definitely approve.