Still early in his tenure as a major league manager, Bryan Price has demonstrated an open-minded approach toward lineup construction that clearly separates him from his predecessor. Whether Price’s motivation has been a genuine interest in modern, optimal lineup production or flat out desperation, it’s hard to know, although we can hope it’s more the former.
Price was willing to cross the streams and let Joey Votto and Jay Bruce hit back-to-back. He gets it that maximizing the first three trips through the lineup is more important than setting up hypothetical match-ups in the last couple innings.
The most telling indication of a new day in Reds batting order philosophy came with Price’s decision to move Votto out of his long-held #3 spot up to #2, a position long a desolate wasteland under Dusty Baker. This move showed the Reds’ new manager rejects the old-fashioned concept that the #2 batter be chosen for how he can help the #1 batter – by bunting, hitting the other way etc. – and instead should be selected based on being a good hitter in his own right. Price reinforced this thinking by his subsequent decision to bat Todd Frazier second after Votto went on the DL.
Finally, by promoting Devin Mesoraco from #8 to #3, Byran Price has shown a willingness to prioritize hot bats and match-ups over veteran status and the comfort of everyday sameness.
These developments are promising. Bryan Price’s lineups aren’t perfect, there is room to pick nits with any batting order. But Price’s flexibility and judgment have – on balance – been strongly positive. Yet Bryan Price needs to make one more major move that would solidify the Reds batting order not only for 2014, but going forward.
When Joey Votto returns from his quad strain, Bryan Price should immediately install him as the team’s new leadoff hitter, batting ahead of Todd Frazier, Jay Bruce and Devin Mesoraco.
[I’d prefer this column and related comments not become sidetracked in another rehashed debate about Billy Hamilton or his potential. Not that Hamilton isn't an important topic. But that discussion has and will take place elsewhere. Moving Votto to the lead-off spot would make sense if Brandon Phillips, Skip Schumaker, Zack Cozart, Chris Heisey, Todd Frazier or, yes, Billy Hamilton, were batting there now.]
Joey Votto’s numbers with respect to plate discipline, pitch selection and a high on base percentage are well documented. Batting him first would take advantage of what he does best, which is getting on base. Votto has led the National League on OBP the last four seasons, dating back to 2010. The Reds would start every trip through the lineup with a hitter who gets on base more than 40 percent of the time.
And Joey Votto would bring power to the top of the lineup. While his home run numbers have fallen from 2010, his power is still a significant asset. Votto hit 24 home runs in 2013, good for tenth best in the NL. He was on pace for that before his quad injury this season.
You might ask if Joey Votto has too much power to lead off. Well, no one would confuse Votto with Willy Taveras or Ben Revere. Most Reds fans rightly think of Pete Rose as the paradigmatic leadoff hitter. Joey Votto isn’t quite the same kind of hitter as Rose, but the 2013-2014 Votto is not altogether different, either.
Or consider a slightly different template – Ricky Henderson. From the ten-year period of 1984 to 1993, Henderson’s average ISO was .176. That’s in the ballpark of Votto’s 2013 and 2014 ISO (.189).
[ISO is a simple measure of a hitter’s ability to hit for extra bases. To calculate a player’s ISO, you just subtract his batting average from his slugging percentage. It measures the player’s extra bases per at bat. Average ISO in the NL is 141.]
Did Shin-Soo Choo have too much power to lead off (2013 ISO .178)? If you’re going to make the argument that Votto has too much power to bat first, ask yourself if you ever said that about Choo last year. Joey Votto leading off would be extremely similar to Shin-Soo Choo,only without Choo’s painful split against LHP.
It’s not like the Reds pitchers never get on base. The combined OBP of the five starters is .171. Add in at least one AB per game for a pinch hitter at #9 and the leadoff hitter has ample opportunity to drive in runs. So power isn’t wasted in the #1 spot. And remember, power is no longer Votto’s best attribute.
And that’s OK. With the emergence of Todd Frazier and Devin Mesoraco as capable power-hitters, plus Jay Bruce, the Reds three legitimate big-time bats to anchor the middle of the lineup. Ideally, I’d go with: Votto, Frazier, Bruce and Mesoraco as the top four.
This move would finally recognize the reality of the hitter that Votto has become. Moving him from batting third to second was a step in this direction, but not enough. The Joey Votto of 2010, for better or worse, is no longer walking through that clubhouse door. Instead of lamenting the past, the Reds should convert him into an elite, historic leadoff hitter.
I realize that if you fall into one of these categories – you’ve given up on the Reds in 2014 and no longer care how many runs they score; or you’ve decided that Joey Votto’s quad strain represents an unprecedented baseball death sentence; or if you have pictures and newspaper headlines of Billy Hamilton taped to your bedroom wall – then you probably resisted most of the reasoning in this post. That’s certainly your right, thanks for reading.
Anyhow, that’s the case for batting Joey Votto first. It’s straightforward, almost obvious. Put the Reds’ best hitter in the spot where he bats the most often. Maximize Votto’s strongest qualities and therefore his value to the team. Get the leadoff hitter on base.