Tuesday, October 1, 2013

For the Last Time, Joey Votto is NOT The Problem!

Fan Appreciation
Courtesy: Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Cam Neely is a man in full. If you don't know the first thing about hockey, but respond "Cam Neely" to the question of your favorite player, then you'll undoubtedly get a nod of approval from hockey fans while instantly improving your hockey street cred. And, of course, if you don't know Cam Neely for his hockey exploits, then you might know him for his performance as SeaBass in Dumb and Dumber. As I said, a man in full.

In hockey, a player's career is frequently characterized by his ability, or lack thereof, to elevate his play in the postseason. It's a reality that works to the advantage of certain types of players; to the disadvantage of other types. It certainly worked to the advantage of Cam Neely, and the disadvantage of another former Bruin star, Joe Thornton.

Cam Neely was a goal scorer. He was strong like a bull and had a nose for the net. Unfortunately, his career was cut short by a degenerative hip condition and a knee injury, which, late in his career, prevented him from even taking the ice for practice, but somehow he still managed to get out on the ice for games and score goals. It was gutty, gritty, and remarkable.

Neely's game was direct. He was able, through elevated individual effort and sheer force of will, to make a direct impact on the fortunes of his team. Taking things to the extreme, the nature of his game didn't force him to rely on the play of teammates to directly impact the game. The puck went directly from the tape of his stick into the back of the net. Obviously, more goals scored improves the team's goal differential. An improved goal differential improves the team's win/loss record. Direct.

On the other hand, this reality worked to the disadvantage of Joe Thornton.

Joe Thornton isn't Cam Neely. He's spectacular in his own right, but always struggled to get the type of love showered on Neely by the Boston fans. In fact, he was traded right out of town due largely to the team's postseason struggles. Thornton is a premier set-up man, rather than a goal scorer. His game is predicated not on brute strength and determination, but rather on vision, spacing, and feel. His game is indirect. Thornton elevating his game is about making his teammates better. As a result, elevating his game won't have the same impact on the Win/Loss record unless his teammates finish off his work. An assist is a step (or two) removed from the actual goal. The puck goes from the tape of Thornton's stick, to the tape of a teammate's stick, and only then into the back of the net. Thornton is one step removed from the goal and, consequently, the admiration of the fans.

Because of the nature of their respective games, Boston fans appreciated Cam Neely much more than Joe Thornton. Not because one type of player is inherently more valuable than the other, but because the value of "direct" is easier for fans to appreciate than the value of "indirect". Direct is visceral. Indirect is nuanced and contextual. "Indirect" requires a bit more background and knowledge to appreciate. All of which brings us to the Cincinnati Reds, circa 2013.

Joey Votto and Brandon Phillips

This season has seen all kinds of complaints about the Reds ricocheting around the interwebs, ranging from Dusty's roster construction, Joey Votto's disciplined approach, Jonathan Broxton's contract, Aroldis Chapman's workload, and Brook Jacoby's hitting instruction. The noise of those complaints obscures the Reds real problem, one that may come back to haunt them in the postseason, but more on that in a minute. First, we need to do away with the complaint over Joey Votto's disciplined approach.

This season, Joey Votto is a bit more "Joe Thornton" than "Cam Neely". Fan appreciation has fallen accordingly. Brandon Phillips is more "Cam Neely" than "Joe Thornton". Fan appreciation has risen accordingly.

RBIs are the baseball equivalent of hockey goals, while walks are the equivalent of hockey assists. The walks help you get the RBIs, but fans appreciate the RBIs far more than the walks. RBI are direct, while walks are indirect, never mind that it's infinitely more difficult to get RBIs if hitters aren't getting on base for you. The two are clearly interrelated.

Accordingly, it's ABSOLUTELY RIDICULOUS to hear praise being heaped on Brandon Phillips for driving in runs, while in the very same breath scorn heaped on Joey Votto for taking too many walks, because they are essentially flip sides of the same coin. Table-setting and table-clearing. Run creation and run production.

It couldn't be more obvious that the main reason why Brandon Phillips has so many RBIs this year is because Joey Votto (and Shin-Soo Choo) are such disciplined, patient hitters. In 2013, Phillips had 492 runners on base during his plate appearances, which was third most in all of baseball. For the record, Joey Votto had 441 runners on base during his time at bat, 51 fewer than Phillips. Prince Fielder (536) and Jay Bruce (500) were the only two hitters with more runners on base during their plate appearances.

It's mere coincidence that all three of those hitters batted behind either Miguel Cabrera or Joey Votto and Shin-Soo Choo, right? Or, maybe, just maybe we can concede that it's easier to pile up RBI when you have among the most RBI opportunities in all of baseball.

In actuality, Brandon Phillips has been a mediocre hitter this year. The only area where he's excelled is in hitting with runners in scoring position. That said, his situational hitting has been undeniably superb.

2013 Situational Batting Average
None On -- .213
Runners On -- .307
Scoring Position -- .338
Bases Loaded -- .611

Whether that's the result of a conscious decision by Phillips, in response to his move to the clean-up spot, to be a run producer or just a small sample size fluke is debatable. The commonly held belief is that hitters can't elevate their performance in certain situations and that's probably the case. If they could, then why wouldn't they elevate it in all situations? But, maybe Phillips is an exception to the rule.

Regardless of the reason, it can't be argued that Phillips hasn't excelled in driving in runs this year. On some level, he has been the ideal compliment to the high on-base rates of Choo and Votto. In some ways, they are flip sides of the same coin. Together they are more than the sum of their individual parts.

The Real Problem!!

The real problem that has plagued the Reds in 2013, and the one that could well be their undoing against the Pirates in the playoffs, is the utter lack of complimentary offensive production.

On the season, of the hitters who received at least 150 plate appearances, the Reds have only 3 above average hitters. Their names are Votto, Choo, and Bruce. This is a lineup that only has three impact hitters, none of whom hits from the right side. It is a limited and unbalanced offense.

In short, this offense is plagued with inconsistency not because Joey Votto is too disciplined, but because he is 1 of only 3 impact hitters. The problem isn't with the top tier hitters in the lineup, it's that there IS NO second tier.

Weighted Runs Created (wRC) is an attempt to quantify a player's total offensive value and measure it by runs. Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+) measures how a player's wRC compares with league average. League average is 100, every point above 100 is a percentage point above league average.

2013 wRC+ (Players with 150+ PAs)
Joey Votto -- 156
Shin-Soo Choo -- 151
Jay Bruce -- 117

Xavier Paul -- 106
Todd Frazier -- 100
Brandon Phillips -- 91
Chris Heisey -- 89
Derrick Robinson -- 81
Zack Cozart -- 79
Devin Mesoraco -- 74
Jack Hannahan -- 71
Ryan Hanigan -- 53

For comparison sake, here is how we stack up against the Pirates:

2013 wRC+ (Players with 150+ PAs)
Andrew McCutchen -- 155
Starling Marte -- 121
Jose Tabata -- 118
Gaby Sanchez -- 117
Neil Walker -- 114
Jordy Mercer -- 114
Pedro Alvarez -- 111

Russell Martin -- 101
Garrett Jones -- 97
Travis Snider -- 70
Clint Barmes -- 52

Obviously, McCutchen and Votto cancel each other out. While they have no one who compares with Choo, they have much greater depth of production. They are a more diversified offense than we are, which makes for less streakiness in production. The postseason is a crap shoot, but in today's one game playoff it'll come down to our star driven offense against their diversified attack.

For more context, the Red Sox have 11 out of 12 qualifying hitters with wRC+ numbers of 109 or higher. The A's have 7 hitters at 114 or higher and 10 of 14 qualifying hitters at 101 or higher. The Cardinals have an astounding 6 hitters at 132 or higher and 8 at 105 or higher.

The Red Sox took a lot of heat for their offseason free agent acquisitions. I didn't agree with what they were doing either, because they were paying top dollar for second tier type players. The more common strategy is to pay top dollar for star players and go cheap on complimentary players. The Red Sox were doing the opposite, paying good money to obtain certain second tier production. A large part of the A's success has been driven by complimentary production instead of star talent. The success of both teams illustrates the importance of complimentary production.

Unfortunately, the Reds problem isn't one that will be naturally covered up in the playoffs. If a team is short on pitching, then the postseason can help hide that flaw. The shorter series means that you need fewer starters, allowing you to minimize the contributions of lesser pitchers. There is no such relief for a team short on impact hitters. That's a flaw that the Reds will have to overcome throughout the postseason.

Final Thoughts

Reds fans are appreciating the wrong player. Phillips has done some nice situational hitting, but Votto is one of the best hitters in all of baseball. Still, the fact that Phillips' contribution is more direct, while Votto's is, in some ways, indirect, means that fans are overvaluing Phillips.

In some ways, Joey Votto and Brandon Phillips have perfectly complimented each other this year, with each filling in the weaknesses of the other. Of course, Joey Votto had a borderline MVP caliber season, while Phillips was a below average hitter. So, Votto had more holes to fill in Phillips' game than Phillips did in Votto's, but Votto could have done a bit better job driving in runs. That much is true.

Still, the real problem on the Reds this year is lack of production from the complimentary players. This is a three hitter offense. That's the problem that should be the focus of the fans. That's the problem that may very well sink us against the Pirates. That's the problem that needs to be addressed this offseason, especially since we are likely to lose Shin-Soo Choo to free agency.

Joey Votto is the farthest thing from being the problem with this team and treating him like he is only obscures the real issue: The team needs someone other than the top tier to step up during the postseason. We may need to hear some broadcaster shout: "Zack Cozart for President!"