Crazy Joey Votto, Cooperstown bound

Joey Votto, looking like a man infected with a combination of St. Vitus Dance and laughing gas. If it helps get him to Cooperstown, he won’t complain.

This is the kind of person Joey Votto can be. One minute, he’s his own kind of crazy. Especially with a bat in his hands. The next, he’s . . . well, the word is onorevole in Italian. In Yiddish, the word is mensch.

On 19 July, in San Diego, Votto fumed over a call at the plate in the first inning, resulting in himself and Reds manager David Bell being tossed. Votto thought he’d checked his swing on a 1-2 pitch missing up and away. The plate umpire sought help; the third base umpire said Votto went. Replays showed it was hair-thin close. It could have gone either way.

Votto and the arbiters kept it civil until the third base ump, apparently, said something to trip Votto’s trigger. Votto could be seen (and heard?) saying, “what the (fornicate)?!?” The plate ump interjected, as if to suggest Votto had no business talking to the third base ump. Bell hurried out to protect his player to no avail. Both got sent to bed without their supper.

In the Petco Park stands (the Reds were playing the Padres), a six-year-old Los Angeles girl named Abigail—wearing a Votto T-shirt, attending her first live major league game—cried because she wouldn’t get to see her hero play all game long. Another fan tweeted a photograph of Abigail in tears.

Somehow, someone on the Reds caught the tweet and made Votto aware of her. So he sent Abigail a ball he signed, “I am sorry I didn’t play the entire game. Joey Votto.”

The next afternoon, there were Abigail and her family in the Petco field boxes, courtesy of Votto and the Reds. Votto went out of his way to meet her, in her Reds T-shirt and a large bow with baseball stitching in her hair. He signed anything she handed him and left her with a grin about equal to the distance of a textbook Votto line drive hit.

Now, this is the kind of baseball player Abigail picked as a hero: As the irrepressible Jayson Stark has exhumed, Votto’s one of only six players in Show history to lead his league in on-base percentage seven times or better. He’s done it seven times. The other five: Ted Williams (twelve), Babe Ruth (ten), Barry Bonds (ten), Rogers Hornsby (nine), and Ty Cobb (nine). You may have noticed all but one of them are Hall of Famers.

A Canadian who grew up with a poster of Williams tacked on his bedroom wall, Votto will be a Hall of Famer in due course.

Spare me the lack of three thousand hits (he isn’t likely to reach that number) or five hundred home runs (he isn’t likely to get there, either). The Hall of Fame was supposed to be about greatness, not raw totals. With two more years on his current Cincinnati contract and at age 37, Votto isn’t going to join the 500 bomb club or the 3,000 hit club unless he swings a telephone pole for a bat before he’s Jack Benny’s (alleged) age.

But he’s going to be remembered for all-around greatness. The sole legitimate question around Votto’s Hall of Fame case is whether he’ll make it on the first try or have to wait a few.

As of Wednesday morning Votto’s was A Space Odyssey hit total: 2,001. Guess what. According to my Real Batting Average (RBA) metric (total bases + walks + intentional walks + sacrifice flies + hit by pitches), if Votto’s career ended the instant I wrote the words he’d become the number three Hall of Fame first baseman whose career came entirely or mostly in the post-World War II/post-integration/night-ball era:

Jim Thome 10313 4667 1747 173 74 69 .653
Jeff Bagwell 9431 4213 1401 155 102 128 .636
Joey Votto 7978 3433 1265 143 46 63 .620
Willie McCovey 9692 4219 1345 260 70 69 .615
Harmon Killebrew 9833 4143 1559 160 77 48 .609
Orlando Cepeda 8698 3959 588 154 74 102 .561
Eddie Murray 12817 5397 1333 222 128 18 .554
Tony Perez 10861 4532 925 150 106 43 .526
HOF AVG .597

Stark narrows his seven-or-more OBP titlist list to those who won seven in any ten-year period. The list shrinks to Hornsby (eight), Williams (seven), Ruth (seven), Cobb (seven), and Votto (seven). “How’s that,” Stark asks, knowing the answer good and well, “for a Mount Rushmore of OBP?”

How’s this, too, for a winning player? Baseball-Reference says the Reds would win 75 percent of their games if they could run a lineup of nine Joey Vottos to the plate. Since they’re playing a 162-game season this year, that would equal 122 wins. A Reds lineup of nine Vottos wouldn’t be eight and a half games behind the National League Central-leading Brewers. But they might be about 28.5 games ahead.

You might care to know, too, that among active players the guy Reds fans call Vottomatic is number two for career OPS+ with 148. That’s 27 points behind the active leader. A fellow (albeit still on this year’s injured list) named Mike Trout. You can do an awful lot worse than pull up second behind Trout.

Allow me to tell you what RBA says about Votto by leverage. We’re talking about the most game-on-the-line moments in which Votto’s checked in at the plate over his entire career through this morning. No one can premeditate the situation in which a batter will step up to the plate at any time–unless he’s being sent out to pinch hit. But RBA says Votto’s one beast you wish you could save for premeditated high-leverage plate appearances:

High leverage 1510 687 274 77 19 13 .709
Medium leverage 2769 1140 442 30 22 21 .598
Low Leverage 3699 1606 549 36 5 29 .601

Essentially, he’s the same batter overall in low as in medium leverage, adjusting for a few particulars. (His combined RBA in those two situations: .600.) But he’s 109 points more monstrous in the highest leverage moments, the moments when the game’s likely outcome is most squarely on the line or close to it.

As a defensive first baseman? A guy who’s 55 defensive runs saved above his league average, lifetime, isn’t exactly lame with the leather out there. He’s not the rangiest first baseman ever to patrol the pad—but neither was Lou Gehrig. He’s gotten the job done and then some. He’s probably also used the position to keep fans at home and on the road entertained with more than a few amusing quirks and tricks.

Small wonder fans in road ballparks forgive Votto his periodic needles and horseplay at their expense. (He once needled a friendly road van with, “I remember you when you used to be thin.”) Small wonder young fans like little Abigail in San Diego weep when he gets tossed too early for arguing with umpires who still think (erroneously) that they’re Gods, Jr.

Small wonder, too, that fans such as another young girl in Atlanta last week think they can will Votto to prolific evenings.

A week ago, the Braves beat the Reds in eleven in Truist Park, 8-6. Votto did everything he could think of, short of spiking the Braves’ Gatorade with a liquid sedative, to enable a Reds win. He had a little help from his new young friend, to whom he gave his game jersey as he walked off the field following Ozzie Albies’s game-ending three-run homer.

What a surprise he’d do that: She coaxed him all game long. Votto swore the young girl called every one of his four hits on the night: a line single to somewhat deep center in the top of the first, a two-run homer in the top of the sixth, a line single to right setting up first and third in the top of the seventh, another two-run homer in the top of the ninth to tie the game at five. (Apparently, she didn’t call the full-count, bases-loading walk he coaxed out of Braves pitcher Touki Toussaint in the top of the third.)

The fact that both homers made Votto the first Red since Hall of Famer Frank Robinson to hit fourteen bombs in a twenty-game stretch—after becoming the eighth in Show to hit one out in seven straight games—was almost irrelevant. Almost.

“We made an agreement before every at-bat,” Votto told the press after the game. (When you like us, we’re the press. When you hate us, we’re the media.—William Safire.) “I talked to her a little bit mid-at-bat and she was screaming at me and supporting me. I’m not sure if it’ll end up on social media, but she was incredibly supportive despite lots of people that were not on her side. We almost did it together.”

Just another night at the park for Crazy Joey Votto, also known as future Hall of Famer Onorevole Mensch.

Waste not, want not

Like Trevor Bauer in Game One, Luis Castillo’s Game Two effort was wasted by the Reds’ absentee bats and futile running.

Joey Votto said going in that his Cincinnati Reds in the postseason, however rough and tumble things had to be to get them there, would be a “[fornicating] nightmare.” He just didn’t bargain on every man in a Red uniform at the plate or on the bases being their own worst nightmares.

If the Reds wish to remain postseason competitive, waste management means waste avoidance. Because if you don’t avoid waste, no matter how efficient your pitching might be, you’ll get wasted the way the Atlanta Braves wasted the Reds late but imperatively Thursday afternoon.

The Reds’ irregular season’s grind just to claim one of this year’s ten wild cards got wasted, too, even worse than Marcell Ozuna and Adam Duvall wasted relief pitcher Raisel Iglesias’s canteloupes.

Nobody wants to take anything away from the National League East-winning Braves. They clung stubbornly in their wild card set, held on to win Thursday, 5-0, and didn’t let the Reds’ stellar starting pitching blow the spirit out of them no matter how long it took. The Reds made it a little too simple for them in the end.

The Reds won’t live this one down too readily. They’re going to have to try explaining how they became the first team in Show history to be shut out for an entire postseason set, 22 innings worth, even if it was a mere best-of-three.

They’re going to have to try explaining how Trevor Bauer in Game One struck out twelve Braves without walking a soul or surrendering a run, without getting credit for a win, but with the Reds losing in the thirteenth inning on the game’s only run—on a measly RBI single by likely National League Most Valuable Player Freddie Freeman.

They’re going to have to explain how Luis Castillo’s first-ever postseason start produced seven strikeouts in five and a third innings, only one run surrendered, only one batter walked, and Iglesias getting blown up in the eighth after Lucas Sims spelled Castillo with an inning and two-thirds of spotless relief.

Ronald Acuna, Jr. doubling home Austin Riley off Castillo with two out in the fifth only made it 1-0. But Iglesias walking Freeman to open the eighth was flirting with death. Death accepted the invitation when Ozuna found a 1-0 meatball so irresistible he yanked it into the empty left center field seats.

Walking Ozzie Alibes after striking Travis d’Arnaud out following that launch wasn’t advisable, either. How inadvisable came too clear when Duvall licked his chops at an even meatier, 0-2 meatball, and sent it out down the left field line.

“Such a professional hitter,” Braves rookie starting pitcher Ian Anderson said of Ozuna after the game, calling Ozuna the life of the club all year long. “Loves the big moment. And I know it was getting to him a little bit, the way his at-bats had unfolded up until that point. Yeah, he couldn’t have been happier, and we couldn’t have been happier for him. That was a huge hit for the team. You could kind of sense that the dugout relaxed then, just a little bit.”

The Braves now wait to see who wins the win-or-be-gone game between the Miami Marlins and the Chicago Cubs in Wrigley Field, which might have been played Thursday but for the rain saying “not so fast.”

The Reds are also going to have to explain why they couldn’t find more than two hits off Anderson but found their way to nine strikeouts against the rook making his first postseason start following six irregular season assignments and a shimmering 1.95 ERA.

Those thirteen runners the Reds stranded need some explaining, too. So does having nothing to show against three Braves relievers from the seventh through the ninth.

They’re also going to have to explain why a team with baseball’s worst collective batting average (.212) despite a few offensive upgrades last winter couldn’t find ways to avoid becoming baseball’s first to be shut out of an entire postseason series.

How many times did the Reds answer opportunity’s knocking with “Go away, we gave at the office?”

When they greeted Max Fried in Game One with back-to-back singles giving them first and third and nobody out, only to see Votto—Mr. On-Base Machine—ground out to first, Eugenio Suarez line a badminton shuttlecock to Ozzie Albies at second base, and Mike Moustakas ground out?

When manager David Bell thought he could get away with a play that even the Little League won’t try all that often, having Kyle Farmer on first and Aristedes Aquino on third try a double steal the Braves could smell from about five minutes prior to attempt, with Aquino bagged in an even more kiddie-looking rundown?

When Bell sent spaghetti-bat veteran Freddy Galvis out to pinch hit for Shogo Akiyama with two out and two on in the top of the twelfth, despite Akiyama hitting well enough down the stretch to earn the opportunity, and Galvis rewarded Bell for his unexpected faith by looking at strike three right down the middle?

When they spent Game Two with no non Venezuelan-born Red getting a single base hit, and no Red from any geography reaching base between Galvis’s walk in the second and his off-the-pillow base hit up the first base line in the fifth? When no Red from there got so much as a hit by pitch to reach base and seven out of the final thirteen Red batters struck out?

Their number one irregular season issue, their inability to hit in multiples in most innings, swallowed them deeper than the Braves’ own pitching turned out to do.

“You can look at the defensive positioning, you can look at hard-hit balls that didn’t go for hits,” Bell said after the Game Two loss. “But, it’s something we have to take a closer look at because all teams are really good at defensive positioning and can hit into bad luck at times. Why did that happen for us? We just have to really take a close look at it. We did all year. Yeah, I say, we absolutely do believe in our guys, we made adjustments as much as we possibly could. But we have to find a way to get better.”

Right he is. Every Reds position player except for three will be back in 2021, and enough of them will be on the far enough side of thirty years old. They’ll still have most of their solid pitching, though the Braves didn’t get to see Sonny Gray this week, but Bauer could walk into the free agency market this year with as many potential suitors as a debutante.

Another, older Ian Anderson, leading a British band known as Jethro Tull, sang the epitaph for this year’s Reds a little over half a century ago: It was a new day yesterday, but it’s an old day now.

Headhunters ball

Of course our guy didn’t throw at your guy’s attic on purpose. And of course we’ll take that polar beach club off your hands for twice the market value!

A little Saturday rough stuff between the Chicago Cubs and the Cincinnati Reds may or may not be surprising. But is it all that surprising that Angel Hernandez’s umpiring crew sent it near nuclear? Not Hernandez himself, for a change, but still.

The Cubs and the Reds played a doubleheader in Great American Ballpark. Thanks to his performance in the Cubs’ first-game win (3-0), Anthony Rizzo wasn’t exactly the Reds’ favourite person on the day. Neither was Cubs starting pitcher Yu Darvish, who was so effective he could (and did) drop his glove while delivering and still throw a strike.

First, Rizzo wrestled Reds starter Trevor Bauer to a ninth pitch and drilled it down the right field line and out of sight in the top of the third. Then, in the top of the sixth, Rizzo made shorter work of Bauer by hitting a fourth-pitch 1-2 service deeper into the right field seats.

But in the top of the nightcap’s fourth, rookie Cincinnati relief pitcher Tejay Antone greeted Rizzo leading off with a pitch straight over Rizzo’s head. Rookie though he may be, Antone had all the right moves at the ready, looking at his pitching hand immediately as he turned to his right.

Of course the ball just slipped away off course against the guy who took the Reds deep twice in the first game. And of course you can have that Antarctican beach club for twice the market value. Rizzo’s reputation for plate crowding doesn’t fly here, either. If you’re going to push a batter back off the plate, you’re going to throw inside and tight, not upstairs above the attic.

“We’ve played against the Reds a long time and they do like to move my feet,” Rizzo told reporters after Cubs relief pitcher Craig Kimbrel wild-pitched the winning Reds run home in the bottom of the seventh.

It’s just part of their reports–it’s been for years. I don’t think any pitcher would purposefully throw at someone’s head. I give the benefit of the doubt to every pitcher, especially Antone. He’s a rookie. He’s been throwing really well. The pitch inside was definitely for a purpose. It’s just, it’s at the head and that’s scary stuff.

No sale. Both dugouts barked. Hernandez’s ump crew confabbed as Antone stepped into his errant-hand routine around the mound. Home plate umpire Nic Lentz handed warnings to both sides. Cubs manager David Ross, who wouldn’t have paid a wooden nickel for the pitch-slipping plea, was distinctly unamused.

Ross came out of his dugout at first, returned, then came back out after Lentz handed the warnings down. “I thought our dugout got pretty animated and the umpires stepped in and issued warnings, which I didn’t understand,” Grandpa Rossy told reporters later. “We hadn’t done anything from our perspective. A young man tried to take things into his own hands and send a message, and then it kind of escaped from there.”

With the Cubs dugout still bristling over Antone’s attic pitch to Rizzo, not to mention Antone still bristling quietly over having exchanged a few “grunts” with the Cubs previously, Ross and his pitching/catching/strategy coach Mike Borzello were ejected. It’s the first ejection in Ross’s managerial career. Welcome to Angel’s Hell, Gramps. You’re not supposed to say anything but “three bags full, sir” to the crew of the legend in his own mind.

Then the Reds got a taste of both theirs and Hernandez’s own medicine in the bottom of the fourth. Cubs reliever Adbert Adzolay zipped Reds center fielder Shogo Akiyama up, in, and tight. You’d have had to be a U.S. postmaster general not to know that Adzolay wanted to send the Reds a little return message about going upstairs against the guy who took you downtown twice in the first game.

That prompted veteran Reds leader and designated hitter for the game Joey Votto to bark at the Cubs, Kyle Schwarber in particular. Cincinnati skipper David Bell returned to the field for another conversation with the umps, during which Rizzo hollered at him from first base, which lured Votto and Reds outfielder Jesse Winker out to have it out with Rizzo.

First base umpire Dan Bellino tried and failed to convince Votto and Winker to knock it the hell off, then he invited both to kindly remove themselves from the game, at which point—pandemic protocols be damned—both benches and bullpens emptied to the field, although nobody even thought about throwing a punch.

“I went over to get an explanation for what happened,” Bell told reporters afterward. “And then I believe Anthony Rizzo started walking towards me and yelling at me,” Bell said. “I don’t know what he was saying, it didn’t really matter to me. And at that point, a couple of our players jumped over the railing and the umpire just started throwing everybody out of the game. Not everybody, but Jesse Winker, Joey Votto and myself.”

“Having each other’s backs and the Reds and all their guys and David Bell are going to have each other’s backs and we’re going to have our backs,” said Rizzo, who speaks fondly of Bell otherwise from Bell’s days as a Cubs infield coach. “That’s what happens when you’re competing anytime through baseball, but especially this year when it’s all heightened and you can hear every little thing.”

The Twitterverse erupted with a round of brickbats against Hernandez as the leader of the crew, but in absolute fairness this was one time when Hernandez himself didn’t jump the first bullet train to make himself the object of everyone’s attention. That’s about as far as absolute fairness should go, thanks to a time-honoured precept that when you lead you take responsibility for what your subordinates do, for better or worse.

Including making the headhunters captured by the game the story of the day, instead of Darvish’s virtuosity on the mound in the first game. Or even the hapless and once-formidable Kimbrel’s ninth-inning nightcap disaster, when he was brought in to try saving a 5-4 Cubs lead and should-have-been win. Oops.

He walked Reds catcher Curt Casali on 3-1 to open the bottom of the ninth. He struck Votto’s successor Mark Payton out, but he wild-pitched Casali’s pinch runner Freddy Galvis to second before walking Nicholas Castellanos. Winker’s successor Aristedes Aquino singled Galvis home, then Kimbrel wild-pitched Castellanos and Aquino to third and second, respectively, before walking Eugenio Suarez.

The good news: Cardiac Kimbrel struck Mike Moustakas and Jose Garcia swinging, back to back, Garcia especially on one of the filthiest curve balls Kimbrel’s thrown in recent times. The bad news: That strikeout pitch escaped not just Garcia’s bat but one and all around and behind the plate, enabling Castellanos to score the Reds’ winning run.

Too-vivid reminders of how Kimbrel, formerly one of the most automatic closers in the Show, kept the crash carts on red alert during the 2018 Boston Red Sox’s postseason run even when credited with saves. The poor man threw four first-pitch strikes out of his six batters but only three of his eleven total strikes were called and his earned run average now matched a ten-dollar bill.

“We’re behind him every single day,” Rizzo said of Kimbrel. “Every time he comes to the mound, we’re behind him and have full confidence in him. He’s Craig Kimbrel. He has his resume for a reason.” That door swings both ways, unfortunately.