Joey Votto stepped to the plate in the bottom of the eighth inning of a tie game against the D-backs last week. Todd Frazier had just bunted Shin-Soo Choo from second to third, and so Votto's Reds had the go-ahead run 90 feet from home with one out and their best hitter at the plate.
This, conceivably, is the kind of situation the Reds envisioned when they gave Votto a 10-year, $225 million contract extension last year. But Votto's pedestrian RBI total this year has left many a Cincinnatian frustrated with his output, even as sabermetricians insist he's having a splendid season.
"We can talk about sabermetrics and the importance of RBIs for the next week," radio announcer Thom Brennaman said at that moment, "but this is a money at-bat."
And it played out the way so many of Votto's plate appearances do.
Votto diligently waited out rookie reliever Eury De La Rosa. The first pitch was a sinker that Votto, who only swings at 28.7 percent of first pitches, let pass for a strike. The next three pitches, in succession, were a sinker, slider and curveball that Votto let pass to work the count to 3-1. Next came a 74-mph curveball that Votto hacked at and tipped back. The count was full.
And then, the money pitch. A fastball off the inside edge of the plate got by catcher Wil Nieves, allowing Choo to score easily with what turned out to be the winning run as Votto trotted to first with his 100th walk.
Mark that moment down, friends. It was a special one in this Reds' season, and not just because it won a ballgame for them.
After all, this was one of the very few moments in which nobody -- be it manager Dusty Baker or the guys in the radio booth or the fans in the stands or the writers in the press box -- could find fault with Votto's dutiful discipline.
Such moments have been few and far between in 2013. Entering a pivotal three-game series with the Cardinals and nearing the final month of the season, Votto is having a year that is so downright divisive that it can only be described as controversial.
Votto might be leading the league in on-base percentage for the fourth straight season, might have a .314/.433/.507 slash line that would make the average Major Leaguer salivate and might have a five-year weighted on-base average rivaled only by Miguel Cabrera. But to many, it doesn't matter.
After all, they'll argue, he's only driven in 61 runs. And Brandon Phillips, with 95 RBIs, is the team MVP.
Watching from afar, I've found the entire dynamic fascinating. It's as if the baseball gods manufactured Votto as a means of polarizing the populace.
Votto, after all, is the embodiment of everything the stat heads have been saying for years -- that RBIs are a product of opportunity at least as much as talent and that there are far, far better metrics to measure a player's output. And Votto is, simultaneously, a source of frustration for anybody who has espoused the old adage that "money lies in RBIs," because heaven knows he has plenty of the former and -- this season, at least -- not much of the latter.
Really, how often do you see something like this?
How often do you see a guy touted by some outsiders as an MVP candidate while that guy's own manager finds fault with his production?
"Maybe I'm a little different than the new sabermetrics guys," Baker said when asked what he's thought of Votto's season, "but it's the chicken and the egg. Which one is more important? Getting on base or driving in runs? The name of the game is, 'He who crosses home plate the most wins.' So you've got to have somebody to cross home plate, and you've got to have somebody help him cross home plate."
Baker makes it clear that he wants to see Votto be the latter guy more often.
"He's done it before," he said. "It's not like he hasn't done it before."
It's true. Votto hit at least 29 homers and drove in at least 100 runs in 2010 and 2011. (Given Votto's knee issues and missed time in 2012, we'll just strike that season from this particular conversation.)
Of course, the team OBP from the No. 2 spot of the order (directly in front of Votto) was .346 in 2010 and .318 in 2011. This year it's .274, the worst in baseball. Baker has tried multiple experiments with the No. 2 spot -- Frazier being the latest -- to little or no avail. And so, on the surface, this seems a valid excuse for Votto's RBI regression.
Then again, there's this: Votto's percentage of plate appearances with runners in scoring position. It was 25.8 in 2010, 26.3 in 2011 and, here in 2013, 25.9.
The Major League average for starting No. 3 hitters? Virtually identical, at 26.0 percent (through Friday, per Elias).
So, yes, the disappointment felt by Baker and other non-stat heads does have its share of statistical backing, too.
Ask Votto about all this, and he calmly defends himself.
"At any point in time, I could turn into a player that drives in runs whenever I want," Votto said. "I can try to do that and probably add another 15 or 20 [RBIs]. But every other part of my game would collapse. I would like to see the people making those complaints try to flip it and do what I do. It's not easy. It's not easy to be efficient and productive. It's the hardest thing to do as a hitter."
Votto wishes that more people could understand the value of his walk rate, how it has helped cleanup man Phillips and No. 5 hitter Jay Bruce remain productive despite significant dropoffs in their year-to-year OPS counts.
"After a while it can be a bit unnerving because of the infrequency of opportunities I have, the way they pitch to me in certain instances, the amount of walks I have," Votto said. "So to me [the criticism] is a bit of a nuisance. But it's part and parcel with my job. If there were complaints about Ty Cobb's game and Ted Williams' game and Babe Ruth's game, then I'm not even close to immune."
Votto and leadoff man Choo could become the first pair of teammates to lead their league in OBP since Jason Giambi and Alex Rodriguez did so for the Yankees in 2005. They have created the opportunities that make the Reds the fourth-most productive offense in the NL.
"I would say for someone like me or Brandon, we're probably on the easiest team to get 100 RBIs," Bruce said. "We've got the top two on-base guys in the league. If we don't drive in 100 runs, it's our fault."
Votto, in all likelihood, won't drive in 100. That rubs many people the wrong way, and they do have statistical justification for their disapproval. This controversy, as it were, is not going away.
Perhaps the answer to this supposed dilemma exists not in fundamentally altering the way a great hitter such as Votto approaches his craft but by simply tweaking his spot in the order. Baker could conceivably bat Votto second, behind Choo, to ensure Votto bats more frequently with first base occupied and, therefore, gets more pitches he can do damage with.
"If they wanted me to hit two, I'd hit two," Votto said. "But three is not a bad spot. I can't imagine there's an enormous difference. I'm sure there'd be concern about my comfort, whether there would be unforeseen things that pop up that outweigh the 20 or so extra at-bats that I'd get as a benefit. Personally, I don't care. I'd like to hit in the middle of the order, I'd like to be a big part of the offense, I'd like to continue to do my job."
Votto contends that he's doing his job just fine, thank you. Personally, I find it difficult to look at that slash line and be disappointed. Votto has been instrumental in creating run-scoring opportunities for what has, on the whole, been a productive offense.
It's just that he's let the other guys do the actual producing.