At first glance, it would appear Joey Votto has lost the hitting stroke that won him the MVP two years ago. One month into the 2012 season, Votto is hitting .291 with just two home runs. Two home runs! That’s only one more round-tripper than the much-maligned Albert Pujols. But the truth is that the numbers are not a reflection of Votto himself—opposing pitchers simply haven’t been giving him much to hit. The real problem has been the players batting behind him.
The numbers show the urgency of the situation. Reds cleanup hitters are batting .205 with 11 RBI. Votto has been intentionally walked six times, tops in baseball. Following those intentional walks, the next Reds batter has gone 0-for-6 with three strikeouts and a double play. I don't need to be an advanced statistician to know that is not good. For the Reds and Votto to return to their 2010 form, they are going to have to find someone to protect Joey in the order.
Coming into the season, that person was expected to be Scott Rolen. Just before the 2009 trade deadline, the Reds gave up young third baseman Edwin Encarnacion for the veteran Rolen, a move experts questioned at the time. Rolen rewarded the Reds with a career resurgence in 2010, hitting .285 and driving in 83 runs. Rolen was a key factor in the Reds making the playoffs. But last year, he missed most of the season with injuries and only managed to hit .242 when he was healthy enough to play. This year, he is hitting .182. It appears his best days are behind him. Certainly, he is not the answer to the cleanup problem. I hope he proves me wrong, but so far watching Rolen’s at bats has been painful. Thanks for 2010, Scotty.
With Rolen struggling in the cleanup spot, the Reds have turned to Brandon Phillips. True, Phillips is a natural athlete who has expressed a willingness to bat wherever Dusty needs him, but a cleanup hitter he is not. After signing a six-year extension in the offseason, DatDudeBP is off to a very slow start in 2012. And while he is now healthy and showing signs of life, Phillips’s skills are undeniably better suited to the leadoff spot.
All this brings us to Jay Bruce. Perhaps the most frustrating Red to follow over the past couple of years (well, except for Homer Bailey), Bruce has alternated between streaks of tearing the cover off the ball and slumps of striking out every time. But this year, it appears he finally gets it (knock on wood). Bruce’s .297 average, 10 home runs, and 23 RBI lead the team, and just last week he hit a home run in four straight games. And yet Bruce is penciled into the number five spot every day. Dusty's reasoning: "I want to break up them lefties." It’s a logical argument. Batting two lefties in a row would allow an opposing manager to bring in a left-handed reliever to face the Reds’ two best hitters. But Dusty needs to examine the statistics of this year's team. Votto is a career .305 hitter against left-handers versus a .316 hitter against righties. That’s not much of a discrepancy. Bruce, meanwhile, is starting to hit lefties better, hitting .292 against them so far this year.
In a dream world, the Reds would trade for a power-hitting, right-handed left fielder to hit cleanup. Barring that, the best solution is to move Bruce up a spot. I understand the reluctance to bat two lefties in a row, but put yourself in the shoes of an opposing pitcher. If Joey came to the plate late in a close game, and you looked into the on-deck circle and saw a home run threat like Bruce, wouldn’t you be much more hesitant to walk Votto?
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