CHICAGO, September 6, 2013 — Cincinnati is in the thick of a playoff race and has been one of the best teams in baseball as is shown in both their record, 79-62, and Pythagorean record, 83-58. They have gotten there with great pitching, having allowed the fourth fewest runs in baseball and an offense that is eleventh in the majors, but third in the NL.
The Reds offense is almost entirely dependent on five hitters, though, as no one but Joey Votto, Shin Soo Choo, Jay Bruce, Brandon Phillips, and Todd Frazier have WAR’s above 1. Locally, there have been gripes about the lack of a number two hitter and a debate over who is really the Reds’ MVP, Joey Votto or Brandon Phillips? These two arguments are actually very closely related.
Joey Votto has led the NL in on base percentage the last three years and leads again this year with a .424 OBP, which is just ahead of teammate Shin Soo Choo’s .420 OBP. Much of Votto’s OBP comes from walks, he has led the NL in walks the last two years and leads the NL again in 2013.
This approach does not change if the bases are empty, where his slash line is .317/.414/.540, or if there are runners on, where his slash line is .276/.437/.411. While there seems to be less power in Votto’s line when there are runners on he is still avoiding making outs at an above average clip.
Brandon Phillips is currently second in the NL in RBI’s with 101, trailing only Diamondback Paul Goldschmidt’s 106. RBI’s have been shown to be more a function of having at bats with runners on base than to a hitter’s ability to magically create those runs. This is true of Phillips’ situation too, he leads all of MLB with 275 at bats with runners on base.
This stands to reason as Choo has led off most of the season, Votto has hit third and Phillips has hit fourth. Phillips has had the top two OBP players in the NL hitting in front of him. To his credit, Phillips has done well with runners on base with a .320/.373/.469 slash line compared to .211/.249/.367 with the bases empty, which begs the question, why doesn’t he always hit like there are men on base?
What Votto does in his at bats is avoid making outs, which prolongs the inning and allows the player behind him to do the same or drive in the runs. This can be achieved whether there are men on base or the bases or empty. His approach prolongs innings, as does Choo’s. With Phillips, this year’s stats seem to show a player who alters his approach drastically with runners on, which has not been the case in the past. It would seem that Phillips is the beneficiary of Votto and Choo getting on base, while Votto would likely have similar success with Phillips or a different player hitting behind him.