Though he's been out with a knee injury for six weeks, Joey Votto is still perceived as the Cincinnati Reds' best hitter and rightly so. When he was in the lineup, Votto was an MVP candidate, among the league leaders in batting average, on-base percentage and OPS.
However, the Reds have been able to continue winning with their best hitter sidelined. In July, the team compiled a 19-7 record. That included a 10-game win streak. As of Aug. 25, Cincinnati has gone 14-9. Overall, the Reds have gone 26-12 while their first baseman has been recovering from two separate arthroscopic procedures on his left knee.
Obviously, the Reds will be a better team when Votto returns. He's one of the best hitters—if not the best—in the National League. But will he be the Reds' most important hitter during the playoffs?
Second baseman Brandon Phillips has batted behind Votto for most of the season. If opposing teams pitch around Votto—and his high number of walks indicate that they often do—then it's crucial for Phillips to make them pay for putting Votto on base. That makes Phillips a pivotal hitter in the Cincinnati batting order.
Protection in the Lineup
I realize some people don't believe in the idea of lineup protection, that a batter will see better pitches to hit if he has another quality bat behind him. The concept sounds like a good one, but it doesn't always work.
For example, when Albert Pujols had Matt Holliday hitting behind him in the 2010 St. Louis Cardinals lineup, he still led the major leagues with 38 intentional walks. Holliday hit .312 with a .922 OPS, 28 home runs and 103 RBI. Presumably, he was great protection for Pujols.
Yet opposing pitchers still preferred to face Holliday than the guy with an 1.011 OPS, 42 homers and 118 RBI, so Pujols kept getting the free pass to first base.
We might have a similar situation with the 2012 Reds. Votto hasn't played since July 15, yet still has 13 intentional walks, tied for the second-highest total in the big leagues (as of Aug. 24).
When Votto was in the lineup, opponents opted to pitch around him in key run-scoring situations. Put the guy hitting .342 with a .469 on-base percentage and 1.069 OPS on first base and pitch to the guy behind him who can't possibly be as good.
The Cleanup Man
Reds manager Dusty Baker prefers a right-handed bat between Votto and Jay Bruce to give the middle of the lineup a left-right-left combination. That would prevent opponents from bringing in left-handed relief specialists to face Votto and Bruce in consecutive at-bats.
In previous seasons, Scott Rolen batted in the No. 4 spot between Votto and Bruce. But with him frequently out of the lineup this year due to shoulder and back injuries, Baker had to find someone else to bat in the cleanup role.
Typically, the cleanup hitter is a big slugger, the team's best home run threat. Phillips is miscast in that role. Since hitting 30 homers in 2007, Phillips has averaged 19 over the past four seasons. With his speed, he profiles more as top-of-the-order hitter, perhaps best suited for the No. 2 spot in a lineup.
Yet Phillips can draw a walk, hit the ball out of the park and create some movement on the basepaths. That ability to generate offense is obviously what Baker had in mind when he put Phillips in the cleanup spot.
Though Phillips initially struggled in that role, perhaps because he felt he had to hit more home runs as a typical cleanup hitter would, he eventually became comfortable batting behind Votto. In the No. 4 spot this season, Phillips is batting .303/.344/.460 with 13 doubles, 10 home runs and 50 RBI. Walking Votto wasn't giving opposing pitching staffs a break.
Creating More Offense
With Votto out of the lineup, Phillips has been batting in the No. 3 spot, which arguably better suits his overall skills.
Phillips can still produce runs if Zack Cozart and Drew Stubbs get on base in front of him. That puts some pressure on opposing pitchers to keep them off base so Phillips can't drive them or get on base to create more scoring opportunities.
It's actually more important for Phillips to get on base in front of Jay Bruce and Ryan Ludwick, giving them a runner to drive in. With his speed, Phillips can arguably be more disruptive on the basepaths than Votto would. He can steal a base, he can advance from first to third on a single and stands a better chance of scoring from first or second.
Considering all the different ways Phillips can create offense for the Reds, it's in an opposing team's best interests to get him out.
That doesn't make Phillips a better hitter than Votto. To suggest that would be silly.
However, through the remainder of the regular season and during the postseason, Phillips may actually be a more important hitter for the Reds because of what he'll be asked to do and the variety of roles he can play. His versatility makes Phillips an extremely valuable asset for Baker and the Reds manager will surely take advantage of that during the playoffs.
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