The Evolution of Joey Votto

Last year, Joey Votto put up the kind of year that is hard to live up to, winning the NL MVP with a monster +7.4 win season and carrying the Reds to the NL Central title. He hit .324/.424/.600 and was essentially Pujolsian throughout the summer. He hit for average, hit for power, took his walks, and stole 16 bases to boot. If you wanted to find a flaw in his game, you’d have to nitpick at things, and maybe you’d start with his slightly elevated strikeout rate, which suggested that he probably couldn’t keep hitting .320+ while racking up 100 whiffs per year.

So, rather than watch his average regress, Votto has apparently decided to just do away with the strikeouts instead. Through the first ten games of the season, Votto has come to the plate 46 times, but struck out on only four occasions. While the sample is obviously too small to draw any firm conclusions, the zone data suggests that pitchers are being far more careful with Votto this year, and he’s adjusted quickly to being pitched around.

For his career, 45.3% of the pitches Votto has been thrown have been in the strike zone, though that number has been dropping for each of the past few years as pitchers have figured out how good he really is. This year, only 36.2% of the pitches Votto has seen have been strikes, the lowest total of any hitter in baseball. Rather than getting frustrated by the lack of pitches he’s being given to hit and expanding his zone, Votto has actually gone the other way – he’s cut his O-Swing% to 23.1%, down from 29.9% last year.

He’s still swinging at strikes just as frequently, but he’s getting more pitches out of the zone and chasing a lower rate of those pitches to begin with. The result is Votto being in more hitter’s counts, and as most good hitters are, he’s a beast when he can sit on a fastball – the only count that Votto posts wOBA of lower than .400 on is 0-2 and 1-2, but he’s essentially avoiding those counts entirely by not swinging at pitches out of the zone early in the count.

As a result, his walks are way up and his strikeout rate is half of what it was last year, and he’s now putting balls in play at levels you normally expect from slap-hitting middle infielders. Rather than sacrificing power to make better contact, he’s just sacrificed swinging and missing at pitches out of the strike zone, and the result is a guy who is essentially impossible to get out right now. He won’t be able to sustain this kind of performance, of course, but the fact that he could so quickly adapt to pitchers changing their approach in how they pitch him is a good sign.

The other “flaw” that Votto had last year was his relative struggles against left-handers. He put up a .468 wOBA against RHPs, but “just” a .382 mark against LHPs. So far in 2011, in the 10 plate appearances he’s had against same-handed pitchers, he’s 7 for 9 with a walk and, of course, no strikeouts.

Yeah. Good luck, National League managers – I have no idea how you’re supposed to get this guy out.




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Dave is a co-founder of USSMariner.com and contributes to the Wall Street Journal.


57 Responses to “The Evolution of Joey Votto”

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  1. Brandon Phillips says:

    Yah, man, so I think that Votto is like the best hitter in the league. He’s even better than Starlin Castro

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  2. phoenix2042 says:

    It was amazing enough that a player like Pujols could even exist… but now there’s two of them!

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    • slamcactus says:

      Let’s see Votto keep this up for 4 or 5 straight seasons before we call him a second Pujols. Pujols’s greatness isn’t just his individual season lines, it’s also tied to his remarkable consistency.

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      • rogue_actuary says:

        And the fact that Pujols started doing it at such an early age. Votto is five months away from being 28. Pujols put up a 7.7 WAR season at age 21.

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  3. Jimbo says:

    I don’t know why he didn’t get more love in fantasy drafts this year. Won’t be surprised if he approaches Pujols’ value this year.

    “He won’t be able to sustain this kind of performance, of course…”

    Is there a reason why? Basically what I hear is that his plate discipline is improving with a combination of experience and striking fear into pitchers. The latter isn’t going to change (if anything, he’s proving their fear is well placed), so the assumption is that his plate discipline is sure to erode??

    Perhaps there’s some BABIP data not mentioned that would support the claim, but would losing a few base hits here and there really change his demonstrted skills?

    Just curious what is unsustainable in his performance thus far.

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  4. theperfectgame says:

    I remember when David Wright took the next step and decided to stop striking out. Spring of ’06, he struck out once in his first 50 or so trips to the plate. That seems like a lifetime ago…

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    • Anon says:

      Ahh, 2006. Wright didn’t have to carry the lineup that year. He had plenty of help from Beltran (41 bombs) and Delgado (38). Reyes hit 19. Even Jose effing Valentin hit 18. Goddamn that team was fun to watch.

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  5. shibboleth says:

    Great piece! Small sample size and all, but selectivity at the plate is a skill that can’t be argued with. Sure, most ratios will regress, but he’s doing everything he can to remain hitting magician and one of the most potent batters playing today. I wouldn’t be surprised if a repeat performance winds up being his ‘floor’ for this season.

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  6. philosofool says:

    Watching Votto’s development makes me wonder whether prospects how fall into the category of a “pure hitter with pull power” are a better bet than “power hitters who need to strike out less.” Is Brandon Belt a better candidate for MLB success than, say, Jesus Montero? I feel like Votto was tagged with the “line drives hitter” label too. Dustin Ackley, anyone?

    Votto has absolutely shattered scouts expectations.

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    • Alec says:

      Please. Ackley turning into Votto would be the greatest thing ever (not that I expect it to happen). But it’s nice to see a guy who people didn’t think would have more than gap power come out and rake.

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      • philosofool says:

        I didn’t mean to suggest that Ackley will evolve into Votto. The point was more that starting from a pure hitter with gap power might actually be a better starting place than being a power hitter who needs to figure out how to cut strike outs.

        There’s no such thing as a prospect who I would *expect* to turn into Votto. Saying a guy has 2010 Joey Votto as a *ceiling* is nearly preposterous.

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      • CircleChange11 says:

        I’m glad I’m not the only one sick and tired of hearing about Dustin Friggin Ackley. The other day he was Chase Utley, now today he is Joey Votto. Let him become the next Adam Kennedy first, then we’ll go from there. I really like Ackley, but c’mon. He’s being compared to triple-crown-threats.

        I don’t think Votto has shocked scouts or anything of that nature. He was a 2nd round pick. I think what can be said is that he’s finally showing the team what they want to see … Power.

        Looking at his minor leagues stats, he high OPS’d right off the bat … and they brought him along very slowly.

        Honestly, I’m looking at his minor league stats and am wondering why he “needed” 7 years of MiLB ball.

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      • shibboleth says:

        7 years in the minors… seems like complete overkill now. But how much of his current performance was a product of that experience? Impossible to say, and ‘what ifs’ are fun but meaningless.

        But man, what if he had made his way to the majors earlier? =D

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      • blackoutyears says:

        “Honestly, I’m looking at his minor league stats and am wondering why he “needed” 7 years of MiLB ball.”

        Votto has asked that question himself more than a couple of times, and I suspect it’s part of the reason, along with an expressed desire to play ball in Canada, that he didn’t sign a longer contract. He’s on the record as feeling that he was ready for the bigs at least a year (and maybe two) before he was called up.

        Anecdotal observation bears out Dave’s thesis.Votto’s being pitched around, he’s well aware of it, and he’s generally waiting for his pitch (there have been a couple of one or two-pitch PAs) or taking a walk (or three as he did the other day). I checked his GB/LD percentages to see if there was anything going on there, but they’re right in line with past seasons so far. He doesn’t really put the ball on the ground on the left side of the INF, and so far has had good luck grounding through the hole between the 2B and 1B. I suspect teams can’t commit to a shift and completely take that away as he’s fairly good at going back up the middle. The hands/wrists are so strong that he seems to be steering the ball to open areas of the field. Play him too far off the RF line and he’ll pull the ball down the line. Try to go soft down and away and catch too much of the plate and he’ll flip the ball into shallow LF.

        So far there is a discernible change in approach, as if he’s made the decision that he’s just going to get on base at all costs, and he doesn’t feel like he has to hit a three-run homer every game. Mature power hitters talk about worrying about contact and letting the power come, and he seems to be taking that step.

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      • Kyle says:

        Now they’re starting to give in and say that Ackley’s ceiling is a Brian Roberts(with a weaker arm, worse glove who will probably never steal 40 or 50 bases and become a doubles machine.) At least it’s more realistic than Chase Utley…

        Votto is like Berkman, Albert Belle… you have guys who get rushed up, because all they have is power while guys who go to college seem to get held up. I remember every writer in Houston wanted Berkman brought up right away.

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      • philosofool says:

        @Circle Way to misunderstand my point and then ignore the comment where I clarified. I never said that Ackley was going to be Votto. I said that I *wonder whether* prospects labeled as line drive/gap hitters tend to be more successful than power hitting guys. It was a question, not a comparison of Dustin Ackley with Joey Votto.

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      • CircleChange11 says:

        PF … you’re right.

        I saw Alec’s comment, but not your response to his where he explained exactly what you were and were not saying.

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  7. Samuel says:

    The article makes it sound like pitchers are helping Votto by pitching around him. Is that really the case and should they be pitching him more aggressively?

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    • Kerry says:

      I think the point is, there is no “right” way to pitch to Votto. Pitchers WERE more aggressive at the beginning of his career (including last year). He crushed them. This year, it appears as though pitchers are being more cautious, hoping he will “get himself out.” Well, that’s not working either.

      As the writer said, “I have no idea how you’re supposed to get this guy out.”

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    • Kyle says:

      Well, so the Reds have not faced the best pitching yet. Mat Latos is the best pitcher they’ve faced so far while Brett Myers(an underrated pitcher got him twice. They’re known as guys who have shown they can get someone to strike out when they need it. Votto carried the Reds last year, and it was a given that his walks would go up after carrying a team whose second best hitter was Rolen who was on empty by the end of the season and the inconsistent(at times)Phillips. But being a natural hitter(a career .317 hitter ), and was never as prone as some power hitters to strike out once a game so this progression seems easy to call in retrospect. He’s also seeing less pitches per at-bat so far and looks like pitchers are pitching around him hoping he chases a bad pitch or two. Only guys like Josh Johnson, Halladay, Oswalt, Lincecum should pitch him more aggressively in my opinion.

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      • blackoutyears says:

        “Mat Latos is the best pitcher they’ve faced so far”

        Dan Hudson out-pitched Latos this week, and Ian Kennedy wasn’t far behind. Gallardo wasn’t sharp in the opener but he’s a good pitcher. Hudson’s start was a three-walk day for Votto and he was 2 for 4 on a day where Kennedy dominated us for 8 innings. There’s no doubt Votto will be challenged by elite pitchers, but the list, as you point out, is dwindling.

        As for the idea that Votto was carrying the team last year, I’d take another look at the 2010 offense. This is a very solid lineup with few easy outs. As Gomes and Rolen’s first half fades began, Stubbs and Bruce picked it up. Hanigan and Hernandez hit very well as a catching tandem. Phillips hit well before his hand injury. This was not, and is not, a one-bat offense.

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      • Kyle says:

        Obviously Kennedy pitched great against them, but Latos has much more dominant stuff and a full year to prove that he’s everything he’s been billed. I actually had mentioned him, but took him out, cause it’s sorta yet to be seen(though last year he didn’t get the run support to put up a big year.)

        I can’t wait to see how the Phillies approach him. Something tells me they won’t take the bat out of his hands(Halladay, Oswalt and Lee are all the kind who want to get the best players out.) I didn’t realize the year Bruce had(but knew about Stubbs)who should be a great future(all of the Reds are under 30 except Arroyo and Rolen.) It just seemed their winning was mostly great defense, well-timed big hits, with a surprise season from Arroyo and Votto becoming one of the top 5 all-around hitters in the league. If Bailey can ever put it together while Volquez does it for a whole season again, the Reds are one of those teams.

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    • kick me in the GO NATS says:

      I have always wondered if pitching around a guy is ever a good idea. Seems dumb to me. When a guy makes contact the better ones still get out 65% of the time. Why give a guy a few extra balls, get behind, then either have to groove one or walk the guy. I will bet, someday someone will do the math and show this strategy is false.

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  8. boxx says:

    Philosofool – I think you just answered my question but….Man, did anyone see him turning into Pujols 2.0? I always remember the tag line for Votto being “a nice power hitting prospect” or something to that effect but I don’t remember anyone predicting this.

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    • CircleChange11 says:

      Teams couldn’t even identify/recognize Pujols, let alone the “next one”.

      I’m curious as to why more teams don’t see value in the “line drive power hitters” that walk a lot? Doesn’t it seem to follow that power increases as the players age?

      I know scouts have hard ons for the next Mark Reynolds type because bat speed and travel distance are so titilating, but c’mon.

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    • blackoutyears says:

      “Pujols 2.0″

      My feeling after his 2008 call-up and 2009 start was that he had a very good shot of turning into Helton 2.0, which is looking pretty doable.

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  9. “The Superman exists, and he’s Canadian!”

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  10. JTKingdon says:

    When Votto puts up 6, 7, or 8 years of the performance he put on last season, then we can make a Pujols comparison. Until then, Pujols is still the greatest hitter in baseball.

    Where Albert Pujols ranks among notable competition for his career:

    Stat Pujols Threshold Players in MLB History Players in Divisional Era
    BA: .331 .330 1 of 27 1 of 5
    BB: 914 900 1 of 15 1 of 6
    OBP: .426 .425 1 of 10 1 of 4
    Hits: 1,900 1,900 1 of 8 1 of 4
    Runs: 1,186 1,100 1 of 6 only Pujols
    Slug %: .624 .600 1 of 6 only Pujols
    OPS: 1.050 1.050 1 of 5 only Pujols
    RBI: 1,200 1,200 1 of 4 only Pujols
    2B: 426 400 1 of 4 1 of 3
    WAR: 83.8 80 1 of 2 only Pujols
    HR: 408 400 only Pujols only Pujols
    XBH: 849 800 only Pujols only Pujols
    IBB: 236 200 only Pujols only Pujols

    When Votto reaches those comparisons in the future, then a Pujols comparison is proper.

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  11. Tom Kephart says:

    Votto, Cabrera, and Pujols really stand out as the three best hitters in the game right now. No manager is going to want to be beaten by any of those three. A batting title is likely to be in Votto’s future, perhaps in 2011.

    Votto was coming up as a prospect at same time basically as fellow 1B prospects Conor Jackson and Casey Kotchman. Jackson and Kotchman were rated far ahead of him as prospects by many despite lacking the power needed at 1B.

    Votto actually displayed monster-level power with a large number of K’s in the low minors, then struggled for a season at Double-A, and basically reworked his swing and approach. By time he posted huge Triple-A season, he had sacrificed some of his natural power to develop into a better hitter. The power has returned at the major league level, while he has retained and even improved upon, his development in terms of controlling the strike zone and using the entire field. Don’t forget, Votto led the Majors in opposite-field HR last season with 17. Any player who hits that many opposite-field HR has a ton of power.

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    • Jimbo says:

      Great point about the opposite field. When you can do that it completely alters the approach a hitter can take to the plate.

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  12. jpg says:

    Hey I understand that he’s gotta have a few more big years before we start comparing him to Pujols but this “let’s see him do it for 7-8 more years” thing is silly to me. By the end of his rookie year we all knew he was special. By the end of his second year people “could make the case” for Pujols as the best offensive player in the game. By then end of his third year, it was universally accepted that he was the best. If he makes another triple crown run this year and next, is anyone gonna actually try to say he’s still 5 years away from being comparable to Pujols? From a career body of work standpoint, yes he’d still be a long ways away. But if by the end of 2013 Votto has three near triple crown years back-to-back-to-back the comparisons will be legit.

    So yeah he needs to do it longer, but not 7 or 8 years as others have said.

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    • JTKingdon says:

      I was referring to more of the career stand-point. I agree that if he puts up numbers like last season for the following 2, he is arguably comparable to Pujols’ status and could legitimately be the best player in baseball. We’ll have to wait and see for the career. I just hope the Reds keep a young, talented core around him. A quick side-note – hitting in that ballpark definitely will be advantageous for years to come.

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  13. jirish says:

    While Votto hasn’t done it for 7-8 years-he also hasn’t been a round that long. He has improved his all around numbers in each of his major league seasons. He’s going to continue to get better for a few more years-and he’s surrounded by a bunch of talented youngsters. His ceiling is the sky.

    Oh, and I agree with the comment on the Reds catchers. Hanigan and Hernandez have skills that compliment each other. They’re a great tandem.

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  14. Bill says:

    Not to nitpick, but Votto was in the minors for 6 years, not 7. And 5 years is not unusual for a high school pick.

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    • CircleChange11 says:

      Sorry. His career MiLB seasons, included a brief stint from 2009.

      My question about his minor league service time was the high level of his production. His OPS was initially high, and stayed high.

      In interpreted this as the team, perhaps, mis-evaluating his talent … in other words dwelling on the lack of power, while overlooking the incredible discipline and gap power.

      I was concerned that they had him pegged as a “struggling power hitter” rather than seeing him for what he is … an extremely productive hitter.

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  15. lex logan says:

    The best approach for NL managers looks like waiting for Votto to pack up for Toronto :)

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  16. jonathan says:

    One of the reasons Votto was in the minors for so long was that he was drafted as a catcher, and gave him a lot of opportunities to stick there, and then was moved to left field where he was blocked by Adam Dunn. Had he moved to first sooner, he probably would’ve been out of the minors sooner.

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    • CircleChange11 says:

      Thanks for the information.

      Like I said, when I looked at his numbers, there did not seem to be any reason to keep him in A-ball for multiple seasons … but if he was learning new positions, that would be different situation.

      I wonder how many MVPs spent 6 seasons in the minors? Maybe I’ll look that up sometime.

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  17. Ryan says:

    Great article about Votto when he played in my hometown, Hamilton, Ont.:

    http://www.thespec.com/print/article/264573

    “Day after day, a 16-year-old Joey Votto would come to manager Mel Oswald and ask for a new pair (of batting gloves). The team provided them to all players but they weren’t cheap. Naturally, Oswald got a touch suspicious. Nobody goes through gloves that fast.

    “I said to him, ‘Joey, are you selling these gloves,’” Oswald recalls asking, only half in jest.

    The answer was no but the coach still didn’t know where all these gloves were going. So the two struck a deal. Every time Votto felt he needed a new pair, he had to trade his old ones in to prove it.

    Not long after, the kid showed up ready for the first exchange. The pair he’d been given just a day or two before had holes in the palms. And blood stains all over them.

    “They were from broken blisters,” Oswald says.”

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    • Joel says:

      Not surprised. One thing you consistently hear about Votto is his relentless commitment to improving his game. Regardless of whether he ultimately puts up career numbers comparable to Pujols (such a lofty goal, though, for anyone), Votto’s work ethic and dedication to excellence should result in great success, and make him the kind of ballplayer who is a true joy to watch and root for.

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    • CircleChange11 says:

      Did anyone ask him why he wasn’t primarily holding the bat “in his fingers” instead of his palms?

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  18. Tom Kephart says:

    The idea that Votto was a LFer before being a 1B is entirely incorrect. During 2007, Votto got some time in LF at Triple-A, and then with the Reds during his September callup, because Reds were trying ways to get him into lineup. But he had been a 1B for several seasons.

    In his rookie season of 2008, he endured a rough spring training as he struggled to hit, while incumbent 1Bman Scott Hatteberg had a big spring at the plate. There were suggestions from the Cincy media that Votto perhaps was not yet ready, and Dusty Baker, who was new to the Reds that year, insisted that Votto’s minor league track record and what he had done in his Sept. cup of coffee showed he would eventually hit. Plus Baker talked about how impressed he was with Votto’s plate approach, so Votto began the season on the major league roster, but on the bench. He got into a couple games in the first couple weeks and began to hit. By late April, it was obvious that he, not Hatteberg, was the one who should be playing, and Votto began playing virtually everyday. By end of May, Hatteberg was released by Reds in sign of their commitment to Votto. Perhaps no coincidence that Hatteberg’s release came on the heels of Walt Jocketty taking over as GM at end of April when Wayne Krivsky was fired after Reds were off to terrible start. It became clear that Reds would be getting younger before they got better.

    Votto’s brief minor league sojourn in 2009 was on an injury rehab stint, as that was the season he was afflicted by headaches and nausea around the end of May, that wound up being diagnosed as depression attributable to dwelling on his father’s death at an early age the previous autumn. He missed 3-4 weeks of action due to that episode, and it took him awhile after he returned to really start becoming productive again, though he had been on fire at the plate before being sidelined.

    Votto was not really anything other than a major league player since September 2007. He improved throughout his 2008 rookie season. He produced in 2009 at a similar level to 2010 at the beginning of that season, and at the conclusion of the season, just that his overall performance that year was sidetracked by the depression-related episode in May-June, and then it taking him awhile after returning to get back into a real groove at the plate. His 2010 breakout season was widely foretold by many analysts during the 2009-2010 off-season, though he may have exceeded expectations a bit.

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  19. scott says:

    to the person who asked whether its better to be a gap hitter with the ability to develop power or a power hitter who needs to develop plate discipline, not sure there is a correct answer. For every joey votto who was a gap hitter, who developed more powere, there are 3 james loney’s who never will.

    I still remember last season steve phillips on baseball tonight complaining that Jay Bruce needed to take notes from James Loney on how to develop as a player for exactly that reason. He needed to try and be a gap hitter and develop power later.

    Not that loney is a terrible player, but I would guess the city of Cincy would prefer bruce not take notes from loney

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