CLEVELAND -- Shin-Soo Choo and Joey Votto are both on pace to reach base at least 300 times this season.
Think about that.
Better yet, let's let Choo think about it.
"That's really hard to do?" Choo said, leaning back in his chair in the visitors' clubhouse at Progressive Field. "Three hundred times?"
The wheels of thought start churning in Choo's mind.
"You have 600 at-bats if you play every day," said Choo, "and maybe you get 150 hits …"
Suddenly, the realization hits him.
"Ohhh," he said, nodding his head. "Whoa, whoa, whoa, that is hard! You need 200 hits plus 100 walks. Wow!"
Yes, Choo, it is hard. Dating all the way back to 1901, the feat has been achieved by an average of just 1.2 players per season. So to have two guys do it on the same team would be special, special stuff. In the past 75 years, in fact, the only pairs of teammates to get on base 300 times each were Derek Jeter and Bernie Williams on the '99 Yankees and Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell on the '97 Astros.
"Three hundred times," Choo said with a look of wonder. "I think Joey can do it. So that's on me."
Votto and Choo might not pull off the dual-300 feat, but they are both putting together the kind of season a stathead could celebrate. They rank first and second in the Majors in on-base percentage (Votto at .474, Choo at .449), with both men embodying the sort of passive-aggressive, pitch-count-eating approach that is being preached by many a hitting coach in the game today.
It is some kind of oddity or irony or sabermetric injustice that they are providing this OBP assault in the first one-third of a lineup drawn up nightly by the man oft-associated with being anti-OBP. But Dusty Baker, who once famously made the observation that "clogging up the bases isn't that great to me," will tell you he's not so much anti-OBP as he is anti-OBP obsession. OBP, he said, means nothing if it's not followed by RBI, and in Choo and Votto, he finds equal parts fascination and frustration.
"They should be [ranked] one and two in runs scored," Baker said. "There have been quite a few times they've been left out there. You can get on base all you want to, but if you don't have guys driving you in, it doesn't matter."
Now, Votto ranks first in the Majors in runs scored (44) and Choo ranks sixth (40), while the Reds lead the National League in runs scored (255) and cleanup hitter Brandon Phillips leads the league in RBIs (43). You could, therefore, certainly accuse Baker of nitpicking here.
With that said, the Reds also lead the Majors in runners left on base (410), and No. 2 hitter Zack Cozart and No. 5 hitter Jay Bruce (both with 99) are atop the NL in that category. So Baker does have a point about the Reds not exactly making the most of this unique OBP opportunity.
"It's not called walking, it's called hitting," Baker said, and that sound you just heard was a sabermetrician slapping his forehead. "You're trying to get a hit."
|"I'm trying to get the most out of myself, and I have decided that this is the way I get the most out of myself. And if people don't like it, that's their decision. But the people that think I'm doing well are the same people that make sure an automobile drives straight and an airplane knows how to land. These are scientists and mathematicians that can figure out some things."|
|-- Joey Votto|
That it exists at all, though, is a credit to the discipline Votto and Choo take to their at-bats. Theirs, they've discovered, is a shared appreciation for selectivity.
"I love the team concept, and I also love competing with my teammate," Votto said. "Having a guy like Choo, who has been so consistently good, is a nice challenge. It's nice to have someone new to learn from and see the way they operate and see what things I can take from his program and apply to mine."
Votto calls Choo "Rabbit," (actually, he uses the Korean word, which is pronounced "toe-kee") because the South Korean native got off to such a great start to the 2013 season that nobody can catch him. In truth, Votto has caught him, despite some early season anxiety amongst Reds fans that Votto was, perhaps, being too patient, racking up the walks but not the hits.
Votto was swinging at just 60 percent of strikes through the first three weeks of the season, and the numbers showed the results of his restraint. Through 17 games, he had 24 walks but just 14 hits, only three of which had gone for extra bases. People wondered aloud if maybe he was taking this OBP stuff a little too seriously.
"He's probably heard it quite a few times," Baker said. "Joey hears the whispers, but sometimes you gotta let a guy learn at his own pace."
Votto has been one of the hottest hitters in baseball this month, batting .417 with a 1.190 OPS. One reason is simply that he's swinging at more strikes. He's raised that percentage to 68.2, much more in line with his 2010 NL MVP Award season.
But don't take this as a signal that Votto has fundamentally adjusted his approach. He still believes in the value of going deep in the count, of swinging the at-bat in his favor, sometimes by not swinging at all. Though he is swinging at 30.8 percent of first pitches (above the Major League average of 26.5 percent), he is also seeing 4.13 pitches per plate appearance (well above the Major League average of 3.85). Votto, then, illustrates his own favorite quality in a hitter, which is to be both patient and aggressive.
"I'm trying to get the most out of myself, and I have decided that this is the way I get the most out of myself," he said. "And if people don't like it, that's their decision. But the people that think I'm doing well are the same people that make sure an automobile drives straight and an airplane knows how to land. These are scientists and mathematicians that can figure out some things."
Though he didn't know Votto personally before this season, Choo has long shared Votto's affinity for OBP. When he hit .300 with a .401 OBP in 2010, Choo was much more proud of the latter number than the former.
But with Votto as an aide and accomplice, the Rabbit has learned to focus more on each individual pitch and give away fewer at-bats.
"Last year, I had a lot of strikeouts on 3-2 counts," Choo said. "I took on 0-2 counts when pitchers would throw nasty pitches -- 1-2, 2-2, nasty pitches, I'd take. Sometimes I talk to myself and say, 'Wow, how do you take these pitches?' But 3-2, same pitches and maybe worse pitches? Way outside? I would swing."
Choo said he's learned to treat 3-2 as a pitcher's count, not a hitter's count, and this shift in mindset could account for the major statistical strides he's made in this free-agent walk year. Last season, Choo hit a measly .191 with a .265 slugging percentage in full counts. This year, it's .310 with a .586 SLG.
"You're never done learning," Choo said.
Choo and Votto have both learned from each other, to the Reds' benefit. Baker would like to see Cincinnati benefit even more, and much of that burden falls on Cozart and Bruce. Because while Baker might not exactly finesse the delivery of his message, its sentiment is true: If Votto and Choo continue to get on base at a rate rarely seen from two teammates, the Reds ought to capitalize.