PITTSBURGH -- The first and most fundamental thing that must be understood is that Joey Votto is very likely never going to hit 37 home runs in a season again.
This is an assumption even Votto himself understands.
In fact, Votto is still amazed at the criticism he received last season, when his power and run-production totals were a shadow of his 2010 MVP season, while his on-base percentage was once again elite.
"People didn't expect me to have less power than when I was in my middle-20s, after a couple of knee surgeries and some aging?" Votto said. "Pay attention to the trends, man. It drives me crazy. How could you not expect players to make changes as their career goes along? I'm not the same guy I was five years ago, and I'm not the same guy now that I'll be in five years."
The Reds, with new manager Bryan Price at the helm, seem to have embraced that idea. Votto was moved to the No. 2 spot of Price's lineup on April 12 -- an overdue move that gets one of baseball's best pure hitters more at-bats while helping to offset some of the top-of-the-lineup uncertainty that comes with the rookie Billy Hamilton in the leadoff role. Most importantly, it takes advantage of Votto's pitch-seeing, walk-drawing, pitcher-exhausting strengths.
And by the way: It's working. Or at least, it seems to be.
While this could purely be coincidental, it's hard to ignore that a Reds lineup that ranked near the bottom of the barrel in runs per game two weeks into the season (2.80) has scored the second-most runs per game (5.50) in baseball since Votto made his move.
Even as an outspoken member of the "bat Votto second" movement, I'll go ahead and admit there's probably a significant percentage of coincidence involved there, and the surge is undoubtedly due at least as much to the surging Devin Mesoraco (.541/.571/.946 slash line in 42 plate appearances) and Hamilton's improved plate presence as it is to lineup construction.
But that doesn't mask the bigger-picture point, which is that Votto's move to the two-hole was not a demotion but an embrace of his value. It was centered on an understanding that while Votto's slugging percentage falls short of his late-20s peak, his elite ability to extend innings and generate opportunity is an asset that must be maximized.
It is Votto's gargantuan contract that encourages expectation that his .600 slugging percentage from 2010 be the norm. Those expectations, however, ignore the more natural aging curves we've seen in an environment that cracks down on performance-enhancing drugs, and they also ignore the positives of Votto's current contributions.
"[The decline in power] doesn't mean I can't still be at my peak and do other things that provide value for the team," Votto said. "I think people just wanted me to be a traditional 35-homer, 100-RBI guy, because that's what they saw as a best-case scenario for any corner guy. I think my style of play challenges people to think outside the box, and it challenges people to go against their former ideas of what a good player looks like."
Price is essentially using Votto as his two-hole hitter on a trial basis, though the early results of the arrangement certainly lend themselves to a longer look. While we are still well short of league-wide adaptation of the "bat-your-stud-hitter-second" philosophy espoused by the sabermetric community, the Votto move is a substantial one that will merit further monitoring as the season progresses.
Right now, a Reds team that started slowly and quickly found itself battling from behind in the four-team National League Central brouhaha is pleased with the progress of the lineup.
Hamilton started the season in an 0-for-12 funk that lent credence to the concerns about his ability to transition to the big league stage. What impressed the Reds, though, was the maturity he's shown through his struggles, and they're encouraged by the .379 OBP he's posted over his last seven games. Simply getting on base has allowed him to take advantage of that jaw-dropping speed, which was on full display when he tagged up from third on a popup to shallow right field against the Cardinals on April 9 or when he streaked from first to third on a comebacker to the pitcher at PNC Park on Monday night.
Understandably, Mesoraco didn't generate nearly as much attention in Spring Training as did Hamilton, but his offensive development is arguably as important. This is a make-or-break type of season for Mesoraco, given his past struggles (.212 average, coming into the season) against right-handed pitching. Mesoraco began the season on the disabled list, but, since his April 8 activation, he's simply been the hottest hitter in baseball -- hotter even than Mr. 500 himself, Albert Pujols.
Mesoraco, therefore, has shown he has the means to lengthen this lineup, and that's as important a point as any in the Reds' offensive surge.
Still, it all starts at the top. And Votto near the top is a worthwhile experiment that could lead to more open-mindedness across the Major League landscape.
Statistically, Votto has taken a liking to the role, contributing a .324/.468/.595 slash line since he made the move. And mentally, he takes his removal from the vaunted No. 3 spot in the spirit in which it is intended.
"I don't care," Votto said with a shrug and a smile. "It's more at-bats."
More at-bats for your best hitter? Not a bad idea.