In his first few years in the Cincinnati organization, Joey Votto -- and every other Reds minor leaguer in Class A and Rookie ball at that time -- was instructed not to swing in an at-bat until they had seen a strike. It was a controversial mandate, and one none too popular with players. Votto, in particular, seethed. He believed that he was being handcuffed.
By the end of the first week of the mandate, opposing teams had figured out that young Reds hitters were not going to swing at the first pitch. Votto would often have to watch first-pitch fastballs sail over the middle of the plate for strikes. Immediately he was behind in the count, which often meant he would then be pitched a heavy dose of breaking balls.
Votto wanted to be aggressive. He wanted to swing at the first pitch if he believed it was a good pitch. Mostly, he didn't want anyone telling him when to swing. He was stubborn enough to believe that nobody but him knew what was best for his approach.
But then-general manager Dan O'Brien believed it was a necessary move for a farm system that had not been producing patient hitters.
"When I joined the organization it was clear that there was an underdeveloped hitting approach and that players lacked a game plan or strike zone recognition," O'Brien told me in 2010 when I interviewed him for a story about Votto for ESPN the Magazine.
Eventually, and begrudgingly, Votto acknowledged that O'Brien's mandate had turned him into a patient and more effective hitter. He saw more pitches than he probably would have normally seen, and he grew accustomed to hitting breaking pitches -- since he saw them much more often than usual, because he was constantly behind in the count.
It seems comical to think now that the lessons that Votto at first hated and then embraced have now helped turn him into the type of hitter that has made him a pariah among the RBI-embracing types. For them, Votto isn't nearly aggressive enough. He should be swinging more. If he did, then perhaps he would have driven in more than 73 runs this season. If he did, then perhaps he would not have been booed at his own home ballpark at the end of the season. If he did, then perhaps the Reds wouldn't have had to play in a must-win wild-card game on Tuesday night against the Pittsburgh Pirates.
The anti-Vottos have gotten even more ammunition after the Reds petered out of the playoffs on Tuesday, in part, because Votto could not come up big with runners on base against the Pirates. In three of his four at-bats on Tuesday, Votto came to the plate with men on base. He left all four of those runners on base.
He struck out with runners on first and second base in the third inning. He struck out in the sixth with a man on second. In the eighth, when the Reds were trying to mount a comeback, Votto once again came up with a runner on base. He grounded out. In all, Votto was 0-for-4 with two strikeouts.
But in this putrid performance on Tuesday, Votto might have actually proven his point about his approach. This season, Votto swung at the first pitch in only 210 of his 726 plate appearances. On Tuesday, Votto swung at the first pitch in his first two times up against Pirates starter Francisco Liriano.
Perhaps Votto was trying not to get behind in the count against a pitcher who had limited left-handed hitters to a .321 OPS this season. Or perhaps Votto had tired of the critics and had promised himself to be more aggressive in the postseason. Hopefully it was the former. It seem unlikely that Votto would change his approach for anyone.
In all, Votto saw only 10 pitches in his four at-bats; this season, Votto averaged 4.18 pitches per plate appearance. Clearly something was different on Tuesday. In fairness, Votto faced left-handed pitches in all four of his plate appearances against the Pirates (three ABs vs. Liriano, one AB vs. Tony Watson), although Votto does well against lefties (.823 OPS this season, .883 for his career).
In the early part of his career, each offseason Votto hired a left-handed batting practice pitcher so that he could get at-bats against lefties. Votto spent countless hours at the Reds' spring training site trying to refine his approach against lefties.
"I got fixated on beating left handers," he told me in 2010. "It upsets me when I got out against a lefty as I do against a righty. I feel like I should beat them all."
Here was a player who had put every bit of his time to perfect his approach, and had become so obsessed in success that he would not rest until he felt he comfortable hitting lefties. It took him three years.
Regardless, Votto's critics will have all offseason to condemn a player who now has been tagged as someone who can't drive in runs. Last year, Votto hit .389 with an .889 OPS in the Division Series loss to the San Francisco Giants, and yet it will be noted that he did not drive in a run. In all, Votto has played in nine postseason games and has driven in just one run.
It seems we should be past the point of making too much out of small sample sizes or of putting too much emphasis on the RBI stat. But here we are, making the same arguments that we all have been making for the past 10 years. Perhaps Votto's critics simply want to use him to dismiss the type of statistics that have become the norm recently. It's the scouts vs. nerds argument all over again. Votto is simply the guy now caught in the middle.
"Offensively I don't think I got it going this year," Votto told reporters after the loss on Tuesday. "It just wasn't my best year offensively."
Yet statistically, Votto had the third highest OPS (.926) of any first baseman in baseball in 2013. The two players above him (Chris Davis, Paul Goldschmidt) have not had as long a record of success as Votto to consider them to be better overall players than him at this point. The biggest argument against Votto always centers around his 12-year $251.5 million contract he signed last season and whether he's worth it. A player is worth whatever a team is willing to pay him.
"I have to do some learning and put in a lot of work in the offseason and make improvements so that I can be a better ballplayer," Votto added on Tuesday night.
Undoubtedly, Votto will work on his game this offseason. He'll probably do a lot more hitting than usual. And yet the best lessons he learned will still have come in those early years, when a controversial mandate helped turn him into the player that he is today, one worth appreciating despite whatever happened on Tuesday night.