The Cleveland Indians showed last year they just don’t have that offensive anchor that any great team needs at its core. Whether big-, medium-, or small-market, from New York and Los Angeles down to Tampa and wherever else, the teams making noise in the playoffs have a centerpiece. It takes luck, a great development system and of course a good prospect to get this of course, and the regular route is to get a high draft pick (Evan Longoria, Mike Trout, Alex Rodriguez) and by and large let his talents take you to the top.
But sometimes you get something special, a diamond in the rough. Back in the late 90’s, it was Albert Pujols, a 13th-round draft pick that became the most feared hitter in the game. More recently, the Cincinnati Reds picked Joey Votto in the second round, 44th overall. Though admittedly not as deep as Pujols, it was a great pick, regardless of who was picked before him.
How can the Indians do this? How can they find their own Joey Votto? And am I just delusional?
This all stems from the recent FanGraphs interview Eno Sarris had with Votto, a fascinating look into a really brilliant mind who understands what he has to do to succeed in baseball, what others are trying to do to him, and what he can do to make it hard to do that. With a slash line of .231/.348/.287 in the Midwest League, Votto looked more like Juan Pierre than a future baseball destroyer, and he knew it. He was a dead pull hitter. He was smart where a strangely small number of players aren’t: he realized that if he adjusted his hitting style to spray the ball around he could stop defensive shifts and take advantage of all the real estate baseball grants all hitters. (Incidentally, a really bad nickname for Votto would be Big Ten, because that college conference is made up of land-grant schools, and he takes advantage of all that granted land. Terrible, right?)
It was made a little easier because besides being able to make contact, Joey could hit it hard. Simple, yet again, so rare. He hit liners, not bombs, but he still will be up there in slugging percentage even if he hits only 25 or 30 home runs. Suffice to say, Votto has figured hitting out, like few before him save Ted Williams. His physical skills are to die for, but it’s that mind that sealed the deal.
If you look back, that cerebral type of player hasn’t really been the forte of the Indians’ drafting for a while. You look back to the 90’s when monsters wandered the clubhouse at Jacobs Field, the study of the science of hitting wasn’t all that evident. Farmboys are gonna wallop balls, tornadoes of fury will have 50/50 seasons and Mozart will paint a picture at the plate (Jim Thome, Albert Belle and Manny Ramirez, if you were curious) but I just never got the sense these guys were on the level I see Votto at now.
More recently, the young guns just seem so raw. Every other month last season you heard about another tweak to Carlos Santana’s swing, and it took a wizened second baseman with a shared last name to help Asdrubal Cabrera become a power threat. There are any number of reasons why an Indians player hasn’t developed into a terrifying offensive force, whether it’s lack of continuity in coaching, lack of experience, or an inability to adjust to Major League pitching.
I suppose it takes a very committed, perhaps borderline crazy kind of person to get to that point. When Ted Williams was a kid he decided he wanted to be the greatest hitter who ever lived. Actually, he wanted people to say “There goes Ted Williams, the greatest hitter ever” or some such thing, but you get the idea. He decided to do that, and he did it. Votto is a student of Williams, wearing out copies of “The Science of Hitting” like he wears out baseballs. Plainly he has that single-minded drive to be the best that Williams had, and perhaps that’s just rarer than you’d think. The Tribe doesn’t seem like they’re going to get one of those guys in the near future.
It’s all just wishful thinking, of course. Nobody knew what Votto would become any more than the Cardinals knew from the get-go what Pujols would be; the same goes for just about any superstar. It’s tough to scout for such a random chance of all these attributes to show up in one person. But hey, maybe Dorsyss Paulino has the mental focus of a Shaolin monk and a Vanderbiltean drive. Maybe Jason Kipnis comes to the realization there’s a second half to the season and his mediocre spring is just a ruse, then takes several steps forward. As weak as we keep remembering the Indians farm system has been lately, it did produce Grady Sizemore not too long ago.
So what do we do? We hold out hope. Personally, I’ve put all my eggs in the Lonnie Chisenhall basket, because if he gets good, we’ll have a hitting machine on our hands. Lonnie ain’t got time to walk, and his style is Vladimir Guerrero-like when he gets it going. It’s nice to appreciate Votto from afar, but I’d love for one to show up in Cleveland.
Has the season started yet?