Votto says Nats' Harper can't fail
The Reds’ Joey Votto called me over to his locker on Friday. He had something he wanted to say.
“Bryce Harper is pretty good,” Votto said, smiling.
Initially, as I reported on the MLB on Fox pre-game show Saturday, I thought Votto was kidding. But he wasn’t, not at all.
The quote you’re about to read about Harper is not from some media myth-maker, but one of the best, most studious hitters in the game.
“I don’t think he can fail,” Votto said. “With his swing and his size, I’m not sure it’s possible for him to fail.”
Votto issued a qualifier, saying that Harper will need to avoid distractions and injuries. But when I asked Votto why he felt so certain about Harper, he quickly rattled off a series of attributes, as if reading from a checklist.
In no particular order, Votto talked about Harper’s quick bat, his swing path, his leverage; his ability to hit lefties and righties; his ability to hit to all fields.
Votto also mentioned Harper’s moxie.
“After his at-bat against (Aroldis) Chapman last year, I was sold,” said Votto, referencing Harper’s first showdown with the Reds’ left-hander May 12 in Cincinnati, when Harper struck out on three pitches, fouling off the first two, then swinging through a 100-mph fastball.
“He was fearless. He didn’t care. Maybe it was naivete, pure ignorance. But he had no fear. He struck out, but he was the only hitter who went up there completely fearless.
“I’ve never thought a guy was more likely to have long-term success than him.”
Votto also told a more recent story, one from the series opener between the Nationals and Reds on Thursday night.
Harper drew a walk in his first at-bat. Votto was waiting for him at first base.
“Hey Bryce,” Votto recalled saying, “hit a home run.”
Harper didn’t shy from the challenge.
“He said, ‘OK’ — and he homered,” Votto said. “Then I homered. I said, ‘It’s 1-1.’ And then he doubled.”
Votto never caught up, and he’s not going to catch up in this series. The Nationals won the opener, 8-1; the second game, 1-0; and the third, 6-3, behind Harper’s ninth homer.
The finale is Sunday.
Harper, batting .373 with a 1.236 OPS, will be celebrating the first anniversary of his promotion to the major leagues.
THE REDS: SEARCHING FOR OFFENSE
The Reds, after falling victim to back-to-back one-hitters, looked better offensively on Saturday, and might have produced a comeback victory if not for two difficult — and clutch — catches by Nationals center fielder Denard Span.
Still, the Reds had offensive concerns even before this series began. Injuries to left fielder Ryan Ludwick and catcher Ryan Hanigan have left the team below average offensively at three positions, the other being shortstop with Zack Cozart.
Combine that with Votto’s early power slump, right fielder Jay Bruce’s slow start and second baseman Brandon Phillips’ recent struggles, and you’ve got a problem.
The Reds entered Saturday ranked fourth in the NL in runs. But take away five games in which they’ve scored in double digits, and they’re averaging only three per game.
Votto entered Saturday second in the NL with a .452 on-base percentage, but said he is not yet where he wants to be — he has hit four homers but only two doubles, and ranks among the NL leaders with 26 strikeouts.
Well, don’t be surprised if he gets hot soon.
Votto said it took him time to fully recover from two surgeries on his left knee last season, to get acclimated to how his leg is now feeling. He’s still working on his timing, tracking the ball, then letting go with his “A” swing consistently. But it’s coming: Votto said he’s doing his last little bit of fine-tuning.
He hit a double Saturday and Span robbed him of another extra-base hit.
THIS GUY CARES
During spring training, I wrote about a moving farewell note that Shin-Soo Choo wrote to Indians general manager Chris Antonetti after Cleveland traded him to Cincinnati.
Here is another example of Choo’s thoughtfulness.
Recently, he told manager Dusty Baker that he is concerned about losing the confidence of the Reds’ pitchers, even though he is doing extra work before games to smooth his transition to center field.
Choo said that he pitched in his native South Korea and remembers catchers that he couldn’t trust to block a curveball. He explained that he does not want to give Reds pitchers the same kind of stress, but Baker said Choo is the only one worried about it; the pitchers are fine.
NOT BAD FOR A FIFTH STARTER
Before Saturday’s game, Nats catcher Kurt Suzuki told me that Dan Haren has improved with each start, and Haren said his stuff right now is closer to what it was in 2011 than what it was last season, when he was still good enough to produce a 3.58 ERA after the All-Star break.
“My stuff is too good for me not to turn it around. I’ve been too good for too long,” said Haren, an 11-year veteran. “I’m still confident that I can get back to how I was, taking the ball, going deep into games.”
Haren threw a season-high six innings Saturday, allowing just two runs. For more on Haren — and the condition of his hip — watch my Full Count video (above).
WHAT A HOMER!
Reds third baseman Todd Frazier has a lively Twitter handle — FlavaFraz21 — and he got some lively responses from fans Wednesday night after his 480-foot homer off the Cubs’ Jeff Samardzija.
One fan wrote, “I’ll go swimming in the Ohio River so I can have that ball.” Another said, “I was in Lexington, Ky., apparently only 20 feet away from where it landed.” But here was my personal favorite:
“Seeing that shot changed my understanding of physics.”
POSITIVE WBC OUTCOME!
Before this season, Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips was a .207 career hitter with two strikes. But Phillips told me that playing for Team USA in the World Baseball Classic — and seeing how Joe Mauer hits — persuaded him that maybe he should adjust his approach.
Mauer’s at-bats, of course, are just getting started when he reaches two strikes. Phillips decided he would see more pitches, and though the sample size is still small, the changes thus far are noticeable. Phillips is seeing 3.79 pitches per plate appearance — an average that would represent a career high — and batting .309 in 55 at-bats with two strikes.
Entering Saturday, the league average with two strikes was .175. Mauer’s career average in those counts is .258.
AROUND THE HORN
• Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond made seven errors in his first 18 games, but has now gone six games without one.
Desmond was somewhat philosophical about his defensive slump, saying: “It happens. It’s part of the game.” But he also made it quite clear that he was not satisfied with his defense at the start of the season.
“I’ve definitely got to pick it up a little bit, get back to some of the things I’ve done in the past,” Desmond said. “You don’t work as hard as I do to not get better.”
• Aroldis Chapman, the Reds’ closer, bought customized caps for all of his teammates this week. The caps say, “Cuban Missile,” on the front — that’s Chapman’s nickname — and they bear each player’s initials and number on the back.
The caps look sort of homemade, and some of them are quite colorful, even gaudy. But to a man, the players were touched by Chapman’s gesture.
• Autograph seekers at games can be rude, but I have never witnessed anything like what I saw before Saturday’s game, when a group of Korean fans near the Reds’ dugout tried to engage Choo.
The fans threw — yes, threw — gloves, caps and pens at Choo, who picked up the items and returned them, but did not sign.
He spoke briefly to the fans in Korean, clearly bothered by the display.
• Finally, in case you missed it, please check out my video interview (above) with Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, whose mother, Cheryl, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1995.
Zimmerman’s foundation is dedicated to fighting MS, and he talks in the interview about the foundation’s work, an unusual clause in his contract and his recovery from hamstring and shoulder injuries.