Joey Votto

The evolution of Kris Bryant and why Joey Votto became his favorite player

The evolution of Kris Bryant and why Joey Votto became his favorite player

Kris Bryant already has a bromance with Anthony Rizzo, their Bryzzo Souvenir Co. brand and a joint appearance at a downtown Chicago hotel this weekend where Cubs fans can pay $699 for their autographs.

Bryant also has a friendly rivalry with Bryce Harper, the Washington Nationals superstar who loves trolling on social media and teasing where he might land as a free agent after the 2018 season. Even their wives had fun with it on Instagram earlier this month when the Nationals came to Wrigley Field for a potential playoff preview.

But the player Bryant patterns himself after now – the one who lives up to “The Science of Hitting” and the principles his father absorbed from Ted Williams and passed down in the family’s batting cage in Las Vegas – is Joey Votto.

“He’s the best player ever,” Bryant said before Wednesday night’s 7-6 walk-off win over the Cincinnati Reds. “He’s my favorite player. I love watching him. I love talking to him, just picking his brain.

“He gets a lot of (heat) about his walks and working at-bats and some people want him to swing at more pitches. But, gosh, I mean, he does an unbelievable job. You know that he’s going to give you a great at-bat every time he goes up there. It’s definitely a guy that I look up to and I can learn from.”

Favorite player? Really?

“Besides, you know, people on my team,” Bryant said with a laugh.

The Cubs contained Votto on a night where their bullpen nearly imploded, holding him to a 1-for-4 that stopped him from tying the major-league record Williams set in 1948 by getting on base at least twice in 21 straight games with the Boston Red Sox.

Through Votto, Bryant sees where he can grow after becoming a National League Rookie of the Year and MVP and World Series champion before his 25th birthday.    

“He’s not just doing it this year – he’s doing it his whole career,” Bryant said. “He’s a future Hall of Famer, that’s for sure.”

Bryant – who has reached base safely in his last 13 games and put up a 1.035 OPS in August – is heating up at a time when the Cubs are trying to fend off the Milwaukee Brewers (1.5 games back) and St. Louis Cardinals (2.5 games back) in a tight division race.

Where Votto famously dismissed old questions about whether or not he was being too selective, Bryant blocks out any talk about an All-Star snub, his batting average with runners in scoring position (.227) or RBI total (54). Bryant is getting on base more than 40 percent of the time and also leads the team in doubles (25), runs scored (78) and OPS (.936).  

“Sometimes it’s almost like you can kind of go up there and force the pitcher to throw the pitch that you want, just by taking pitches,” Bryant said. “My first year, I was kind of just up there swinging at everything. I still felt the approach was good and it could work in the big leagues. And it did. But I think there’s ways to have a better approach up there.

“(Votto’s) a different guy with that. I feel like he’s aggressive, but he’s not going to swing at a pitch until he wants it. And he mentioned that to me, too, when I got to first (on Monday night). He said: ‘Your approach looks a lot better this year.’”

Bryant sincerely thanked Votto, but the reigning MVP isn’t trying to put together a package deal with Harper and turn the Cubs into Major League Baseball’s version of the Golden State Warriors.  

“I already told him before: ‘We already have a pretty good first baseman. He’s not going anywhere,’” Bryant said. “Joey can switch positions if he wants to play for the Cubs.”

Joe Maddon's "Step Brothers" moment led to wacky shift on Joey Votto

Joe Maddon's "Step Brothers" moment led to wacky shift on Joey Votto

Joe Maddon and Davey Martinez might have to start going by "Nighthawk" and "Dragon."

They already came as a package deal in the workforce, as Martinez joined Maddon in the trek from Tampa Bay to Chicago before the 2015 season.

When gameplanning for the Cincinnati Reds series, the celebrity manager and his bench coach had a "did we just become best friends??" moment.

The two had the same thought at the same time: Play four outfielders against red-hot Joey Votto.

"Davey and I were talking. It was almost like that scene in 'Step Brothers' — 'Did we just become best friends?'" Maddon said. "Thought the same thing at the same time — four outfielders! It was kinda like that.

"Sometimes it can be that extemporaneous. They're telling me all this stuff about how many days in a row he's been on base two times. That's crazy. You know he's gonna get on base, whether it's a walk or a single. 

"So go ahead. Just try something differently and see if it influences what he's thinking a little bit. But it obviously didn't [Monday]. Pulls the ball down the right-field line. That's the last thing you were looking for right there and it happened."

Maddon emphasized that part — just giving Votto a different look. At the very least, it may mess with his head a bit if not his swing.

The Cubs were only worried about the bunt or the popup down the left-field line with the wacky shift and alerted shortstop Javy Baez about that as third baseman Kris Bryant moved out to left-center.

There was also the added factor that Jose Quintana gives up more fly balls than grounders and Votto rarely hits the ball on the ground the opposite way.

"Why cover where the guy doesn't hit the ball?" Maddon asked. "Whereas you can cover more where he does. That's the essence of the shift.

"I wanted them to attempt to hit a groundball over there as opposed to driving the ball. ... You want to take them away from what they do best."

‘Ungodly’ Joey Votto forces Cubs to think outside the box with four-outfielder shift

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USA TODAY

‘Ungodly’ Joey Votto forces Cubs to think outside the box with four-outfielder shift

Trying to somehow stop Joey Votto, Joe Maddon reached into his bag of tricks on Monday night, shifting the Cubs into a four-outfielder alignment that became the viral moment during a 15-5 win over the Cincinnati Reds at Wrigley Field.

Maddon counted four other left-handed sluggers who got that look when he managed the Tampa Bay Rays and developed his reputation as a mad scientist: Jim Thome, David Ortiz, Travis Hafner and Josh Hamilton.      

The Cubs don’t game plan for the same personnel – or work around the same small-market challenges – that Maddon faced in the American League East. The Cubs actually aren’t a shift-heavy team – and have seen their defense noticeably slip from the historic level during last year’s championship run.

But as Maddon said: “Votto right now is ungodly, so whatever you do, you’re taking chances anyhow.”

With a five-run lead and one out and nobody on in the fifth inning, third baseman Kris Bryant moved out to left-center field, in between Kyle Schwarber and Jon Jay with Gold Glove defender Jason Heyward in right. Votto smashed Jose Quintana’s 3-1, 92-mph fastball down the first-base line and into the right-field corner for a stand-up double.      

This is an idea rooted in the 2002 World Series, when Maddon worked on Mike Scioscia’s coaching staff and the Anaheim Angels outlasted Barry Bonds and the San Francisco Giants.

“Nobody did crazy shifts at that time,” Maddon said. “Going to the Rays, they had all the charts, so it didn’t make any sense to cover the other side against those guys. They never hit the ball on the ground over there. They put balls in the gaps.

“It’s almost like Tony Gwynn when he was good – actually moving when the ball was pitched, to try to be in the right spot or distract him. We did it in that situation for a reason. We didn’t do it with (Mike) Montgomery for another reason. We’ll continue to throw it out there when we think it’s the right thing to do.”

Votto is in the middle of a $251.5 million megadeal guaranteed through 2023 and the iconic first baseman for a 49-70 team who leads the majors with a 1.050 OPS. But what an example for a rebuild: Votto has reached base at least twice in 19 straight games (club record) and gotten on base 61 percent of the time during that streak (52-of-85 plate appearances).     

“Joey’s an unbelievable hitter and does a lot of damage,” Jay said. “I think he's the perfect guy to do that against.”