Votto Matta You?

Fun story here about Joey Votto and the continuing disdain some people in and around Cincinnati seem to have for his patient approach at the plate. My favorite quote in there was actually a question Dennis Janson says he asked when Bryan Price was introduced as Reds manager:

I asked Walt Jocketty if Price is up to the task of disabusing Joey of the notion that a base on balls is as beneficial as a run scoring sacrifice fly.

Jocketty, according to the story, replied that yes, Price was up to the task but that everyone in the organization would chip in to rid Joey Votto of this patience virus and get him hacking away for sacrifice flies like a good run producer should. Well, I’m encapsulating.

This general theme is a pretty old one — this idea that sluggers who walk a lot are somehow not helping the team as much as they should. They said it about Ted Williams and Duke Snider too.

From The Boys of Summer on Snider and sportswriter Bill Roeder:

“Watching Duke Snider turned Bill Roeder sardonic. The Duke could run and throw and leap. His swing was classic; enormous and fluid, a swing of violence that seemed a swing of ease. ‘But do you know when he’s happiest?’ Roeder complained. ‘When he walks. Watch how he throws the bat away. He’s glad.’ Roeder would have liked to have Snider’s skills, he conceded. If he had, he believed he would have used them with more ferocity. Snider was living Roeder’s dream and so abusing it.”

Isn’t that at the heart of it all? A walk, by definition, means that a pitcher threw four pitchers that an umpire deemed out of the strike zone and, as such, not much good for hitting. Almost no one hits .300 or slugs .500 when connecting with pitches out of the strike zone. No one – no exceptions, not even the famous bad ball hitters like Yogi and Clemente — makes consistently good contact on pitches outside the strike zone year after year. A hitter makes his bones on pitches inside that box.

So, why would you ask someone to swing at pitches outside the strike zone? Why would a hitter be considered SELFISH for not swinging at bad pitches when, in fact, it’s almost certainly the other way around? I think it’s the Bill Roeder thing. We have this impulse inside us — a good impulse much of the time — that success comes from trying harder, being more aggressive, going out and getting it, giving 110%. A walk seems a passive act. This is especially true when there are runners in scoring position. Dammit Joey, you’re an RBI man not a walker. If only I had Joey Votto’s talent, I’d drive in more than 73 runs in a season.

But it’s a lie. Joey Votto’s “talent” is not being wasted when he takes bad pitches. That IS HIS talent. That was Ted Williams talent. That was Stan Musial’s talent. That was Mike Schmidt’s talent and Barry Bonds’ talent and Babe Ruth’s talent — they all had this extraordinary ability to know what pitches they could hit and what pitches they could not. It might be the rarest gift in baseball.

Yes, if Votto was a different hitter — a free-swinger with low batting averages and OBPs like his teammates Brandon Phillips and Jay Bruce — he probably could have driven in 100 runs in 2013 like they did.* And … he would be at least one-third less valuable as an offensive player.

*Maybe. Maybe not. Bruce and Phillips came to the plate with many more runners on base. Bruce and Phillips were actually 1-2 in the National League in runners on base. Bruce came up with 500 runners on base, Phillips with 492. Votto came up with 441 — more than 50 less. You know the difference? Joey Votto got on base in front of Bruce and Phillips.

But let’s get to the point here: Does Joey Votto really take too many walks when he should be hitting sacrifice flies? This is actually pretty easy to look up.

In 2013, Votto came up 53 times with a runner on third and less than two outs. He was intentionally walked 11 of those times, so there’s not a lot he could do about those. In his other 42 times, he hit six sac flies and he walked seven times. That doesn’t really seem like a trend. Well, he only got seven hits in 29 at-bats for a .241 average, so maybe there’s something to that …

… no, I’m just joshing with you. Having a little small-sample size fun. There’s nothing to it.

2012: Came up 23 times in sac fly situations. Was intentionally walked four. Hit two sac flies and walked three times. Hit .571 the rest of the time.

2011: Came up 42 times. Was intentionally walked five. Of the remaining 37, he hit six sac flies, walked four times, and hit .393 the rest of the time.

Career: Came up 210 times. Intentionally walked 25 so that leaves 185 at-bats with a runner on third and less than two outs. In those 185 plate appearances, he hit 20 sac flies, walked 27 times unintentionally, hit .365 and slugged .584. The guy’s a bleeping beast in sac fly situations, which is why pitchers consciously try to pitch around him. If Walt Jocketty and Bryan Price and the rest of the Reds spend even one minute disabusing Joey Votto of the notion that a base on balls is as beneficial as a sac fly — and trying to change him as a hitter — they should be forced by the Baseball Gods to trade him to my favorite team and pick up Josh Hamilton and his gargantuan contract in his place. Hamilton, you will note, is a sac fly machine.

54 thoughts on “Votto Matta You?

  1. Adam

    WARNING — not all of us in Cincinnati have disdain for Votto’s patience!! Those of us that have at least a basic knowledge of baseball don’t!

    Unfortunately, many still do have a problem with it…

    Reply
  2. Richard Aronson

    Baseball is a complicated game that looks simple because we all played it at kids.

    Some people don’t understand that. They might be enlightened by “The Science of Hitting”.and learn to appreciate Joey Votto for the gem that he is. They argue, “just throw strikes” when the pitcher’s problem is that an easy strike would lead to lots of hard hit balls which is just as bad and probably worse; it’s throwing strikes that won’t get blasted that requires lots of minute adjustments, and throwing pitches that aren’t strikes that fool batters into swinging at them. A lot of media folks make a lot of money because a LOT of people think complicated problems have simple solutions. even though those simple solutions won’t work. A moment of silence for “Fire Joe Morgan” here.

    So we try and educate them. By writing well about baseball, making it more interesting, Joe might lure a few of them to enlightenment about other issues. But, alas, most aren’t the kinds of people who would even look up “The Science of Hitting” and see that it was written by about the best hitter in history, or even come to this web site.

    Reply
  3. Bill White

    If Cincy is so upset, they should trade Votto to the Red Sox, who just won a World Series by being patient, not swinging at bad pitches, and taking lots of walks.

    Reply
  4. wordyduke

    In a full season, Votto gets on base 300 times. That’s what scores runs, lots of batters getting on base lots of times. That’s what wins games (if you have any pitching). Right on, Joe.

    Reply
  5. Cathead

    Two other thoughts:
    1. The statistical analysis also needs to include the number of at bats in which Votto put the ball in play (other than sac fly or hit) and the runner still scored (e.g., ground ball or error).
    2. Is it just possible that a baseball TEAM needs more than one kind of hitter? Aside from the fact that not everyone can be Joey Votto, there needs to someone in the line up whose role it is to drive in runs. It’s a GM’s job to assimilate various talents, including some whose primary role is fielding. It’s a manager’s job – among others – to organize the talents he has been given into a productive team. He also has to motivate them at times and use players with limited roles in a way that even they are productive when called upon.
    I’m not sure that a team with eight Joey Vottos and one pitcher in the line up is going to win any more than a team with eight Brandon Phillipses will win. [Though eight Willie Mays does work.]

    Reply
    1. Ben Goldberg-Morse

      A lineup of 8 2013 Brandon Phillipses will make outs 69% of the time with an ISO of .135. An all-Votto lineup would make outs only 56.5% of the time, ISOing .186. Votto’s team would keep innings alive longer, getting out less frequently, while doing more damage with the pitches he swings at. Of almost equal importance, Votto sees 4.18 pitches per plate appearance, compared to 3.64 for Phillips, so he will get to the soft underbelly of an opponent’s bullpen earlier.

      Reply
    2. Trent Phloog

      Just looking at hitting ability — leaving aside fielding — I am utterly certain that a team of eight Vottos (career OBP .419) would win more than a team of eight Phillipses (career OBP .320). The Cincinnati Vottos would be easily the greatest hitting team of all time, like mind-blowingly great. The Cincinnati Phillipses would be average, at best.

      I don’t agree with you that “there needs to someone in the line up whose role it is to drive in runs.” The role of EVERY hitter is to not make outs; runs are created as a side effect. And Joey Votto does this better than anyone in baseball today.

      Reply
      1. Cathead

        Runs created (and prevented) is the objective of the game the last I heard. Thus, the role of EVERY player is to help his team score more runs than the other team scores. An individual hitter getting on base may be the most important part of scoring a run, but it is not the only part. Getting on base provides team opportunities, and the more you get on base the more opportunities. Somewhere, somehow, those opportunities have to be cashed in.

        If I am a number 8 hitter (in the NL) with a man in scoring position with two outs, I am called upon to take more hacks, especially with two outs, I have a better chance of getting a hit on a borderline pitch than most pitchers would have on a meatball down the middle.

        Reply
    3. jposnanski Post author

      I had to run the numbers on this — eight Brandon Phillips vs. eight Joey Vottos. I ran it three different ways using two lineup calculators and using runs created. There might be a better way. Any way I look at it, though, the 2013 Votto lineup scored between 500 and 600 more runs in a season than the Brandon Phillips lineup.

      I guess Phillips would cut into that gap with his defense. Votto at shortstop might not look like much.

      Reply
      1. Trent Phloog

        Joe, thanks so much! I’ve been trying to figure out how to do this but lack the skills or know-how. In my gut, I figured the Votto lineup would score like 1,200 runs — is that about what you got?

        Reply
    4. Jake Bucsko

      @Cathead…a baseball team only needs one kind of hitter…a good one.

      “there needs to be someone in the lineup whose role it is to drive in runs”

      Yes, and that man is Joey Votto. In his first four full seasons, he drove in 384 runs, including 113 and 103 in ’10-’11.

      As for a team with eight Joey Vottos vs eight Brandon Phillipses…Votto got on base 316 times last year to Phillips’ 205. Phillips is a nice player whose high RBI totals are padded by the fact that Votto hits in the lineup in front of him and leads the league in OBP every year.

      Not to oversimplify this with WAR, but those on base totals are a good place to start when you are wondering why those weird statheads have Votto 4x as valuable as Phillips.

      Reply
    5. invitro

      “Is it just possible that a baseball TEAM needs more than one kind of hitter?”

      I suppose it’s possible, unless someone has proven it to be untrue. I just happened to be daydreaming about this yesterday, while reading a 1995 Sporting News Baseball Guide… somewhere it was suggested that a team had too many sluggers and needed some high batting average guys, or maybe the reverse.

      So I asked your question: is this really possible? I didn’t think too hard on that one, but tried to think how to test for it. What if we play matched-pairs, except matched-triples in this case. Each set will have three teams with the same total Runs Created. One team will have a high OBP and low SLG, the second will have a high SLG and low OBP, and the third will be in the middle. Or maybe it would be better to label each regular an on-baser or a slugger, and count the number of each, and differentiate by that. Then see which team actually scored the most runs.

      I’m sure someone has done something like that, or else shown why it’s an unnecessary waste of time.

      Reply
    6. KHAZAD

      That’s just crazy talk. Votto and Phillips are not comparable. According to my calculations (and I am being completely serious here) If a lineup filled with Vottos played 162 games against a lineup filled with Phillips, with pitching and fielding being equal, the Vottos would go 129-33 for the season. That is domination.

      With a nod to Joe’s comment about actual runs scored, I came up with a season long difference (using an average pitcher for the 9th spot) of 545 runs.

      Reply
    7. Mark Daniel

      I don’t think fans want Votto to turn into Brandon Phillips. I think they want Votto to turn into something they perceive as ideal.
      For example:
      Reality Joey Votto- .305/.435/.491, 24 HR
      Dream Joey Votto- .320/.390/.575, 40 HR

      The truth is at the Reds should try to find their dream Votto and bat him behind the real Votto.

      Reply
      1. Rick G.

        Yes. This is the issue. Votto’s critics don’t mind Votto taking those pitches out of the zone. But they are extremely critical any time he takes a pitch in the zone. They feel like his supposed passivity, or extreme selectivity, is costing him hits. They see a guy getting paid $20M and cannot get away from the idea that that should be buying 40 HR.

        The value of the walk conversation simply doesn’t get anywhere with that crowd because, at the end of the day, they want a certain fan experience from Votto and would happily trade some production that is boring for a lesser amount that is more exciting.

        Reply
  6. Richard

    Thank you, Joe, for the shout out and your thoughts on continuing soap opera going on in Cincinnati over their best player. Much of this is about MONEY, I suspect. Expectation and Judgment are the twin attendants of any big contract, as Abert Pujols so very well knows. Not to mention that very human tendency to want to take those we worship down a peg when it’s perceived that they are riding a little too high.

    I have been one of your readers for a long time. You are the best.

    Reply
  7. Matt for BainesHOF

    Vladimir Guerreo made a pretty good career of it hitting balls outside the strike zone. Yes he probably didn’t hit .300 making contact on those pitches, but he did foul them off until he got a pitch he liked. To the tune of a 162 game average of .318 34 118 .378OBP .933 OPS. I would still take 8 hitters with Votto’s approach over the proposed approach. Just wanted to mention bad ball hitter Vlad.

    Reply
  8. Mark Daniel

    I don’t think anybody is advocating that Votto swing at pitches out of the strike zone. I think they are advocating that he not take so many strikes early in the count.
    Not that the argument is much better, but it’s slightly less egregious this way.

    Reply
    1. Anon

      this is much the same thing I was going to say is the counter-argument. Not that I agree with it necessarily but that IS the counter-argument.

      Reply
    2. Will3pin

      Worth exploring this argument. Game 2 ALCS. What if Ortiz is taking strikes early in the count in his 8th inning at-bat? While I don’t discount the value of the walk, how do you measure the opportunity cost of taking good pitches?

      Reply
  9. Chris Smith

    Quiet players don’t talk enough; mouthy ones talk too much. Patient ones need to swing more; free swingers need to watch for good pitches. Fast players need to be careful on the bases; slower players need to work on their speed.

    The AM sports talk people are never happy, nor are their listeners. 100 win seasons should be 105 win seasons. World Series winners in 5 games should’ve done it in 4. It never stops. Unfortunately, it bleeds over to the TV media, and Janson should know better, as he’s been around Cincy forever.

    The best thing for Price to do is to completely ignore that foolishness and back his players 100% all the time. That’s what builds player trust and loyalty. Give honest feedback directly to the players or through the coaching staff, but be 100% for them to everyone else. Do that, and he can put the lineup card out there in basically any order and do whatever he wants with pitchers, and he’ll still be the manager for a long time.

    Reply
  10. BobDD

    I remember a telecast where Joe Morgan chastised Ken Griffey Jr for taking a walk when there were runners in scoring position. Morgan said something idiotic along the lines of, “Griffey’s job is to drive in runs; leave the walks to guys like Eckstein.” When you’ve got HoF’s talking like that, it is difficult to educate on the real value of an at bat.

    Reply
  11. Anon

    All players’ number go up with runners in scoring position. Votto’s career splits are 314/419/541 so his career numbers with a man on 3rd and less than 2 outs (365/490/584) are more or less exactly what you would expect.

    BTW, his numbers with a man on 3rd and 2 outs (not less than) are even better for power – 314/468/620. Couldn’t you argue that shows that Votto will go out of the zone a little more with 2 outs than with less than 2 outs? (really it’s sample size but whatever – stir the pot)

    Reply
      1. Anon

        rephrase: On average players’ number go up with runners in scoring position. there are assuredly some whose numbers do not but they are outnumbered by the players whose numbers do go up.

        from B-ref:

        2013 NL numbers:
        Overall: 251/315/388
        RISP: 251/336/377
        3rd and less than 2 outs: 323/367/466

        AL (where pitchers mostly don’t muddy the numbers):
        Overall: 256/320/404
        RISP: 258/335/398
        3rd/LT 2 outs: 317/345/486

        Not much for RISP but the many, many thousands of PA involved show that it is a real phenomenon and even much more so for the specific situation of a runner on 3rd and LT 2 outs.

        Reply
        1. Dan

          I think those numbers only look better b/c you’re isolating cases where sacrifice flies are possible, and those don’t count against batting average or slugging percentage.

          You’ll note that this effect completely goes away if you only look at 2-out situations (when you can’t get a sac fly):

          NL (on 3rd, 2 out): .234/.338/.352

          AL (on 3rd, 2 out): .239/.334/.367

          In fact, if anything, these batting averages and slugging pcts are LOWER than the overall general stats (NL – .251 BA, .388 SLG, and in the AL – .256 BA, .404 SLG), although it does look like the walk rate goes up in “on 3rd, 2 out” situations.

          Reply
          1. Ian R.

            Ah, but you’ve introduced another variable there. Across all situations, batters hit worse with two outs. To wit:

            NL: .238/.315/.363
            AL: .244/.320/.385

            OBP is higher with a runner on third in both leagues, reflecting a higher number of walks. AVG and SLG go down in both leagues, which is interesting – I’m not sure what sort of effect the runner on third would have there.

        2. Ian R.

          There’s several other variables muddying the numbers there. Dan already pointed out sacrifice flies, but in addition:

          A) Good hitters tend to be clustered together in most lineups. Thus, a disproportionate number of those ABs are going to better true-talent batters. Managers also tend to use their best pinch-hitters in RISP situations.

          B) Most of the time, if you’re hitting with RISP, you’re hitting against the pitcher who put those runners on in the first place. That means there’s a good chance you’re hitting against a weak pitcher, or at any rate a pitcher who’s struggling in this particular outing.

          C) Ballparks and weather conditions that suppress hitting in general will reduce the number of baserunners; ballparks and weather conditions that favor hitting will also lead to more RISP situations.

          Reply
          1. Nick

            Hmm, I like your reasoning in A, hadn’t thought of that. At least HOPEFULLY managers will form their lineup in such a way that the best hitters will come up more often when there are more runners on base.

            Then again, some will sacrifice the ability to get on base for speed at the top of the lineup. Not all leadoff hitters are Rickey Henderson.

  12. bellweather22

    It’s my view that the Braves similar handling of Jason Heyward…. he needs to swing away in RBI situations…. that has caused him to, so far, not live up to his potential. There were signs last year of a reversal in his misfortune, as they made him the leadoff hitter, that walks were again allowed & shock of all shocks, he started to produce in a big way. Any Manager or GM that tells any hitter to be less patient, well, at least when they are successful patient hitters… should be instantly beheaded and their heads put up on stakes to remind other managers not to make the same mistake.

    Reply
  13. sourcreamus

    It may be a holdover from Little League where most teams are seven or eight uncoordinated kids along with a couple of early maturing kids. The big kids are so much better than everyone else that you would rather have them swinging at bad pitches than the other kids swinging at good pitches. This mentality shapes the way alot of people look at the game.

    Reply
  14. Drew

    So, SO much of this comes from the insane ramblings of Marty Brennamen who, for some reason, many of my fellow Reds fans believe preaches the gospel truth when it comes to baseball. Once Marty has an opinion on you, that’s that. And this year, he decided that Joey Votto wasn’t good because of RBI and it got repeated over and over and over again by other people. But they were all just following the lead of Marty.

    Incidentally, Marty has complained about and criticized nearly every Reds player of my lifetime, from Larkin to Griffey to Dunn to Bailey, Bruce and Votto. He doesn’t like anyone, which, given that his word is taken unquestioningly, leads to Reds fans being a fairly sour group of fans.

    Reply
  15. DB Cooper

    This conversation is incomplete without a mention of Marty Brennaman, the torch-wielding leader of the Dingleberry Mob. The man is never happy unless he’s complaining, but he’s downright joyous when he’s running down Joey Votto (and Jay Bruce and Homer Bailey).

    Reply
    1. bellweather22

      That’s so odd. Most teams have homers announcing, paid by the team, who bite their tongues hard. Braves announcers went very lightly on Dan Uggla and BJ Upton this year…. The AJC meanwhile, and of course the fan blogs were killing them almost daily.

      Reply
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  17. Jneu

    It’s also interesting — getting back to the historical precedent — that Snider was criticized for taking so many walks, while no one ever said a word about Mantle taking vastly more of them. (In Mantle’s biggest 9-year period he averaged 131 walks per 162 games; Snider in his biggest 9-year period averaged 83.)(!!!) I don’t remember anybody saying a word pro or con about Mantle’s walks until Bill James brought it up in the ’70s or ’80s. I suspect a team of 8 Mantles would beat the crap out of your 8 Mayses, and I’ve worshipped at the altar of Mays my whole life.

    Reply
  18. Wrong Verb

    So many baseball experts in this thread. Just sayin’ that perhaps Votto knows more about hitting than the rest of us combined.

    As a fan it’s enjoyable to watch a well struck line drive that brings in runs. Fast movement is much more interesting than a trot to first. However, that’s NOT actually what wins ballgames.

    It breaks down like this: Each half inning has a clock. Wait, what? Yeah, a clock. A clock with 3 ticks, or as we know them “outs.” When your team is at bat and you do the things that prevent that clock from ticking off its 3 ticks, you’re going to score runs. There are 4 bases, so that means if you get 4 people on base before 3 ticks have gone off the clock for that half inning, provided none have been thrown out on the base paths, you MUST score at least one run. MUST. Therefore, THE single most important thing a batter can do is get on base. It doesn’t matter how he does it, just get on base. And Joey Votto was the absolute BEST in MLB last year at doing just that.

    The batter’s job is to extend the inning, pure and simple. Sacrifices may have their place, but asking your best hitter to NOT get on base is a losing way to play baseball. Jocketty/Price/Long should not be convincing Votto to change his approach; they should be asking players like Frazier to stop swinging at garbage out of the strike zone that they cannot hit.

    Great hitters know what pitches they can handle and which they cannot. They train themselves to lay off the pitches outside the zone and foul off those in the zone that they can’t handle. Then they get their pitch, because the pitcher will eventually make a mistake, and they take an aggressive swing at it. This is why the best hitters have higher strike-out numbers than you might think they should. They’re aggressive toward pitches they can handle, but baseball, being the game of failure that it is, means even then that they aren’t always going to make contact.

    Reply
    1. bellweather22

      This should be more intuitive. When I played it felt absolutely great to get on base, whether from a walk, hit or error. You realized that now you’re a base runner who can score a run and your sole job is to get around the bases somehow. Little in baseball was more of a thrill than getting on base and trying to score. Didn’t everyone feel that way?

      Reply
  19. John Brinegar

    I’ve been frustrated for the last few years watching a Texas Ranger team that has an aversion to taking a walk (Josh Hamilton being one of the main problems). I would be happy beyond words if Cincy shipped Votto our way.

    Reply
  20. mrpinkfloyd71

    Players like Votto are really hard for their home fans. Joe Mauer drove me nuts while I lived in MN (hit at the first pitch every once in a while! or, just take a goddamn swing!!!), but I defend guys like Abreu and Votto that drove/drive their respective home fans crazy.

    Reply
    1. ksbeck76

      Completely agreed. As a White Sox fan, there is a lot I like about Adam Dunn’s approach, but in practice it can be excruciating to watch. A.J. Pierzynski’s free-swinging approach probably didn’t add as much value, but it was definitely more entertaining.

      Reply
  21. Alternator

    If you’re a #8 hitter with less than two out and a man on third, you shouldn’t be trying to hack at anything vaguely near the strike zone.

    You should be trying to get on base, and make sure the pitcher (when he likely makes an out) doesn’t cause a double play. Then the #1 hitter can come to the plate with a man still on third and you, the #8 hitter, also on base. He’s the better hitter, and probably can crush a marginal pitch better than you can hit a meatball.

    Reply
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  23. Juan Grande

    What if RBIs were incentivized in Votto’s contract?
    At some point, even with his already large salary, the dollar amount would get his attention.
    I don’t know if this would actually be in the team’s best interest, but once you found the amount that did get Votto’s attention, he would no longer be at the plate looking to walk with a runner on 3rd and less than 2 outs.

    Reply

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