Joey Votto and Protection Up Front

Twice this offseason, Joey Votto has uttered a comment that goes against the baseball orthodoxy that lineup protection is best done behind the hitter. Votto believes it is done in front of him, and is best done by Billy Hamilton.

Votto told Eno Sarris in late March that Hamilton has offered him the best lineup protection  when Hamilton is on base in front of him.

The order of the players in the lineup around him doesn’t matter that much to him, either. Protection? If protection is “getting specific pitches to hit — more fastballs — or more central part of the strike zone pitches, and I haven’t experienced that in 12 years,” Votto said. The priority of the pitcher is to make outs and the priority of the hitter is to not make outs and that doesn’t change a ton with regard to the hitter in the on-deck circle.

Protection, if it comes at all, might come from someone in front of him in the order. “The best lineup protection is when Billy Hamilton is on base in front of me, and it’s not about protection, it’s that I get a more predictable pitch to hit — fastball,” Votto said.

He expounded upon that to Lance McAllister of ESPN 1530 in Cincinnati on their weekly podcast as well.

“I love the two guys behind me, Brandon and Jay…I’ve had a lot of guys in the minor leagues hit behind me and have better seasons than I did. Jay Bruce did that in the minors and was far and away better than me. I never really noticed different quality pitches for the most part & that I was pitched roughly the same. Billy changes that..Billy changes that. I told him last year, “You’re the first person that has ever protected me.” In that, by definition, protection should be giving me an opportunity to see better pitches during my at bat. Them (pitchers) changing their approach against me and spending their time and energy..or at least splitting their focus between me and him. I saw several pitches that split the plate or in a part of the strike zone I never ever would gotten before because of him. So, there are going to be some advantages to having a guy run all of the time in front of me if he is on base a bunch, but I personally noticed a difference last season.

In terms of seeing more fastballs, that has yet to play out for Votto if we look at the numbers where he has hit in the lineup. He hit in the third spot of the lineup from March 31st through April 11th. In those games, he saw 132 fastballs in 206 pitches thrown to him, which computes to a 64% rate. Pitchers tended to stay away from the center of the plate with those fastballs and picked up where they left off last season working him away.

3rd

Votto was bumped up to the second spot of the lineup on April 12th, and has seen fewer fastballs than he did hitting out of the third spot of the lineup. Whereas he saw 64% fastballs hitting in the third spot, through April 30th, he has seen just 52% fastballs hitting in the second spot. Dating back to last season, Votto has been at the plate with Hamilton on first or second base 15 times and has seen 55% fastballs in those situations. So far, Votto is not seeing an increased frequency of fastballs at the plate, but he is seeing slightly more pitches in the zone. His Zone% batting third was 45.6%, but it has risen to 45.9% since his promotion to the second spot in the lineup.

2nd

Votto hit .257/.372/.400 through the first ten games of the season when Bryan Price had him penciled in third in the lineup card. Since the switch to the second spot in the lineup, Votto is hitting .293/.474/.500.  Cincinnati averaged 2.8 runs per contest before the switch scoring more than three runs just three times in the first ten games. Since altering the lineup, the team has scored four or more runs in 13 of its last 18 contests and is averaging 4.6 runs per contest.

The increase in offense is obviously not solely due to moving Votto up in the lineup, but getting your best player an additional plate appearances and having his most desired lineup protection hit .281 and score 11 runs in front of him certainly does not hurt. This run of offensive success for Cincinnati is being done despite the fact that Brandon Phillips, who hits in the traditional spot for protecting Votto, has hit just .230/.237/.257 since the two traded places in the lineup.




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31 Responses to “Joey Votto and Protection Up Front”

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  1. CP says:

    This is interesting, but a 15 AB sample size is too small to derive meaningful conclusions. If only Hamilton actually got on base at a reasonable rate…

    Also, it would be interesting if there is a difference in fastball % when Hamilton is on 1st base or 2nd base. I think pitchers are more likely to care about Hamilton when he is on 1st. When there is a base empty, they’d be more likely to revert back to the standard way of pitching to Votto.

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  2. The Stranger says:

    It may not be a matter of more fastballs, so much as more predictable fastballs. There may be specific instances where having Hamilton on base allows Votto to look for a fastball on counts where he couldn’t before. That might not show up in an overall greater fastball%, but a pitch sequencing effect could still be helping Votto. Also, how many ABs did Votto have with Hamilton on base when he was hitting third? Presumably you’d see a similar “protection” effect there that clouds the before/after data.

    Alternately, this is a rare instance of Votto being mistaken about something hitting-related.

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  3. Billy says:

    Shouldn’t you be comparing the fastball % when Hamilton is on base vs. the fastball % when he’s not? Batting second or third doesn’t really matter in this regard, as Hamilton offers the same protection when Votto bats third as he does when Votto bats second (provided the second hitter doesn’t end the inning before Votto bats).

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  4. Adam says:

    I love Votto, but I get the sense that he’s overcomplicating things at the plate. Not making outs is great, but he’s his team’s best hitter, by far, and I’ve to many innings where Votto walks and the inning ends with him still standing on first. His focus seems too individualistic, not taking the context of the lineup around him into account. It’s great to just take a walk if you’ve got Detroit’s lineup around you. With the Reds, sometimes he should be looking to drive in a run.

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    • Doug Gray says:

      It’s tough to drive the ball when pitchers aren’t in the strikezone. Joey would rather avoid making an out on a pitch that he isn’t likely to hit well (a ball) and hope that someone else gets a pitch they should be able to drive (a strike). Brandon Phillips needs to get out of the 3-spot and be moved to 7th quickly though. He has basically been Zack Cozart at the plate since June 1st of last year. It’s scary that he has been so bad for so long and he is batting 3rd in any lineup.

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    • Helladecimal says:

      You generally don’t tell someone they are over-complicating something when they are among the best at what they do.

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      • Adam says:

        What is he the best at? Getting on base? Generating runs? Winning pennants? He’s clearly one of the game’s best hitters. I don’t think his approach maximizes his value to the team, though. The goal is not to avoid making outs. It’s to score more runs than the other team.

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        • Zhenya says:

          In aggregate, making fewer outs will most certainly lead to more runs…

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        • Jacks says:

          Adam, see my comment below about RBI%. I do think there’s such a thing as being overly selective. Thing is Votto used to hit for power, drive in runners at an excellent rate AND post a high OBP. He’s still an excellent player, but he is no longer an MVP caliber player and he is not making the most of his talents.

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    • Jonrox says:

      Your premise here is that Joey Votto, in at-bats that include at least four pitches outside of the strike zone, should be swinging at more of those out-of-the-strike-zone pitches. Swinging at pitches outside of the strike zone is bad.

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      • Costanza says:

        His premise is also that he, random internet commenter, knows more about hitting than Joey Votto, the most cerebral hitter since perhaps Gwynn / Boggs.

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        • a eskpert says:

          Albert’s pretty good that way, though he’s not as open, and of course he has an 80 hit tool as well.

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  5. TheVerbalFan says:

    Is it possible that Votto’s impression of Hamilton’s effectiveness stems from Hamilton’s recent hot streak? I.e. his overall numbers aren’t terribly reflective of a change he’s just seeing now? It would be a small sample size, but over time you could correlate Hamilton’s OBP streaks and Votto’s delta fastball% during that time.

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  6. GilaMonster says:

    I agree with most people commenting. You really have to look at what Votto gets with Hamilton on base,which requires parsing a database and a much larger sample size(which could take a while with Hamilton’s OBP.

    If Hamilton doesn’t get on, a pitcher would seemingly attack Votto aggressive with only Brandon Phillips behind him

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    • WOAH says:

      Feeling that. Jay Bruce hasn’t exactly been crushing the ball but has been way more patient this year. Love to see Frazier at 4th, he has always been pretty clutch as far as I know and then Mesoraco deserves 5th when he returns.

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  7. Jason B says:

    I like that Price is tweaking and seeming to look for ways to optimize the lineup. Next up, he really needs to take a look at pushing Phillips and his not-very-useful-anymore bat down, down, DOWN.

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  8. Ben says:

    I am squeamishly anticipating a follow-up article by Cistulli titled, “Adrian Beltre and NO Protection Up-Front.”

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  9. Jacks says:

    RBIs are pretty irrelevant but is RBI%? From Baseball Musings, RBI% is 100*(RBI-HR)/Runners On

    Look at Votto’s plunge thru the years. Would love to hear someone spin this into a good (or irrelevant) thing. The drop coincides with a plunge in SWING%. particularly OSWING%. Keep in mind his OBP and wOBA were very high when he also sported a high RBI% and OSWING%. You can be selective, take walks, and drive the ball when the context demands it. There might be such a thing as being too selective at the plate?

    2009: 18.4% top 30
    2010: 19.4% 11th
    2011: 17.55% top 50
    2012: 15.97% top 100
    2013: 11.11% about 300th
    2014: 10.91% same level as Yelich

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    • Adam says:

      Interesting. I don’t why my above comment got such a negative response. Votto is knocking in fewer and fewer of the runners on base for him at a time when his lineup mates have significantly worsened. I feel like he’s too concerned with becoming the next Joe Mauer when his team needs him to just listen to Crash Davis and grip it and rip it sometimes.

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      • Michael says:

        This is nothing new for this website Adam and Jack. I get ripped on when I have said this very thing in many different ways on this site and THT. Whether you are a fielder, pitcher or batter, the game is about production. Fangraphs falls in love with rate stats (BA, OBP, K/9, BB/9, K/BB) and its posterboy Votto, when you can have stellar rate stats but they ring hollow because there is no production behind it. Furthermore I would argue, while I agree with the calc Jack provided above, I would alter it a bit, (((R+RBI)-HR)/ Runners in SCORING POSITION)*100. In keeping with Jack above, one of my many sentiments is that even among only Votto, I would prefer the Votto of 2010 and 2011 than the one I saw in 2012 and 2013. For more, on fantastic rant (due to someone saying that since 2008, Votto has been the 3rd best player in MLB behind Miggy Cabrera and Trout – Ridiculous he was about 27th or 28th best in 2013 alone.) check out the THT article below and my comments below the article.

        http://www.hardballtimes.com/deep-thoughts-about-joey-votto/

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        • The Captain says:

          “(due to someone saying that since 2008, Votto has been the 3rd best player in MLB behind Miggy Cabrera and Trout – Ridiculous he was about 27th or 28th best in 2013 alone.)”

          Is that seriously your whole counterargument? That’s like saying Pujols wasn’t the best hitter of the 2000s because he didn’t even play in 2000.

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    • werthless says:

      I’ll bet Barry Bonds showed a similar tendency as his career went on. I don’t remember that criticism of Bonds, and his unwillingness to swing at balls with people on base. Very odd. :)

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    • Michael says:

      I do happen to be a statistician by trade and I still play baseball. I could not agree with you more but as you see when I replied to Adam immediately below, I altered your calculation a bit. See my points and comments on votto at THT article

      http://www.hardballtimes.com/deep-thoughts-about-joey-votto/

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    • Jonrox says:

      There’s always the possibility that the pitches he gets with RISP are increasingly garbage that no one can hit.

      I’ve yet to see anyone show that Votto could be optimizing his RISP-ABs any better than his current approach. Taking a walk may just be the best available outcome given the pitches he sees in these ABs.

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      • a eskpert says:

        This guy right here, ladies and gentlemen, gets it.

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      • Michael says:

        that is assuming that Votto NEVER sees a strike when he walks. You cannot tell me that there aren’t times when he sees at least one strike before he gets walked. The converse is also true. I am sure there are plenty intentional unintentional 4 pitch walks, but no where near close to the majority of his 135 walks last year.

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        • Jonrox says:

          It’s not assuming that at all. We have data on Joey Votto’s swing tendencies for all at bats– he swings at an above-average rate of strikes and a below average rate of balls– and the presumption should be that his normal rate carries over to RISP situations. Now, of course, if you can show that he becomes significantly more conservative in these situations, you might have a point, but absent such data the reasonable conclusion is that he’s just not getting very many good pitches to swing at..

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    • Costanza says:

      Can you show that these numbers have meaning? As in, are they contextually adjusted? Does it differentiate for runners on third and less than 2 outs, versus runner on first, 2 outs? Does it correlate year to year? Has it been connected with production, value, or winning? Are you suggesting his 2014 numbers are stabilized?

      Further, can you show that Votto is being pitched the same all these years? If pitchers aren’t giving him good pitches to hit, he can’t do anything with them.

      That is why it receives negative attention. It’s just a number that shows something or nothing, or something in between. We can’t evaluate how important that something is to winning games. But you are wielding it as if it has meaning, and reveals an underlying pattern about Joey Votto and hitting in general.

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  10. Costanza says:

    Too clever by half, but can we coin the term pretection? As in, protection but originating from the previous hitter?

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  11. dale pearl says:

    What matters most is that Joey Votto feels that it gives him protection. Looking into the mind game that goes into hitting I would say from a pure mental aspect that Votto is going to hit better slotted directly behind Hamilton. That is also why looking at pure numbers as to who bats where is a dangerous game to play. Some batters have a mental image of what is happening and that often includes who is batting in front of them and who is batting behind them. If the physical breaks with the mental image in the order it tends to lead to slumps.

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