Joey Votto is the major-league leader in walks, by counting and by rate. He’s always been a guy willing and happy to take a free base, and I should note that the very term “free base” is disrespectful to the base on balls, as if walks don’t require work. Anyway, Votto is also the National League leader in on-base percentage. The point: Votto doesn’t make many outs, relative to the rest of his peers, because he’s disciplined about when he swings, and his swing is productive on contact.
Nevertheless, Votto slugged 37 dingers once, driving in 113 runs, and as such some people are displeased with his current standard of patience. Some people with “Reds” on their paychecks think Votto should be more aggressive, especially with runners on, since he’s paid to be a run producer. He is a run producer, but not in a way that makes everyone happy. Votto, some people say, isn’t good enough, considering what he allegedly could be.
Monday against the Mets, Votto came to the plate five times. He reached first base five times, all on walks. He drew a walk in the first, a walk in the second, a walk in the fourth, a walk in the seventh, and a walk in the ninth. The last batter to draw five walks in five plate appearances was Mike Baxter in August 2012, but that game was started by Edinson Volquez so it hardly counts. In all, we have a record of 33 games in which a batter walked all five times he hit. This is an unusual and exceptional performance, and I thought it ought to be examined through the lens of the Joey Votto Passivity Index. Could Votto have put balls in play, or were pitchers just not giving him anything?
Below, you’ll see Gameday images of each of Votto’s plate appearances, in order. There will also be the occasional screenshot. Each plate appearance will be given a subjective Passivity Index score, where 0 is ultra aggressive, like a baby rattlesnake, and 10 is ultra passive, like a dead tree. The grades will be assigned on the fly, according to whatever I feel like, and it’s times like these Trinity College should be proud to have issued me a degree in a hard science. Joey Votto, New York Mets, Monday, September 23. Let’s look at some walks.
A game in which Joey Votto walked five times in five plate appearances began with a swinging strike at a curve in the dirt. In reality, Votto checked his swing, and it was determined he didn’t hold up in time. But anyway, Votto took two balls after that, and fouled off a 2-and-1 fastball. The next pitch was too low, and then with a full count, this happened:
Votto didn’t go, but he came close. He thought about it. Critics have said in the past that Votto should go up there looking to hit, not looking to walk. If Votto were looking to walk, he wouldn’t have checked his swing twice, in addition to the foul. Votto was in the mood to hit — Aaron Harang wasn’t in the mood to let him, really, at least on his terms. No good would’ve come of swinging at that last pitch. Note that there was a runner on first, who Votto moved into scoring position by not making an out.
- Passivity Index: 5
What do the Reds want Joey Votto to do? The front office, presumably, wants Votto to just produce, but Dusty Baker more specifically wants Votto to drive in runs. In this plate appearance, Votto drove in a run by drawing a four-pitch, bases-loaded walk that moved everybody up 90 feet. This is the ultimate Votto/Baker compromise, where Votto simultaneously adds a walk and an RBI. None of the four pitches from Harang were all that close. The second one, maybe, could’ve been flared into left field, but there weren’t pitches to drive, here. There was maybe a pitch to hit for a single, that also could’ve been hit for an out. As it was, Votto didn’t even begin any swings, nor should he have. This is a difficult passivity index to score, because Votto was just given a walk.
- Passivity Index: 5
The first pitch was a borderline strike, caught well. The second pitch wasn’t close. The third pitch wasn’t close. Votto swung at the fourth pitch, low in the zone, and fouled it off. The fifth pitch — the 2-and-2 pitch — was close to the zone, and Votto nearly offered:
Again, if Votto were just looking to walk, instead of looking to hit, he wouldn’t have attempted and then checked his swing. He wanted to get a hit, but he concluded that the pitch was a little above his zone and he didn’t want to pop it up. This is how Joey Votto manages to avoid pop-ups. He doesn’t swing at many pitches like these. The pitch was up at Votto’s belly button. It was taken for a ball, and the next pitch wasn’t close, sending Votto to first and sending the base-runner from first to second. Once again, Votto moved the runner up without making an out himself. You get the sense Baker would’ve been happier with a runner-advancing ground out. Maybe that’s an exaggeration on my part, but you feel it, too.
A swing and a checked swing. Three balls that weren’t close, meaning three balls that definitely shouldn’t have been swung at.
- Passivity Index: 6
Note that, in this situation, the bases were empty. Votto didn’t have anyone else to try to drive home, so his mission was just to try to get on for the next guy. He functioned as a temporary lead-off batter, and lead-off batters are supposed to get on however they can. The first pitch missed, down. The second pitch was good. The third pitch was bad. The fourth pitch maybe could’ve been swung at, since it tailed just off the plate, and Votto could’ve lined it into left, but it was still called a ball. Here’s what happened with the fifth pitch:
Votto was taking all the way, and he thought the pitch was ball four, since it just clipped a corner. The umpire called him back, and Votto didn’t protest, accepting a full count. That last pitch missed, and was well outside. Even if you figure a lefty like Votto can cover beyond the outer black, there are limits, and that’s a pitch you absolutely take with three balls and two strikes.
One does note that Votto took two called strikes, and a third pitch that almost got the zone. He looked particularly eager to walk, before he had walked. So I have no choice:
- Passivity Index: 8
Ain’t nothing you can do about an intentional walk. The Mets put Votto on, specifically because they didn’t want to challenge him with the winning run 90 feet away. In a sense, this makes Votto’s game a little less fun, since it would’ve been more exceptional for Votto to pick up five unintentional walks. But the game log still shows five advances to first, and this is a walk Votto earned by being who he is. Incidentally, Votto was batting third, and he reached all five times, leaving zero runners on base. Ryan Ludwick was batting fourth, and he went 0-for-5, leaving ten runners on base. Frustration with Joey Votto is really frustration with Ryan Ludwick, sometimes.
- Passivity Index: N/A? 5? whatever
It’s tempting to say that Votto had a classic Joey Votto game on Monday. He didn’t. Not only was it the first time he’d ever walked five times; it was the first time he’d ever walked four times. Votto had never done that before, but then, if you heard that a guy drew five walks in five plate appearances, you’d probably suspect it was Votto, because that just makes sense. Votto, or his teammate, Shin-Soo Choo. 0-for-0 with five walks feels like Votto turned up to 11, meaning Baker irritation turned up to 11. You’d think you don’t get there without taking a bunch of would-be hittable strikes.
But Votto didn’t actually see that many hittable pitches. He took one pitch that was obviously in the zone. The other two called strikes were debatable. The rest of the pitches were balls, a few of which got Votto to check his swing. Here’s the thing about balls: many of them can be hit, but few of them can be hit well. The further you get from the ~middle of the zone, the worse the results on balls put in play, because those pitches are harder to barrel up. Absolutely, Votto has singled and even homered while swinging at pitches out of the zone. More often, though, he’s hit those pitches for outs, if he’s hit them at all, and it’s specifically Votto’s ability to not swing at many of those pitches that sets him apart and makes him valuable. All players have better in-zone results than out-of-zone results. Votto makes sure not to generate many of the latter.
Fun fact: this year, Votto has a league-average rate of swings at pitches in the strike zone. He isn’t looking to walk. He’s looking to hit. He’s just looking to hit what he can hit hard, and his critics should be thankful he doesn’t pay them any attention. The best thing Joey Votto can do for the Reds is just be himself, and Monday night, he was himself to the letter.
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