As I’m writing this on Wednesday night, the Reds are clobbering the Cardinals, 9-0. All those runs, incidentally, were charged to Adam Wainwright, which means both Wainwright and Felix Hernandez imploded on the same day. Joey Votto, so far tonight, has batted three times against St. Louis. He’s drawn three walks, as Votto is wont to do. He walked with two on in the first inning, and later scored a run. He walked with one on in the second inning, and soon thereafter scored a run. He walked again in the fourth, but the bases were empty — and that’s not what this is going to be about.
If you haven’t read the arguments, you’ve probably at least heard about them. Votto has been a polarizing player for the Reds, because he’s drawn a ton of walks in run-scoring situations. With runners in scoring position, he’s walked more than a quarter of the time. The end result is that Votto has an underwhelming RBI total, and he’s supposed to be in the lineup to produce runs. In theory, run-producers are supposed to swing the bat. Run-producers like Brandon Phillips. One’s instinct is to think this is absurd — and it is pretty silly — but we might as well dig in for a few minutes. Are people warranted to be frustrated by Joey Votto’s patient approach?
“The name of the game is, ‘He who crosses home plate the most wins.’ So you’ve got to have somebody to cross home plate, and you’ve got to have somebody help him cross home plate.”
Baker makes it clear that he wants to see Votto be the latter guy more often.
“He’s done it before,” he said. “It’s not like he hasn’t done it before.”
To give a face to the pro-patience crowd, here’s Votto:
“All I want to do is do what I can,” said the 29-year-old first baseman who heard no complaints in 2010 when he took 91 walks and won the National League MVP. “Sometimes I take a pitch, but I might be timing a pitch and looking at it for a future swing. Sometimes I take a pitch in the middle of the plate and people say, ‘Ah, man, how can he take that pitch with runners in scoring position?’ Well, if I don’t see that pitch why swing. And it might result in a better swing later in the at-bat and a better day in general.”
Right now, Votto’s .487 on-base percentage with runners in scoring position ranks him fourth in baseball. For good measure, he’s also batting .318, but that comes with a whole lot of bases on balls, and bases on balls seldom drive runners home. The argument for swinging more is you should expand your zone a little bit with runners in scoring position, because hits become extra valuable. The belief is that Votto is good enough to do that. The argument for sticking with the patience is that swinging at worse pitches will lead to worse results, and drawing a walk is hardly a negative. It’s not up to Votto to drive in all the runs; he’s part of a lineup, after all, and he can add an extra baserunner for the next guy.
If I wanted, I could just leave it at this: Votto presently ranks fifth in baseball in runs scored. That’s not because of his outstanding speed, and it’s not because he’s constantly driving himself in like Chris Davis or Miguel Cabrera. Like Baker said, you need to have someone to score, and someone to help him score. Even when Votto walks, he’s still producing runs, just less visibly. This is pretty elementary stuff. Walks have a positive run value, because walks mean baserunners and baserunners mean more runs.
Here’s Votto’s first plate appearance from Wednesday. With two on, he drew a walk.
Those three red circles are swings. Votto didn’t go up there and take everything — he swung at the first pitch, and he even chased a ball out of the zone. But there wound up being a lot more balls out of the zone, so Votto took his walk and didn’t expand his zone too much. Here’s Votto’s second plate appearance from Wednesday. With one on, he drew a walk.
He took the first strike. He swung at the second, evening the count 2-and-2. But that was followed by a low ball and a high ball. Neither deserved a swing, so Votto didn’t — and he took his base. The runner on first moved to second, and the next batter went deep. For the second time in two innings, Votto scored.
For all the talk about how Phillips has been a better run-producer than Votto, here’s something to consider. Absolutely, Phillips has been clutch in 2013. He’s timed his hits for pretty critical spots. With runners in scoring position, Phillips has posted a 2.1 Win Probability Added in 169 plate appearances. Votto, meanwhile, has posted a 1.8 WPA in 152 plate appearances. Adjust to give them the same denominator and there’s hardly any difference. In terms of actually helping the winning cause with runners in scoring position, Votto and Phillips have been just about equally valuable. This despite Votto’s walks and Phillips’ RBI.
The simple fact is Votto is both disciplined and good. Because of the discipline, he’ll work a lot of counts and he’ll draw a lot of walks. Because of the talent, sometimes he’ll be pitched around in bigger spots. This year, with runners in scoring position — and excluding intentional walks — Votto has seen the fourth-lowest strike rate in baseball. That’s strike rate, not zone rate, but clearly, Votto isn’t seeing pitchers aggressively pound the zone. They’re aware of what he can do, and they don’t want for him to beat them.
In theory, Votto could try to swing at more strikes with runners in scoring position. In reality, he’s already selecting the strikes he deems to be most hittable, so swinging at other strikes would presumably yield worse results. And it’s almost impossible to increase swings at strikes without also increasing swings at balls, and that’s something people shouldn’t want Votto to do. For a hitter, a ball is always a good result. Swinging at a ball can lead to a better result, but more often, it’ll be a small or large mistake.
Using information at Brooks Baseball, I dug into Votto’s career. Here are some relevant splits:
- In-zone: .389
- Out-of-zone: .318
- In-zone: .317
- Out-of-zone: .100
- In-zone: 83%
- Out-of-zone: 67%
When Votto has expanded his zone, he hasn’t been a disaster. But he also hasn’t been particularly productive. He certainly hasn’t hit for much power, and he’s had a tendency to whiff. With more swings, Votto would generate the occasional RBI hit, and people would notice. They wouldn’t always notice the increased number of outs, but that would happen and that would matter. There are people who want more flash, more explosions. Votto, instead, prefers the slow burn.
As a final helping of information, Votto has actually been slightly more aggressive this season with runners in scoring position. With runners not in scoring position, he’s swung at 39% of pitches, and 21% of pitches out of the zone. With runners in scoring position, he’s swung at 41% of pitches, and 24% of pitches out of the zone. The differences are so small that they’re hardly remarkable. But what he is with the bases empty, he is with the bases not empty. That’s Votto’s comfort zone, and taking a guy out of his comfort zone will reduce his effectiveness. Votto’s comfort zone, as we all know, has led to some absolute OBP silliness.
There are ways that Joey Votto could be a better baseball player, because he isn’t perfect. There have been pitches he’s taken with runners in scoring position that he probably could’ve hit. Likewise, with runners in scoring position, there have been pitches Brandon Phillips shouldn’t have swung at. This is just who Votto is, and there’s little sense in complaining about an elite player when he’s performing at an elite level. There are people who don’t particularly care for Votto’s patience. There is a person with a .435 OBP and a 159 wRC+. One of those is Joey Votto. Defer to the guy who reaches base all the time. He probably has the hitting thing figured out.
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