Joey Votto: Run Producer

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?

To give a face to the pro-swing crowd, here’s Dusty Baker:

“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.

vottobb1

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.

vottobb2

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:

BABIP

  • In-zone: .389
  • Out-of-zone: .318

Isolated slugging

  • In-zone: .317
  • Out-of-zone: .100

Contact

  • 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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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.


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Xmus Jackon Flaxon Waxon
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Xmus Jackon Flaxon Waxon

Just bat Votto second and everybody’s happy.

Iron
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Iron

The problem is not that the best hitter on the Reds is batting third, it’s that they have no one with a decent OBP to bat second. They have Votto, Choo and then the dropoff is almost 100 points. Moving Votto to second in the order does nothing to fix the team’s low .OBP other than those two guys, and would probably not increase runs.

Iron
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Iron

Look at it this way, the Reds have a Team OBP of .325, good for 8th in MLB. However, every Reds hitter with more than 40 AB other than Choo and Votto are at or below the team average. How astounding is that?

Xmus Jackson Flaxon Waxon
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Xmus Jackson Flaxon Waxon

Obviously, moving around the same 8 position players in the order will not change a teams overall OBP, but scoring runs is a lot about sequencing, not just mean production.

ljc
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ljc

I think this may technically be incorrect. Moving the players with the highest OBPs to the top of the lineup and the players with worse OBPs to the bottom of the lineup would likely positively affect the team’s OBP, because players with higher OBPs would be getting more plate appearances, and hence would have more of a positive effect (and similarly the other players would have less of a negative effect) on the team’s OBP.

Iron
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Iron

You are right ljc, and we can calculate exactly how much.

The Reds have had 5176 plate appearances so far this season. In 134 games, Votto would get approximately 15 more PA’s. Let’s maximize the difference by assuming he replaces the long time 2-hole hitter who should never have been the two-hole hitter, Zach Cozart with a .280 OBP and also assume that Votto would not face any other disadvantage hitting second.

In 15 PA’s Votto gets on base 6.5 times and Cozart 4.2.

Out of 5176 PA’s and 1682 times on base would change to 1684. The .32496 OBP would change to .32534.

Of course, if they had a decent 2-hole hitter the change would be even smaller.

Travis L
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Travis L

Iron – what about doing that all the way down the lineup? Suppose you put Cozart in the 7/8 slot, and moved everyone up. Taking 80 AB from Cozart and giving them to an average OBP guy (say, .320) is 40 points of OBP over 80 PA.

Not a huge difference, but I bet it would be worth 3-5 runs.

Iron
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Iron

True, but the question that started this was whether Votto should bat 2nd or 3rd. I think no one but Dusty wanted Cozart batting 2nd so while I agree that moving him as far back as possible will increase OBP, it isn’t pertinent to the miniscule individual effect in team OBP of moving Votto from 3 to 2.

Xmus Jackson Flaxon Waxon
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Xmus Jackson Flaxon Waxon

Well for one, Votto would get about 18 more PAs over the course of a season batting second v. third. And the “problem” is that Baker refuses to put his best overall hitter 2nd. Against RHP, a lineup of Choo, Votto, Phillips, Bruce is pretty darn good, even with Phillips not hitting all that well this season.

Iron
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Iron

18 more PA for Votto equals an extra run or two over the course of a season, and you probably get that advantacge back by having more runners on base for him batting him third and by alternating LH-RH-LH. Either way the difference is so small as to not be worth all the fuss people seem to put into it.

jessef
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Trouble is that you’re letting Votto bat far too often with two out and none on. This is particularly problematic for a guy who walks as much as Votto. So far this season, he’s walked 25 times (137 plate appearances) with two out and none on. It’s much easier to cash him from first with less than two out. Contrast that with Phillips who has 49 plate appearances in those situations.

Either flip-flop them and leverage Votto’s walks for the following inning or move Votto up a spot so it’s easier to cash him.

bstar
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bstar

Iron, you can still go LH-RH-LH if you move Votto to second. Just bat Phillips third and Bruce fourth. And have Choo lead off.

B N
Guest
B N

Or, alternatively, get more people behind Votto who can hit. Nobody complained when Manny Ramirez or David Ortiz took a ton of walks for the Red Sox during their heyday. Why? Because there were about 3 guys behind them who were a threat to knock a double off the wall and score the lot of them. And back when the Phillies were good, I remember a lot of people in Citizen’s Bank Park cursing at Ryan Howard to stop swinging out of his shoes and take some pitches. Why? Because the he had some decent bats behind him.

Complaining about Votto taking too many walks is missing the point. You can’t walk everybody. If you have a man on base and somebody walks, the pitcher only has one more walk left before he has to either throw down the middle or risk walking in runs. So any team that can put two respectable bats behind their best slugger should never be complaining about this “problem.”

Matt
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Matt

And earlier this year when Phillips was knocking the cover off the ball, no one complained… till Phillips got hurt, was out, and the pressure on Votto intensified by the talking heads and the fan base.

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