Joey Votto’s Official Moment of Weakness

One time, and one time only, has a pitcher had the nerve to make Joey Votto pop up twice in the same game. One time has a pitcher simply looked like he had Joey Votto’s number. Back in September 2008, the Reds played the Marlins, and when Votto faced Ricky Nolasco the first time, he popped out. Later, when Votto faced Nolasco a second time, he popped out again. Later still, when Votto faced Nolasco a third time, he clubbed a dinger. Votto wouldn’t face Nolasco a fourth time.

By now, you must be aware that Joey Votto simply doesn’t hit infield pop-ups. We’ve written about it here a few times before, and other people have written about it in other places. People have asked Votto about it directly, and Votto has given thoughtful responses, as is his way. There might be something to be written about batted-ball data taking off like that, just as a sign of the times, but there’s no time for that today. Because yesterday, Joey Votto hit an infield pop-up. Facing Jeff Samardzija, Votto had his first official 2013 moment of weakness, relatively speaking.

Officially, it went in the books as Votto’s first infield fly of the season. There was a borderline ball in play in the middle of May, but Baseball Info Solutions requires that an infield fly be caught within 140 feet of home plate. For the sake of comparison, 2013 Andrelton Simmons has 30 infield flies. Jose Bautista has 28. Omir Santos has one, and he’s batted one time. Votto had one last season, but he claimed that was a result of his injury. He had one in 2011, and he had zero in 2010. It should go without saying this is an occasion of note.

Infield flies just happen sometimes. They happen to the best hitters in baseball. So far this year, the best hitters in baseball have been Miguel Cabrera, Hanley Ramirez, and Yasiel Puig. Here’s Cabrera this year after hitting a pop-up:

cabrerapop

Here’s Ramirez this year after hitting a pop-up:

ramirezpop

Here’s Puig this year after hitting a pop-up:

puigpop

Pop-ups happen, like strikeouts happen. Batters lose, and they lose a hell of a lot more often than they win. Miguel Cabrera has struck out 73 times, and some of those times, I’m sure, he’s looked over-matched. Hasn’t meant he’s not the best hitter in baseball. It’s just, being the best hitter comes with a lot of times when you don’t look so good or hit the ball so good. Even when you take a guy’s overall performance somewhat for granted, you allow for variation. Cabrera will strike out. Matt Harvey will allow a dinger here and there. Yadier Molina will get stolen on. Great players don’t eliminate mistakes — they minimize them.

Votto almost entirely eliminates pop-ups. That’s what’s incredible. It’s not that he doesn’t pop up much; it’s that, going into a year, we don’t know if he’s going to pop up at all. This is a mistake that just doesn’t happen, save for the rarest of occasions. Tuesday was such an occasion, and the ball in play was, very clearly, very inarguably, a pop-up to the infield.

It almost didn’t happen. In the fourth inning in Chicago, Votto fell behind Samardzija 0-and-2. Samardzija came with a high-inside fastball that Gameday claims caught the zone. Votto watched the pitch go by.

VottoPitch1.gif.opt

The pitch was on the edge, and the zone is at its smallest in 0-and-2 counts. Watching the .gif, it doesn’t look like a strike. But that could’ve been a strike, meaning it could’ve been strike three, meaning Votto could’ve been out then, meaning Votto could’ve avoided the coming pop. Against the next pitch, Votto took a hack he wasn’t real pleased with, which we might opportunistically consider retrospective foreshadowing:

VottoPitch2.gif.opt

Then there was a ball, then there was a pitch. It was a splitter pitch, that Votto swung at, and it’s pictured below:

vottopop

If you saw only the screenshot, and skipped right through everything else, you might think line-drive double, or groundball single. Maybe even a home run!, depending on Votto’s swing plane. Against a pitch pitchers use to generate whiffs and grounders, Votto didn’t whiff, and he didn’t hit a grounder.

VottoPitch3.gif.opt

One of the rarest screenshots you’ll ever see in your life:

vottopop2

A fan thought to document the occasion:

vottopop3

It’s interesting, of course, just that Votto popped up. But it’s also interesting how he popped up. Here’s a pitch-location chart of all of Votto’s career pop-ups, including all of a dozen pop-ups:

vottopops

This was the lowest pitch that Votto has popped up, by more than six inches. The pitch was low enough to be out of the zone. Good spot for a splitter, but a rare spot for an infield fly. Last November, Jeff Zimmerman investigated how infield flies happen, and he found they happen with the greatest frequency against pitches high and tight. Also, they tend to happen with the greatest frequency against cutters and four-seamers. Seldom do you see a pop-up against a splitter. Very seldom do you see a pop-up by a lefty against a pitch in Samardzija’s pitch location. Nearly one in four balls in play against pitches high and tight went for a pop-up. Against pitches with this kind of location, it was more like one in 25. High pitches go high. Low pitches go low. Because Votto’s pop-up wasn’t unusual enough.

Among the pop-up-less in 2013, players remain. Seven guys have yet to hit a pop-up while having batted at least 200 times. Shin-Soo Choo is the playing-time leader. Howie Kendrick‘s behind him, but now he’s on the DL. Then there’s Michael Bourn, then there are others. Votto isn’t going to win this hypothetical contest, not this season, but he’s still understood to be the least pop-uppy hitter in baseball. His track record demands it.

Obviously, what matters isn’t whether or not Joey Votto pops up. In the past, Votto’s said he’d trade strikeouts for pop-ups. He’s got himself a big round 100 strikeouts. It’s not the infield flies that make or break the superstar. But this is indicative of his skill, the skill that’s allowed him to line the ball everywhere and post a career .362 BABIP as a first baseman. This is indicative of the consistency of his swing, and that’s the thing that makes Joey Votto so amazing. Nobody likes popping out. Sometimes it just happens, even to the best. Almost never does it happen to Joey Votto. Joey Votto is sufficiently good that he can make a routine pop-up newsworthy.



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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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AJT
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AJT

I knew this post was coming after watching the Reds last night.

Grant
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Grant

I was thinking the same thing, been waiting all day. As soon as he hit that I was like man Fangraphs is going to be all over this.

Røark
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Røark

And that it would be Jeff to write about it.

badenjr
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badenjr

Agreed on all counts.

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