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.

40 Responses to “Joey Votto’s Official Moment of Weakness”

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  1. AJT says:

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

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  2. ralph says:

    This gives Votto a 97:1 LD:IFFB ratio for the year.

    Despite classification problems with line drives, I’d really like to see LD/IFFB be included alongside GB/FB in the batted ball section of player profiles (and thus be able to sort by LD/IFFB in the leaderboards).

    While LD/IFFB is far from the end-all and be-all of hitting, it could serve as as a sort of proxy to isolate quality of contact.

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    • Leighton says:

      That might be difficult, since most of the year it would be trying to divide by zero, which is only slightly less possible than getting Votto to hit a pop-up.

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      • ralph says:

        I’ve considered that. It occurred to me that for anyone who has an infinite ratio, we should just see a little picture of Votto instead #ERR, INF, or whatever.

        Or I guess IFFB/LD could be used instead, though I think the IFFB/LD numbers (and little pictures of Votto) wouldn’t as impressive-looking.

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    • TKDC says:

      Don’t some guys make a lot of weak contact that results in weakly hit ground balls? If one guy’s weakness is the pop up and the other is the rollover to first base, they are both making poor contact that will almost always result in an out.

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  3. Nick O says:

    I remember this one from earlier than the year. Votto gets one high-and-tight, looks like a pop up trajectory off the bat, but he’s just so damned strong it carries into the outfield. http://wapc.mlb.com/play/?content_id=28349021&query=votto%2Boakland%2Ba's

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  4. Swfcdan says:

    Congrats Jeff Samardzija thats what I say.

    That pitch was filthy enough to get him out but not strike out I guess. Amazing that its never happened before I agree, its just crazy.

    Shows how level his swing plane is.

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    • Raff says:

      Sweet!

      Samardzija’s on my fantasy team, and he just got me 15 points for inducing Joey Votto to popup (IJVP) — a custom stat we created.

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  5. Jacks says:

    It’s too bad there seems to be a disconnect between 1) looking to drive the ball and 2) looking to not make an out. Joey has announced he is now all about the latter and from the interviews I’ve read he seems to have made that decision because he doesn’t have much confidence in his power. He says stuff like “other guys can do that, I can’t”.

    I don’t know Joey, in 2010 your ISO was .270 and you hit .326 while swinging 47% of the time. Now you swing only 41% of the time despite seeing more balls in the zone (44% vs 42% in 2010), your ISO is about .185 and your BA is a bit worse. I

    Drive the ball Joey! I’d trade 10 IFFB for 10 more HRs. I’d trade the plus .010 hike in OBP for a >.200 ISO.

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    • nj says:

      and that is why I traded him, got back Adam Jones and Heyward

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      • Scraps says:

        Tell us more about your trade history.

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      • TKDC says:

        Listen here, Walt. I don’t believe that you traded Votto, and if you did, I don’t think you could swing a three team trade bringing Atlanta and Baltimore in. Which team got Votto? I don’t think either really needs a first baseman, and that contract is pretty big. How did Heyward make it through waivers, or Jones for that matter? I’d think they’d be claimed in a second. This whole thing doesn’t make sense. Checking espn.com, I don’t see a story about it, and Buster Olney’s twitter is silent on the matter. Am I crazy?

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    • Jason says:

      No one would trade Votto’s MVP 2010 season for his also very, very good 2013 season, he’ll likely be down about 0.5 WAR this year from that career year. But if you think it is a simple matter of an approach change where he is consciously sacrificing power I think you don’t know what the hell you are talking about.

      In fact, your argument that he is swinging at less strikes means he is being more selective of pitches, which would tend to increase his ISO at the cost of OBP. His strikeout rate should go up from giving up strikes, but by waiting for a better pitch to hit he should have even better contact when he does swing. As it happens, his strikeout rate has gone down because he is only swinging at 20.8% of pitches outside the zone. This just further negates your argument unless you believe he is likely to turn lots of pitches outside the strike zone into home runs if he were to wildly swing away.

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      • Jacks says:

        He is watching tons of strikes go by and getting into 2 strike counts, at which point he chokes up and becomes a slap hitter. Take a look at his slugging % with 2 strikes. It’s well under .300. Look at it back in 2011 … he slugged .590 in full counts vs .302 this year.

        While waiting and waiting for that perfect pitch, his chances of seeing it and being able to drive it decline.

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        • Jacks says:

          BTW, there’s a big difference between being selective and not looking to make an out. That difference appears to have been lost on you. Choking up like a pee-wee leaguer and slapping at the ball with 2 strikes is not being selective, it’s sacrificing power to not make an out.

          Votto hit 10 HRs in 2011 with 2 strikes. He has hit one this year. He’s self-sabotaging and a lesser hitter for it.

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        • Iron says:

          Small sample size, in both cases.
          Let’s look at some other slugging% in full counts:

          Joey Votto .302
          Mike Trout .310
          Andrew McCutcheon .314

          Look, I understand, you got him on your fantasy team and he didn’t give you as many home runs as you wanted. Clearly it’s because he’s become a ‘slap-hitter’. You have no idea what the hell you are talking about.

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        • matt w says:

          MCCUTCHEN

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        • Billy says:

          Joey’s job is to give his team a better chance to win. If he tries to go yard and misses, he’s not on base when Bruce and Phillips come to the plate to drive him home. His SLG% with 2 strikes is much lower, but he’s on base for the other guys. Sometimes moving the line along is better than just hitting homers so some loser on the internet doesn’t cry because his fantasy team has a few less dingers.

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        • Jason B says:

          Iron–

          Jacks was dealing with all 2-strike counts, not just full counts. It’s a much larger sample.

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        • Jacks says:

          Gets ad hominem on here pretty quickly when you criticize a SABR hero like Votto I guess.

          I like seeing a player live up to his full potential. I like seeing power hitters take a drive the ball approach (and that’s not the same as swinging for the fences). I hate seeing players self-sabotage by overthinking. I hate the chokeup with 2 strikes as much as I hate sac bunts. Fantasy bb has nothing to do with it.

          Guess nobody has a valid counterargument….

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        • Iron says:

          The problem is that you say ‘self-sabotage’ when you should be saying ‘what he is doing is working very, very well’. It’s fair to criticize any aspect of the approach one of the best hitters in the game, but when you do so without merit, as in this case, it does make it look like there must be some ulterior motive. Why would anyone say anything so stupid? I made the mistaken assumption you were missing his HR in fantasy. I apologize for the ad hominem attack, I guess you simply enjoy making stupid statements.

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        • Jacks says:

          You think Votto is as productive at the plate as he was in 2010/2011? Seriously? Have you looked at his ISO, his wRC, his wOBA? All down considerably. His oWAR will likely be down 20% this year from 2010. Home runs are pretty important, but I guess you didn’t know that? Only a SABR infant with a BB fetish wouldn’t recognize that …

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    • Jacks says:

      There’s also this little factoid. I know RBIs don’t mean much, but RBI % does (100*(RBI-HR)/Runners On).

      Joey was top 10 at 19.44% in 2010. This year, he’s driving in a measly 11.8%, placing him in the lower 25th percentile in the league.

      At this point, the solution to the Reds #2 hitter is to put Joey in there. Great on base machine, terrible at driving the ball (and runners in) consistently given his approach.

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  6. Cus says:

    Poor Joey, that swing looks like he probably meant to spoil it and send a little foul ball towards the home team dugout, but his superhuman contact ability made him pop-up. Tough one. Well Joey, there’s always next year to go pop-upless.

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  7. Max says:

    “retrospective foreshadowing.”

    Because of course.

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  8. Kevin says:

    Looks like a relatively poor framing/receiving job from the Cubs catcher there. He lost all chance of a strike call with all that lower body movement.

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    • Nick O says:

      I think the degree of difficulty of framing a nasty Samardzija pitch that misses its spot is probably still pretty high.

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    • badenjr says:

      I also think Votto’s action played into that call. Maybe a rookie is rung up there, but when the man at the plate leads the league in walks, perhaps the ump gives some weight to what he thought about the pitch.

      Are some batters “better” at taking borderline pitches than others?

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  9. Matt says:

    Miggy’s ok with hitting popups, because some of them go for HRs. Like the one against Salazar recently.

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  10. Karma199 says:

    Am I the only one who noticed that fan taking a picture was wearing a KC hat?

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  11. tz says:

    VH1 Classic was running a “Pop-Up Videos” marathon this past weekend.

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  12. Chooch says:

    One of the guys in my softball league will hit easy to catch high fly balls off low pitches. He gets great contact but the bat is moving up toward the ball and drives it sky high.

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  13. Hurtlocker says:

    I get the pop up rarity, but he has also struck out 100 times. Maybe there is many more moments of weakness??

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  14. Lifelong Reds fans here, and like most on here, I knew some blog post was coming once Samardzija got him to pop out.

    I love Votto. I love his approach to hitting… 99.99%* of the time. He’s the most intellectual hitter of this generation. It truly is a science for him.

    There are loads of Reds fans who are upset that he only has 57 RBI. I take that as a sign Votto does not get many hittable pitches (or pitches he can truly drive). Teams would rather face Phillips or Bruce in those situations.

    I also think Votto has been the victim of either bad luck or better positioning by defenses, too. In the last week alone, it seems like Votto has hit about eight balls rather hard and they’ve either been right at fielders or a fielder has made an impressive play.

    *The one instance where I wish Votto wasn’t as selective came in the 8th inning of the 3-1 loss to the Padres. Votto was the tying run in the 8th and took strike three, a questionable pitch that could have been a ball, and ended the inning. In that type of situation, I don’t want a player of Votto’s abilities to coax a walk. I want him to try to get a hit or drive the ball in that instance.

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