Deep Thoughts About Joey Votto

Joey Votto needs a moment to contemplate how good at baseball he is (via Chris Miller).

Joey Votto needs a moment to contemplate how good at baseball he is (via Chris Miller).

The randomness of life is truly something to behold, especially when you dig down to a granular level. I mean, it’s crazy enough that the universe formed the way it did, and that gravitational forces eventually molded our sun and our solar system, and that Earth was formed close enough to the Sun to provide heat and photosynthesis, but not so close that we all baked to death in greenhouse gasses.

But beyond that, every time a cell split, every time a migrating tribe took a right instead of a left, every chance meeting of every couple who ever procreated has given us jazz and Pulp Fiction and ancient Greece and Vonnegut and emoji and Prokofiev and Facebook and World War I and everybody’s grandpa and everybody’s dog. It has also given us baseball.

But there’s this other way to look at it, too–the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics. It’s the theory that revolves around the idea that every decision every creature has ever made (or every random-chance act of nature, for that matter) has created a new and separate universe. If you were tasked with deciding between cereal and oatmeal for breakfast and chose oatmeal, a new universe was created where you instead chose cereal. It’s pretty much the same, but not quite.

There is also another universe in which I didn’t write this paragraph and people who hadn’t heard of many-worlds continued on with their fulfilling lives instead of struggling to wrap their brains around such grandiose ideas. There are worlds in which baseball doesn’t exist, or it does but there are only two outs an inning and Mike Trout doesn’t play it. There are also worlds in which Earth ended up a few million miles closer to the sun and mammals never came to be, but let’s just feel sorry for that world and move on.

This is where Joey Votto comes in. Joey Votto exists in our world, and he plays baseball, and we have the tools and intelligence to comprehend just how good Joey Votto is at baseball. And the best part, the BEST part, is that our Joey Votto also understands how good he is. He knows what his wRC+ is, and he knows that he maybe swung a little too much last season, and he knows of Tom Tango.

Votto is one of us. He enjoys and studies the game the same way we enjoy and study it. But he’s not a fringe reliever or bench player. He’s one of the very best in the game.

Votto has never won a triple crown. He’s never even led the league in any of those categories. He doesn’t make many flashy plays on the field, and he doesn’t steal bases. He hit 37 home runs in 2010, which will garner some attention, but he hasn’t really come close since. He doesn’t have a big endorsement deal. He’s not a favorite of beat writers. He’s Canadian. He simply just isn’t flashy. But the stats people, those who search for deeper understanding of the game, love Joey Votto. Why do we love Joey Votto?

hegetsonbase

That’s right, Jonah Hill. He gets on base. He also happens to do a lot of other things well. Since his first full season in 2008, Votto has averaged a 157 wRC+, behind only Trout and Miguel Cabrera. He also ranks third in wins above replacement over that stretch.

Votto may get the business from certain fans and media members over his “inability to drive in runs,” but we know what’s really going on here. Votto is very, very good at baseball. This is something we already knew. But for right now, I don’t want to talk about all the good things he does. I want to talk about a bad thing he did. It happened on Aug. 13, 2013, in the top of the fourth inning of a game against the Cubs.

vottopopup

This did not cost the Reds the game. It was not Votto’s worst play based on win probability added. It was, however, Votto’s first infield fly all season, and his third in four years. Votto is so good at baseball, he can’t even do bad things well.

This isn’t a new discovery. People have talked about the phenomenon before. But the number is still staggering, and the sample keeps growing to a point where it’s fairly clear this isn’t a fluke or an odd streak. If anything, Votto is getting better at not hitting infield flies.

If you discount 2008, his first full season (during which he had the audacity to hit five pop-ups), Votto has never hit more than two infield flies in a single season. In 2010, he hit zero. ZERO. His infield flyball percentage–the percentage of batted balls that never left the infield–was 0.7 percent over that last five seasons. A little over half a percent. His pop-ups per plate appearance over that stretch? 0.16 percent. That’s basically an anomaly, a rounding error. Here are some things that occurred more often between 2009 and 2013 than a Votto pop-up:

Retroactive Review: Ace
Looking back at some of Justin Verlander's most interesting moments.
  • Perfect games pitched
  • Inside-the-park home runs
  • Triple plays
  • Home runs hit by pitchers
  • Pitching appearances by position players
  • Strikeouts in at-bats with position players pitching
  • Relief appearances where no strikes were thrown
  • Games in which seven errors were committed
  • Games that lasted 18 innings
  • Games that lasted 19 or more innings
  • Games in which a player recorded five strikeouts in five at-bats
  • Division titles won by a team from California
  • Triples hit by Lance Berkman
  • Doubles hit by Bronson Arroyo
  • Doubles hit by bunting

You get the idea. He almost hit one on Opening Day, but not even the great Adam Wainwright could keep him in the infield. But so what? He didn’t pop up much. Big deal. He didn’t hit many stand-up triples, either, but nobody is writing about that. Why does this matter so much? It has to do with what an infield fly is, or rather, what it’s close to. What happens after a pop-up? The batter is out. No runners advance.

When you think about it, it’s not too dissimilar from a strikeout. The strikeout shows a little more prowess from the pitcher’s side, but for the batter, the results are the same. So, if a pop out is basically as counterproductive as a strikeout, how does Votto compare when the two are added together?

Votto isn’t quite at the level of those “three true outcome” players, but his strikeout rate befits his batting profile. He gets on base a ton, but guys who hit for a lot of power are destined to strike out some. It’s the way of the world — this world, anyway.

In 2013, Votto struck out in 19 percent of his plate appearances. That’s good for 49th highest among qualified batters. That’s actually quite good given the prowess of his bat when he does make contact. It’s not at a Ted Williams or Joe DiMaggio level, but when compared to the current era, it’s fairly impressive.

What if we count a pop-up as a strikeout, just for fun? If you add infield flies to the strikeout totals and divide by plate appearances, Votto’s combo rate jumps by one tenth of one percent, to 19.1 percent. On that list, he drops to 73rd among qualified batters. That’s 24 spots jumped by adding infield flies to the equation, transitioning him to the bottom half of the list.

In some other world, Joey Votto pops up all the time, and that me from that other world is writing, has written, or will write about how frustrating that all is. There’s also a world in which infield flies are considered good things, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

In our world, our Joey Votto respects us. He gets what we’re trying to do, or at least why we like what other people are trying to do. There’s a line from Randy Newman’s “Political Science”:

No one likes us, I don’t know why
We may not be perfect, but Heaven knows we try
But all around, even our old friends put us down
Let’s drop the big one and see what happens

I’m certainly not advocating blasting the stats critics with nuclear weapons, and, in fact, we don’t need to. We have Joey Votto. He is our big one. He’s already been dropped. There are only so many “mom’s basement” and “games are played on the field, not in a spreadsheet” cliches that people can hurl. Joey Votto will smash them all. Actually, he’ll probably watch them go by and take his base, which carries less gravitas, but we’re okay with that.

Let the RBI crowd jeer. Let the “will to win” lobby try to soil the consciousness of America. We will stand tall with our champion, our beacon for what’s right in this world. Joey Votto might not be the hero we need, and he may not be the one we deserve. But he’s the hero we’ll take, because he’s the best candidate by far.


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David G. Temple is the Managing Editor of TechGraphs and a contributor to FanGraphs, NotGraphs and The Hardball Times. He hosts the award-eligible podcast Stealing Home. Dayn Perry once called him a "Bible Made of Lasers." Follow him on Twitter @davidgtemple.
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DAKINS
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DAKINS

#VottoForPrimeMinister

Jimmer
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Jimmer

Votto is the poster boy for sure, but Mauer is pretty closely right there with him.

Posey
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Posey

We come along every 3-4 years.

Jimmer
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Jimmer

The amount of AL catchers who have won a batting title is one…Mauer…and he’s done it three times. He’s also the only catcher to lead his league in BA/OBP/SLG and, when he did it, it was the first time any player had done it in the AL since Brett in 1980. He’s also the only catcher to ever lead all of MLB in BA in a single season. A talent like him doesn’t come along every 3-4 years…

Rob
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Rob

Has Mauer embraced Sabermetrics openly? Could you link me to any articles in which he does? If there are any, I might have a new third-most favourite player (behind Votto, Trout).

Jimmer
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Jimmer

I’m talking about his approach to batting…OBP machine…and he’s hit like 2 IF fly outs since from 2011 till now. Mauer isn’t a very open book, so as far as embracing advanced stats, I wouldn’t know that.

Rob
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Rob

Great article. Everything not written by RBI-Fanatics about Joey Votto is heart-warming and makes me feel great that I get to see that guy even after 2020.

Michael
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Michael
Leave it to Sabermetrics to hang its hat on Votto. However, if you ask Reds management if they would rather have a repeat of Votto’s stats in 2012 & 2013, or a repeat of the stats in 2010 and 2011 in which he won an MVP for a reason, they will tell you the latter, especially given the fact that where he sits in the line up he is supposed to be a guy that knocks runs in and not leave that up to others. They paid him his $20 million a year through 2023 based off his 2010 &… Read more »
Jimmer
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Jimmer

Is it that you just don’t understand the article, or that you put no value on wRC+ or WAR?

Michael
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Michael

I understand the article just fine thank you very much. Have you ever looked into how they calculate WAR? I am a statistician by trade and I could poke holes into its methodology so much.
The formulas that go into it and make up its parts are so flawed, especially on the fielding side.

LeeTrocinski
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LeeTrocinski
@Michael Last year was just an extremely unclutch year for Votto, costing almost 2.5 wins compared to his wOBA. This was after a 4-year stretch of providing 5 extra wins due to clutch. Also, he might not be the same player after his knee injury in 2012, seemingly not able to get as much lift on the ball. Also, he swung more often last year than 2012, and so far this year, he’s even higher, and he’s not doing better. Your run expectancies of walks vs. RBIs is not completely true. A sac fly with no outs is usually less… Read more »
Michael
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Michael
Last year? It wasn’t last year only, it was both 2012 and 2013. I will grant you in 2012 he was injured a bit but he only had 59 RBIs. He is a great lead off hitter that is getting paid like a cleanup or number 5 hole hitter, its bull. As for, “A sac fly with no outs is usually less valuable than a walk.” NO IT ISNT. A run is always worth more than an OUT always. Besides the nature of a sac fly is that you trade an out for a run. Ridiculous. Your thought that he… Read more »
LeeTrocinski
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LeeTrocinski
Players are not paid to fill a role; they are paid to add as much value as possible. Hitting in the 3 spot, Votto has legitimate hitters behind him, so run expectancy tables work fairly well. With a guy on 3rd with no outs last year, teams on average scored 1.28 more runs that inning. If a sac fly is hit, the team gets the one run plus the expected value of nobody on and 1 out, .25 runs, resulting in 1.25 runs. The sac fly is actually a slightly below-average result in that situation. If the batter walks, it… Read more »
Michael
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Michael
To DAVE: OK. Here’s simply one of my beefs with wRC. I will prove to you that production matters more than rate stats. Don’t get me wrong, rate stats are nice, but only if they have sheer volume behind them. The sheer volume numbers are the “counting stats.” The things Sabermetricians say are archaic, don’t show the whole picture, and just slam in general. Not only will I prove to you that production matters most, I will do it using Sabermetric posterboy Joey Votto, by comparing his 2010 and 2011 to 2012 and 2013, I’ll even pro rate his stats… Read more »
Michael
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Michael
“Your runs produced stat has at least one major flaw. If a runner is on base, you move him up with getting him in, and you get on base but never score, you get no credit for your successful PA. This is why I think WPA and RE24 are better “actual” production metrics. I’m in the process of working on a wOBA that accounts for leverage, which I believe will be a great mix of WPA and RE24. The quality of teammates also skew individual performance, as having better teammates will result in more R + RBI with no change… Read more »
Lee Trocinski
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Lee Trocinski

@ Michael

Instead of taking over this thread more than we already have, you can e-mail me at LeeTro1525 (at) gmail. I will be more than happy to discuss this further.

Steve-O
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Steve-O

Four words : below average contact skills.

ben
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ben

Read it up ’til:
“But the stats people, those who search for deeper understanding of the game, love Joey Votto. ”

That was enough.

Michael
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Michael
Exactly. As I said before its about unique production, (R+RBI)-HR. When you calculate it out, Votto had a production of 150, 24 higher than MLB average, than all those players eligible for the batting crown in 2013. Here are the 27 players AT LEAST as valuable as Votto last year. Miguel Cabrera, Mike Trout, Freddie Freeman, Andrew McCutchen, Matt Carpenter, Adrian Beltre, Allan Craig, Robinson Cano, David Ortiz, Torii Hunter, Paul Goldschmidt, Dustin Pedroia, Josh Donaldson, Chris Davis, Matt Holliday, Dale Murphy, Adam Jones, Jeff Kipnis, Hunter Pence, Prince Fielder, Edwin Encarnacion, Elvis Andrus, Alex Gordon, Jay Bruce, Brandon Phillips,… Read more »
Dave
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Dave

Joey Votto in his super awesome, MVP “unique production” 2010-11 seasons: 164 wRC+, 3rd best in baseball.
Joey Votto in his pathetic, waste-of-talent, not-nearly-as-valuable, plenty-of-other-guys-I’d-rather-have 2012-13 seasons: 165 wRC+, 3rd best in baseball.

Dave
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Dave
@Michael I guess I just don’t understand why you insist on using this unique production stat. Runs and RBI are two of the most team dependent offensive stats in baseball. The only way to guarantee you score a run and get an RBI is to hit a home run, but home runs are excluded in this stat? I guess I just don’t get it, and in my opinion using a more complete offensive stat like wOBA or wRC+ is more useful in determining overall offensive production. I understand every stat has its flaws, and no stat is the “end all… Read more »
JW
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JW

I live in Cincy and I cannot tell you how few fans understand how good Votto is. They compare him to Hal Morris and Sean Casey. This used to be a baseball town…it used to be beautiful.

Greg
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Greg

I also live in Cincy and I think it’s maybe just that you are just hanging around a bad group of friends

Michael
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Michael
I love how both Dave and Lee Trocinski don’t allow me to reply to their comments. I also love how Dave can quote ONE STAT, wRC as if its the end all be all. Look at the full picture first. At the plate, its about production. Does he hit for as many extra bases anymore? No. Does he have more power than he did in 2010-2011? No. In the field, its about gold glove quality play. Did he have a gold glove season in 2012-2013? No. Did he have one in 2010-2011? Yes. What about MVP in 2012-2013? No. In… Read more »
Lee Trocinski
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Lee Trocinski
You can’t directly reply to my response because this site doesn’t allow that many levels of replies. You just have to reply to my first response. Your runs produced stat has at least one major flaw. If a runner is on base, you move him up with getting him in, and you get on base but never score, you get no credit for your successful PA. This is why I think WPA and RE24 are better “actual” production metrics. I’m in the process of working on a wOBA that accounts for leverage, which I believe will be a great mix… Read more »
Barrett
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Barrett

I think everyone would be much happier if the Reds would slot him in as their leadoff man. He’s absolutely perfect for the role and he’d likely relish the opportunity. Votto-Phillips-Frazier-Bruce makes a whole lot more sense than keeping Votto in the 3 hole and letting Billy Hamilton figure out the whole “hitting advanced pitching” thing at the top of the order.

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