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Joey Votto: don’t change a thing

Nov 13, 2013, 5:03 PM EDT

Division Series - San Francisco Giants v Cincinnati Reds - Game Five Getty Images

Fun story here about Joey Votto and the continuing disdain some people in and around Cincinnati seem to have for his patient approach at the plate. My favorite quote in there was actually a question Dennis Janson says he asked when Bryan Price was introduced as Reds manager:

I asked Walt Jocketty if Price is up to the task of disabusing Joey of the notion that a base on balls is as beneficial as a run scoring sacrifice fly.

Jocketty, according to the story, replied that yes, Price was up to the task but that everyone in the organization would chip in to rid Joey Votto of this patience virus and get him hacking away for sacrifice flies like a good run producer should. Well, I’m encapsulating.

This general theme is a pretty old one — this idea that sluggers who walk a lot are somehow not helping the team as much as they should. They said it about Ted Williams and Duke Snider too.

From The Boys of Summer on Snider and sportswriter Bill Roeder:

“Watching Duke Snider turned Bill Roeder sardonic. The Duke could run and throw and leap. His swing was classic; enormous and fluid, a swing of violence that seemed a swing of ease. ‘But do you know when he’s happiest?’ Roeder complained. ‘When he walks. Watch how he throws the bat away. He’s glad.’ Roeder would have liked to have Snider’s skills, he conceded. If he had, he believed he would have used them with more ferocity. Snider was living Roeder’s dream and so abusing it.”

Isn’t that at the heart of it all? A walk, by definition, means that a pitcher threw four pitchers that an umpire deemed out of the strike zone and, as such, not much good for hitting. Almost no one hits .300 or slugs .500 when connecting with pitches out of the strike zone. No one – no exceptions, not even the famous bad ball hitters like Yogi and Clemente — makes consistently good contact on pitches outside the strike zone year after year. A hitter makes his bones on pitches inside that box.

So, why would you ask someone to swing at pitches outside the strike zone? Why would a hitter be considered SELFISH for not swinging at bad pitches when, in fact, it’s almost certainly the other way around? I think it’s the Bill Roeder thing. We have this impulse inside us — a good impulse much of the time — that success comes from trying harder, being more aggressive, going out and getting it, giving 110%. A walk seems a passive act. This is especially true when there are runners in scoring position. Dammit Joey, you’re an RBI man not a walker. If only I had Joey Votto’s talent, I’d drive in more than 73 runs in a season.

But it’s a lie. Joey Votto’s “talent” is not being wasted when he takes bad pitches. That IS HIS talent. That was Ted Williams talent. That was Stan Musial’s talent. That was Mike Schmidt’s talent and Barry Bonds’ talent and Babe Ruth’s talent — they all had this extraordinary ability to know what pitches they could hit and what pitches they could not. It might be the rarest gift in baseball.

Yes, if Votto was a different hitter — a free-swinger with low batting averages and OBPs like his teammates Brandon Phillips and Jay Bruce — he probably could have driven in 100 runs in 2013 like they did.* And … he would be at least one-third less valuable as an offensive player.

*Maybe. Maybe not. Bruce and Phillips came to the plate with many more runners on base. Bruce and Phillips were actually 1-2 in the National League in runners on base. Bruce came up with 500 runners on base, Phillips with 492. Votto came up with 441 — more than 50 less. You know the difference? Joey Votto got on base in front of Bruce and Phillips.

But let’s get to the point here: Does Joey Votto really take too many walks when he should be hitting sacrifice flies? This is actually pretty easy to look up.

In 2013, Votto came up 53 times with a runner on third and less than two outs. He was intentionally walked 11 of those times, so there’s not a lot he could do about those. In his other 42 times, he hit six sac flies and he walked seven times. That doesn’t really seem like a trend. Well, he only got seven hits in 29 at-bats for a .241 average, so maybe there’s something to that …

… no, I’m just joshing with you. Having a little small-sample size fun. There’s nothing to it.

2012: Came up 23 times in sac fly situations. Was intentionally walked four. Hit two sac flies and walked three times. Hit .571 the rest of the time.

2011: Came up 42 times. Was intentionally walked five. Of the remaining 37, he hit six sac flies, walked four times, and hit .393 the rest of the time.

Career: Came up 210 times. Intentionally walked 25 so that leaves 185 at-bats with a runner on third and less than two outs. In those 185 plate appearances, he hit 20 sac flies, walked 27 times unintentionally, hit .365 and slugged .584. The guy’s a bleeping beast in sac fly situations, which is why pitchers consciously try to pitch around him. If Walt Jocketty and Bryan Price and the rest of the Reds spend even one minute disabusing Joey Votto of the notion that a base on balls is as beneficial as a sac fly — and trying to change him as a hitter — they should be forced by the Baseball Gods to trade him to my favorite team and pick up Josh Hamilton and his gargantuan contract in his place. Hamilton, you will note, is a sac fly machine.

  1. flamethrower101 - Nov 13, 2013 at 5:10 PM

    So basically the Reds are idiots for asking Joey to stop taking so many pitches are swing at more outside pitches because there are men on base? Yep, that sounds about right.

    Don’t do it, Bryan Price! Don’t!!

    • Arods Other Doctor - Nov 18, 2013 at 8:46 PM

      Wanting him be more aggressive with the hittable pitches he does see (hitter’s strikes) during PA’s in which he eventually walks is not that same thing as wanting him to swing at balls. Now I don’t believe that it is wise to try to get a very successful leopard to change its spots, but misrepresenting the position by pretending people want him to do something utterly stupid is not needed in order to ‘win’ the argument.

  2. sav2880 - Nov 13, 2013 at 5:20 PM

    You’re right … but, having seen him all year and having heard him talk:

    * I think there’s some home that he’ll have a bit more of a dynamic 2014 because of the fact he’s said his knee still didn’t feel 100%. I think the hope is that he’ll generate more power, but he did still hit 25 homers last year. What was different between 2010 and 2013? A lot less of those homers were with runners on base this year. Awful hard to “force” a guy to hit more homers with RISP, but I do think people hope he’ll get back to hitting more line drives, at minimum more doubles. That might have been what made his 2012 so good pre-injury, his great OPS numbers were really pushed with walks AND doubles.

    * Joe hit on the real key without saying it … you want Votto to get more RBI’s, change the situations. Choo won’t be back, which will hurt things, but Hamilton’s gonna be a spark plug if they put him at the top of the lineup. The real key is what they do at the #2 spot. I don’t think you put Votto there because Hamilton will steal the base, and Votto will get walked more with the open 1st base there. You maybe need a good on-base or average hitter, as they’ll get plenty of chances to drive in Hamilton and will create maybe more favorable opportunities for Votto.

    Agreed, you don’t change Votto, you change what’s around Votto to leverage him better.

    • philsieg - Nov 13, 2013 at 5:52 PM

      Hamilton won’t be a sparkplug unless he gets on base. Last year in AAA, his OBP was .304. Of course, that fits in nicely with the Reds’ starters last year. With Choo removed, only two regulars had OBPs above .315 – Votto at .435 and Bruce at .329 (NL avg was .317). The right side of the plate was a veritable ghost town.

      I was glad to see Dusty given the gate, but sad that Bob didn’t boot out Old School Walt at the same time. The Reds’ have talent but they need at 21st front office to maximize it.

      • sav2880 - Nov 14, 2013 at 6:14 PM

        That’s why I think the #2 hitter is more important to Votto. Hamilton because of his speed almost operates as a single entity in the top of the lineup because a mere single or time on base provides an opportunity to get him around with just another single via the stolen base, and he wouldn’t be stealing nearly as much with Votto right in front of him in the lineup.

      • timburns116 - Nov 14, 2013 at 10:29 PM

        Apparently, Reds’s fan, putisde of myself, just cannot understand that Billy Hamilton is not a sure thing.

  3. Marty McKee - Nov 13, 2013 at 5:21 PM

    Cincinnati media also thought Griffey and Dunn were bad players.

    • sav2880 - Nov 13, 2013 at 5:25 PM

      Yes, the media around Cincy does like to eat their own (see, Homer Bailey), but Dunn was a strikeout machine just before it was cool to do so, and people wanted the Seattle version of Griffey only to find that injuries left him a shell of his former self.

      Even the most jaded people around here see that Votto’s immensely gifted as a hitter, hopefully an off-season of not being in the moment reminds them that 2013 was still a good year for him.

      • Marty McKee - Nov 14, 2013 at 9:40 AM

        Brennaman is still wondering when Bruce is “going to get it together.” Somehow, it has escaped him that Bruce is the best RF in the NL.

      • sportsfan18 - Nov 14, 2013 at 11:44 AM

        Well Dunn being a strikeout machine was ONLY part of the equation.

        Over the past few seasons, while NOT on the Reds, his on base percentage has come down.

        But when he was on the Reds, his on base percentage averaged in the 380’s.

        Even with all his strikeouts, he was an on base machine.

      • timburns116 - Nov 14, 2013 at 10:33 PM

        Comes from those idiot radio broadcasters. Being able to broadcast a game well doesn’t mean one understands baseball. In fact, those two clowns were just discussing in September how valuable BP is because he “drives in runs and doesn’t take walks.” Southern Ohio is not a place known for a its free thinking

    • largebill - Nov 14, 2013 at 10:15 AM

      The worst of them was Brennaman. Dunn had his flaws, but Marty would complain about one of his strengths – recognizing and laying off bad pitches.

      • timburns116 - Nov 14, 2013 at 10:34 PM

        It’s because Marty doesn’t know what he talking about

    • timburns116 - Nov 14, 2013 at 10:32 PM

      Comes from those idiot radio broadcasters. Being able to broadcast a game well doesn’t mean one understands baseball. In fact, those two clowns were just discussing in September how valuable BP is because he “drives in runs and doesn’t take walks.” Southern Ohio is not a place known for a its free thinking

  4. cardinalcrazy - Nov 13, 2013 at 5:45 PM

    I would argue Vladimir Guerrero was one of those rare hitters that could make a living outside of the strike zone. I wish he was still playing.

    • cur68 - Nov 14, 2013 at 1:02 PM

      Re. Vladdy: Agree +++
      Also, currently, Miggy. He needs more credit for being an outstanding bad ball hitter. Admittedly, the bad ones he swings at aren’t as egregious as Vladdy’s but he doesn’t let too many pitches that might be called strikes get by him. That’s really his genius as a hitter: he swings at, and often hits, the close, but bad, pitches. Remember this? ….

      Nearly a strike on an intentional walk pitch. So he hit it.

      Of course there’s this little beauty from FanGraphs:

      One of those was 9 inches off the plate and he homered it. Nice.

  5. disgracedfury - Nov 13, 2013 at 7:52 PM

    Did everybody forget he’s 2010 season when he hit 30 homeruns and 100 rbi’s in that small ballpark.If he was a good hitter he should be able to have that walk rate and get rbi’s.

    He is not getting paid to walk.Rbi’s are the most important thing in baseball.

    • braddavery - Nov 13, 2013 at 8:19 PM

      No. Runs are more meaningful than RBI.

      • nbjays - Nov 14, 2013 at 7:43 AM

        I disagree… wins are more important yet. You can score lots of runs and still lose. Runs are only important insofar as you score more than the other team… thus winning.

      • braddavery - Nov 14, 2013 at 12:08 PM

        I didn’t say that runs are more important than wins. But you need at least one run to win a game, which makes a run/runs the most impactful measure on whether a team wins or loses.

  6. thomas844 - Nov 13, 2013 at 7:55 PM

    People expect Votto to be the “masher,” the guy who is an annual 30+ homer 100+ RBI guy just because he bats third in the order. That’s just not the kind of hitter Votto is and that is completely fine. I do think, to address the poor OBP that was shown in the 2 hole though, that Votto should hit 2nd in the order and Bruce follow him as the #3 hitter.

  7. jm91rs - Nov 13, 2013 at 10:03 PM

    As a reds fan I have no problem with joey vottos approach, though I do have some concerns with the results I saw at the end of the year. On the year, he was great, but just going by memory (I wouldn’t know how to look this up), it seemed that the teams that faced him often (the pirates specifically) had no problem going right after him rather than letting him walk for Bruce. He’s a high strike out guy, that will come when A guy looks at so many pitches, but i wonder if he leaves his bat on his shoulder too often will the other team come closer and closer to the strike zone hoping to catch him looking? It seemed like in big games towards the end of the year that was the case. I think joey is such a cerebral hitter though that he’ll adjust his approach and hit the ball if guys keep coming after him. I wish he were more aggressive, but that’s just because I don’t think there’s enough talent around him to take advantage of him always being on base.

    • clydeserra - Nov 13, 2013 at 10:25 PM

      here you go:

      22 walks in 84 PAs. for a robust 323/500/500.

      that’s why you trust but verify your observations. your observations are clouded by emotion.

      • jm91rs - Nov 13, 2013 at 11:16 PM

        Thanks for the stats. Sometimes I wonder how much I see versus what I hear analysts say. I see a guy slumping and the tv color man says “no one is afraid of joey votto right now” and that sticks in my head long after he’s done slumping. I do remember instances where I questioned why he was getting pitches to hit and even more so why he wasn’t hitting them. As a fan, emotions are why I watch the game. Sure I want votto to knock runners in, but only because I feel like the rest of the team will leave joey standing on first. If the team takes the on base approach that joey takes, they’ll all get chances to drive them in.

  8. erbaodai - Nov 13, 2013 at 10:34 PM

    “Yes, if Votto was a different hitter — a free-swinger with low batting averages and OBPs like his teammates Brandon Phillips and Jay Bruce — he probably could have driven in 100 runs in 2013 like they did.* And … he would be at least one-third less valuable as an offensive player.”

    We’re not asking him to be Brandon Phillips and Jay Bruce, we’re asking him to be Miguel Cabrera, Pujols 5 years ago, or Hank Aaron 50 years ago. Even becoming a Paul Goldschmidt would be an upgrade over the current Votto.

    • nategearhart - Nov 14, 2013 at 12:17 AM

      Your standards are too damn high.

    • cohnjusack - Nov 14, 2013 at 8:38 AM

      We’re not asking him to be Brandon Phillips, we’re asking home to be one of the small handful of greatest hitters all time at their peak!

      In other news, I’m not asking my wife to lose a few pounds. I’m asking her to look like pin-up era Bettie Page while earning far more money than I do and to develop a love of giving out blowjobs several times a day to for her own enjoyment. Totally reasonable expectation there.

      • largebill - Nov 14, 2013 at 2:37 PM

        Other than the Bettie Page looks, your expectations are not all that unreasonable.

  9. baseballisboring - Nov 14, 2013 at 4:21 AM

    You dummies have one of the 2 or 3 best hitters in the game. Don’t. Mess. With. It.

  10. stoutfiles - Nov 14, 2013 at 6:41 AM

    But the thing is, there wasn’t anyone on base. Baker used the 2 slot to “wake up” bad hitters. It didn’t work of course, and Joey suffered for it.

  11. nbjays - Nov 14, 2013 at 7:59 AM

    Nothing better to go with my morning dark roast than a nice Posnanski piece (even if it is too damn short). Thanks again, Joe.

    Votto needs to just keep doing what he does best, and if they want him to get more RBI, they need to have someone ahead of him who can get on base. It’s not like all he can do is walk. He’s a career .314/.419/.541 hitter, and in his last 3 seasons, has only struck out 13 more times than he has walked.

    To all the whiners who think he needs to do better, or completely change his approach to suit their narrow-minded idea of a “productive hitter”, remember, there are lots of teams who would take Joey Votto in a heartbeat and appreciate what he brings to a team.

  12. inversedoob - Nov 14, 2013 at 8:18 AM

    if the reds want votto to swing more they should get him some protection in the lineup. why ask one of the best hitters in the game to change his approach? isn’t the idea to not only have him swing but swing at good pitches?

  13. thefreelancehack - Nov 14, 2013 at 9:21 AM

    Long time Reds fan here. In general, I don’t have a problem with Joey’s approach over the entire season. However, there may be a time or two when you need to adjust your approach — such as a late-inning situation where the tying or go-ahead run is on third. In that situation, I’d like my hitter to be a little more aggressive.

    When you look at the stats — both the ones cited above and on the back of Votto’s baseball card — it seems the biggest reason for Votto’s RBI decline may have been his slight drop in power. His hit total was comparable to past years, but he only hit 30 doubles in 2013 — well off his normal pace. If Votto hits 40 doubles in 2013, my guess is he’d have finished with around 85-90 RBI.

    • largebill - Nov 14, 2013 at 2:39 PM

      If he had more guys on base he’d have driven in more guys.

    • skyliners66 - Nov 14, 2013 at 2:55 PM

      Votto was sub par in 2013 in the pressure situations that get noticed by the Reds fans. With RISP he was great over all .291/.477.455
      RISP 2 Outs .162/.415/.351
      Bases Loaded 1 for 9, 4 walks, 1 SF, 7 RBI
      Late Inn Pressure .229/.491/.314
      Extra Inns .105/.318/.263

      He was definitely pitched around for the most part so what really needs to happen is to get Votto some protection in the lineup and more runners on base in front of him. Dusty was hung up on not batting lefties consecutively (Choo-Votto-Bruce) despite the fact that Votto and Bruce hit decently against lefties. Bruce hit 10 HR against lefties.

  14. stumblebum76 - Dec 5, 2013 at 3:33 PM

    Dunn was a total dud. Led the world in strikeouts. Couldn’t hit with men on base. Couldn’t catch a fly ball in a bushel basket. Good riddance.

    Votto is a very capable player. But, I’m sick of watching him kick ground balls into the outfield, and I would love to see some real EFFORT from him. He reminds me of Ken Griiey, Jr. Who walked to first base on ground balls, and gave about a 40% effort. The biggest joke in Reds’ history is voting Griffey into the Reds’ Hall of Fame.

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