2013 Reds / Editorials

Verducci to Votto: Swing Batter Batter

I can see him now in my mind’s eye, his skinny 8-year old body positioned at third base, feet spread wide, oversized knothole shirt draped over his slight frame, slapping his too large glove against those baggy polyester baseball pants hanging off his non-existent hips, cap pulled down low just above his eyes—little Tommy Verducci chirping to the boy in the batter’s box:

“Swing batter batter!”

That’s essentially what a grown up Tom Verducci did last week, when he called out Joey Votto, like some frustrated, meddling little league father yelling from the bleachers at his son to get the bat off his shoulder.

Joey doesn’t swing at enough strikes, says Verducci. He references his 37 HRs in 2010 and his power outage this year to make a damning claim: Votto isn’t swinging at enough hittable pitches and thus is not driving in runs. Nevermind that 51 at bats with a runner on base is a bit too early to be drawing sweeping conclusions on the effectiveness of the 2010 MVP’s hitting approach. Nevermind that the two-spot in the order has a .286 OBP thus far in 2013. Nevermind that Votto is coming off a knee injury. If Derrick Rose, who has been long ago medically cleared to play basketball, can be so apprehensive about an injury that he refuses to so much as take the court, is it entirely possible Joey Votto’s mind bone is not fully connected to his knee bone just yet? Or, perhaps Votto is simply getting off to a slow start. Heaven forbid one of the two best hitters in the game appears human.

Of course, Verducci wasn’t merely attacking Votto’s hitting philosophy, he was going after an entire segment of the population he repeatedly accused of “groupthink”—which suspiciously sounds like code for those OBP-happy, spreadsheet-loving fools who believe that getting men on base with greater frequency eventually results in more runs which in turn eventually results in more wins.

Verducci insists the obsession with driving up pitch counts and waiting for hittable pitches is a failing strategy in Baseball today. Votto is his Exhibit A.

It just doesn’t work, says Tom:

“Video is more abundant and portable than ever. More data is available. And yet the modern approach to hitting is failing. Pitchers are four years into a run of dominance and there are no signs that their run is abating, especially when the modern passive aggressive approach to hitting has become so ingrained.”

Passive? Maybe.

But pitchers have video, too. And data. Big data. And I seem to remember Verducci postulating not long ago that while both pitchers and hitters both have access to more data than ever, hitters are at a significant disadvantage due to the reactive nature of hitting, as opposed to pitchers, where nothing happens until the ball heads plateward. Votto is merely attempting to bring pitches back over the plate where they can be abused. Everything a hitter sees today has movement to it. Everything. That which doesn’t quickly finds itself souvenir material. Everything comes faster, breaks harder and later. An aggressive approach to hitting would seem to be dangerous territory for even the best hitters. Over aggressiveness makes average pitchers good ones. It makes good ones appear great.

Cincinnati fans know that. (See, e.g., the ninth inning last night in St. Louis.)

If the K rate in Baseball is rising dramatically, perhaps a reason is the preponderance of quality lefthanders in major league baseball who can bring it these days—Clayton Kershaw, Chris Sale, Matt Moore, to name three. Said Mets first baseman Ike Davis,

“Back in my dad’s day, Ron Guidry was the only lefty who could throw in the mid-90s. Now, we’ve got about 80 lefties who can throw in the mid-90s. And that’s really difficult.”

Buck Showalter would agree:  “You don’t see the hit and run anymore because so few guys are able to make contact, managers are afraid to put that on.”

The real truth might be that players are swinging and missing because pitchers are better than ever—and not just lefthanders.

Tom Verducci knows this. It was only a month ago that he wrote a season preview piece for SI—Generation K, Why Strikeouts Rule the Game—nearly 3,000 biblical words dedicated to the belief that there has been a sea change in pitching strategy that has dramatically altered how pitchers attack hitters—all at great advantage to the men on the mound.

Verducci credits Greg Maddux with breaking long-held pitching shibboleths—like pitching lefties down and in and throwing front door breaking balls to righties. Soon, power pitchers were aping Maddux, cutting and sinking the ball on both sides of the plate. Pitchers like Roy Halladay and later David Price are no longer using brute force and a four-seam fastball to crack on hitters, they are using the cutter and two-seamers to force hitters to cover more of the plate when they are behind in the count.

When Verducci wasn’t extolling the revolutionary virtues of the cutter (gimmick pitch turned indispensable tool) and an increased reliance on sheer velocity to befuddle hitters, he was blaming the mindset of sluggers like Adam Dunn and Evan Longoria, who accept strikeouts without the once requisite shame of yesteryear:

“I [Longoria] don’t have a two-strike approach. I mean, I could decide to shorten up [my swing] and roll over and hit a ground ball. But on this level, if you roll over something because you were just trying to put the ball in play, you’re going to be out more than 95 percent of the time. It’s more about, what can I do to help the team? For me, it’s getting three healthy hacks and using them.”

Yet, there wasn’t much reference to the above when indicting this “passive” approach that is supposed to be destroying this Game of Ball. Mr. Verducci uses dubious numbers to further a dubious agenda.  In noting that teams that get a lead after as little as two innings win 70 percent of the time, he failed to explain why a patient approach at the plate was incongruous with scoring runs early. He used a statistical table showing a decline in first pitch swinging and an increase in Ks to draw a straight line conclusion—a classically misguided example of correlation = causation.

While dismissing the value of pitch counts, Verducci rolled out what is fast becoming his favorite quote from Cubs president Theo Epstein: “In the information age, things that are precisely measured are rewarded disproportionally relative to impact.”

The problem with the quote is that Verducci lifted it out of context from an earlier article.  Epstein’s remark was originally made in connection to a discussion about the burgeoning emphasis on velocity in young prospects, how scouts will no longer give Latin American teenagers so much as a sniff if they can’t touch 90; how even fathers carry pocket radar devices to measure little Jimmy’s heater.  And it was in that context that Epstein said “In the information age, things that are precisely measured are rewarded disproportionally relative to impact.”

That seems … well, dishonest. What is Verducci attempting to accomplish here?

If hitters are no longer swinging at 3-0 pitches the way they once did, what exactly is the problem with that? Since when did a 3-1 count become anything other than piñata-time for the batter? In this era where every reliever that enters the game seems to throw unreal gas and hitters aren’t as [ahem] artificially enhanced as they once were, why is today’s de rigueur practice of taking a 3-0 pitch suddenly a capital crime?

Fernando Rodney would surely prefer that hitters heed Verducci’s advice. The Rays reliever—who gave up a mere five earned runs last season—has already surrendered four this April. Why? He’s walking people. Batters are laying off his devastating change because it doesn’t often cover the plate and hitters are beginning to figure that out.

Meanwhile, Joey Votto marches on, led by a failed strategy which will almost certainly spell his doom before the season is out. As his OPB rises and his offensive contributions fall, we will learn to see it for what it is, The Verducci Effect 2.0.

Coming to a web syndicated baseball blog near you.

32 thoughts on “Verducci to Votto: Swing Batter Batter

  1. I posted something in today’s game thread that is appropriate here also:

    League average swing percent on balls in the zone is 64% and Votto is right at 64%.

    League average swing percent on balls out of the zone is 29%, and Votto’s is 20%.

    So guys like Verducci are basically arguing that Votto should swing at more bad pitches. Just how many HR’s do you think Votto is going to hit on balls off the plate, at his ankles, or at his chest?

    Maybe he gets a sac fly, or an RBI groundout here and there, but those will be offset by a much more outs.

    There is a core of writers, insiders, and even fans that are still pissed off that their long held beliefs in things like pitcher wins and RBI (which are stats) were so dramatically and embarassingly shown to be wrong. This core will take any chance they can to try to get some credibility back.

    The sad thing is that it often ends up with observations like this. In their backwards attempt to feel better, they come up with the brilliant suggestion that one of the best hitters in the game needs to swing at more bad pitches.

    • @al: Good of you to point that out. I posted something similar about the Reds offense as a whole in the Titanic Struggle Recap from last night. I agree with rhayex that you could do your own article based on the information in your comment and it would be a good article.

  2. The only possible flaw you could nitpick about Votto’s approach is that maybe he should swing a first-pitch fastball a little more since a get-ahead pitch might be the best one he’ll see, but again, that’s nitpicking. Also, Votto is not a prototype home run hitter with a big swing. He’s a line-drive hitter who hits several over the fence. And when your club is struggling to put ANYONE on base, you have to take the best path toward getting a man in play. A walk is still as good as a hit.

    • @Sam Jackson: As evidence, see the Reds’ first run today. Joey Votto WALKS and scores a run. If you listen to the things people are saying, it doesn’t seem like that should be possible.

      It seems like certain people who cover this team who are in love with the RBI ignore the fact that Phillips is second in the league in the beloved RBI. Why, you may ask? Maybe because he has TWO on-base monsters in front of him in the lineup. I just hope Joey is smart enough to ignore all of this trash.

  3. Tom Verducci is an imbecile. He’s an idiot. I don’t know why he’s targeted Votto so often; if I’m not mistaken, this is at least his second article in a short period of time (just prior to ST to now) bashing the Reds and Votto in particular. It’s a joke.

  4. For those of you with ESPN Insider, Keith Law has an interesting blog post about why the Reds should bat Votto 2nd, and why Cozart has no business hitting anywhere near the top of the lineup. The Votto to 2nd part is interesting, and the Cozart to the bottom of the lineup is obvious to everyone not named Dusty Baker. Law calls Baker’s reasoning obsolete. What a surprise…

    http://insider.espn.go.com/mlb/blog/_/name/law_keith/id/9227029/joey-votto-bat-second-cincinnati-reds-mlb

  5. I completely agree with this post and I am glad someone spoke up. Joey has made himself one of the greatest hitters in baseball, and a major reason why is his eye at the plate.

    Unfortunately, since Tom Verducci and other members of the media (including the Reds media) began criticizing his approach, he has become much more aggressive. Prior to Verducci’s article, which was posted April 23, Votto’s OBP was .500, with 26 BB. From April 23 – April 30, his OBP was only .265, with ZERO WALKS during that period. I hope Joey doesn’t feel he needs to change his entire approach at the plate after criticism from a small faction within the media; however, his numbers suggest otherwise.

    • @rymatt830: I’ve noticed Votto seems to be expanding his zone the last several games, and I don’t like it. He needs to be himself.

  6. Did anyone catch when Ryan Ludwick was in the booth the other evening and he talked about how when he talks to youngsters (high school, etc) that he tells them one of the main things he likes to see in hitters is their ability to drive in runs? He even down played taking walks to build up RBI.

  7. The sad part is that Verducci could have been something other than lazy. There’s an interesting question of how much Votto *should* swing. I don’t know the answer to the question of whether, say, Votto should swing at a pitch 1 inch outside. Maybe that’s close enough to a strike that he can smash it. I doubt it, but who knows? There must exist some optimal amount Votto should swing. There are any number of other interesting questions he could have asked and studied. Instead he figured out his conclusion ahead of time and did anything he could to support it.

    • @Hank Aarons Teammate: Just like the HS thesis I’m working on right now! It’s sad that Verducci has the reasoning skills of a HSer, and in some cases less than, as the only reason most of us are writing this way is because our teacher made us pick a topic and opinion WITHOUT researching it. I chose media consolidation. I regret it.

      • @rhayex: And he had a choice on how to write it and just petulantly wrote an article loosely based on dubious facts. He should run for office.

  8. Let’s just step outside the world of stats and sabermetrics for a quick second here. Has Votto been good this season? yes. Has Votto been great this season? no, far from it. I don’t care what your stats tell you. Votto has been good, not great. Also, I don’t know what the reasoning is, but there is a definite decline in offense going on in MLB. no team in NL except for 1 i think? is batting over .245 as a team (colorado)

  9. Even without any reasonable or valid research, basic reasoning should be used. BP is 2nd in the NL in RBI’s. Why? Because Choo and Votto are 2 of the 3 hitters who hit in front of him and Choo and Votto are 1st & 2nd in the NL in OBP. Frazier is 11th in the NL in RBI’s. Why? Because Votto, BP and Bruce hit in front of him and Votto is 2nd in the NL in OBP, BP has an OBP of .336 and Bruce has an OBP of .318.

    Because Dusty feels the need to insert Cozart and his astronomical OBP of .225 in the #2 hole, that significantly limits opportunity for Bruce to drive in more runs due to the OBP of the 3 hitters in front of him with the inclusion of Cozart.

    .306 AVG OBP of the 3 hitters in front of Votto
    .376 AVG OBP of the 3 hitters in front of BP
    .334 AVG OBP of the 3 hitters in front of Bruce
    .365 AVG OBP of the 3 hitters in front of Frazier

    What I found most distressing is the the OBP for the #9 hole (pitchers slot) is .231 while the OBP for Cozart, who is hitting in the #2 hole, is .225. C’mon, really?!

    Funny how getting hitters on base consitently results in more RBI’s opportunities and more RBI’s for the following hitters.

    Here’s a simple excercise for Dusty. Make one simple change by moving Frazier up to the #2 hole and Meso up to the #6 hole:

    .335 AVG OBP for the 3 hitters in front of Votto
    .405 AVG OBP for the 3 hitters in front of BP
    .363 AVG OBP for the 3 hitters in front of Bruce
    .365 AVG OBP for the 3 hitters in front of Meso

    There’s your RBI opportunities! BTW, Frazier has had some tough games lately at the plate, but he is hitting the ball hard and not striking out more than usual. He is just hitting the ball at people rather than finding holes.

  10. Verducci and Skip Bayless should make a baby. It would be the most statistically ignorant baby to ever walk the land.

    Reading through the comments at the bottom of the article is grand; lots of “this. makes. no. sense.” comments. One of the best thoughts is: If these types of numbers happened to Votto in August, after he’d already hit 15 HRs, everyone would be hailing him as the Messiah of Plate Discipline. It’s just the fact that the numbers look so skewed by the fact he hasn’t “unslumped (I’m not calling it a slump, but many at ESPN have).”

  11. Very well-written and thought- provoking article. It’s stupid to argue that having runners on base is not important, and also stupid to criticize Joey without watching a lot of his at-bats and seeing how few hittable pitches he gets. That said, I’ll be a devil’s advocate and remind you of one particular at bat a few weeks (I think) ago. Don’t recall the opponent, but with two out and the bases empty and the Reds down by more than one run in the 9th, Joey worked a walk. Certainly as good as a single in that instance, but neither is going to make much difference unless extraordinarily unusual events ensue (like J. Bruce driving the ball). My working theory is that Joey is a very intellectual hitter who views each at-bat as a chess match versus the pitcher. Given the quality of pitching (it wasn’t so long ago that guys hitting 92 were legit power pitchers), this is a good approach for OBP. Maybe sometimes, though, the third batter needs to let it all hang out. Joey does seem to be doing this lately, and it doesn’t seem to be helping much yet, so what do I know? I do know, however, that the Reds aren’t a good offensive club at this time, even with the two top OBP guys in the game, and I’m convinced that Joey himself is struggling despite his numbers. The results of the games would seem to bear this out.

  12. I don’t even think injuries is a valid excuse.

    The Ludwick injury is the only real injury the Reds have suffered.

    Cingrani has almost certainly out performed Cueto since he came up. He’s been crazy good.

    The Marshall injury hurt some, but if your team can’t overcome a relief to a relief pitcher, you have bigger problems.

    • @CP: Cingrani might have outperformed Cueto, and he might not–Cueto often goes deeper in the game than 6 innings–but to say that losing your #1 starter and one of your key bullpen guys are not “real” injuries seems more like rhetoric than reason. It is certainly true, however, that teams with championship aspirations need to be able to overcome injuries.

      • @greenmtred:

        Eh, rhetoric v. reason? I don’t follow.

        Cueto may have given a couple more inning, sure. Cingrani gave 6 per start with ridiculous stats all around, so we’ll be optimistic to Cueto and say its a push.

        The handling of Marshall’s injury was the worst part of Marshall’s injury. Relief pitchers just aren’t that valuable in the big scheme of things.

        Like…if you had to pick one guy out of the following lineup to lose for the entire season, who would you choose?

        Votto
        BP
        Cozart
        Frazier
        Bruce
        Choo
        Chapman
        Marshall

        You choose Marshall, every time (and if you included all the other relief pitchers, you’d work your way bottom up from Parra, to Ondrusek, to Hoover, etc until you reach Broxton/Marshall in which case you have a real Sophie’s choice.

        • @CP: My point was that losing a #1 starter is not negligible. As for Marshall, my thinking is that, while one guy in the bullpen, considered in isolation, may not be important, the bullpen really functions like one very important player. A key part of that “player” (and I consider Marshall to be that)going down makes the whole thing weaker.

  13. I saw this post acouple of days ago, but it was taken down while replying, weird!

    In any event, using Votto as your primary example is not a good way to go. He takes what the pitchers give him, goes opp field, and expands the zone when warranted. Yeah, he’s had some bad AB’s the last few weeks but that doesn’t happen often.

    One undertone in the article, which if emphasized, would have made for a better article is that all hitting is situational. Locking yourself into one aspect or outcome will blind you to other opportunities.

    Hitters like Votto, vintage Pujoles, Utley, Jeter, Ricky Henderson, just to name a few off the top of my head. All displayed the ability to take what pitcher gave them, jump on mistakes, and understand what the team needed in each of their AB’s.

  14. I just think it’s funny how last year EVERYONE was complaining about needing a legitimate leadoff man (and deservedly so) to send this offense to a new level. Well, a year later Choo is leading the league in OBP and feels like the same kinda hit or miss offense as a year ago. lol, i know it’s early so i’ll still have hope that reds will get on a nice roll here soon but was just interesting thought to me.

  15. Why the spurn?

    I have no particular problem with his opening paragraphs. He is stating facts until he gets to “There is one serious flaw in this groupthink strategy.” From there, I disagree with his conclusions.

    Any hitter that goes to the plate with the same hitting goals in mind every AB is going to strike out a lot; from players that swing at the first pitch every time to those who’s goal is to draw out a 10 pitch at bat. Yesterday, I would have spoiled a few good pitches to run up Lynn’s count. “His location is a little off, but he’s still making pitches and eating us up. Let’s get him out of the game.” That’s what would have crossed my mind. Against Garcia I would have been thinking, “this guy is keeping it in the zone. Let’s swing.” But that’s me and I’m a nobody.

    • @TC: I agree. As a (former) player my approach was different against a guy that I knew was going to be pounding the strikezone versus a pitcher that I knew had some problems locating his pitches. I was a “selectively agressive” (my phrase) hitter for the most part but my aggressiveness changed partly due to who I was facing and what kind of command/control they had that particular day. I’m pretty sure that MLB hitters tend to do the same kind of things when it comes to their approach.

  16. Hitters are striking out more than ever before in baseball history while runs, walks, hits and home runs have been on the decline for years. And while teams still preach the religion of driving up pitch counts to “get into the bullpen” of the other team, they may be pushing an outdated agenda. So fortified are major league bullpens these days, especially with hard throwers, that last year relievers posted an ERA more than half a run lower than starters and averaged almost one strikeout for every inning.

    (The best idea is to strike quickly; teams that get a lead after as little as two innings win 70 percent of the time.)

    Huge over generalization there. And using ERA as a basis for his argument. All relievers ERA is lower than all starters ERA. It’s been that way for a while, hasn’t it? That’s not a new trend.

    I’d bet on most teams, you want to get into an opponent’s 6th and 7th inning relief corps more than you want to face their starter. Just look at the last few series the Reds have played. I think the Reds would be better off with the Nationals or Cardinals relievers in the 6th/7th inning than any of the starters they faced. Or the upcoming Cubs series. The Cubs actually do have a pretty good rotation, but their bullpen is very weak.

  17. Let’s see if my old school brain can undrstand this point: Pitchers now days are using more cutters and two seamers breaking away from hitters instead of just hard heat to strike guys out (From just casual observation, I will take this word, it at least seems plausible, although I sure have seen more pitchers hit triple digits in the last couple of seasons than I can ever recall, but whatever..). Cutters and breaking two seamers are much harder to control and part of their influence to strike guys out is to appear as strikes, and then vanish from the zone. Seems a natural response in hitting, which granted is more reactive than pitching, would be to lay off more of those pitches. Hence more walks.

    I’m old school, and I was always taught that there were certain axioms you take into a batters box which include:

    1. You can’t steal first.
    2. You can’t pick up many RBI’s without someone on base.
    3. In a tight situation, look for the pitchers best pitch first so he can get ahead.
    4. Strike outs are no good, but double plays are worse. Think about where the runners are before you decide what pitch to swing at.
    5. If you are having problems with a pitcher, do whatever you can to disrupt his timing and extend the hitting for the guy behind you.
    6. Unless it’s Nolan Ryan on the mound (old school, remember?), don’t ever play for one run early.

    I dunno, the way I was taught making the pitcher drive up his pitch count and putting guys on base is a good thing, regardless of where you are pencilled in the lineup.

    Now you’ll excuse me, I have the new Jimi Hendrix 8 track I need to hear. I understand it’s groovy.

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