Even now, it remains curious and a bit confounding how this man has been received. So much excellence, so many hits, and yet so many conflicted feelings from the local fans. He would strike out. He would make an error. He’d hear about it in the stands. He’d hear it from the media the next day. Arthur Daley of New York Times called him, “a peculiar case, so tangled in his inner man that even a psychologist or psychiatrist would have trouble unraveling him.”
The media complained, so he responded: “They’re always saying I don’t hit in the clutches. They’ll cite a lot of games when I don’t hit. Well, there are a lot when I do. All they have to do is look at the record.”
He’d strike out and fall into a rage over the sheer impudence of a pitcher who had the temerity send him back to the dugout. Let’s just say he was driven and leave it at that. He took his cues from another great hitter and learned to swing at only those pitches he wanted to swing at—to the chagrin of those in the media:
“[he] became notorious for never going after anything less than a perfect pitch with less than two strikes and never ever for one outside the strike zone. Start swinging at bad balls, he figured, and you would be sure to see more of them…”
Such is the experience of Joey Votto. Except that everything above was said about Ted Williams, not the Reds’ polarizing first baseman. Just as Votto took his cue from Williams, so did the Splendid Splinter take his from Rogers Hornsby, who, as a minor league batting instructor, told Williams his secret was to wait for the “good” pitch.
Expectation is the hellish partner that rides shotgun with athletes who dare to rise above their peers. Teddy Ballgame was a god. When Williams homered in one final act of holiness in his last game, he refused to leave the dugout, tip his cap and acknowledge the fans, prompting John Updike to famously pen “Gods don’t answer letters.”
Joey Votto is no god. He will, however, be making an ungodly sum of money shortly playing baseball for the Cincinnati Reds. But, there are more than expectations and even money at play here. Unlike Ted Williams, Joey MVP has the added burden of standing at a historical fork in the road where Old School Avenue and Advanced Metrics Boulevard collide.
Are the Reds headed down the road too often traveled? Do you even care? Consider this Molotov cocktail of a question hurled by Dennis Janson of WCPO:
“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. Walt gave me an emphatic ‘Yes,’ but added, ‘that is something many more of us in the organization will also try to convey.’
Tampa Bay Rays star Evan Longoria’s said not long ago, “I 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.”
Do you think Joe Maddon and Mark Friedman have been busy DISABUSING Longoria of his very successful hitting approach?
Dennis Janson’s question and the way it was phrased doesn’t surprise me in the least. The evolution of advanced metrics in the sport are mostly GM-driven, with the media being the last outpost to buy in. It’s Jocketty’s response that seems far more disturbing.
It’s hard to believe Votto was really suggesting that he’d trade a sure, run-scoring sac fly for a walk. Joey Votto and Evan Longoria know that hitting is very, very hard, especially today, when the battle between hitters and pitchers has swung decisively in favor of the hurlers, whom all seem to throw mid-90s. Even the long reliever coming out of the bullpen comes hell bent to miss bats—to make the ball drop like a Duncan Imperial on a string. I don’t see many Mike Leakes coming out of the bullpen these days.
Players are never trading a run for an out simply because the run is never a given. If Joey knew the outcome in advance, yeah, he’d score the run and take the out. But, he’s no Kreskin. He knows that swinging at sub-optimal pitches leads to infield pop-ups and rolling over on balls to the pitcher, too. He knows it’s a loaded question—begging for a certain answer. He’s done his homework. Has Walt?
The argument that any player should be willing to expand the strike zone is a frightening one that plays straight into the hands of today’s overpowering pitchers, more and more of whom can throw a pitch that has “ball outside” written all over it as it heads to the plate, only to move the last few feet and find the corner—the backdoor cutter—a pitch increasingly used in the game today. After seeing a couple of those, all but the best hitters with a rock solid plate approach will soon be swinging at pitches half a foot off the plate.
Coming off his MVP season, Votto was frustrated with the lack of home runs he was hitting in 2011 and expressed that frustration to Prince Fielder. Fielder’s reply?
“Don’t worry about it. Homers aren’t hit. Homers are thrown to you.”
Said Votto, “That changed the way I thought about hitting.”
Over the past six years, the number of pitchers averaging a baseline of 93 mph has jumped 88%. Pitchers averaging 95 mph and up have increased 133%. Does Walt have Fangraphs bookmarked on his iPad?
As we wait for the other shoe to drop, for Jocketty to swing the big trade, we’d be wise to concern ourselves with the players that will remain—and the hitting approach they will be held accountable to. There’s that word again.
How can we expect Cozart to become a more productive hitter—increasing his poor walk rate—if he’s being DISABUSED of the notion that hittable pitches outside the strike zone are as frequent as a black swan? The same goes for Todd Frazier, who sometimes seems to swing before he’s even left the on deck circle. Both are still being paid a relative pittance, and their defense and sometimes power makes the situation a tolerable one for the Reds right now. What happens as they reach their arbitration years if their plate approaches do not improve?
And what about the young hitters behind them in the conga line? Can we expect Billy Hamilton to become more than just a one-trick pony if “aggressiveness” remains to haunt the dugout like the Ghost of Dusty Past. Or, perhaps this will simply become The Joey Rule, applied to him and him only. Great hitters expand the zone, right?
Not so fast.
David Temple’s instructive article over at Fangraphs has something to say on the matter. Paul Goldschmidt’s wonderboy-like ability to excel in 2013 when the count was 3-2 contrasted sharply with Joey Votto’s decidedly mediocre results. The difference? Pitchers simply weren’t afraid of Goldschmidt, as evidenced by the pitch charts. While Goldschmidt was seeing meatballs 3-2, Votto was getting tofu served to him on a stick. Even pitches in the zone were often inside on the hands or away, up or both.
“I don’t mean to sound arrogant, but I see the pitcher’s best.”
True dat, Joey. True dat.
The last week of the season, I saw pitchers challenge Votto over the plate, leading to cries that teams were no longer afraid of the Jedi Master in red. The old Eyeball Test at work again. The old conventional wisdom holding sway.
Bill James was spotted the other night, strolling the Fenway infield with a glass of champagne and another World Series ring. The Rays continue to do their thing on a nothing budget. The Astros hired Baseball Prospectus sabermatrician Colin Wyers. Even the Paleozoic Phillies hired a numbers guy to help out. The Reds? They plan on DISABUSING their best hitter of his hitting approach. I guess looking at how the Pirates used The Shift to improve their team defense this past season is out of the question, yeah?
Get that big trade done, Walt. In fact, make it two.