Thinking Inside the Box

Gettin’ Older

This week, I want to draw attention to a few things that have been written about the Reds offense. Specifically, Joey Votto and Brandon Phillips. Further, both bits of writing had to do with aging, so I thought it might be good to look at these two Reds-stalwarts and see what we can expect of them.

Votto raised the ire of some this week by admitting in an interview that he doesn’t expect his power to ever be as good as it once was and he intends to focus on his on-base percentage more. Many, many people want Votto trying to hit for power, but here’s the thing… he’s probably right. Recent studies have shown that power tends to peak around ages 24-25. And that, by the time a player reaches Votto’s current age, his ISO should be 0.20 to 0.40 points lower than his peak.

Indeed, that’s about where Votto seems to be. His 2010 season is such outlier in terms of power, that I’m most comfortable placing his true-talent peak power at about .240 or .250 ISO. Right now, Votto is at .184. This early in the season, that’s as close enough. Over the course of the season, I’d expect him to stabilize within 10 points of .200.

What is good for the Reds is that Votto knows this and intends to focus on his OBP. One of the reasons OPS is a good but not great stat is that it doesn’t account for the fact the, in general, OBP is significantly more important than SLG in terms of scoring runs. I always like to illustrate this with the extreme example that a team filled with players who homer every four PAs and make outs the rest of the time scores infinitely fewer runs than a team filled with players who walk ever time up. This despite the fact that the first team has a high OPS.

Of course, there are select situations (if your team is very low scoring, for instance) when SLG is more valuable than OBP in a practical sense, but they are rare. The crux here is, once again, Votto is smart and he knows about baseball and he knows what he’s doing.

On the other side of the coin, we have Brandon Phillips. BP didn’t look good last year and we mostly chalked it up to injury, but he hasn’t looked good this year either. Steve wrote rather eloquently about BP a few days ago, and I don’t feel the need to re-hash his article. Indeed, you should go read it. I will add to Steve’s comments about aging curves, though. Second basemen are notorious for aging very quickly and suddenly right around, well, BP’s age. Steve, by the way, isn’t the only one who’s noticed. The writing on the wall has been there for a while, and though we can’t say for sure, we may soon be forced to conclude that we’ve seen BP’s last days as a good major league player.

Given that, lots are going to argue for moving Phillips down in the order. They are correct to argue for that. However, happened to be lucky enough to serve as the editor for a little piece that illustrated just how little batting order matters. Matt Hunter has a piece now up at The Hardball Times. It’s all about building a simulator. It’s worth reading for all manner of tidbits, but most interesting (to Reds fans) is that he uses Zack Cozart’s lineup position as evidence for the tiny impact of lineup. Using the 2013 numbers, and simulating every game with Cozart 2nd and Votto 3rd (as was normal), the team averages 4.23 runs per game. Moving Votto to 2nd and Cozart to 8th gives you… 4.26 runs per game. Or, about five runs over the course of the season. So, yeah, it matters, but it doesn’t matter a ton.

29 thoughts on “Gettin’ Older

  1. Phillips’ contract is going to be worse and worse over the next few seasons. The Reds probably won’t even be able to move him unless they take almost nothing in return and eat a bunch of the contract. If they had anyone remotely capable of taking over as the starter this would have been their last good chance to move him.

  2. I for one am 100% fine with Votto focusing on OBP as long as he’s batting second. It’d be nice if he were faster too so he could at least beat out some double play balls, but eh, I’d be willing to trade that speed for what little power he does have (doubles machine with a few homeruns).

    Now, if we can just get someone in the 3 hole who can drive in Billy/Joey when either/both get on base…

  3. Great article as always! But I can’t contain my rant regarding the 4 walk and every 4th batter a homerun; primarily because I think it discounts slugging way too much. If you changed it to a lineup of BB-k-BB-k, you end up with 27 runners LOB at the end of the game. While a HR every eight AB would at least produce 3 runs and a win.

    Now that I got that out I feel better. I believe Votto is in the top 1% of reading a pitch and knowing what he can do with it, so I totally agree with you on his approach. As for BP hard to tell if its an “ability or a desire” issue to improve his pate appearances

    • Oh, it’s just the most extreme argument. The point stands. When people who are much better at math than me figure this stuff out, OBP always ends up being more important than slugging.

      • Yep! Another corollary is that 2 singles are better than a double, even though they contribute identically to SLG.

      • I don’t doubt that, Jason. As a facile aside, I’ll say that rbi correlates better to runs than does obp, but that IS facile. My concern is unformed at this point. Joey still hits 450 foot bombs on occasion, so his power isn’t really gone. I expect that if he hit 40 and drove in 120, many of us would be happier, and the Reds would not win the WS. If Joey again leads the league in obp and puts up power numbers similar to last year’s, SABR enthusiasts among us will be happy, and the Reds will not win the WS. Baseball is a team game, and no one player will make an average or slightly better than average team a champion. More than that, baseball is entertainment. The theoretical absurdity of the unbeatable team that walks every at bat illustrates a point in another sort of facile way, and describes a game that almost nobody would care to watch.

  4. Regarding the lineup simulator:

    I wonder how big of a dropoff there would be between an “optimal” lineup and “the worse lineup possible”?

    For example, I consider the optimal lineup for this team to be:

    CF BHam
    1B Votto
    C Mez (when he’s healthy)
    RF Bruce
    3B Frazier
    LF Ludwick
    2B Phillips
    SS Cozart
    P

    Now, how would this lineup fare?

    2B Phillips
    LF Ludwick
    CF BHam
    3B Frazier
    SS Cozart
    RF Bruce
    C Mez
    1B Votto
    P

    I have a hard time believing the first lineup wouldn’t score quite a bit more runs than the second one. I’m not trying to be snarky, I’m just bringing this up for the sake of discussion/thoughts.

    • What about the MIke Leake lineup?
      CF BHam
      1B Votto
      C Mez (when he’s healthy)
      RF Bruce
      3B Frazier
      LF Ludwick
      P Leake
      2B Phillips
      SS Cozart

      BP just loves to be in a DP whether he’s on defense or offense. And since Ludwick is molasses, wouldn’t that just be enabling BP to indulge in his DP obsession.(I think this is the equivalent of “dusty-proofing” it)

    • Yeah, I believe if you intentionally make the lineup terrible, it does have a much bigger swing (4 or 5 wins if memory serves), but even the worst managers are far, far away from the least efficient lineup, so it never really comes up.

    • As a 32 year old, I agree.

      Votto’s skillset and position is a huge advantage over BP. Power was never his primary skill, and patience doesn’t go away.

      • I think there might be an argument that in 2009 & 2010 power was at least a “part” of his primary skill set. I was hoping for a little more power and a little less patience, as far as skill sets go, but he is a dynamite #2 hitter.

        • You should never hope for less patience. The more patient a hitter is, the better he is. Almost without exception. Some players, like BP, can’t seem to manage it, but the ability to wait for the right pitch is very important.

        • Yes, but.

          My argument in defense of Votto has always been, “he’s waiting for his pitch so he can cream it.” The Votto detractors were the guys who said, “he prefers walks.” Now Votto is, more or less saying that the bad guys understand him, but are just wrong.

          And how do we account for a guy like Ted Williams, whose ISO jumped around like a pinball? His best (full) seasons were at age 38 and 36, followed by 22, 31, and 41. His four worst were 40, 32, 29, 21.

  5. Highest ISO seasons for some other guys I’d like to compare Votto to:
    Jeff Bagwell: 26, 29, 32, 31, 33
    Frank Thomas: 26, 36, 27, 32, 35

    Then I found a match:

    Player X 29, 24, 25, 26, 23
    Joey Votto: 26, 25, 28, 23, 27

    Player X is Sean Casey. That’s terrifying.

    • Individuals jump around a bunch, and Votto may well see power spikes, we don’t know. It just becomes less likely as he ages. A .200 ISO is still quite good. Top-30, in fact.

      • Votto is the guy saying that there’s a natural, inevitable decline in power at age30. (“Pay attention to the trends, man. It drives me crazy.”)

        You or someone showed me an ISO aging curve last week. But what I’d really like to see is an ISO aging curve for players of Votto’s caliber – guys with >15 oWAR by age 26, or guys with >.240 ISO through age 26, etc.

    • I can’t reply above so I will here. I have been one of the “bad guys” to a degree where Votto is concerned. My issue is that the Reds didn’t sign him for a decade at $20M+ a year to be the hitter he is now; and they wouldn’t have plunked down that kind of money for a table setter/ inning extender, even one of the best ever, if they knew that was what he was going to be. So now they find themselves In a situation where they don’t have money for the “big bat” because they are committed to pay Votto the money they sat aside for their big bat.

      Already Votto is not a viable guy to steal a base or to be the runner in a hit and run situation; he doesn’t consistently get from first to third on singles; and we’ve seen he isn’t a lock to score from second on singles and needs a no doubt fly to score on a sac fly situation. All of these lessen the value of his straight OBP. Add the fact his defense other than picking throws is atrocious and his contract looks like a not so good deal for the Reds down the line unless he recovers some power.

      • $20 million a year is going to be nothing in 5 years. If Votto were going to be his 2010 self, he’d be a $30 million a year guy. See Cabrera, Miguel.

        I think Votto is fairly priced if he’s a .300/.430/.470 hitter the rest of his career, which isn’t too aggressive, I think.

        I agree, the defense is a bit worrisome. He appears to be getting worse. (Tonight’s observer’s bias probably kicking in.)

      • Why does power decline after age 30? I’m not saying it doesn’t, but that’s early for any important decline in strength, so it seems likely that the problem is bat speed or eyesight–problems for hitting in general, I would suppose. And, yes, Joey is looking like a very one-dimensional player at this point. This would work on a team with a talented lineup, but perhaps not on a team with few hitters who can be expected to drive Joey in with any consistency. Your oo-bee-pee is worth only as much as somebody else’s are-bee-eye.

        • Power, according to studies, starts declining around age 25. Not sure why, that’s just what the studies have shown.

      • This is a skewed idea of what a “big bat” is. What you want, when signing a player, is a reasonable expectation of long term value. It doesn’t really matter where it comes from. A 6 win player is a 6 win player. If that happens via OBP or SLG or defense, whatever. It doesn’t matter. Value is value. Votto is likely good for 20+ homers for the foreseeable future. Given that he’s only topped 30 once, this shouldn’t be a giant surprise.

  6. Cozart is such a lousy hitter, how could he have any significant on a line-up, period? Phillips is toast. It’s just a matter of how long Price remains loyal or ignorant of the fact that he is a number six hitter at best. Sorry to hear that Votto expects his power numbers to decline. But he should at least be able to crank out doubles. Does he do much of that any more?

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