The Joey Votto division
It’s become something of a genre piece. In the same way that you weren’t a real Renaissance artist until you painted someone’s ceiling and you weren’t a real hair band until you wrote a sappy power ballad, you’re not a real baseball writer until you address The Joey Division. Should Joey Votto bat second or third in the Cincinnati Reds’ lineup?
In the first few weeks of April, the Reds mostly answered that question with a "2" although over the past week, Votto has been moved down to the third spot in the order (with Zack Cozart moving up into the two-hole) Now, to put my cards on the table right away, I am firmly on #Team2Spot primarily because I believe Votto is so good that it would be a shame to waste him in the third spot. But more to the point, I think that understanding the Joey Division is the key to understanding some important points about the evolution of baseball and how thinking about things a little differently leads you to something that might have been unthinkable even 20 years ago.
But let’s start with the man himself. Imagine that you are a major-league pitcher (congratulations!) and that you are now facing Votto. Right now, it doesn’t matter whether he’s hitting second or third or eighth. You just need to get him out. And that’s something of a tall order. When you look at Votto in isolation, away from all the "Where should he bat?" questions, he’s an amazing hitter. One trick that pitchers often use is throwing a fastball early in the count and then following it up with an off-speed pitch. The idea is to get the batter used to the fastball and then get him out ahead of the slow ball. It works for a lot of hitters … but not Votto. In fact, I did some research a little while ago looking at how batters reacted to an off-speed pitch after a fastball. The best in the league at not being fooled by that trick? Joey Votto.
So if you can’t beat Votto by playing speed tricks, you’re gonna have to beat him with locating the ball. And here, we turn to the wonderful website Brooks Baseball for some help. (Here’s Votto’s page, for the curious.) Here are the locations that Votto has been pitched to (using data from 2012-2015):
Votto is a left-handed hitter and these graphs are all from the catcher’s point of view, so picture Votto standing on the right side of that graph. The middle nine squares are the rulebook strike zone. Notice that the areas where teams like to pitch him (the squares in red) are on the outside edge. Not only that, but the squares outside the strike zone are more populated than the ones inside it.
Now, plenty of pitchers live on the edge of the zone. You want to throw a pitch that either entices the hitter to swing before darting away, and he either misses or hits it closer to the end of the bat. But you take a risk when you do that. There are plenty of pitches that don’t break like they’re supposed to, and if they don’t, they stay out over the plate in the hitter’s wheelhouse. You can aim a little farther away from the edge of the zone and buy a little more insurance that the pitch won’t hang over the plate, but you run a risk there that the pitch will be a called ball. In Votto’s case, we see a lot more balls that land outside the zone than land in it, which suggests that pitchers would rather take a reduced chance of a called strike in exchange for a reduced chance that the ball will end up in the Ohio River.
To show you how much pitchers respect Votto, take a look at his pitch locations on 2-0 counts. They’re still doing it, even though at that point, they could really use the strike.
Some real groundbreaking work done by my former colleague at Baseball Prospectus, Rob Arthur (he’s now at FiveThirtyEight), showed that you can tell when a breakout is coming for a hitter when pitchers start to pitch him farther away from the center of the zone. Seems like pitchers are already steering clear of Votto. And they should. Take a look at this graph of Votto’s slugging percentage based on the location of the pitch:
Not surprisingly, if a pitcher makes a mistake to Votto over the plate, his slugging percentage is sky high, just like the balls he hits when that happens. Lots of hitters do much better when the ball is over the plate, but an .800 or .900 slugging percentage is … really good. We can see why pitchers would want to err on the side of not coming too close on the plate to Votto.
We also see that Votto’s slugging percentage when he does reach for a pitch outside isn’t all that great, again, not a surprise. The important thing to note about Votto — his super power — is how rarely he reaches for those pitches. This is Votto’s swing rate based on the location of the pitch:
For those of you wondering, this is an amazing level of understanding the strike zone. If we dig deeper into the data, we see Votto has this sort of good eye whether the pitch is a fastball, off-speed pitch, or breaking ball. So much for fooling him with movement. He swings (a lot of the time) when the ball is in the strike zone. He doesn’t (most of the time) when the ball is out of the zone.
A common criticism of Votto is that he doesn’t try to hit enough home runs, as if he’s not aware how valuable home runs are. He gets that, but I don’t think that it’s a fair critique of him. Instead, I think people get a little spoiled by the "bats" that are available in video games. Those are much more forgiving than are actual bats. With an actual bat, it’s all about the "sweet spot," which is a small area of the bat where according to the laws of physics, the amount of force that the bat will impart to the ball will be greatest. You can’t just hit it off any area of the bat and expect the ball to fly out of the park. Votto seems reluctant to reach for a ball because when you reach for one, you’re much less likely to hit it on that sweet spot.
To understand why Votto doesn’t reach for more, let’s think about the decision that he faces as the pitch comes in, because that’s the real decision that he has to make each time. We know that pitchers like to stay away from him because they know he will punish anything that’s left in the zone. We know that he’s really good at figuring out whether a ball will be in the strike zone or out of it. So, when the ball comes in and he sees that it’s going to be out of the zone, he has a decision to make. He can reach for it, which he knows will likely result in softer contact. If he gets lucky, a softly hit ball might end up as a single, but a lot more of the time, it’ll end up as a weak grounder. Or he can just let it be a ball.
If he lets it be a ball, the count tilts in his favor and the pitcher has to make another pitch. Since the pitcher is now more likely to need a strike, he might be more willing to take a chance coming closer to the plate. Even on a three-ball count, Votto can reach or he can take an automatic pass to first base. Seems like a no-brainer. If you can’t do something with the pitch, why try too hard, especially when the other option is pretty positive? Give the pitcher another chance to make a mistake. You might call it passive, but given his alternatives, it’s actually a pretty smart way to do things. I’m sure he would love it if pitchers would more regularly put one down the middle, but I doubt that any of them would be interested in doing that.
On a pitch-to-pitch basis, Votto’s approach makes complete sense. Yes, he has the kind of power to hit a mistake so hard that all of Hamilton feels it. Not Billy Hamilton. Hamilton County. Maybe he could reach out and maybe a few more go over the wall, but in reality, you gain more than you lose in swings-and-misses and weak grounders to short than you gain from the home runs. Votto’s super power is the patience to not try to hit everything for a home run.
Now, where to bat that sort of hitter in the lineup? One thing that we do know about lineups is that, given the same set of nine players, it actually makes little difference where you put each one. Still, if there’s one lineup that’s a little better, you might as well take advantage of it. The problem is that most people don’t start from there when thinking about how to construct a lineup. There’s a set of Platonic ideals that hitters are supposed to fit into. The leadoff hitter is supposed to be fast. The second hitter is supposed to be able to bunt. The third hitter is supposed to be the "all-around" hitter and the cleanup guy is supposed to be the biggest power threat. I think it’s based on some idea that the leadoff hitter is supposed to get on base, mostly using his legs, steal a base, be bunted to third, and then either be driven home by the third hitter or score on a three-run home run by the cleanup guy. If that series of events actually happens, that’s great. Votto looks like he should be a third or fourth hitter. (Cozart, on the other hand, looks a lot more like a classic No. 2 hitter.) Why all the talk about Votto hitting second?
Well, for one, teams are re-thinking the second spot in their lineup. Mike Trout hits there a lot for the Angels. Jason Heyward hits there for the Cardinals. Instead of asking "What does a two-hitter look like?", teams are asking a different question. What sort of lineup will score the most runs? Seems kinda obvious. The thing about picking a lineup order is that it gives you control over two things. One is which hitters will come up the most often, and the other is the order in which they bat. The old stereotypes focus on the idea that the order itself is the most important thing, that certain types of hitters should follow certain other types of hitters. The reality is that the storybook scripts of what’s supposed to happen are rather rare. What you really want is to get your good hitters as many plate appearances as possible. Moving a hitter up one spot in the lineup is that it buys him roughly 20 more plate appearances over the course of a season. Why give an extra 20 plate appearances to a guy who isn’t all that good because he might be called on to bunt once in a while? Twenty more Joey Votto at-bats sound like a good thing, especially if he’s taking them away from Cozart.
Yes, Votto is going to hit some home runs (and doubles!). In the No. 2 spot, he’d be hitting behind the pitcher (probably an out) and Billy Hamilton. You might think that it would be better if there was another hitter who could get on base in the No. 2 spot ahead of him so he could hit third and knock in those ducks on the pond? In some situations, I would say yes. If the Reds had a hitter or two who would be getting on base regularly. Hamilton and Cozart, who appear to be the 1-2 tandem of choice for manager Bryan Price lately both have a career on-base percentage below .300 (though Cozart had a good April). Votto might get a few more plate appearances with runners on base hitting third, but that’s going to be cancelled out by the 20 or so plate appearances that he doesn’t get because Cozart made the last out of the game.
The thing to know about Votto is that if he were a power threat and not an on-base threat, then he might as well hit in the third spot. As a power-hitting No. 3 hitter, he might slug one out of the park and maybe one of the top two hitters is on base for that. But Votto is better than that. Because of Votto’s wonderful batting eye, he allows the Reds to have the best of both worlds. In the second spot in the lineup, he will get more times to bat and more chances to hit home runs. In the cases where he walks, he will be on base for the power hitters after him (Todd Frazier and Devin Mesoraco).
The old stereotypes about what different spots in the batting order should look like will be around for a while. There are probably still people who see the two-spot as a demotion for Votto because that’s where you put a guy who is kind of a weak link. I’d say the complete opposite is true. It isn’t Votto who’s the problem. It’s the outdated notion of the second hitter, which when you think about it a little more, doesn’t make much sense. That’s the problem. So, Reds fans, if you see Votto hitting second sometime in the near future, rejoice. He’s where he should be.