Like a candlelit dinner or a stroll beneath the stars and beside the sea, there is something romantic about the Triple Crown categories: batting average, home runs, and runs batted in. For over a century, they’ve been the measuring stick for baseball greatness. Ted Williams hit .401, Maris hit 61*, and once upon a time, a Cub named Hack Wilson drove in 191 runs. In baseball, names coincide with these numbers –legacies are listed on their leaderboards.
Apparently Cincinnati Red Joey Votto didn’t get the memo. The back of his baseball card is nowhere near the front of his mind.
Universally regarded as one of baseball’s greatest hitters, Votto has elicited whispers of discontent and disappointment in 2013. Despite Miguel Cabrera’s Triple Crown and MVP Award in 2012 solidifying the staying power of baseball’s favorite statistics, Votto has rejected them. In lieu of batting average, he strives to get on base any way possible. Instead of swinging for the fences, he swings for the gaps. Instead of driving in runs, he sets the table for his hungry teammates.
The result is a Triple Crown stat line of .319 (10th in MLB), 16 home runs (8 shy of the top 10), and 47 RBI (52 less than league-leader Miguel Cabrera). The result is a chorus of baseball fans and analysts complaining that Votto is wasting his talents and falling short of his responsibility as a three-spot hitter.
Many have voiced disappointment with Votto’s 2013 campaign.
And yet, as strange as it seems, the result is also this: Votto may be redefining a hitter’s role in helping his team win.
It’s fair to argue that Votto has fallen short in capitalizing on opportunities to drive runners home this season. Mostly thanks to on-base-percentage savant Sin-Shoo Choo, Votto has stepped to the plate with 290 base runners on the bags this season. Only 12% have scored as a result of Joey’s bat. Not only is that a career low for Votto, but it’s also beneath the league average. Miguel Cabrera, for example, has driven in 22% of base runners.
But it’s important to note that Votto often, in these situations, sees a runner (Choo) on first. Instead of going for broke, for fences, or for doubles to score him, Votto tends to avoid risk and try to fill the bases for Brandon Phillips and Jay Bruce. Votto only grounds into double-plays in 10% of such moments, which is less than league average AND Miguel Cabrera (13%).
Votto also singles more this season, hitting home runs and doubles at a lesser rate. But it’s not because he isn’t hitting it hard. It’s because he refuses to put the ball in the air when he can put it in a gap of grass. A line-drive rate of 31% is impressive, and also outpaces Miguel Cabrera.
But the bottom line is this: Votto isn’t driving in runs in 2013. Not only is his RBI total low (which can happen simply by lack of opportunity –it’s a team-dependent statistic), but he is also posting a career-low percentage of runners driven in when he DOES have the chance.
So that’s disappointing, right? Surely no franchise wants their best hitter to be paid $236,111 per RBI. Votto, in his tenacious ability to draw walks, slap singles, and score, has lost his value by dismissing the importance of finishing the deal and bringing runners home. That’s the argument.
Votto isn’t a bruiser or a power-hitter. Joey’s a tactician.
That argument ignores the more likely possibility: that Votto’s approach actually makes him MORE valuable.
Want the peaceful Canadian to get angry and produce runs? Then consider the fact that Votto has scored 72 times this season, which puts him in the top five in all of baseball. Or consider how often he gets on base for Phillips and Bruce; his 76 walks (1st in MLB) and 125 hits (7th) combine for 201 ways to get to first base or beyond. Cabrera’s hits+walks number comes to 200.
Or consider a stat not included in the Triple Crown, or in our hearts, but borne from the mind of Bill James, baseball historian and statistician: runs created. Runs Created (RCs) measure a how many runs a team can credit to the impact of any one player. Joey Votto has 89 –fourth best in Major League Baseball.
Votto also provides above-average defense at first-base, something that many other offensive stalwarts can’t claim. Defensive Runs-Saved quantifies good defense into runs kept off the other team’s scoreboard. Votto has nine this season; Miguel Cabrera sits at a laughable -10.
The lesson: it may not be romantic, but value and run producing can be measured beyond the stats we love. Chicks dig the long ball. RBIs pay the bills. But just as surely, Votto is the most important cog in the New Red Machine.
It’s not Brandon Phillips, despite his team-leading 81 RBI (and excellent defense). Thanks to Votto (and Choo), Phillips has had the luxury of 49 more base runners than Joey, and many more in scoring position. 49 times, Brandon has stepped to the plate with a runner on third and less than two outs, often when Votto has singled and Choo has hustled over to the hot corner.
Phillips also boasts 46 runs created to Votto’s 89, and a .310 on-base percentage that leaves less opportunity for the bats that follow.
Two statistics truly point to how much more the Reds need Votto hitting his best. For one, despite his “disappointing” season and low power numbers, Votto has a WAR (Wins Above Replacement) of 4.8. Brandon Phillips sits at 1.4.
Secondly, Votto’s performance often dictates wins versus losses for Cincinnati, despite the fact that one player rarely means so much to a nine-person squad. But consider these splits:
In 59 wins: .362/.468/.557 with 51 runs scored.
In 47 losses: .263/.379/.439 with 21 runs scored.
The Reds go as Votto goes. When he gets on base, sets the table, and scores, they rise victorious. And the power numbers matter little –his home-run rate and RBIs aren’t much different in wins and losses.
So perhaps the numbers are less romantic. Perhaps Votto can’t stand on the pantheon of baseball, because there is nothing sexy about on-base percentage or forcing full-counts. But taking a closer look at Votto’s 2013 at least points to the fact that the naysayers are wrong to call him a disappointment. The pride of Canada isn’t regressing.
He’s leading an American revolution.
A run scored by Joey Votto is no less valuable than a run driven in by him.
For he’s helping to redefine how we value a batsman in the 21st Century. Baseball purists will dismiss such an argument, saying new-age stat-heads are ruining the romantic side of the pastime with numbers. But baseball has always been about the numbers. Babe Ruth’s 60 home runs held more weight with fans than the belly tucked into his belt. The friendly ghost of Carl Yastrzemski’s Triple Crown in 1967 haunted hitters for decades and was never forgotten, finally exercised by Cabrera’s 2012 campaign. The numbers mattered –always.
These are just new numbers, new perspectives, new ways to look at how this game of balls, bats, and base paths actually works. And that’s a beautiful thing, because without them, a Louisville Slugger-technician like Joey Votto might be lost in the whispers of how baseball has always been.
Instead, he’s answering his critics with a stoic march toward the playoffs, the Cincinnati Reds franchise on his back. It isn’t a candlelit dinner, or a stroll on the beach. It isn’t romantic or a pretty sight on the back of his Topps trading card.
But damn, it sure is some beautiful baseball.