Originally written on Fangraphs  |  Last updated 11/20/14
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Last season, like usual, Joey Votto was amazing, but last season, unlike usual, Joey Votto then injured his knee. It happened at the end of June, and while Votto tried to play through it for a time, he wound up being sidelined for a number of weeks before returning in September. He hit his final home run on June 24, before the injury, and down the stretch and in the playoffs, it was obvious that Votto didn’t have his normal Votto power. Maybe one of last season’s most unbelievable things is that, if you set a minimum of 100 plate appearances, Votto led baseball in second-half OBP. From the start of July through the end of the regular season, Votto reached 48% of the time. In a short playoff series, Votto reached 50% of the time. His power stripped away, Votto became even more difficult to retire than before. Understandably, though, despite all the OBP, Votto is a bit of a question mark, as people are unsure whether his power will rebound now that he’s put more time between himself and his injury. It’s evident how a weaker knee can limit a hitter’s strength, and Votto conceded in October that he wasn’t at 100%. Now, there is this brief but encouraging update: Medical director Dr. Tim Kremchek visited Votto in Florida two weeks ago and reports that Votto’s surgically repaired left knee is fine. “He’s doing well,” Kremchek said. “He looks great.” If Votto is feeling back to normal, it follows that Votto’s production should be back to normal, power included. There won’t be any more concerns. But until people actually see Votto going yard, they’re going to wonder about his swing, so for now this is one of those spring-training storylines to monitor. This is the most-pressing Joey Votto question. What I’m also interested in is a less-pressing Joey Votto question. Probably one of the least-pressing Joey Votto questions, but one that makes for easy gambling. Much has been written about Votto’s ability to avoid popping up. Votto owns a career .359 batting average on balls in play, and he’s also got a career 25% line-drive rate. Put it all together and you get the picture of a guy with a perfect swing, a guy who consistently hits the ball on the screws, the way you’re supposed to. Votto isn’t a guy who makes a lot of glancing contact. He doesn’t swing all that often, but when he does, he usually swings at strikes, and he hits a lot of those strikes hard and fair. So, the less-pressing Joey Votto question for 2013: this season, will Joey Votto hit an infield pop-up? Below, two arguments. Yes, Joey Votto will hit an infield pop-up. Votto debuted in 2007, and since then, he’s recorded 11 infield fly balls. That’s an average of nearly two per season, and two is more than one, and one is more than zero. So just based on Votto’s own history, you think, yeah, he’ll hit at least one or two. Then you also have the nature of exceptional performances. Votto occupies an infield-fly-rate extreme, and extremes are generally performance + luck. The average hitter hits way more infield pop-ups, and even though Votto’s true talent is presumably much better than average in this regard, there should be some regression. For his career, Votto has popped up 0.6% of his batted balls. His true talent might be 1% or 2% or even higher than that. From a probabilistic perspective, I think you have to expect a pop-up or three this coming season. Especially if Votto isn’t quite 100%, or especially if there’s an aging factor at play. It only takes one slightly imperfect swing. Votto has taken such imperfect swings. No, Joey Votto will not hit an infield pop-up. Sure, we can examine Votto’s career record. But he popped up twice in very limited time in 2007, and he popped up five times in 2008. Over four seasons, between 2009-2012, Votto popped up four times. Twice in 2009, not once in 2010, once in 2011, and once in 2012. What matters more: distant history, or closer history? Since Votto debuted, there have been more than twice as many no-hitters as Joey Votto pop-ups. Since 2009, there have been two (or three) more perfect games than Joey Votto pop-ups. Are you getting a sense for how rare these things are? Joey Votto has already gone one full season without a pop-up, which is proof of concept. Last year, he hit one, and this is said pop-up, complete with Votto’s post-out reaction: That pop-up was hit against Joe Blanton on September 21. On September 21, Votto was playing while being well below 100%, and Votto didn’t have his usual Joey Votto swing. Put more simply: when Joey Votto popped up last year, Votto was effectively playing hurt. In 2013, it doesn’t look like Votto will be playing hurt, so how much should we care about his 2012 pop-up, really? Was that Votto popping up, or was that Votto’s knee popping up? Before the injury, Votto didn’t pop up once in months. What we have here is a bet to propose to your friends. In 2013, will Joey Votto hit at least one infield pop-up, that shows on his FanGraphs player page? After considering both arguments above, I think I lean toward “yes”, because I believe in the math. But I’d personally project Votto for one pop-up, and as integers go, you can’t get much closer to zero than one. Call it a 0.5 pop-up over/under. I think he’ll do it, but I’m not absolutely certain about it, and while this is just one very tiny part of the overall Joey Votto package, it also speaks to how unbelievable he is when he’s feeling good, and even when he’s not. Joey Votto has such a good eye and such a good swing that we can’t be sure of whether or not he’ll pop up once over the entire 2013 season. By focusing on very little, we can end up saying pretty much everything.
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