Richard Fitch at Redleg Nation wrote a great piece last week on Joey Votto, centered around this question and response from Dennis Janson of WCPO and Reds GM Walt Jocketty: "I asked Walt Jocketty if (new manager Bryan) 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.'"
Votto walked 135 times last season, most in the majors and the highest non-Barry Bonds total since Brian Giles also walked 135 times in 2002. Votto has led the National League in walks the past three seasons (doing so in 2012 despite playing just 111 games) and in on-base percentage the past four seasons. He won the MVP Award in 2010 and finished sixth in 2011 and 2013. Most people believe he's an enormously valuable player.
But those RBIs. Votto had just 73 this past season, even though he hit .291 with runners in scoring position. Still, 73 RBIs, not what you expect from your No. 3 hitter. Based on the response above, apparently Jocketty thinks Votto should focus on hitting more sacrifice flies. Or something. Richard sums up the fallacy of this idea:
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.
There is the perception that Votto is too passive at the plate, that he should be more of an "RBI guy." Now, there are two ways to approach that statement:
1. Some take it to mean that an RBI guy should expand the strike zone.
2. It could also mean that an RBI guy should just be more aggressive early in the count.
Jocketty's answer to the question is unclear, although the implication is certainly that Votto should change his approach, at least in sacrifice fly situations.
As for Votto being too passive at the plate, that's utter nonsense. FanGraphs tracks a stat called Z-Swing% -- the percentage of pitches in the strike zone that a batter swings at. Votto swung at 67.0 percent of such pitches in 2013, which ranked 55th out of 140 qualified hitters. In other words, Votto ranked in the top 40 percent of aggressiveness, at least in terms of swinging at strikes. What Votto doesn't do, of course, is swing at balls. He swung at just 20 percent of pitches outside the strike zone -- the lowest percentage of those 140 hitters, just ahead of Marco Scutaro's 20.1 percent.
What happened when Votto swung at a pitch outside the strike zone? According to date from ESPN Stats & Info, he hit .136 -- 16-for-118, with no home runs and three doubles. Votto isn't good when he swing at balls.