PHOENIX -- So Goose Gossage walks into a SABR Analytics Conference ...
The Society for American Baseball Research's fifth annual spring training get-together didn't feature the Hall of Fame relief pitcher, but it did include many of the brightest minds in the analytic community, presentations that had me wishing I'd paid more attention in high school calculus, interesting discussions with team executives and former players, moderators such as Brian Kenny of MLB Network and Mike Ferrin of MLB Network Radio, who have helped push sabermetrics into the mainstream media, and fans who simply love baseball.
It also included a lot of Joey Votto -- if not in body, at least in spirit. The Cincinnati Reds first baseman kept popping up in the dialogue, in part because he's known as one of the most analytically minded hitters in the game, but also because we're still asking this: Does Joey Votto take too many walks?
If you're not familiar with the background, Votto has often been criticized by his hometown broadcasters for not being enough of an RBI guy, that there are times he should be expanding his strike zone to drive in runs rather than working a walk and getting on base. Votto hit .314 and led the National League with 143 walks in 2015 -- the fourth time in five seasons he has led the league -- but drove in "just" 80 runs. What gives?
During one panel Thursday, ESPN analyst Aaron Boone defended Votto's approach, saying the 32-year-old absolutely should not change. "We act like him changing and swinging at a pitch will automatically score the run," Boone said. "It's a great offensive player and I find it silly that he has to think about apologizing for getting on base at a ridiculous clip."
Later that day, however, on a different panel, MLB Network and Fox Sports reporter Ken Rosenthal suggested "there are times" Votto should expand his strike zone. Former outfielder Eric Byrnes -- one of the more analytics-friendly player analysts out there -- agreed with Rosenthal, saying, "There are times it's his job to drive in the runs. You have the ability to do this." SABR president Vince Gennaro, certainly a proponent of advanced metrics and analysis, also seemed to agree: "You almost have to push the limits to where you create failure. Can he get a .600 slugging [percentage] before he starts to lose something else?"
Those responses were a bit surprising. After all, those three all know RBIs are team-dependent on a certain level. The Reds ranked 29th in the majors in OBP from their No. 1 hitters in 2015, and Votto started nearly half his games in the second spot in the lineup. One reason he failed to drive in more runs is that a high percentage of his plate appearances came with the bases empty. Here are the top 10 hitters in 2015 sorted by wOBA and their percentage of PAs that came with the bases empty:
Bryce Harper: 52.6
Joey Votto: 59.7
Paul Goldschmidt: 52.2
Mike Trout: 61.0
Miguel Cabrera: 52.2
Josh Donaldson: 57.4
Nelson Cruz: 56.2
Edwin Encarnacion: 52.6
Chris Davis: 56.1
Jose Bautista: 54.1
It is true, however, that Votto walked more often with runners in scoring position than with the bases empty, one reason the whole "he's too passive in RBI situations" idea still lingers:
Bases empty: 18.8 percent
RISP: 26.5 percent
We can dig into some advanced metrics from ESPN Stats & Information to see if Votto's approach differs from other elite hitters. As it turns out, Votto did have the lowest chase rate on pitches outside the strike zone with runners in scoring position of any regular in the majors. But that's not necessarily a surprise since he had the fourth-lowest chase rate with the bases empty. Votto simply doesn't expand the strike zone in any situation. Let's compare the difference in chase rate with RISP versus the bases empty:
Harper: minus-3.0 percentage points
Seven of our 10 hitters chased pitches less often with runners in scoring position, so Votto is hardly alone in tightening up his strike zone in those situations, although he did have the second-highest decrease, behind only Cabrera. Another factor to consider is how pitchers might approach these hitters. In fact, all 10 hitters saw a lower percentage of pitches in the strike zone with RISP than with the bases empty. Here are the 10 hitters ranked by how many percentage points that total dropped:
Some of these numbers might speak to lineup protection. Donaldson's figure changed the least, perhaps due to having Bautista and Encarnacion generally following him in the batting order. Goldschmidt most often had David Peralta, who had a terrific year, hitting behind him, but that was only about half his starts, and maybe Goldschmidt sees a few more strikes this season if Peralta has earned more respect from opposing pitchers.
Anyway, I'm not trying to answer the question of whether Votto should swing more often. This is more to show that Votto's approach with runners on base isn't significantly different from the game's other top hitters.
The Reds certainly are OK with his production. Reds general manager Dick Williams happened to be on a panel Friday. An audience member asked if Votto should expand his zone. "Whoever asked that question, I'll arrange a one-on-one with Joey Votto," Williams said, laughing. "He hits .360 on pitches in the strike zone and .200 on pitches outside the zone. It strikes me as incredibly selfish to knowingly make yourself a worse hitter to chase an arbitrary statistic ... that's the epitome of unselfishness."
Williams' numbers were almost spot-on. We have Votto hitting .350 on strikes and .211 on pitches outside the zone.
It seems to me that Votto is doing exactly the right thing. If you want him to drive in more runs, here's the solution: Get more runners on base for him.