The randomness of life is truly something to behold, especially when you dig down to a granular level. I mean, it’s crazy enough that the universe formed the way it did, and that gravitational forces eventually molded our sun and our solar system, and that Earth was formed close enough to the Sun to provide heat and photosynthesis, but not so close that we all baked to death in greenhouse gasses.
But beyond that, every time a cell split, every time a migrating tribe took a right instead of a left, every chance meeting of every couple who ever procreated has given us jazz and Pulp Fiction and ancient Greece and Vonnegut and emoji and Prokofiev and Facebook and World War I and everybody’s grandpa and everybody’s dog. It has also given us baseball.
But there’s this other way to look at it, too–the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics. It’s the theory that revolves around the idea that every decision every creature has ever made (or every random-chance act of nature, for that matter) has created a new and separate universe. If you were tasked with deciding between cereal and oatmeal for breakfast and chose oatmeal, a new universe was created where you instead chose cereal. It’s pretty much the same, but not quite.
There is also another universe in which I didn’t write this paragraph and people who hadn’t heard of many-worlds continued on with their fulfilling lives instead of struggling to wrap their brains around such grandiose ideas. There are worlds in which baseball doesn’t exist, or it does but there are only two outs an inning and Mike Trout doesn’t play it. There are also worlds in which Earth ended up a few million miles closer to the sun and mammals never came to be, but let’s just feel sorry for that world and move on.
This is where Joey Votto comes in. Joey Votto exists in our world, and he plays baseball, and we have the tools and intelligence to comprehend just how good Joey Votto is at baseball. And the best part, the BEST part, is that our Joey Votto also understands how good he is. He knows what his wRC+ is, and he knows that he maybe swung a little too much last season, and he knows of Tom Tango.
Votto is one of us. He enjoys and studies the game the same way we enjoy and study it. But he’s not a fringe reliever or bench player. He’s one of the very best in the game.
Votto has never won a triple crown. He’s never even led the league in any of those categories. He doesn’t make many flashy plays on the field, and he doesn’t steal bases. He hit 37 home runs in 2010, which will garner some attention, but he hasn’t really come close since. He doesn’t have a big endorsement deal. He’s not a favorite of beat writers. He’s Canadian. He simply just isn’t flashy. But the stats people, those who search for deeper understanding of the game, love Joey Votto. Why do we love Joey Votto?
That’s right, Jonah Hill. He gets on base. He also happens to do a lot of other things well. Since his first full season in 2008, Votto has averaged a 157 wRC+, behind only Trout and Miguel Cabrera. He also ranks third in wins above replacement over that stretch.
Votto may get the business from certain fans and media members over his “inability to drive in runs,” but we know what’s really going on here. Votto is very, very good at baseball. This is something we already knew. But for right now, I don’t want to talk about all the good things he does. I want to talk about a bad thing he did. It happened on Aug. 13, 2013, in the top of the fourth inning of a game against the Cubs.
This did not cost the Reds the game. It was not Votto’s worst play based on win probability added. It was, however, Votto’s first infield fly all season, and his third in four years. Votto is so good at baseball, he can’t even do bad things well.
This isn’t a new discovery. People have talked about the phenomenon before. But the number is still staggering, and the sample keeps growing to a point where it’s fairly clear this isn’t a fluke or an odd streak. If anything, Votto is getting better at not hitting infield flies.
If you discount 2008, his first full season (during which he had the audacity to hit five pop-ups), Votto has never hit more than two infield flies in a single season. In 2010, he hit zero. ZERO. His infield flyball percentage–the percentage of batted balls that never left the infield–was 0.7 percent over that last five seasons. A little over half a percent. His pop-ups per plate appearance over that stretch? 0.16 percent. That’s basically an anomaly, a rounding error. Here are some things that occurred more often between 2009 and 2013 than a Votto pop-up:
- Perfect games pitched
- Inside-the-park home runs
- Triple plays
- Home runs hit by pitchers
- Pitching appearances by position players
- Strikeouts in at-bats with position players pitching
- Relief appearances where no strikes were thrown
- Games in which seven errors were committed
- Games that lasted 18 innings
- Games that lasted 19 or more innings
- Games in which a player recorded five strikeouts in five at-bats
- Division titles won by a team from California
- Triples hit by Lance Berkman
- Doubles hit by Bronson Arroyo
- Doubles hit by bunting
You get the idea. He almost hit one on Opening Day, but not even the great Adam Wainwright could keep him in the infield. But so what? He didn’t pop up much. Big deal. He didn’t hit many stand-up triples, either, but nobody is writing about that. Why does this matter so much? It has to do with what an infield fly is, or rather, what it’s close to. What happens after a pop-up? The batter is out. No runners advance.
When you think about it, it’s not too dissimilar from a strikeout. The strikeout shows a little more prowess from the pitcher’s side, but for the batter, the results are the same. So, if a pop out is basically as counterproductive as a strikeout, how does Votto compare when the two are added together?
Votto isn’t quite at the level of those “three true outcome” players, but his strikeout rate befits his batting profile. He gets on base a ton, but guys who hit for a lot of power are destined to strike out some. It’s the way of the world — this world, anyway.
In 2013, Votto struck out in 19 percent of his plate appearances. That’s good for 49th highest among qualified batters. That’s actually quite good given the prowess of his bat when he does make contact. It’s not at a Ted Williams or Joe DiMaggio level, but when compared to the current era, it’s fairly impressive.
What if we count a pop-up as a strikeout, just for fun? If you add infield flies to the strikeout totals and divide by plate appearances, Votto’s combo rate jumps by one tenth of one percent, to 19.1 percent. On that list, he drops to 73rd among qualified batters. That’s 24 spots jumped by adding infield flies to the equation, transitioning him to the bottom half of the list.
In some other world, Joey Votto pops up all the time, and that me from that other world is writing, has written, or will write about how frustrating that all is. There’s also a world in which infield flies are considered good things, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
In our world, our Joey Votto respects us. He gets what we’re trying to do, or at least why we like what other people are trying to do. There’s a line from Randy Newman’s “Political Science”:
No one likes us, I don’t know why
We may not be perfect, but Heaven knows we try
But all around, even our old friends put us down
Let’s drop the big one and see what happens
I’m certainly not advocating blasting the stats critics with nuclear weapons, and, in fact, we don’t need to. We have Joey Votto. He is our big one. He’s already been dropped. There are only so many “mom’s basement” and “games are played on the field, not in a spreadsheet” cliches that people can hurl. Joey Votto will smash them all. Actually, he’ll probably watch them go by and take his base, which carries less gravitas, but we’re okay with that.
Let the RBI crowd jeer. Let the “will to win” lobby try to soil the consciousness of America. We will stand tall with our champion, our beacon for what’s right in this world. Joey Votto might not be the hero we need, and he may not be the one we deserve. But he’s the hero we’ll take, because he’s the best candidate by far.