Votto unencumbered by statistics
Reds slugger unaffected by debate over offensive production
GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Joey Votto's performance in 2013 made him appear to be a one-man demilitarized zone in the offseason. The Reds first baseman was a flashpoint between those who care mostly about traditional statistics to measure successful production and people who focus on more new-school advanced stats, or sabermetrics.
Some old-school media and the more casual fans viewed Votto's season as a failure because he hit 24 home runs with only 73 RBIs and a .491 slugging percentage while batting third and being the highest paid player in Cincinnati with a 10-year, $225 million contract. New-school thinkers viewed the year more positively. After all, he made fewer outs as a hitter than anyone in the National League. Votto led the league in on-base percentage and walks and scored 101 runs.
This isn't a situation Votto likely expected to be in, but it happened nonetheless. He doesn't want to be the bridge between old and new.
"Fans can pick and choose what they view as important and what they want to follow, obviously. It's their prerogative," Votto said. "They have favorite players. They can have their favorite statistics."
Votto has embraced advanced statistics and looks at sabermetric web sites, like Fangraphs, in part because the formulas and numbers can explain more about a hitter's production than the traditional average, homers and RBIs. But number crunchers should not look to him as a revolutionary trying to change how the game is evaluated.
"There is a place for all statistics," said Votto, who was the 2010 NL Most Valuable Player. "This whole reputation of me being the leader or new version of a player that looks at these statistics and fans should follow suit is definitely not true.
"Somebody asked me both what my favorite statistic was and why I drove in so few runs. All I did was say was that RBIs didn't explain my season. I'd be a mediocre at best player if you judged me by my RBIs, and I was defending myself saying I did well in other categories."
Friend and teammate Jay Bruce believes Votto is in this situation by virtue of who he is and his past success.
"I think there is a stigma to that type of player -- a former MVP making that kind of money," Bruce said. "Joey values getting the most out of every opportunity that he is presented with. I think he does that. If it turns out where he drives in 125 runs, I think he'd be pretty happy with that. People get confused and think he doesn't care about [RBIs]. He doesn't let them dictate his style of play. There is a difference."
Votto, 30, batted .305 and played all 162 games last season for Cincinnati, which finished third in the NL Central behind St. Louis and Pittsburgh to claim the second NL Wild Card. His .435 on-base percentage led the NL and was second in the Majors. He broke Pete Rose's 1969 club record when he reached base 316 times. His 135 walks broke a team record held by Joe Morgan since 1975.
In a sabermetric stat -- weighted runs created-plus (wRC+) -- Votto was tied for fifth in the Majors at 156. The stat looks to take a player's total offensive value and measure it to runs. The league average is set at 100, so in this stat, Votto was significantly above the norm. Miguel Cabrera, the American League MVP, led the category at 192.
There have been calls from the corners of baseball which want more RBIs that Votto should change his approach by expanding his strike zone to be more aggressive -- especially with RBI opportunities in front of him.
Reds manager Bryan Price is not in one of those corners.
"I can't ask him to extend his strike zone," Price said. "He's worked so hard to get there. We hope when he gets good pitches to hit, he hits them and we have guys on base ahead of him that he can drive in."
Another hot topic has been whether Votto should be moved up from the third spot in the lineup to the No. 2 spot so he can keep his approach and get more plate appearances. Price hasn't considered it, however.
"It's hard to look at Joey Votto and then take a season like 2013 and make that his defining season of who he is as a hitter," Price said. "This is a guy that hit as many as 37 home runs in a season and has been well over 100 RBIs. He's a high on-base percentage guy that does an awful lot of things well for our club. I'm looking forward to a big season. That being said, we've got to get guys on base in front of him. He's got to get pitches to hit and take advantage of them. At this point in time, he's hitting third unless we feel the need to make an adjustment to inspire the offense."
Votto believes he has a track record of success behind him that should endorse the way he hits.
"In a lot of different ways, I'm a company man. I will do what the organization says," Votto explains. "But it's hard to change me as a hitter. It's hard to come up and say, 'I want you to be a different hitter than you are.' That runs the risk of getting in the way of a lot of the good things that I do. I'm just going to keep doing the best I can. I'm going to keep trying to be the best me. I recognize that last year -- whether you view it as unfair or not -- it was bit of a nuisance, all of the criticism. I did the very best I could.
"I set two major records for a 125-year-old organization -- not small records. They were pretty cool ones. I passed two all-time great players in one year. Every year is not going to be the perfect year where I hit 30 homers, drive in 120 runs, score 120 runs, walk 130 times. Maybe that year will be this year. Last year, I had a different version of success."
While Votto isn't trying to build bridges to get more understanding about statistics, he is working on changing the view on something far more subjective: how fans perceive him.
Each week for the past month, Votto has spent time on WLW radio in Cincinnati as a call-in guest. He's answered questions directly from listeners and provided candid answers. He also opened up more about himself in December when he launched the Joey Votto Foundation with an aim to benefit veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Votto feels more comfortable about being a public person and is trying to convey that comfort more freely.
"I want the people of Cincinnati to get to know me better," Votto said. "I seem to have a robotic reputation that I just don't have a personality or I don't have a sense of humor, that I don't smile, that I just collect my paycheck and play the game. Nothing can be further from the truth. I'm a passionate person. I'm very focused on my craft. I'm very focused on fitting in and being a good teammate. Guys get along with me. I think I get along with people.
"I'd like fans to get to know me better. Any time you're perceived as something different than you are, especially in a city as small as Cincinnati and a community that knows one another and sees each other in grocery stores, I don't want people to look at me and have a preconceived notion of somebody they're going to be with for 20 years. I'm trying to set myself up for success in the community."
Like he does at the plate, Votto probably contemplated long and hard before making himself more available to the public. Bruce made it clear that inside the clubhouse, where fans can't see or hear Votto, that he is a normal guy.
"He doesn't really let his personality out," Bruce said. "He's a professional. He values that side of the game more than letting his personality shine through. There's nothing wrong with that. People go about it differently. Whatever he is doing, he's being honest about it. He's not doing it for show."
Maybe more fans will like Votto, the person, than ever before this year as a result of his initiative to open up more.
Meanwhile the debate over the statistics of Votto, the player, could continue if his 2014 season resembles 2013.