It’s like the sun coming up, it’s so darn predictable. If you’re in Vegas, place a C-Note on it because it’s happening. Closer to GABP, if you’re at the roulette table at the JACK Casino on Broadway Commons, put it all on 19. Because whenever things are going wrong in Reds Country, that’s inevitably what some folks do: they put it all on 19.
The baseball version of the Apocalypse occurred as the Reds were being swept in Chavez Ravine. Joey Votto lifted a soft and oh-so shallow fly ball into foul territory short of first base. This is something Votto never does. By “never,” I mean he had never popped out to a first baseman in a major league career that is now in its thirteenth season. By now, is there anybody who doesn’t know?
The streak is over.
Joey Votto finally popped out to 1st. ? pic.twitter.com/abzttlXUcj
— theScore (@theScore) April 17, 2019
Number 4256, move over. Number 6828 is the new kid in town:
On the left are Joey Votto’s (rare) popups from the first 1,591 games of his career.
On the right is Votto’s popup from today — the one that finally went to the first baseman. pic.twitter.com/i32S9riiNg
— Andrew Simon (@AndrewSimonMLB) April 17, 2019
That Joey Votto stat is crazy, 6,828 at bats in his career and he’s never popped out to first base for an out until today ? nah that’s really ridiculous
— ?????? (@carlxossss) April 17, 2019
Only Votto could do this, turn the very ordinary into the extraordinary with the flick of his bat. But there it was, a simple, infield popup turned into a once-in-a-lifetime event akin to flying to Nova Scotia for a total eclipse. Call ahead for the LearJet, I think Carly Simon is rewriting the song as we speak.
But in other spaces, what that extraordinary infield fly also did was darken the mood:
It would be nice if the best hitter on the team could carry his team through a tough stretch. Votto simply is not doing that. #Reds
— Lance McAlister (@LanceMcAlister) April 17, 2019
If the best player on the third planet from the sun, Mike Trout—Major League Baseball’s modern-day version of Mickey Mantle, and off to another MVP start—can’t carry his team out of the cellar in the AL West at the tender age of 27, why would anyone expect a 35-year old Joey Votto to be able to dial up his inner thermostat (at will no less) and carry 8 other flaccid bats? Even Michael Jordan needed help. Expectations such as this are fantasy baseball of another kind.
It’s not that Joseph Daniel Votto is above criticism. He’s not. When you are making $25M a year, scrutiny is the annoying little brother that tags along, tugging at your pants, always wanting attention, always wanting to know “why?”.
WHY is a simple word, a good word. It suggests a nod to intellectual curiosity, a desire to get to the bottom of things. Eno Sarris of The Athletic attempted to do just that when curiosity prompted him to examine why some players were getting off to remarkably slow starts. Players on new teams tend to press early. What does pressing mean, according to Sarris? Chasing pitches outside the strike zone. Sarris focuses on high profile players, such as Bryce Harper and Yasiel Puig.
A look at the Reds as of April 27th shows that 12 teams in the majors have an O-Swing% (the percentage of pitches a batter swings at outside the strike zone) greater than the Reds. A week ago, it was only 9. Three of those 12 have a positive run differential.
Sarris warns of playing amateur psychologist, but I’m going to disregard that advice and put the Reds offense on the couch. Why would each player begin the season pressing? Why would Votto, of all people, begin reaching for sub-optimal pitches? Here are 5 possible explanations:
1. A New Team
This is Sarris’ overarching point: players have a tendency to press when moving to a new environment—a new clubhouse. Yasiel Puig, Matt Kemp, Derek Dietrich and Jose Iglesias are all attempting to make good first impressions on their new team, particularly new teammates. Puig’s remarks about Votto display a keen desire to become a valued member of the new tribe:
“(Votto) doesn’t need to talk to me but he’s a good teammate,” Puig said. “That’s a reason he does all the stuff that he does for myself and for the other players over there. I love that about him and because of him I want to do better things in baseball and outside of baseball, too.”
Dietrich echoed similar sentiments:
“This is the best group of guys I’ve ever been around. I love being in this clubhouse.”
2. A New Manager
This effects not just players new to the Reds, but everyone. Ever had a new boss? Did you feel a desire to show that new boss your value to the organization? That’s almost certainly what’s going on to some degree as each player sees his name on the day’s lineup card. How do I impress David today?
3. A New Coaching Staff
Already, speculation has begun. What if Turner Ward has instituted a new plate approach across the board to the 1 thru 8 hitters? And while that’s possible, it seems unlikely. This new, analytical era the Reds have ushered in understands, as Eno points out, that “swinging less is positively correlated with good outcomes (like slugging and walk numbers), so generally, you want your players to swing less.”
It’s possible that a philosophical mechanical swing adjustment has been implemented by certain players, a swing plane change, for example, a search for an improved launch angle. It’s easy to think these mechanical changes can be ironed out in spring training—but then the lights go on, Clayton Kershaw takes the mound and old habits take over.
Matt Habel and Matt Wilkes mulled over first pitch swinging tendencies as the season has begun. This feels like another symptom of the pressure batters are feeling. When hunting for anything to get you going, look for that get-me-over-fastball first pitch.
4. Last Year’s Start
Votto, Eugenio Suarez, Scott Schebler, Jesse Winker and Jose Peraza all remember last season’s 3-18 start, and the fact that it cost Bryan Price his job. It’s possible that has weighed heavily on their bats. The last thing any of these guys want to do is put that kind of pressure and negativity onto a new manager and his staff. A trial optimism balloon has been floated. Promises have been made.
When it comes to Peraza, there’s the added pressure of a player who has lost his job at second base; and now at shortstop. Only Scott Schebler is looking over his shoulder more than Jose.
5. The Vagaries of Baseball
Some of this is also likely to be pure randomness. As Joe Sheehan, writer and one of the founding members of Baseball Prospectus likes to say, “variance swamps everything.” Perhaps it’s swamping Reds hitters early in the season right now.
The Reds .205 team batting average is their lowest through 16 games since at least 1908. Their .276 OBP is their lowest since 1966.
— Joel Luckhaupt (@jluckhaupt) April 17, 2019
Only a week ago, Cincinnati’s team BABIP was dead last in baseball, a full 36 points lower than the 29th ranked team. As of today, things are looking slightly better, but the balls that leave the Reds’ bats still find gloves better than any team in baseball.
. . .
Votto’s last at bat in Chavez Ravine—that epic popup—was a personal cri de coeur, a tipping point in the mind of the first baseman. Immediate work was called for.
“As the clubhouse emptied and the last look-over of empty lockers were done to make sure nothing was left behind, the sound from the batting cage next to the visitor’s clubhouse continued. It was the unmistakable thump of wood hitting baseballs, over and over and over.”
As the volume of the naysayers rose after the sweep by the Dodgers, the Cincinnati first baseman was readying his response from the bowels of Dodger Stadium. Because as we know with Votto, nothing interrupts the work, the step-by-step mechanics of perfecting the always imperfect, and in doing so, rediscovering himself once more.
No sooner than having set a head-turning record in his previous at bat, Votto would step into the batters box in San Diego, carefully take the measure of Chris Paddack, then—as the callow youth disrespectfully attempted to sneak a third fastball past the 2010 MVP—slam his 0-2 delivery up and over the cavernous Petco Park outfield and into the seats.
Even without his usual stroke, Votto’s work ethic continues to pay dividends, continues to rub off. Votto, Barnhart and Winker all took extra batting practice upon arriving in San Diego. All three homered that night.
Two at bats. One message sent. One message received.
Put it all on 19.