Where should Joey Votto bat in the lineup?


Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Some conversations belong on bar stools and message boards, in barber shops and basement blogs.

These conversations don’t really have answers, but engender passion, somehow make quiet nights and quiet offseasons pass more quickly, more easily. It beats picking real fights when you can pick nits. When the discourse won’t end because it can’t.

This is one of those conversations: the batting order.

For fans of the Cincinnati Reds, this debate centers on the team’s superstar, Joey Votto, he who is down with OBP (possessing the best career mark in the league) and controversial for his patience. After a season of always finding the base paths, but not always emptying them, what we may call the Ron Fulton Theory gained steam: Votto should be batting second.

And sometimes, even a conversation that has no end, a question that has no answer is worth exploring.

So pull up your bar stool and put this question on my tab: where should Joey Votto bat in the lineup?

By traditional methods, this is easy. You know the traditional methods I speak of — lead off hitters are speedsters, second fiddles can bunt or execute a hit and run, slot three belongs to the best, cleanup lives up to the name with a power bat, and to hell with the rest because Dolly Parton never sang a song called “5 to 9” and my word count is high.

By those methods, Votto belongs in the three-hole. End of story. See you after Spring Training.

But those methods don’t necessarily hold up to empirical research.

Over the years, studies in batting order optimization (can I call you BOO?) have yielded interesting results. But almost all of them reach a similar conclusion about the third spot on the roster card: it’s not the most important –not even close.

As early as 1991, a statistician by the name of Mark Pankin ran models to determine the attributes of a lineup that would score the most runs, and therefore, in theory, win the most games. And of the first four spots in the lineup, the third was of least importance. He concluded that a team’s fab four should have the following characteristics:

  • 1st: high on-base percentage is everything. Preferably not a power hitter.
  • 2nd: similar to 1st batter, but with more power (sound familiar?)
  • 3rd: fair power, ability to draw walks, and don’t strike out too much.
  • 4th: Highest slugging percentage, good OBP, not necessarily the best HR hitter.

In Pankin’s world, Votto would fit more in categories two and four, with the third spot often serving more as a reset than a run producer.

More recent studies don’t differ drastically from Pankin’s approach. The Book, oft-cited,  from authors Tango, Lichtman, and Dolphin, became the go-to-guide for BOO among new age baseball analysts. They concluded that a team’s best hitters should slide into the first, second, and fourth spots on the roster. Even further, they felt the fifth hitter was more important than the third.

Later, Tango justified this position, explaining that third hitters come to bat with zero runners on and two outs more often than any spot in the lineup; therefore, they often can’t produce runs unless they send one over the fence. According to Tango, he ran models where he switched traditional third hitters in baseball to the two spot, and in the theoretical playing field at the Ballpark of Math, those rosters fared better.

In 2009, Sky Kalkman of Beyond the Boxscore used a different method but arrived at similar conclusions. Using on-base percentage and situations confronted by batters in each lineup spot, he ordered the positions by their relative importance in avoiding outs. His determination: the most important slots were the first, the fourth, the second, the fifth, then the third, in that order. The second-swinger should walk most, the fourth man responsible for extra base hits.

By these methods, the answer is also obvious. Votto doesn’t belong anywhere near the three-hole. All of these models, in a vacuum, would most likely place Votto (the unquestionable best hitter on the Reds roster) in the two-hole. If not there, the fourth. If not there, the first or fifth.

But the Reds lineup, even if it sucks a little, is not a vacuum.

So we arrive at this impasse between traditional and theoretical. My problem with both mindsets is that they both exist outside of Cincinnati. They assume a collection of ingredients that don’t always exist in the cupboards of every ballpark.

It would be great if Votto could slot in at the two with an OBP-machine in front of him, consistent power hitters behind. But in Cincinnati, that option doesn’t exist. The only other Red with on-base skills just took his talents to Arlington and left behind a Cincinnati lineup so top heavy (with Votto and Bruce) that it can’t find a bra that fits.

That changes things.

Here’s what we know that can’t be theorized or held to old standards:

  • With Shin-Soo Choo gone, there is no prototype lead off hitter on this roster. If Billy Hamilton regresses to his AAA-level of OBP, he will leave bases empty as often as he steals them.
  • Brandon Phillips likely represents the Reds’ third-best hitter, but he has tendencies that are crippling for a 2-hole or 4-hole hitter. His 2013 OBP was lower than Todd Frazier‘s and he has averaged 19 GIDP (Grounded into Double Plays) per season in his career.
  • Jay Bruce is an All-Star, but his penchant for strikeouts (185 last season) makes it hard to slot him in the prime spots on the Pankin spectrum.
  • And here’s a scary thought: based on the models above, Ryan Ludwick of all warm bodies might represent the Reds’ best option for the two-hole beyond Votto with two seasons of the last three featuring an OBP over .340 and a career in which he’s only grounded into ten double plays once for a full season.

Another thing that we know that the models, or the traditions, don’t is that Manager Bryan Price wants to run. This especially rings true with de facto lead off man Billy Hamilton. When he does get on base, he’s going. Period.

To me, this offensive philosophy backfires if Votto hits second.

If Hamilton steals often (when he does reach base), and Votto hits behind, he will face more often than not an empty first base. This happened a lot last year, too, (as a result of sacrifice bunts) and the results led to the stupid controversy of Votto and the sin of low-RBIs. In truth, pitchers pitched around Votto. He could only take so much with what he was given.

(Consider: According to Fangraphs, Votto swung at 67% of pitches in the strike zone last season. Despite his passive reputation, that puts him in the top half of the league in terms of aggression. He just also happened to swing at the least amount of balls outside the strike zone. That jerk.)

So if Votto is getting pitched around, and therefore, inhibited in his ability to produce runs and extra base hits, is batting him second still more optimal? What if, instead, someone on the Reds roster (Ludwick, a new Mesoraco, a trade target?) hit second, drew walks, avoided bunts and double plays, got on base from time to time. Wouldn’t Votto see more pitches in the zone, and therefore, optimize his performance? This too is a theory, and with this roster, a dream, but yes, I think so.

There seems to exist little point in letting Billy Hamilton run wild if that means Votto never sees another fastball in the strike zone. But there also seems to exist few, if any options, to fill that void between them.

It’d be enough to make you tear your hair out –if it actually mattered that much.

These same theorists that gave us BOO also cautioned fans not to sweat this small stuff.

In 2012, Bill Petti of Fangraphs admitted that “gains from optimization aren’t that great,” estimating that a team’s best configuration might score five to 15 more runs in a season than its worst.

Baseball Prospectus’s BLOOP model gave it a little more credence, saying the impact was closer to 26 runs –also known as: 0.16 runs per game.

There are two reasons for this. One is what The Book referred to as “the loop.” You don’t get to reset these lineups every inning. Only once per game does this order play out as you imagine. So anyone can, in a given moment, become the lead off man, on deck, in the hole. It’s a matter of luck and timing after the first inning.

Second, the top of the order, in terms of plate appearances and opportunities to come through, only differ so much. According to data from ESPN’s Tristan Cockroft, here are the average at-bats/game for the first five batting positions: 4.67, 4.56, 4.46, 4.35, and 4.25. Over a full season, that’s an about 16 to 17 more at bats with each rung you move up in the lineup. Or one more at bat every ten games.

Last year, 16 at bats from Joey Votto would have yielded four more hits, seven more times on base, 1.25 more extra-base hits, and half-a-home-run. So in terms of quantity and quality, moving him up to two could only produce a few more opportunities.

So where should Joey Votto bat in the lineup?

Some conversations don’t have an end. Some questions don’t have an answer.

But if you demand one, put this answer on my tab:

Where should Joey Votto bat in the lineup?

Wherever the pencil falls.