Twice this offseason, Joey Votto has uttered a comment that goes against the baseball orthodoxy that lineup protection is best done behind the hitter. Votto believes it is done in front of him, and is best done by Billy Hamilton.
Votto told Eno Sarris in late March that Hamilton has offered him the best lineup protection when Hamilton is on base in front of him.
The order of the players in the lineup around him doesn’t matter that much to him, either. Protection? If protection is “getting specific pitches to hit — more fastballs — or more central part of the strike zone pitches, and I haven’t experienced that in 12 years,” Votto said. The priority of the pitcher is to make outs and the priority of the hitter is to not make outs and that doesn’t change a ton with regard to the hitter in the on-deck circle.
Protection, if it comes at all, might come from someone in front of him in the order. “The best lineup protection is when Billy Hamilton is on base in front of me, and it’s not about protection, it’s that I get a more predictable pitch to hit — fastball,” Votto said.
He expounded upon that to Lance McAllister of ESPN 1530 in Cincinnati on their weekly podcast as well.
“I love the two guys behind me, Brandon and Jay…I’ve had a lot of guys in the minor leagues hit behind me and have better seasons than I did. Jay Bruce did that in the minors and was far and away better than me. I never really noticed different quality pitches for the most part & that I was pitched roughly the same. Billy changes that..Billy changes that. I told him last year, “You’re the first person that has ever protected me.” In that, by definition, protection should be giving me an opportunity to see better pitches during my at bat. Them (pitchers) changing their approach against me and spending their time and energy..or at least splitting their focus between me and him. I saw several pitches that split the plate or in a part of the strike zone I never ever would gotten before because of him. So, there are going to be some advantages to having a guy run all of the time in front of me if he is on base a bunch, but I personally noticed a difference last season.
In terms of seeing more fastballs, that has yet to play out for Votto if we look at the numbers where he has hit in the lineup. He hit in the third spot of the lineup from March 31st through April 11th. In those games, he saw 132 fastballs in 206 pitches thrown to him, which computes to a 64% rate. Pitchers tended to stay away from the center of the plate with those fastballs and picked up where they left off last season working him away.
Votto was bumped up to the second spot of the lineup on April 12th, and has seen fewer fastballs than he did hitting out of the third spot of the lineup. Whereas he saw 64% fastballs hitting in the third spot, through April 30th, he has seen just 52% fastballs hitting in the second spot. Dating back to last season, Votto has been at the plate with Hamilton on first or second base 15 times and has seen 55% fastballs in those situations. So far, Votto is not seeing an increased frequency of fastballs at the plate, but he is seeing slightly more pitches in the zone. His Zone% batting third was 45.6%, but it has risen to 45.9% since his promotion to the second spot in the lineup.
Votto hit .257/.372/.400 through the first ten games of the season when Bryan Price had him penciled in third in the lineup card. Since the switch to the second spot in the lineup, Votto is hitting .293/.474/.500. Cincinnati averaged 2.8 runs per contest before the switch scoring more than three runs just three times in the first ten games. Since altering the lineup, the team has scored four or more runs in 13 of its last 18 contests and is averaging 4.6 runs per contest.
The increase in offense is obviously not solely due to moving Votto up in the lineup, but getting your best player an additional plate appearances and having his most desired lineup protection hit .281 and score 11 runs in front of him certainly does not hurt. This run of offensive success for Cincinnati is being done despite the fact that Brandon Phillips, who hits in the traditional spot for protecting Votto, has hit just .230/.237/.257 since the two traded places in the lineup.