clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Should we be concerned about Joey Votto's defense?

The Reds first baseman had an uncharacteristic season in the field in 2016.

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

The unexpected is what makes life interesting. No one rushes home or calls his spouse to tell her about the ordinary things that happened in a given day. But you had better believe that one time McDonalds accidentally threw an extra McChicken in my bag I let the whole world know. The unexpected shakes us out of our routine and forces us to look at an aspect of life in a new way.

There was nothing really unexpected about Joey Votto's season at the plate in 2016. Once again he was one of the best hitters in baseball. Once again his chances of getting on base were almost the same odds as a coin flip. It was another impressive show from a hitter who has made the incredible all too routine for fans. When the incredible becomes the ordinary it becomes easy to take those results for granted. Votto has almost made his excellence at the plate boring in its consistency.

However, if you dig deep enough into Votto's 2016, you will run into something rather unexpected. Two prominent defensive metrics (UZRDRS) rated Votto as one of, if not the, worst defensive first baseman in all of baseball. After six-straight years of providing the Reds positive value in the field, Votto's stats inexplicably fell off a cliff this season.

What should fans make of Votto's declining defense in 2016? Should they be worried that he is now a liability in the field?

The chart below lists Votto's DRS and UZR rankings for every season since 2010. You'll also find his age in each season, and where he ranked among qualified MLB first basemen.

Year (Age) DRS (Rank) UZR (Rank)
2010 (26) 4 (9th) 0.9 (6th)
2011 (27) 7 (5th) 7 (3rd)
2012 (28) 9 (3rd) 6.2 (4th)
2013 (29) 6 (7th) 2.2 (12th)
2014 (30) 5 (DNQ) 0.9 (DNQ)
2015 (31) 6 (5th) 2.6 (10th)
2016 (32) -14 (17th/last) -7 (16th)

For the better part of Votto's career he has rated at least in the top half of defenders at the position. For a few years he even ranked as a top-three defender in these categories. It's obvious that his 2016 results are out of step with what we've come to expect from Joey Votto. Is it possible that these numbers are just a one year fluke, or do these results point to a worrying trend?

It is worth stating that Votto is at the point in his career when you would expect his defensive performance to decline. There has been a significant amount of work done on aging curves and player performance in MLB. Neil Weinberg offers a helpful primer on the subject at FanGraphs. Without getting in to all of the details, Weinberg says an aging curve attempts to show the "average improvement or decline expected based on the player's age."

The current belief is that most players peak at some point in their mid to late 20s. Obviously there are unique cases where a player's production increases or decreases in unexpected ways, but for the most part, this is helpful. Weinberg does note that fielding and base running are skills that seem to peak early, and they begin to decline before a player's skills at the plate begin to erode.

This all seems to suggest Votto is at or beyond the point in his career when you would expect to see his defense decline. If you look at his career statistics in the table above, you can clearly see that happening. His best results came in his late 20s with declining (but still positive) production in the following seasons.

But can the affects of aging really account for this massive swing in Votto's defensive value? Should we expect 2016 to be the new norm? Should we expect it to get worse?

There are a few factors that need to be considered before we write Votto off as a defensive liability for the rest of his career. The first is that DRS and UZR admittedly need multiple years of data in order to be reliable. The following quote is taken from FanGraphs explanation of DRS:

The other thing to remember is that DRS isn't going to work well in small sample sizes, especially a couple of months or less. Once you get to one and three-year samples, it's a relatively solid metric but defense itself is quite variable so you need a good amount of data for the metrics to become particularly useful.

You'll find the same kind of qualification in their explanation of UZR. Prior to 2016 we had six seasons worth of data telling us that Joey Votto was a good defensive player. When that is compared to one season of poor defensive statistics, clearly the larger sample should win out. If Votto goes out and has another poor defensive season, then maybe fans should begin to worry. At this point it's hard to give that much weight to one season that seems like such an outlier.

When you compare Votto's numbers to those of other top defensive first basemen you see just how much of an outlier the 2016 season was. Below are two charts. The first lists the top first basemen in MLB from 2010-2015 by cumulative DRS. The second chart looks at the previous six years and ranks players in the same way from 2004-2009.


Player Total DRS
Adrian Gonzalez 56
Anthony Rizzo 38
Joey Votto 37
Albert Pujols 35
Mark Teixeira 33
Paul Goldschmidt 30
James Loney 22
Adam LaRoche 20


Player DRS Total
Albert Pujols 103
Mark Teixeira 49
Todd Helton 25
Lyle Overbay 20
Derrek Lee 19
James Loney 12
Justin Morenau 10

What do we learn when we use this group of players as a point of comparison for Votto's trajectory? First, Votto's 2016 is the worst defensive season of any player listed above. Second, there are several players in this group who had poor performances in a given season. Adrian Gonzalez had a season at -8 DRS (2007). Adam LaRoche had back-to-back years at -13 (2005) and -11 (2006). You can also find a -12 DRS season in Lyle Overbay's career (2004).

However, those seasons all share something in common that differentiate them from Votto's 2016. Those results all occurred early in the careers of those players. Gonzalez poor defensive season took place at age 25. LaRoche's struggles were in the first two seasons in which he played over 1,000 innings at the position. Overbay's -12 DRS was also accumulated in his first season with over 1,000 innings played at first.

Several of the good defensive players listed above had season's comparable to Votto's, but they never happened after they had established themselves as quality defensive players. It always happened early in their careers.

The players listed above also demonstrate that the fluctuation in production Votto experienced from 2015 to 2016 (6 to -14) is not that uncommon of an amount to gain or lose. Several of these players had significant one-year swings in their DRS results that later stabilized.

  • Mark Teixeira had a 14-run decline (2003 to 2004) and a 19-run decline (2008 to 2009) in his DRS.
  • Paul Goldschmidt experienced a 14-run dip this season (18 to 4).
  • In the span of three seasons, Albert Pujols added 14 runs to his DRS totals (2006 to 2007), and then lost 13 runs the following season (2007 to 2008).
  • Helton (2004 to 2005) and Morneau (2014 to 2015) also had seasons in which they lost double-digit runs from their totals.
While the one-year swing that Votto experienced (20 runs) isn't unprecedented in its quantity, it is in the fact that none of the above players experienced a swing from "good" defensive player to "poor." They might have declined from good to average but not "awful." Votto's decline in DRS isn't unusual, going that far into the negative at this point in his career is unparalleled in this group. That alone should give us some pause when trying to come to conclusions based on his 2016 season.

With all of these puzzle pieces in place, how should Reds fans think about Votto's defense heading in to 2017?

Admittedly, this hasn't been an exhaustive study, but there are still a few things worth highlighting.

1) Votto is at the point in his career when you should expect his defensive numbers to decline.

2) One year of data from DRS and UZR is probably insufficient to label Votto as a poor defender, especially in light of the six prior seasons of data all coming to a different conclusion.

3) When compared to his peers, the defensive results that Votto experienced in 2016 are unparalleled for this point in in a player's career. We might have expected these results early in his career given the examples above, but none of these players had this big of a slide into the negative this far along in their careers.

Fans should be optimistic that Votto will have a better year in the field in 2017. Some are still highly skeptical of the value of advanced defensive metrics. However, they do give us some sort of baseline to assess the talent level of a player. Votto's 2016 is an outlier among the top first basemen in the game over the past decade. That alone should provide some comfort that he will bounce back at least some.

Even if Joey Votto is declining at first base, he's still one of the best hitters in baseball. Even with his poor defensive stats he was a 5-win player this year (fWAR) and any team would love to have him in their lineup. In the words of fellow Red Reporter Tony Wolfe, "Hey, know who else led the league in OBP in a 4-win season because of -2.4 dWAR? Ted Williams in '56."

I'll take it.