Joey Votto is Picking His Battles

It’s spring training, and the results don’t matter. That’s the perfect time to work on process, and so everyone’s adding, subtracting, and adjusting right now. Even a mid-career veteran that’s top five in baseball over the last five years has to take part in the process. The thing is, he might not be working on the same things that some fans would expect. He’s not necessarily following the publicly-accepted offseason agenda for his game. But believe: Joey Votto is working on things.

Take, for example, his command of the strike zone. Some in Cincinnati were beating the drum for Joey Votto to swing at more pitches. Even his General Manager commented that he might benefit from swinging at more pitches with men on base. Too bad. Votto saw things a little differently: “I swung too much in the strike zone last year.”

It’s interesting to see what happened to his plate discipline over the season last year. His elite rate of swinging at pitches outside of the zone just got more elite…but his rate of swinging at pitches inside the zone did increase:

Time O-Swing Z-Swing Swing
April 2013 21.2% 64.2% 39.1%
May 2013 23.5% 71.8% 45.9%
June 2013 22.1% 68.6% 43.5%
July 2013 17.6% 60.9% 36.9%
August 2013 18.9% 67.9% 36.9%
Sep/Oct 2013 17.2% 68.4% 40.0%

While his overall swing rate was low, Votto was right to point out that most of that number came from the lowest reach rate in the league. In the context of his peers, Votto was middle of the pack when it came to swinging at pitches inside the zone (60th percentile). Look at his career rates, and you also see that he swung more last year than he did in 2012:

Time O-Swing Z-Swing Swing Z-Contact
2011 25.5% 68.7% 43.2% 85.5%
2012 21.2% 62.3% 38.2% 85.7%
2013 20.0% 67.0% 40.3% 86.8%

In general, Votto has swung less at pitches inside the zone as his career has progressed — 73.4% over his first four years, 66% over his last three. And in general, his contact on pitches inside the zone has increased, if marginally — 83.9% his first four years, up to 86% the last three. So when he says that he’ll swing less in the strike zone this year, he’s talking about really swinging at the pitches he wants to make contact on. In other words, he’d like to be “more in that [Joe] Mauer category, really efficient, swinging at a really low rate inside the strike zone, and outside the strike zone, very rarely swinging.” Nobody swings less than Joe Mauer.

Looking back on the season, Votto admitted some frustration. He might have swung too much last year, and he also found the drop in extra base hits disturbing. The lowest isolated slugging percentage of his career had him examining his spray charts. “I spent too much time close to the left field line and that was a byproduct of my knee and not having as much quickness as I’d hoped,” Votto said, adding that this year, he’s working on “shifting to the middle of the field” with his balls in play to the outfield. Take a look at his spray charts for 2012 (left) and 2013, and you’ll see what he’s talking about clustered right there along the left field line:

He says he hit too many balls to left field, but Votto also hit 13 homers out of left field last year, and continued his streak of five straight years of excellent offense to that field (200+ wRC+). But last year was the first year his offense to center field suffered (170 wRC+, .197 ISO, first year under 200 wRC+ or .200 ISO). Perhaps moving his spray chart a bit towards center will undo that decline.

Votto acknowledged the pressure on him to conform to the expectations of a middle-of-the-order first baseman who can slug. “Initially it was frustrating,” he said last week at the Reds’ spring complex. He “took it in stride when it was through the media or on TV; Announcers, no problem at all, they reserve the right just as I reserve the right to cash my check.” But if the idea is that he should swing more often, his career seems to serve as a warning that swinging more has its downfalls.

And if the idea is to move him in the order to a spot that fits him better, Votto was contrite: “I don’t care.” He admitted that he knew “a guy like Tango” would say to hit him second or fourth, but as long as Votto is near the top somewhere, he doesn’t care. A guy with a “high career ISO” like himself would probably be a little more valuable somewhere outside of the leadoff spot, but that’s for the manager to decide, and where he is in the lineup hasn’t mattered to him in the past.

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. We’ve seen how it takes a perfect throw home, pop, and throw back to second to catch Billy Hamilton, so we know that the pitcher would rather throw a fast pitch home. And knowing that will help Votto.

Cincinnati’s first baseman hopes that another year removed from knee surgery will give him some of the quickness to improve around the edges. Paired with an effort to be even more like Joey Votto (or Joe Mauer) at the plate, a little bit of quickness will help him slug to the middle of the field more and improve his defense at first. To remain on top of the game, it makes sense for the first baseman to focus on these parts of the game, and not worry about the things that are beyond his control.

Don’t get too excited about healthier knees though — Votto isn’t going to take off for second very often. Said baseball’s foremost player-sabermetrician: “I don’t think I’m ever going to try steal bases any more. I’m not efficient enough.”



Print This Post



Graphs: Baseball, Roto, Beer, brats (OK, no graphs for that...yet), repeat. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris.


Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
Kris
Guest
Kris
2 years 4 months ago

So awesome. Thanks, Eno!

jdbolick
Member
Member
2 years 4 months ago

Votto’s 15 strikeouts this spring are tied for second among N.L. 1st basemen and stood out to me when I was sorting ABs at various positions the other day. I’d be interested to hear from Reds fans is if this is because he’s trying to swing at more pitches this spring or if it’s the opposite and he’s taking more only to get in bad counts.

WAR and FIP
Guest
WAR and FIP
2 years 4 months ago

He said it is because he is seeing more strikes, more strikes than he had in past years/ST’s

jdbolick
Member
Member
2 years 4 months ago

That actually worries me because if he really is intent on taking more strikes early in the count and therefore getting into a lot more bad counts, Votto could end up having his worst season yet. He is preposterously better than every other hitter against fastballs over the last four years (156.6 wFB with Cabrera next at 129.7), but much more mortal against everything else, so getting behind in the count would theoretically lead to fewer fastballs when he intends to swing.

Tom B
Guest
Tom B
2 years 4 months ago

His plan must be to have his worst season yet.

JD
Guest
JD
2 years 4 months ago

A hitter is not “good against fastballs” in a vacuum. Part of what makes that statistic is the situations in which he finds himself swinging against fastballs. In Votto’s case, he may well be better against fastballs because he gets more of his fastballs in 3-1 counts with RISP.

jdbolick
Member
Member
2 years 4 months ago

I’m pretty sure he’s the best hitter on the planet against fastballs because he’s really good against fastballs.

arc
Guest
arc
2 years 4 months ago

I am pretty sure he can adjust to adjustments.

Kevin
Guest
Kevin
2 years 4 months ago

He’s always had poor spring numbers. He looks at pitches to gain timing, that’s all.

WAR and FIP
Guest
WAR and FIP
2 years 4 months ago

Joey votto is the best

Big Jgke
Member
Big Jgke
2 years 4 months ago

Hey Eno, when Votto says it, it’s a ‘cheque’ not a ‘check’

Arm Side Run
Guest
Arm Side Run
2 years 4 months ago

Great article, Eno. I grew up in the Toronto area and had friends who played with Votto in High School and they always painted him as a caveman with a bat. The constant, thoughtful nature of his comments definitely flies in the face of that assertion.

Chaco Chicken
Member
Chaco Chicken
2 years 4 months ago

All hail his most resplendent eminence, the lord of the meta-game, beneficent master of the strike zone, grandest scourge of the pitcher, chiefest of the enlightened saberists, the all Canadian Boy, Joseph Daniel Votto, esquire.

JH
Guest
JH
2 years 4 months ago

He’s a lawyer now, too?

D.Braden
Guest
D.Braden
2 years 4 months ago

From what I’ve imagined reading, you’re meant to look at titles given to members of the Commonwealth with that in mind rather than assuming the American meaning.

Chaco Chicken
Member
Chaco Chicken
2 years 4 months ago

Is any player more of a lawyer of the strike zone than JV?

Jose Molina
Guest
Jose Molina
2 years 4 months ago

Yes.

Justin Verlander
Guest
Justin Verlander
2 years 3 months ago

‘sup baby?

Tom B
Guest
Tom B
2 years 4 months ago

In a 6×6 roto, where OBP and SLG replace AVG… where do people have Braun and Votto ranked?

Travis L
Guest
Travis L
2 years 4 months ago

Braun’s advantage include the shallower position, the stolen bases, and possibly more HR. Votto, however, is such a monster in OBP that I think he makes up quite a bit of that ground.

I’d probably put Braun above Votto. Braun might be 4-6, with Votto 5-8?

threespeedbike
Guest
threespeedbike
2 years 4 months ago

I had Braun ranked 6th and Votto 10th. That’s 6×6 (OBP, SLG, HR, RBI, R, Net Steals)using steamer adjusted by fans playing time.

Daniel Brock
Guest
Daniel Brock
2 years 4 months ago

I vote to bat Votto second and let bruce hit 3rd and ludwick in cleanup. and i wouldnt even be afraid to let ludwick bat 3rd from time to time.

Dan
Guest
Dan
2 years 4 months ago

You can’t change who Votto is and no one should want to. He’s 30 years old, he’s smart, and he’s one of the top 5 hitters in baseball. It’s difficult enough to force change to a young hitter’s approach (see Castro, Starlin). If Votto’s career has taught us one thing, it’s that only one man knows how to create and maintain the best approach at the plate in all of baseball: Votto himself. If anyone wants to complain, they can go look at his slash line of .314/.419/.541, his 3rd-best in baseball aggregate RC+ and his 33 WAR, also good for 3rd best in baseball since his debut in 2008.

Dan
Guest
Dan
2 years 4 months ago

99% of that is directed at Dusty Baker…

Art Vandelay
Member
Member
Art Vandelay
2 years 4 months ago

Good thing Baker is gone then.

DigBaseball
Member
DigBaseball
2 years 4 months ago

Yeah but he still totally reads FG

I'm Not Dusty Baker
Guest
I'm Not Dusty Baker
2 years 3 months ago

STFU

steveg12
Member
steveg12
2 years 4 months ago

Great stuff.

Steve-O
Guest
Steve-O
2 years 4 months ago

Is it troublesome that his career Z-contact and contact % are both below league average?

Dan
Guest
Dan
2 years 4 months ago

Votto has said himself in interviews, that he’s not as talented as most all-star level hitters. He makes up for that by studying pitchers and fine tuning his approach to be smarter. The reason he wants to swing at fewer pitches, is that he wants to only swing at pitches that give him a good chance to make solid contact. I think he’s a bit self-deprecating there, but that seems a plausible explanation for why he’s so good, yet his contact numbers are below average. He can’t afford to have a Vlad Guerrero approach, because he doesn’t have that type of bat-to-ball talent. His greatest talent lies in the ability to recognize the strike zone and what is coming out of the pitcher’s hand.

jdbolick
Member
Member
2 years 4 months ago

I would argue that this is one of the reasons why his aforementioned intention to take more pitches is a really bad idea. It stands to reason that if Batter X is a little worse at making contact but generally hits the ball harder when he does than Batter Y, then Batter X should play the percentages and swing more often at pitches inside the zone since he would miss more often with two strikes than Batter Y. On the flip side, Batter Y and his very high confidence of making contact but somewhat inferior quality of contact might wait for pitches that he can drive.

Dan
Guest
Dan
2 years 4 months ago

I see what you’re saying, but I have trouble doubting Votto until he actually starts failing. The only downside to his 2013 was his RBI total. Lots of that can be attributed to having terrible, horrible, awful hitters batting #2 and part of it can be attributed to him just having his worst slash line ever with RISP. He still hit .291, but his career is .340/.477/.590. That’s ridiculous. There’s no reason he can’t get back to doing that.

He was actually on his way to his best season yet in 2012, when he had the lowest z-swing% and overall swing% of his career. He was hitting .337 and might have broken the all-time doubles record if he hadn’t hurt his knee. Don’t doubt Votto, he knows what he’s doing.

jdbolick
Member
Member
2 years 4 months ago

That wasn’t the only downside to his 2013, as he posted by far the worst ISO of his major league career. Furthermore, you could argue that the hitters in front of Votto will be even worse in 2014 given that the upgrade from Cozart to Phillips isn’t nearly as large as the drop from Choo to Hamilton.

Dan
Guest
Dan
2 years 4 months ago

Sorry, I forgot to add that Votto also struggled to drive the ball like he had in previous years, as his knee was not yet 100%. He admitted as much.

My point is that in 2012, he was more selective than ever in his career and it worked. His wRC+ was a career high (Votto would argue that’s the best measurement of offensive production). You simply don’t have an argument using actual numbers that Votto’s production will dip from being more selective within the strike zone. The only example we have is of him being more successful as he is more selective.

jdbolick
Member
Member
2 years 4 months ago

Dan, there isn’t a statistically significant difference between Votto’s swing percentage in 2013 and 2012, so trying to hold up 2012 as “proof” that it makes him a better hitter while ignoring the 2013 results is pretty dishonest. I think everyone agrees that Joey swinging at fewer pitches outside the zone is a great thing. The question is whether or not swinging at fewer pitches inside the zone is a good idea, and for someone who doesn’t have elite contact rates, logic would dictate that it is not. A

Also reference what I posted earlier regarding how most of Votto’s value as a hitter comes against fastballs and that he’ll be less likely to see them in pitcher’s counts. Hopefully this is all a mind game to convince N.L. pitches to throw Votto more first pitch fastballs.

Dan
Guest
Dan
2 years 4 months ago

4.7% is plenty significant. That’s 4.7% fewer swings WITHIN the zone. That’s 62 strikes he would not have taken a swing at in 2013. That would impact a good number of at bats. Votto’s 67% zone swing rate last year was 86th lowest in baseball. That’s far from the most selective hitter within the strike zone. Mike Trout, for example, swung at just 55.6% of pitches within the zone. Not all strikes are made equal. That is why a hitter would be more selective within the zone.

That’s the whole reason Votto is doing this. For example, it’s better to swing at a belt-high fastball than one that clips the outside corner. Not all strikes are made equal. Any professional hitter would tell you, one shouldn’t swing at a pitch just because it’s a strike. It’s not as if he’s going to let good hitter’s pitches go by so he can swing at bad ones. Like I said, Votto knows what he’s doing and he knows all of his owns stats better than you or I.

And I’m not ignoring 2013! I’m saying in 2012 he took fewer swings inside the strike zone and had better results than ANY SEASON. In 2013, he reverted back to his 2011 habits within the zone. If anything, 2013 helps prove my point.

jdbolick
Member
Member
2 years 4 months ago

Dan, you have no point. You keep repeating the same empty assertions and insisting that we should “trust Votto” because “he knows what he’s doing.” Those comments would be more appropriate on BleacherReport than here. Moreover, I’ve already illustrated the flaw in holding up a partial season fueled by unsustainable BABIP as “proof” that Votto should swing less often at pitches inside the strike zone.

The fact is that Votto destroys fastballs and is only above average against other pitches. If you look at his career splits, he does far more damage in hitter’s counts while struggling badly in pitcher’s counts. So if taking pitches within the zone means getting behind in the count, then the numbers very conclusively say that it’s a bad idea for someone with his pretty average contact rate. Trust the numbers, not the person.

Tim
Guest
Tim
2 years 4 months ago

I think you’re mixing cause and effect here. It strikes me as far more likely that Batter X hits the ball harder because he misses a lot of the balls that Batter Y hits weakly, and swinging more often would take away that advantage.

Dan
Guest
Dan
2 years 4 months ago

Yes.

jdbolick
Member
Member
2 years 4 months ago

No, Tim. Batter X hits the ball harder because he swings harder, which makes contact more difficult. That’s why Carlos Gonzalez’s career low in Z-Contact% last season coincided with a career high in ISO.

Steve-O
Guest
Steve-O
2 years 4 months ago

That’s what was rolling around in my head too.

Belloc
Guest
Belloc
2 years 4 months ago

You seem to be conflating the act of hitting Major League pitching with playing roulette or another game of chance. Hitters don’t swing blindly at pitches with the hope they will make contact. A hitter doesn’t increase his probability of hitting a line drive by swinging more often.

Joey Votto is doing nothing revolutionary. He is following the mantra of Ted Williams, Wade Boggs, Barry Bonds, Frank Thomas and Joe Mauer. That’s pretty good company.

jdbolick
Member
Member
2 years 4 months ago

A hitter doesn’t increase his percentage of line drives by swinging more often, but he presumably would increase his total of line drives by swinging more often at pitches within the strike zone.

Kogoruhn
Member
Kogoruhn
2 years 4 months ago

This article caused me to go back and check Bonds O-Swing% and man was he good. 8.3% in 2004 is just ridiculous.

jmr
Member
jmr
2 years 4 months ago

Are IBB included in O-Swing%? Bonds had 120 of them in 2004.

tylersnotes
Member
2 years 4 months ago

I can’t even imagine the psychological warfare that would result in a pitcher having Billy Hamilton on first base and Joey Votto at the plate. This is going to be must-see TV for as long as Hamilton remains at the top of the order.

Baltar
Guest
Baltar
2 years 4 months ago

… and if he gets on base.

Zep
Guest
Zep
2 years 4 months ago

Actually, it’s going to be incredibly predictable. IBB.

Catoblepas
Guest
Catoblepas
2 years 4 months ago

gawd i hope so, that would be hilarious. “he might steal second! i know what i’ll do, i’ll walk this batter so he doesn’t have to AND there’s another baserunner on.”

MrKnowNothing
Guest
MrKnowNothing
2 years 4 months ago

I wonder if it might be counter-intuitive. You could essentially throw FBs in a perfect spot for the C to pop up and make a throw – without committing to a blatant pitch out – knowing that Votto simply isn’t going to swing. No danger of a hit and run or anything with Votto at bat.

Tim
Guest
Tim
2 years 4 months ago

If Hamilton on second and Votto on first ends up a common occurrence, the last paragraph of this article could be pretty funny at the end of the year.

arc
Guest
arc
2 years 4 months ago

Much easier than worrying about holding Hamilton on while pitching to Votto is just not letting Hamilton get on.

Malone
Guest
Malone
2 years 4 months ago

Hero.

Matthew
Member
Member
2 years 4 months ago

I’ve always been curious. If Votto hit for more power again, wouldn’t his plate discipline be rewarded more? If he got more doubles or homers every time he got something good to hit, wouldn’t pitchers nibble and Votto could walk even more/strike out less?

Brendan
Guest
Brendan
2 years 4 months ago

Votto is the best.

Tony the Pony
Guest
Tony the Pony
2 years 4 months ago

Ive read Votto is the best a couple of times already. Do people mean he approach. His oitch recognition? I dont want to sound arrogant but im presuming it isn’t meant as an allround hitter because I cannot see a way anyone can convince me he is better than Miguel. I love how thoughtful he is though.

SurprMan
Member
SurprMan
2 years 4 months ago

Peoples mean they like him for his talents, process, and persona, not that he is literally, non-specifically, the best.

Tony the Pony
Guest
Tony the Pony
2 years 4 months ago

Sorry English isnt my 1st language so sometimes I can misinterpret things.

novaether
Member
novaether
2 years 4 months ago

Is it possible that Votto is the smartest hitter in the game? This article has given me a new found respect for the Cincinnati slugger.

james wilson
Guest
james wilson
2 years 4 months ago

Back in the day sportswriters bitched at Ted Williams for being a Nazi about the strike zone with runners in scoring position, and would point to Joe Dimaggio as proof of a selfless player who would go after pitches out of the zone to drive in runs. I couldn’t figure out that logic when I was eight years old, and I still can’t.

Jim Rice was, unfortunately, the Red Sox hitting coach for a time. Scott Hatteberg was famous for being a mediocre hitter who batted .500 when he swung at the first pitch, so Rice asked him why he so seldom swung at first pitches.

I guess Votto has had to learn how to ignore all kinds of advice from managers and coaches just to hang on to where he is.

Joe R
Guest
Joe R
2 years 4 months ago

Ugh, Jim Rice. Fortunately now, it’s the fans and not the organization directly that gets to deal w/ his un-advice. My stepdad went from hero worshipping him to hating him when they gave him a mic.

But yes, it’s always fun when the reactionary media tells someone to emulate a clearly inferior player (not that DiMaggio was in any way bad, but it’s Ted effin Williams) because they desire “runs batted in”.

It’s true that DiMaggio drove in more runs per PA w/ RISP. Williams had 831 RBI’s in 2,012 career PA’s w/ RISP (0.413 RBI/PA), while DiMaggio had a jarring 521 in 1,060 PA (0.492 RBI / PA). DiMaggio also killed it with slash stats, hitting .320/.427/.573. Williams, however, went .331/.519(!)/.622. If Williams’ mid-late 50’s IBB totals are indicative of how he was pitched, though, then he wasn’t seeing much to hit whenever someone reached 2nd.

Robin
Guest
Robin
2 years 4 months ago

Did Votto really reference Tom Tango?!? I don’t mean to swoon here, but seriously….

wpDiscuz