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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.”