Joey Votto on Aging

“I don’t care about hitting home runs, I don’t care about any of that sort of stuff,” Joey Votto told me when I mentioned the stat. “I care about improving all of the facets of my game that can be repeatable and that age well.” And really, as great as his season has been this year, no quote better sums up the strides he’s made.

One things we know that ages terribly is contact on pitches outside of the zone (O-Contact%). It drops off the table quickly after 29.

AgingCurves_Hitters_Discipline_All (1)

Watch that dark green line dive. Votto once told me he wanted to have a swing percentage like Joe Mauer, which is saying something, since only two regulars in the past five years have swung less than Mauer. Mauer’s career swing rate is 37.9%, and Votto’s this year is 37.5%. “That’s good,” was Votto’s response to the update on his swing rate. “I’m doing what I want.”

The only problem with just not swinging is that it takes fear to get walks. Pitchers upped their fastball usage last year with him hurt, and Votto heard from everyone that he should be “attacked” in the zone. So getting his swing right enough to drive the ball was probably step one.

Votto evaluates his swing on feel and results, like most hitters, but the way he talks about it might not sound like most hitters. “I want things to feel a certain way in my body when I hit, and I want to see the ball go a certain way off my bat,” he says.

That direction is important to him. “I want it coming off in a true line,” Votto says, but he also wants to “spray the ball all over the field” so that he’s “more difficult to defend.” Early in the season, even as he was raking, he didn’t like some of the results. “I have to be unpredictable in the infield and outfield,” the first baseman said. “A lot of my outs early on in the season were ground-ball outs to the right side, and that was a big part of my problem.”

Joey Votto 2015 Batted Ball Mix By Halves
Monthly GB/FB LD% Pull% Cent% Oppo% Soft% Med% Hard%
1st Half 1.33 23.5% 41.1% 34.4% 24.5% 9.5% 55.6% 34.9%
2nd Half 1.19 25.5% 31.7% 40.9% 27.5% 8.5% 45.1% 46.5%

This focus on using the whole field sounds like something we’ve heard before from Votto, but this year, when he cut his pull rate even more in the second half and went Full Votto, the key was finding a way to take even inside pitches the other way.

“If it’s in, especially deep in the count, typically when I can’t take a pitch, I’m still willing to hit the inside pitch to the middle of the field,” said the Canadian slugger. “The key is how close I can get that barrel to my body. Part of that is choking up. If I shorten my 34-inch bat to 31 inches by choking up, all of a sudden the barrel is three inches closer to my body. The second part is… I don’t know if I’m steep as much as I’m willing to keep my elbows tight as I swing, and I’m willing to pull my hands in as close as possible as I swing. That majorly zaps power, but for me I have a chance to put the ball in play, I have a chance to hit the ball to the left part of second base in the air, and there’s only one fielder over there, and I have the power to hit the ball over the shortstop’s head.”

Take a look at what Votto did with pitches that within three inches of the line that marks the inside part of the plate before the All-Star game (left) and then later in the season (right).

You’re going to pull the ball on pitches inside sometimes, so that red spot on the ground is unavoidable, to an extent. But look at how he shifted his balls in play in the outfield over towards shortstop. That’s impressive.

It might work for Votto, but here’s one case where the narrative might not fit. It turns out that your pull rate has little to say about how you age. Using the delta method he describes here, Jeff Zimmerman created an aging curve for pull hitters (top 20% by pull rate, over 45% balls in play to the pull field) and it looks like, if anything, pull hitters can provide a little more value late in their careers compared to the rest of the population.

4Eno_aging_curve

What this doesn’t control for is the fact that many opposite-field hitters have little power, and many pull hitters do have power. And though isolated power ages poorly, that’s a measure that includes speed. Given what we know about shifts and defense, it’s certainly still possible that — given equal power — the all-fields approach is a better one for longevity. At least it’s been great for Votto this year.

“It was a good start to the season,” Votto admitted, “but I wasn’t confident that that swing was repeatable, especially as I fatigued and pitchers made adjustments to me.” So Votto talks about the feel of his swing, as well.

“I want to make sure I’m not swaying forward and backwards and up and down too much,” Votto said about the mechanics of his swing. “I’d rather move up and down than forwards and backwards. My April and May video you’ll see a lot of swaying because I wasn’t bracing with my back leg enough, part of the process of trusting my leg again. When I moved along, I was moving less forward and backwards and more up and down. If you look at Miguel Cabrera, Bryce Harper, those guys are picture perfect when it comes to their ability to slightly load back but also sit down and load into their body, and you can see this coiling action, and then to brace against it and turn the bat through, that’s what I try to do.”

The body is the engine of age. That hurt knee counts, since injuries happen more with age, but players also generally get bigger and slower as they age. And hitters that show some speed age better than others. So Votto has lost some weight, as he admitted in this fun exchange.

Sarris: So this part is a little silly. Your speed score is up, you’re stealing some bases… you look… are your pants tighter?

Votto: Much tighter. I’ve lost like seven pounds.

Sarris: You looooook… different. You almost look like a soccer player or something?

Votto: That’s a compliment.

Sarris: It’s fit, but in a way that’s not necessarily what you think of when you think of baseball.

Votto: I was tired of wearing pajamas. I would look at guys and they’re wearing sweatpants and hoodies.

Sarris: Are we athletes or what?

Votto: I get it. People can wear what they want. But I prefer wearing it this way now. I just feel like I’m good. I’ve lost weight.

Sarris: Is that natural in-season weight loss?

Votto: No, offseason work and some changes to diet and lifestyle. I feel great. I feel really good.

By getting slimmer and rediscovering some of this athleticism, Votto is putting himself closer to being on both of these better aging curves from Jeff Zimmerman — he’s both a young old player with great plate discipline, as well as a relatively speedy player.

types_medium

Votto doesn’t care about stolen bases. He knows that they’re relatively unimportant to overall production — and this year’s stolen bases are “just Billy [Hamilton], the back end of double-steals and a few off of people where nobody’s looking” — but he does care about aging well. So he lost some weight and got fitter.

The last part of aging well is having the right mental approach at the plate. While pitchers don’t hit their spots regularly — “I watch video, those [guys] miss all the time” — and so location is hugely important in the decision to swing. It’s not good enough to look only for pitches in one spot. “When it gets more specific is either against the more predictable guys, or the tougher guys. I do location and then pitch. Against some of the tougher left-handed pitchers, I have to pick a pitch because I’m not good enough to hit both pitches. Jeremy Affeldt, I can’t hit the fastball and the curveball, there’s such an enormous gap between the two. So I’ll just look for one or the other and decide on the next pitch what to do.”

But Votto agreed that just guessing right doesn’t mean you have to swing. He praised Brandon Moss for saying the same. “That’s a high level of analysis, it’s tough to be able to guess properly, to be able to guess accurately and then still not swing,” Votto said. “Part of my thinking process is not only what I’m looking for but where I want to start and what direction it should go — a visualization of swing and visualization of pitcher error, and what errors I could potentially make. I’ve swung so often in my career and made so many mistakes I’m like ‘don’t do that, don’t do that, don’t do that.’ Do this, do this, okay.”

Does that sound like a lot to be thinking about at the plate? “It helps to simplify it,” he admitted. “That’s when I get out of the box and ask the umpire for time out. I just need a second.” Ahem.

This sort of thinking will lead to swinging less at outside pitches, to take this back to Votto’s Mauerian effort. But, as Jeff Sullivan pointed out, he’s also swinging less at pitches inside the zone, particularly at high pitches. “I’m not going to swing at pitches before two strikes that I feel I could fail on,” laughed Votto. “I’m perfectly happy taking pitches like that. No, you can’t cover all quadrants of the zone. You certainly can’t. You have two strikes, you have to match up your best skills with the pitchers’ likeliest pitches within those two strikes. I don’t see a lot of pitchers that throw a lot of high fastballs to start off at-bats. If, all of a sudden, that becomes a trend, I’ll become a high ball hitter.”

And it’s this sort of prism through which Votto sees baseball. You have to make the most of your strengths within the most likely outcomes that baseball provides, which includes trends within the game as well as the realities of aging. For him, this year, it’s meant losing weight, finding the feeling in his legs, laying off the outside pitch and the high pitch, and driving everything to center field, regardless of pitch location.



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


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mike wants wins
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mike wants wins
8 months 9 days ago

Great stuff, really interesting read.

MGL
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MGL
8 months 9 days ago

Really good article. Votto sounds scary good when it comes to his knowledge of hitting.

“…as well as a relatively speedy player.”

I hardly think that Votto can be considered anything but a “relatively slow” player, despite his 11 SB this year.

Eno Sarris
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Eno Sarris
8 months 9 days ago

I’ll admit to not being 100% sure of that line, but his speed scores, other than last year, are comfortably above average for a first baseman at least?

Guest
Guest
Guest
8 months 9 days ago

Hamilton on 3B + anyone on 1B + 2B open = free SB

MGL
Guest
MGL
8 months 9 days ago

For a first baseman, yes. Overall, at best he has average speed.

TKDC
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TKDC
8 months 9 days ago

Well “relatively” has to mean relative to something, right?

Only Glove, No Love
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Only Glove, No Love
8 months 9 days ago

Sarris: Are we athletes or what?

Damn you slayed me with that. I am going to work that into my rotation of sayings. Right up there with GOB’s “Come on!”

phoenix2042
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phoenix2042
8 months 7 days ago

I’ve made a huge mistake. *Final Countdown plays*

Matt
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Matt
8 months 9 days ago

Man, what an intelligent hitter. Fun to get inside the head of a great ballplayer. A Master of his craft.

TKDC
Guest
TKDC
8 months 9 days ago

This is fantastic. There was a community blog post written by a former college player that said sabermetrics never helped him become a better player. This is great evidence that it can help, and that MLB players use it. I’d imagine Votto has tons of access to any type of information he wants that we’ll maybe never see. I’m sure plenty of guys don’t take advantage, but you’d think in a hyper-competitive atmosphere many guys would look for any edge they can (legally) get.

MGL
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MGL
8 months 9 days ago

I wouldn’t call that using “sabermetrics.” He uses data. Data is not sabermetrics. It is the analysis of said data (and the ensuing conclusions).

TKDC
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TKDC
8 months 9 days ago

I don’t think this really makes sense. He is using data. Sabermetrics uses data. No, he isn’t doing the calculations himself, but many people who are said to “use sabermetrics” don’t do it themselves, as in they don’t actually crunch the numbers. He’s looking at what types of players age well (a very sabermetric thing) and is considering that information for how he attacks the game.

Calculating RISP and ordering the leaders is “analysis of data” but is not sabermetrics (which really is, if you’re being simple, any advanced baseball research however you want to define that).

Only GLove, No Love
Guest
Only GLove, No Love
8 months 9 days ago

I would go further than that and say that Sabermetrics is a school of baseball data analysis and not simply data analysis. It has its preferences and biases and blindspots just like another school of thought. See The Frankfurt School.

Don't Overthink This
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Don't Overthink This
8 months 8 days ago

Sabermetrics = Metrics made popular by SABR (and the metrics that built off of those metrics). Votto is using them. Thus, Votto is using Sabermetrics.

tz
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tz
8 months 8 days ago

It seems to me Votto is using data as a way of measuring the results of the adjustments he’s making, more than using sabermetrics to analyze data a different way.

BTW – here’s a link to that community page article. A must read:

http://www.fangraphs.com/community/stop-thinking-like-a-gm-start-thinking-like-a-player/

Jackie T.
Member
Member
Jackie T.
8 months 9 days ago

What’s the scoop with this tighter pants joke? I didn’t see anything in the article linked there.

redbean7
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redbean7
8 months 9 days ago

Votto could be a hitting coach in demand if he wanted to.

Hurtlocker
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Hurtlocker
8 months 9 days ago

Just shows how great Ted Williams was, Everything Votto is without the strikeouts.

Valuearb
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Valuearb
8 months 9 days ago

Against the pitchers of this era, I’d bet Ted Williams strikes out 100+ times a year.

Hurtlocker
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Hurtlocker
8 months 9 days ago

I don’t think so. There is strong scientific evidence, contrary to current opinion, that some pitchers in the 50’s threw +90mph. Pitchers in the 50’s were not trying to strike people out like they do today (plus the batters all swinging for HR’s) but they did throw hard. They also didn’t have batters eyes and excellent lighting that players have today.

Alex Gary
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Alex Gary
8 months 9 days ago

In Williams day, there were a handful of guys who threw 90. Most were mid to upper 80s. Also, most starters finished the game in Williams’ day. You didn’t have this parade of power guys all throwing 95 plus from the seventh inning on. Williams was great, but he’d strike out a lot more today.

Robert J. Baumann
Member
Member
8 months 8 days ago

“Pitchers in the 50’s were not trying to strike people out like they do today…”

Maybe that contributed to Ted Williams striking out less?

RichW
Member
RichW
8 months 8 days ago

Can you show that evidence. Some pitchers then doesn’t equal most pitchers today. The evidence I’ve looked at suggests that all athletic pursuits that can be measured have improved since the 1950’s. There is no evidence I’m aware of that suggests that throwing baseballs would not follow that trend. If you include the current way of pitching now which does not have the same goals as the 1950’s then I think it clear that Williams might have had a different challenge.

FWIW I see batters eyes in many stadiums pictures from the 1950’s and despite night games being played there were still many more day games back then.

Hurtlocker
Guest
Hurtlocker
8 months 8 days ago

Ted Williams was also a decorated fighter pilot, are his heroics diminished because he flew a prop plane??
It’s certainly context, but assumptions that he would strikeout more today are based on what?? He had the greatest batting eye in the history of baseball, maybe he would just adapt to the speed of the pitchers these days. Also look up Chronograph as it implies to measuring speed of a pitch. It is likely more accurate than a radar gun that measures the speed out of the pitchers hand, not at the plate.

Brandon
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Brandon
8 months 6 days ago

Can we see the evidence please??

That Guy
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That Guy
8 months 8 days ago

Well sure he would. He’s dead.

Cool WHIP
Member
Member
Cool WHIP
8 months 9 days ago

One of my favorite articles this season– thanks a lot Eno! It seems like you really connected with him, and we all benefit because of it.

steve
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steve
8 months 9 days ago

On a scale of 0 to Kang, how much does Eno heart Joey?

I would guess “Beer.”

Owen S
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Owen S
8 months 9 days ago

I hate it when ridiculously good looking people are also smart.

Jetsy Extrano
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Jetsy Extrano
8 months 9 days ago

“I’m not going to swing at pitches before two strikes that I feel I could fail on,”

Interesting quote. It sounds risk-averse, like he might swing at less than the optimal rate from fear of failure. The quote sounds like a perfect 3-0 approach but at 0-1 you accept more risk… My guess is Votto’s actually got a well-balanced feel for the game theory.

Eno, have you ever talked with Votto about cognitive biases? Does he consciously work against availability bias here that could lead him into over-avoiding bad swing outcomes (versus bad take outcomes)?

Hank G.
Member
Hank G.
8 months 9 days ago

The only problem with just not swinging is that it takes fear to get walks.

How then, do you explain players like Eddie Yost, Eddie Joost, and Eddie Stanky? Do pitchers just naturally fear players named Eddie?

Eddie Perez
Guest
8 months 9 days ago

There is something to that.

Captain Tenneal
Member
Captain Tenneal
8 months 8 days ago

You forgot Eddie Lake. There’s actually a quartet of walkin’ Eddies.

bernie Sanders
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bernie Sanders
8 months 9 days ago

Votto isn’t paid to draw walks. He is paid to drive in runs. That why he is highly overrated

Alex Gary
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Alex Gary
8 months 9 days ago

That’s just stupid. If the Reds had batters hitting in front of Votto who were just league average in OBP, he’d have over 100 RBI. The first rule of batting is not to make outs. As long as you don’t make outs, you can hit forever. He has been the best in baseball since 2010 in not making outs.

Dusty Baker
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Dusty Baker
8 months 8 days ago

Finally a true baseball man! Did those computers ever play the game?

Leo Mazzoni
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Leo Mazzoni
8 months 8 days ago

If he had the will to win, the Reds wouldn’t be cellar-dwelling right now.

BMac
Member
BMac
8 months 8 days ago

So I just don’t throw you strikes, bernie! And then you strike yourself out flaying at all those pitches in the dirt.

To me, taking pitches that aren’t strikes rather than chasing them out of the strike zone shows you have faith in the guys hitting behind you.

National League #8 hitters would still be wise not to become automatic outs.

Craig Z
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Craig Z
8 months 8 days ago

I didn’t know Marty Brennaman posted here.

Everyone
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Everyone
7 months 27 days ago

I hate you

Bawfuls
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Bawfuls
8 months 9 days ago

Great piece Eno!

Votto is incredible, most of that fanbase doesn’t deserve him.

Eli Ben-Porat
Member
8 months 8 days ago

Articles like these are why I love this site. Awesome blend of data and player commentary.

Reverg
Guest
Reverg
8 months 8 days ago

Joey Votto on Hitting>>>>Edgar Martinez on Hitting

Hall of fame post Eno!

David
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David
8 months 8 days ago

Maybe. Let’s see him do it for the next 8 years (Votto, not Sarris).

Moves Like Munenori
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Moves Like Munenori
8 months 8 days ago

Do what…comment on hitting?

RationalJoe
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RationalJoe
8 months 8 days ago

My only question is the use of the phrase “Young Old Player” (at least on the graph). What qualifies someone as a Young Old Player? Fantastic piece its great to hear a hitter’s insight.

Billy Beane
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Billy Beane
8 months 8 days ago

Well, of course he’s hitting better. Imagine what he’d look like in a pair of jeans right now.

Craig From Az
Guest
Craig From Az
8 months 8 days ago

Great to hear a player saying things like “the pitchers miss their target all the time.” It would have been even better to hear him say something like “and even when they miss, I don’t always hit it.”

One of my pet peeves is the comment you seem to always get from the TV announcer after a pitcher hangs a curve or throws a fastball right down the middle – which the batter hits for a home run – is “major league hitters won’t miss that pitch very often.” Which I think it patently untrue (would love to see some data on this). I’ve been watching Paul Goldschmidt all year (and he’s having a GREAT year) and he constantly misses fastballs right down the middle, or hanging curves. Sure, he hits them sometimes, but I’d bet he misses as many as he hits.

Hank G.
Member
Hank G.
8 months 7 days ago

One of my pet peeves is the comment you seem to always get from the TV announcer after a pitcher hangs a curve or throws a fastball right down the middle – which the batter hits for a home run – is “major league hitters won’t miss that pitch very often.” Which I think it patently untrue (would love to see some data on this).

I don’t think you have to look any further than the home run derby for verification. You have people who are trying throw fat pitches every time for some of the best home run hitters in the game, and yet they still make weak contact quite often.

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