Joey Votto on Hitting

Joey Votto wasn’t always Joey Votto. Not only is his mother happy about that fact — it would have made for quite a delivery — but his journey from the 44th pick in the 2002 draft to the hitter he is today covers a lot of ground. Talk to him about pulling the ball, infield fly balls, swing planes, and batted ball distance and you quickly understand that this is a man that studies and understands his craft. Learning his story from him can help us understand baseball better.

“I was a big pull hitter in high school, but when I tried to do that in Midwest League, I failed,” he said when we talked about hitting. He’s remembering it right, too — his .231/.348/.287 line in that league was very un-Votto-ian even if the walks were there. But since then he’s changed his approach in order to use the entire ballpark.

“The ability to spread the ball all over the field prevents shifting,” he said, and with his current approach, Votto thinks he’s “a tough guy to defend.” Specifically, Votto thought that the shift (and avoiding it) might be part of the reason why his .359 batting average on balls in play leads all hitters with with more than 2000 plate appearances since 2008.

That’s something we can check. The average BABIP for the top 10% of pull hitters (minimum 100 balls in play) was .273 in 2012. The top 10% of opposite-field hitters? They had a .308 BABIP. Already, without checking the handedness of the batter, we have some evidence that the opposite-field approach helps balls fall into play. But lefties are shifted more often. Now the effect is even more stark — the top 10% lefty pull hitters had a .274 BABIP and the top 10% lefty oppo hitters had a .312 BABIP. And there’s Joey Votto, the lefty with the third-highest opposite field percentage in baseball last year.

But it’s not just where he hits it. “I hit the ball hard,” said Votto. That understatement belies a kernel of truth: going opposite field means something different for Joey Votto than it does for the guy ahead of him on the list — Skip Schumaker.

The league had an isolated slugging percentage of .151 last season. Let’s take all the batters with an ISO above .150 as our sample. These guys ‘hit the ball hard’ even if not quite as hard as the Reds’ first baseman. Now the effect is even more stark. The top 10% power pull hitters had a .263 BABIP, and the top 10% power oppo guys had a .325 BABIP, and that was mirrored among the (now small-sample) power lefties (.268 pull/.315 oppo). Perhaps it’s not only about the exaggerated shifts that we think of with Mark Teixeira and David Ortiz — maybe it’s just that defenders have less ground to cover against pull hitters in general, and any amount of defensive positioning can have an effect on the hitters’ BABIP.

Most BABIP estimators have a component that uses batted ball mix. The thinking might be that more ground balls turn into hits than fly balls (.238 batting average vs .223), but maybe there’s more to it than that. “I learned my swing plane in rookie ball,” Votto said, once again referencing that bad stint in the short league, and agreeing that his new approach allowed him to cover more of the plate. The levelness of his bat through the zone is absolutely related to his pull vs. opposite field approach, he agreed, so it’s hard to separate these out.

But in the major leagues, Votto has always been an opposite field guy, it’s just a question of degree. “The year I won the most valuable player, I hit quite a few home runs, and I had a good swing plane, but last year was really my best,” Votto pointed out. Perhaps a look at two random swings from those two years will help us understand better what this means?

On the left is an early June swing at home in 2010. On the right is an early June (pre-injury) swing at home in 2012.

Voto2010 Votto2012

It does look like Votto finishes higher and with more of a flourish on the left, doesn’t it? Votto knows his swing well.

Certain pitchers will still try to induce pop-ups from the player that has hit the fewest infield flies in baseball — Jeff Sullivan famously noted that there have been more perfect games than Votto infield flies since 2009 — but being level with his swing allows Votto to “cover up” whatever holes a pitcher might be trying to target. “It’s got to be the perfect sliver of the strike zone, up and in-ish, and I have to take the wrong swing, and I have to swing at it,” said Votto. (And, yes, he agreed that Matt Cain is good at it.)

The data once again supports Votto’s assertion. Jeff Zimmerman showed last year that for all hitters, high and inside is the spot for infield pop-ups. The difficulty is that, as he points out, 73% of pitches taken in those spots are called for strikes, so batters often have to swing. He looked at Buster Posey against Edwin Encarnacion — Votto’s infield fly in 2012 came after his injury and didn’t make for good comparison — and found that batters that keep up their back elbow find success. That back elbow is also related to how pull-happy your swing is.

We’ve talked about how level his swing is, and how pull-conscious he’s been. But how hard Votto swings is part of it, too. As he said above, he’s had better power years than he had before his injury last year, and yet he felt better about his swing last season than he ever had before. “I bet if you took my average home run distance my rookie year, it was probably a good ten or twenty feet further, maybe.” Last year, Votto’s fly balls and home runs averaged 300.8 feet, good for the bottom of the top 20 among qualified batters. In his MVP season, they averaged 316.7 feet, or third in baseball.

As you can see, Votto “took less risks” with his swing as he puts it. And his swinging strike rate, which used to be above average (10.4% in 2010), has plummeted the last two years (6.9% last season). “There’s less of a chance I miss the ball with this swing,” says Votto, once again backed by the numbers.

He knows there’s a tradeoff — more ground balls and line drives means fewer home runs. “I might only hit 25 or 30 home runs,” with this approach, Votto said, but that approach is also “the reason why I was going to walk 140 times,” and “the reason why I was going to hit .340 or .350 or whatever I was going to hit by the end of the year before I got hurt.” Has he ever felt pressure to hit more home runs? “Not when you lead the league in slugging,” laughed Votto. And obviously the Reds value his contributions whether he leads the league in home runs or not.

Is Votto worried about his legacy, or place among the greats in the game, if he doesn’t have the home run totals traditionally associated with Cooperstown first basemen? “I just want to be in the conversation for the best player in the game, and I’d like to be in that conversation as long as I can,” he said. “Even if my numbers don’t match up to Eddie Murray, a 3,000/500 guy, if I do this for an extended period of time, maybe you can compare someone to what Sandy Koufax or Pedro Martinez did — you know great, for a short period of time, but they didn’t have the 300 wins or 3,000 strikeouts or whatever. If I don’t catch any of those numbers, that’s alright, that’s okay.”

There came a time after his debut where Votto decided his approach wasn’t working. As he puts it, “I chose not to make outs any more.” He leveled his swing, chose to hit the ball to all parts of the field, focused on contact, patience, and line drives, and became one of the best hitters in baseball. This might not all be prescriptive, since not everyone has the combination of contact ability and power that he does, but it certainly worked for him. And the numbers — maybe not the home runs or RBI — have agreed with him every step of the way.



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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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AJT
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AJT
3 years 5 months ago

Great article, Votto really knows his stuff!

Oh, in this bit “Jeff Sullivan famously noted that there have been fewer perfect games than Votto infield flies since 2009”, shouldn’t it be “more” not fewer.

From Sullivan’s article: “Since 2009, there have been two (or three) more perfect games than Joey Votto pop-ups.”

libre
Member
Member
libre
3 years 5 months ago

Got it just before me >.<

libre
Member
Member
libre
3 years 5 months ago

Great piece, I love reading about Votto.

Think your factoid about the infield flies vs. perfect games is worded the wrong way around.

Babba
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Babba
3 years 5 months ago

Amazing interview. Seems to me like Votto is one of the few guys who understands why he is amazing. With his approach to the game, one could imagine that age wont really affect him as much as it would some other hitters. I can see him continue this type of hitting for a few more years…

jwise224
Member
3 years 5 months ago

Great piece, Eno! Really liked hearing from the player and then comparing that to the recorded data. Good GIF’s never hurt anyone, either.

Metsox
Member
Member
Metsox
3 years 5 months ago

That was FANTASTIC!

So impressed with Votto’s self awareness…..

Stormin' Norman
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Stormin' Norman
3 years 5 months ago

Eric Hosmer, meet your new batting coach!

cass
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cass
3 years 5 months ago

Great article combining player perspective and objective measurements. I’d like to see more like this.

marlins12
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marlins12
3 years 5 months ago

I’m probably nitpicking, but I don’t like gif comparisons like this. It doesn’t really tell us anything, imo. They’re about as relevant as Spring Training statistics.

Showing one gif from ’10 and one from ’12 is a ridiculously small sample. I’m not saying more should be found, but I don’t see the point of posting them. You could probably find one in ’10 when Votto had a perfect swing, as well. Doesn’t really tell us anything.

The pitch Matt Cain threw in 2010 was better than the pitch A.J. Burnett threw in 2012.

marlins12
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marlins12
3 years 5 months ago

With that said, Votto is a great hitter, and it’s nice to read what he has to say about his development as a hitter.

bampton
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bampton
3 years 5 months ago

Whatever kind of gif format this is is actually working on my iPad. Fantastic!

joser
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joser
3 years 5 months ago

Maybe Apple finally fixed their libraries / browser.

Carl
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Carl
3 years 5 months ago

I can’t get enough of Votto talking hitting. Great article!

ralph
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ralph
3 years 5 months ago

Eno, I think you should definitely dig deeper on this oppo stuff. The 2012 leaderbooard could be an interesting starting point for you given all the Cardinals up there: http://www.fangraphs.com/leaders.aspx?pos=all&stats=bat&lg=all&qual=10&type=1&season=2012&month=23&season1=2012&ind=0&team=28&rost=0&age=0&filter=&players=0

ralph
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ralph
3 years 5 months ago

Um, scratch that last part. I’d still be very interested in hearing about oppo stuff, but I somehow didn’t realize I was linking to the Cardinals leaderboard only. Tyler Greene and his current Astro-ness fooled me.

wilt
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wilt
3 years 5 months ago

Just to add to what was basically assumed but not stated directly about BABIP/swing plane– Votto has the highest LD% (24.7) from ’08-’12 min. 2000 PA

steex
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steex
3 years 5 months ago

This is a fantastic piece! Just out of question, when can we expect the companion NotGraphs piece titled “Hitting on Joey Votto” to be posted?

Givejonadollar
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Givejonadollar
3 years 5 months ago

Just a question, but how well will that type of swing play away from the hitting confines of Cincy? With this approach, how would Votto’s home run numbers look, say, if he was a Met?

Maybe 10 homers and 60 doubles? :) :)

jake
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jake
3 years 5 months ago

Prior to going on the disabled list last season Votto had 14 HRs and 36 2Bs in 86 games. At that point he was projected for the season to hit 25 HRs and 66 2Bs, one shy of the major league record of 67. While playing half his games in a ballpark with dimensions that should suppress doubles and elevate home runs. Joey Votto is crazy good.

Joel
Member
3 years 5 months ago

Surprisingly, he’s been a better hitter on the road (.329/.425/.556) than at home (.303/.405/.549) during his career. His HR-rate is higher at GABP, but his doubles rate is higher on the road. His road BABIP is 45 points higher, which could be due to the smaller outfield footprint of GABP. Given his swing, I think he’d regularly push 60 doubles in the right park.

Le Vagabond
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Le Vagabond
3 years 5 months ago

I’m going to go out on the edge as say I think this young man can be a useful hitter. I really hope the next pitcher who induces a pop up from him is an avid fangraphs reader and celebrates like its a perfect game.

CircleChange11
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CircleChange11
3 years 5 months ago

A couple things stand out to me …

1. You really have to look at swings on a frame-rate basis. Even slow motion moves too fast to see what’s really there (for most folks). Luckily there are many free programs that allow for this. I say this for players, dads, coaches, etc that wish to see what’s really going on with swings.

2. It’s kind of surprising that in 2013, we praising a professional for understanding his craft. In the age of video, high def, super super slow, analysis that can be done, either on PC, device, or tablet that more and more professionals don;t have this type of understanding.

Votto, AGonz, etc are guys that are the “new breed” of hitter mechanically, whether they know it or not. The age of “pull heavy” lefty are dwindling. Ted Williams may have “hit through the shift” successfully, but the days of the Thome’s, Howard’s, Dunn’s, etc hammering through the shift are limited (IMO).

That back elbow is also related to how pull-happy your swing is.

This needs further explanation/evidence.

There are three hitters that come to mind when thinking of Votto and swing path, AGonz, Pujols, Edgar … all three guys have more of a “flat on the bottom” c-path swing than the traditional “true c-path slugger”. It allows for more opposite field, fewer misses (barrel in zone longer), yet less flyballs/HR. For LHBs, this is literally the “way of the future”.

CircleChange11
Guest
CircleChange11
3 years 5 months ago

I don;t have time to do it now, but it would be interesting to use software to compare the “swing path” of Joey Votto and Josh Hamilton, particularly the “bottom of the swing”.

I selected these two batters because they both are LHBs, very talented, great mechanics, but have different “swings”.

Manic McReynolds
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Manic McReynolds
3 years 5 months ago

Have you ever watched any of the videos by Jaime Cevallos? He’s a coach/trainer who worked with Zobrist (among others) before he became a star.

Several of his videos used to be available on YouTube, but last I checked they were gone, perhaps because he’s contracted with a MLB team or other corporation. I’ll link his analysis of Babe Ruth’s swing at bottom. It talks about what you’re calling the “flat bottom,” I think. He also had a video breaking down Mauer and Mel Ott that was awesome, but I can’t find it anymore.

Cool stuff!

http://www.checkswing.com/video/babe-ruth-swing-analysis-by

Baltar
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Baltar
3 years 5 months ago

Great link! I hope everybody watches it.

Wil
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Wil
3 years 5 months ago

Not even a Reds fan and this is seriously one of my favorite articles of the last few weeks.

glib
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glib
3 years 5 months ago

Excellent article, interesting numbers about oppo hitters. I first saw it (but did not understand the implications), in Posey’s MVP season last year. High BABIP, high usage of Triple’s Alley.

Altman
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Altman
3 years 5 months ago

Now why didn’t I draft him in fantasy? Couldn’t have published this earlier?

-E

TroutKingFisher
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TroutKingFisher
3 years 5 months ago

It is truly beautiful to see a [top tier] power hitter intentionally level out his swing and sacrifice home runs for an increase in walks / batting average / success of the team. This article proves that Joey is a well spoken and very intelligent baseball player. Hopefully more players in the MLB can take notes for him.

radar
Guest
radar
3 years 4 months ago

I love the swing of Votto and his approach, really good article!!! Ted Williams always said that a slight uppercut was essential to having the best swing and Votto does have that in his swing. His swing gets the bat-head into the zone so that it travels in the strike zone more than that of a typical pull-hitter. He seems to lift the bat-head at the end of the swing rather than the beginning. Great interview! Imagine if guys like Josh Hamilton took this approach to their hitting technique. Eno, really good job! Now we understand that Votto is very likely to have a high BABIP because of his approach and technique and not luck.

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