We were talking about something unrelated, so when Joey Votto slipped this quote in, I laughed out loud. You?! Joey Votto? You did what? Listening back to it even made me giggle again.
“I tried to do a lot of pull hitting early in the season and it was an error,” he said, but my mind could barely comprehend in real time. “It was a mistake,” he admitted before I could point out that it was completely out of character.
So why did he try it? “It was me trying to hit more homers. I thought I’d get easy homers.” After the laughter came a sort of stunned silence. The idea that Votto, who has preached going up the middle to himself and the games’ biggest stars for as long as he’s been great, tried to pull a few cheapies into the seats last year was a bit stunning.
But it’s clear he was right. Last May, Votto had the highest pull percentage on balls in play since 2010 started. Look at the blue bar.
It wasn’t about being rusty. Even though he admitted that it sometimes took a bit to get his ‘A’ swing back, and that “I’ve noticed in the past that it’s taken me until May and sometimes June to really get right,” that dot represents May 2015. Plus, we have his words that say he did it on purpose.
It’s an extreme thing that happened. Minimum 100 balls in play since 2013, Joe Mauer is number one in the percentage of his fly balls to the opposite field, and Joey Votto is number two. Flip it on it’s head and it’s the same thing: Joe Mauer has pulled 2.5% of his fly balls and Joey Votto has pulled 8.2% of his fly balls over his career. One day soon Christian Yelich will qualify in order to create a new definition of the Oppo Taco between the two veterans.
You can’t blame Votto for trying. Even one of his up the middle disciples, Bryce Harper, gained a great deal from pulling fly balls for power. Only seven stadiums are shorter down the right field line than Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati (325 feet).
It also seems like a reaction to the way pitchers have chosen to pitch him. When asked at the SABR Analytics panel how he would pitch Joey Votto, Dallas Braden immediately responded: “I’d crowd him.” Take a look at how the Reds lefty was pitched in 2007, and then how he was pitched last year.
So it wasn’t just a lark, even if Votto sort of framed it that way. There was a bit of a reaction to the pitchers in the attempt to pull.
But why didn’t it work? There’s a mechanical reason: “It just doesn’t work with my swing,” Votto said. Mostly because it’s very difficult to ‘aim’ the ball in play. “If I set my targets on center field, that’s a little different than actually executing to center. Often times I’ll set my targets on certain locations, and it never really works out, but it offers a lot of room for error.” Setting his sites on the right field fence didn’t work, and the swing wasn’t the safe one that Votto likes to use more often.
There’s also a numbers reason: those pulled balls were not fly balls. In May 2015, the month in which he pulled the most balls of his career in the thirty-foot vector starting at first base, Joey Votto pulled two fly balls. Two! He’s done that, or more, in nine other months since 2011 began. If you try pull the ball more for home runs and they all end up on the ground, it’s not working.
What ends up happening is that you become more susceptible to the shift. Votto saw a three-year high in shifts in 2015, probably due to that increase in pulled grounders. And so the first baseman will once again try something completely different — he told C. Trent Rosecrans that he’s working on bunting against the shift this spring. “It’s something I’m giving it a try, and now is the best time to try it. Until I get proven otherwise, I’m going to keep going with it,” he said to the Enquirer reporter.
Joey Votto is seeing more pitches on the inside, his swing is suited for low and away, and he’s trying to figure out what to do with those pitches in. Taking it over the shortstop’s head was one thing he found. Pulling the ball didn’t work, and he seems pessimistic about bunting (“It only matters if you execute, and we’ve been pretty inconsistent thus far,” he told Rosecrans).
What else can he do with pitches inside? “I can take them,” Votto said with a wry smile.
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