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Was Joey Votto’s Breakout Predictable?

This afternoon, Joey Votto is almost certainly going to be awarded the National League MVP for 2010. You can make a case for some other guys who also had great years, but Votto is certainly a deserving recipient. What is interesting to me is how quickly Votto has blown past the ceiling that was put on him as a prospect.

Votto is one of those guys who was always seen as a big league player, but never a premium guy. He was a second round pick in 2002, taken with the 44th overall selection in the draft. He moved one level at a time through the minors, never really dominating at any stop. He struggled severely in the Florida State League at age 21, hitting just .256/.330/.425 in a full season of A-ball.

He put himself on the map with strong performances in Double-A and Triple-A, but he still appeared destined to be a nice player with limited star potential. Twenty-three-year-old first baseman who have just 45 extra base hits and 110 strikeouts in their last stop in the minors generally aren’t perceived as future superstars. That was true of Votto as well, who ranked 43rd in Baseball America’s 2007 Top 100 and 44th in 2008. While his patience and opposite field power looked likely to allow him to hold down a job, there were no obvious signs that he would ever do anything like what he did this year. But after just this third full year in the big leagues, Votto is now one of the best hitters in the game.

He has shown significantly more power in the big leagues than he ever did as a prospect, and has managed to gain that added power without hurting his contact rates. How did he outperform his expectations so quickly?

I have a theory – and that’s really all it is at this point, as we don’t yet have good enough data to draw firm conclusions – that players whose power is primarily to the opposite field develop differently, and are viewed less favorably early in their careers, than players with obvious pull power.

Votto’s power is primarily to left field, where his career ISO is .382, is significantly higher than his ISO to either CF (.261) or RF (.294). His career wOBA on balls to the opposite field is a staggering .508. In that way, he’s comparable to Adrian Gonzalez, Joe Mauer, and Ryan Howard, all of whom drive balls out the opposite way with regularity.

Gonzalez took three organizations to develop, and like Votto, had some real struggles in the minors. Howard didn’t become a regular in the big leagues until age 25. Mauer didn’t see his power really come to fruition until age 26, even though the rest of his game was already mature. Looking back at the list of historical opposite field home run hitters from Jeremy Greenhouse, we find more late bloomers like Roberto Clemente, Julio Franco, and Jim Edmonds, among others.

With a guy like Adam Dunn, who has been showing off his prodigious power with moonshots to right field from his professional debut, there was never a question as to how well the power would translate in the big leagues. Dunn’s pull power was a developed skill from an early age that required no real scouting acumen to spot. Guys who hit a lot of opposite field home runs, however, don’t provide the same kind of eye-popping displays that draw attention.

If Votto was a dead pull hitter, his development path would be pretty odd. But there have been enough of these late-blooming opposite field mashers to come up through the years that we have to begin to question whether we’re giving it the proper amount of recognition as a predictive skill for future power development. Perhaps we should have been able to overlook Votto’s somewhat pedestrian minor league career (relative to other top shelf prospects, at least) and expect that he would become more than he was at the time. Guys with his skillset seem to continually outperform expectations, and so maybe it is time that we make an adjustment.