Joey Votto’s Very Un-Votto Like Start

Joey Votto is up to something.

One of the game’s most selective hitters — perhaps the game’s best at discerning balls from pitches he can damage over the last decade — is hacking in 2017.

Through the first week of the season, Votto’s zone-swing rate is 90.2%. For his career, however, it’s a much more modest mark of 68.5%. Last season, it was 68.6%. Votto’s out-of-zone swing rate rests at 28.1%, up from 20.8% last season. A graphic featuring the location of pitches against Votto confirms his more liberal approach.

So, what the hell is going on here?

Intrepid Cincinnati Enquirer reporter Zach Buchanan investigated and demanded answers.

“P Double-i P” read the shirt that Cincinnati Reds assistant hitting coach Tony Jaramillo wore around the clubhouse Monday at PNC Park. It was a gift from first baseman Joey Votto, and it translates to “Put it in Play.” …

So, is he doing it on purpose? Or is it just a small-sample aberration? Votto, exceedingly secretive when it comes to his plan at the plate, fouled those questions off.

“You’re asking me about my approach and my tactics,” Votto said. “That’s kind of personal. I wouldn’t want to share the specifics when that could benefit the opposition.”

Is Votto simply employing a tactic to go against scouting reports early in the season? Is he trying for a few April ambushes when last year’s data is what everyone has had all winter to evaluate? Is he — gasp — losing bat speed and/or visual acuity?

Did the 33-year-old believe he was too passive in the past, particularly due to his recent past? Votto hit .408 in the second half last year (yep, .408) to go along with a 1.158 OPS and 201 wRC+ mark. All the while, he was still passive (44.7% swing rate in the second second) but less passive than in the first half (42.7% swing rate) and in compared to his previous four seasons when he had fallen before a 40% swing rate. For someone so adept at swinging a bat, a large part of his skill has been restraint. That was especially true in the second half last year, in a year his overall swing rates were slightly up. He became more passive as the year went along.

Last summer, FanGraphs alumnus August Fagerstrom went deep on the most Votto of Votto-like games. But Votto has had some very un-Votto-like moments to begin the season. He began the season by swinging at every pitch in the strike zone — that’s 100% of them — in the first four games of the season. Over the last two seasons, he’s logged only 37 such games. And only twice before, each occurring last year, did he string such back-to-back games together.

In 2015, for example, Votto had 10 games where he swung at pitches out of the zone at a 50% frequency or greater rate. He’s already accomplished that five times in his first seven games this season.

Let’s take a look at the most un-Votto-like game thus far in 2017 — that being the April 6 home game against the Phillies. It was a game in which only two of the 14 pitches thrown to Votto were located in the strike zone, according to Statcast tracking, and yet Votto swung at seven of them. And Phillies starter Clay Buchholz wasn’t blowing away hitters with dominant stuff. Most of the offerings from Buchholz a pitcher trying to rebuild his value in Philadelphia, were under 90 mph.

Plate Appearance No. 1 (vs. Buchholz)

After taking a customary first-pitch ball, Votto seems to mis-diagnose a Buchholz changeup that he tips away foul.

The New Votto (?), this Temporary Votto (?), is not up here to watch pitches go by. And Votto concludes his first at-bat of the evening on the next pitch by failing to do maximum damage to a cutter elevated in the strike zone.

Plate Appearance No. 2 (vs. Buchholz)

Maybe this is a Votto that values RBIs. Maybe he’s tired of hearing about RBIs (he hasn’t reached 100 RBIs in a season since 20110). Maybe he’s up there to hack. With men on the corners and one out, he pounds this low-and-inside cutter into the turf that begins an inning-ending double-play.

Plate Appearance No. 3 (vs. Buchholz)

Votto rightly and justly jumps on an elevated fastball from Buchholz, who misses his location even as he tries to even the count. Votto line the pitch into center field for a single while giving Buchholz a startle on the mound in the process. One could argue — and some have — that Votto has let too many such pitches go by during his career.

Plate Appearance No. 4 (vs. Adam Morgan)

Votto faces Morgan, a lefty reliever, for his final at-bat of the day and Morgan begins the sequence with a sweeping slider that winds up well out of the zone. Nonetheless, Votto flails at the pitch looking like your typical lefty in a left-on-left-slider situation.

After taking a ball to even the count, Votto fights off another slider, this one in the zone, but looks uncomfortable in doing so.

With the count again even at 2-2, Morgan gets away with a mistake in elevating another slider in the zone, and Votto again fouls it off. What’s interesting is while Votto’s swing rate is up this season, so is zone contact rate at an Altuve-like 94%.

Morgan follows that up with another slider to end the sequence. This one finds its mark below the zone and Votto swings over the top of it for a strikeout. And with that strikeout Votto’s day was complete.

It was a strange game, a rare one from Votto, one in which he swung at just about everything. It’s April. It’s Week Two. We’re going to have to give this some time to learn more about just what Votto is thinking, just what secrets he is keeping from his. Or if this is a chapter that will be quickly forgotten. But his T-shirt and approach suggest he is up to something.

We hoped you liked reading Joey Votto’s Very Un-Votto Like Start by Travis Sawchik!

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A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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hp_vb4e
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hp_vb4e

if you’ll forgive my bothersome correction, as a local, i must tell you it’s the “Cincinnati Enquirer”, with an “E”. Thanks for your great work!

blibros
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blibros

Its clearly intentional. While the numbers may appear exaggerated now due to the small sample size, its just a continuation of what he started the last couple months of 2016. His Swing% generally ran a little under 40% over the past few seasons and was on a similar pace in 2016 until August. Over the final two months his rate surged to 47%. The trend was even accelerating with 49% in September. During this period he, not surprisingly, saw a pronounced decline in both his BB and K rates. What is surprising, and perhaps unsustainable, is that he was able to hit at the same or even better level despite becoming less selective. His SwK% was as good or better, same with ISO, etc. It helped that pitchers did not yet adjust and start throwing him fewer pitches in the zone, which we can probably expect to see this year. If Votto were able to sustain his results from the last 2 months of 2016 while retaining this more aggressive swing rate he could put up a monster season with more AB driving significantly higher HR and RBI. Whats more likely is that pitchers will adjust to his new approach and we will get something in between, perhaps a season that looks more like what Freeman did last year.