[Edit: This post was written by John Hay, loyal member of Redleg Nation. John grew up in eastern Kentucky during the Big Red Machine era. Johnny Bench was his favorite player. He now lives in Owensboro and is a math teacher. - SPM]
We hear it all the time that “Joey Votto is too passive” and “he needs to expand the zone with runners on base.” This is said despite the fact that Joey Votto was the fifth best hitter in MLB last year by wRC+ and eighth best by OPS.
Joey Votto does swing at fewer pitches outside the strike zone than anyone currently in the game. Since 2000, 140 players have career O-Swing% less than 20 percent, which was Votto’s rate. So while his rate is the best of any active player, it’s not historically low. [O-Swing% is simply the percentage of pitches outside the strike zone the batter swings at.]
Is Joey Votto simply too passive? Let’s go back to the data. In 2013, of the 40 players with the lowest O-Swing%, only Dan Uggla swung at a higher percentage of pitches in the strike zone than Votto did. So it is not really fair to call Votto passive, as much as choosy. He doesn’t swing at pitches outside the zone and he swings at many pitches that are strikes.
Does Votto take too many strikes? Of the 493 pitches that were called strikes on Votto last year, a whopping 41.8% of them were actually outside the strike zone according to PITCHf/x. Votto also struck out swinging 77 times. In 48 of these the third strike was outside the zone. He only had a third strike swinging 29 times on pitches in the zone despite swinging more than twice as often at pitches in the zone.
What would happen if Votto did expand the zone? That is an impossible “what if” to answer with certainty, but we can look at what has happened in the past when Votto has swung at pitches outside the zone. I looked at Votto’s 2013 season and collected the data from Baseball Savant.
Here is a summary of the results:
|Pitches in Zone||Pitches out of Zone|
|Number of Swings||775||356|
|% of swings for hits||19||9.5|
|% of swings for singles||12.1||7.0|
|% of swings for doubles||3.2||1.4|
|% of swings for HRs||2.8||0.6|
|% of swings for sac flies||0.5||0.5|
|% of swings for strikes||13.4||29.8|
|% of swings hit for outs||23.6||20.8|
|% of swings for foul balls||43.1||38.8|
|Line Drive %||31.2||28.6|
|Fly Ball %||23.4||20.5|
|Ground Ball %||44.8||50|
So while many people think Votto should expand the zone under the assumption that he would get more hits and RBI, it looks like the extra hits would be dwarfed by the extra strikes and ground ball double plays. We also need to remember that the pitches swung at in this study are pitches that either Votto thought he could do something with or felt the need to fight off. If he were to “expand the zone” even further, it would not be unreasonable to expect those numbers to be even worse.
I cannot say with certainty that having Votto expand the zone would be a bad idea, but I have seen enough data to be happy that he is not trying it.