Thinking Inside the Box

Maybe Votto IS Wrong about His Power

Last week, the question was asked in the comments whether we could, perhaps, expect a hitter of Joey Votto’s caliber to decline in a way that was different than the norm. I thought this was an interesting question, so I did some actual data entry. Data entry is boring, so I hope you appreciate me.

Because I was interested in power, I looked only at Isolated Power (ISO). Looking at WAR or wRC+ would account for elements of the game that have nothing to do with power. In order to find comparable players, I took a sample of all players whose age 24-28 seasons (peak years) had an ISO within 10 points of Joey Votto’s ISO in his age 24-28 seasons. As Joey Votto’s ISO for those years was .237, I am taking all players whose ISOs ranged from .227 to .247. I excluded currently active players who haven’t played a full year beyond their age-28 seasons as of yet. This yielded a sample of 49 players.

What I found was interesting. It was so interesting. I made a line graph. Here is that line graph.

Vertical Axis is ISO.  Horizontal Axis is age.

Vertical Axis is ISO. Horizontal Axis is age.

Neat, huh? Now let me talk about it.

There are two lines here. The blue line is all players from my sample. You will notice that it tracks closely with the red line until the players hit age-33, when it drops off sharply. This is because an alarming number of players in our sample are completely or nearly done by age-33.

We may want to assume that Votto will stay healthy enough to play. We can also assume that he has enough non-power skills to continue being playable (this was not true for everyone in our sample) at an advanced age. We may also want to assume that Votto isn’t going to take steroids like crazy. This is what the red line is for. I have labeled it healthy/fair. Mostly, it removes players who missed all of at least one season during the sampled age-range. It also removes Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa because their ISOs are serious outliers and unlikely to be duplicated by any players going forward.

The red line shows a much gentler decline. Here are the numbers in chart form, for your enjoyment.

24-28 29 30 31 32 33 34
All 0.236 0.235 0.219 0.219 0.208 0.178 0.157
Healthy/Fair 0.236 0.238 0.220 0.226 0.213 0.199 0.194

You’ll notice first, that there is basically no drop during the age-29 season. For this group of players, at least, the power decline didn’t start until age-30, where both groups had a plateau that lasted through the age-31 season when a steadier decline began.

All the players together, saw a total decline of 0.079 from their peak to age-34. The healthy/fair group saw a decline of 0.042 over the same span.

A sample of all major league players would expect a decline of around 0.030 by age-30 and 0.060 by age-34. Both of our groups see a milder decline at age-30, but whether the mild decline continues is heavily dependent on the continued health of the player.

So what can we conclude? While acknowledging that this is a small sample, it does seem to indicate that Votto’s power may stick a bit longer than he expects it to. Further, if he stays generally healthy, we can expect his power to age at a gentler rate than the general population.

I do want to note, that when looking at WAR, Votto does quite well in this group. It is also true that those who were out of baseball by age-34 tended to produce WAR at a much lower level than Votto has to this point in his career. Still, there is need for caution. Injuries often happen to ballplayer in his 30s, and a player can go from great to done in a blink (see Bagwell, Jeff).

Stat of the Week:

Isolated Power (ISO) is derived by subtracting batting average from slugging percentage. This “isolates” the power aspect of slugging and prevents it from being buoyed or depressed by unusually high or low batting averages. Effectively, it tell you how many extra bases (bases beyond first) a hitter gets per at bat. It is an excellent measure of a player’s true power.

38 thoughts on “Maybe Votto IS Wrong about His Power

  1. Two graphs in the last month. You guys make my loins burn.

    Out of curiosity (even though I realize it would be selecting a small sample from a small sample), did any of the group have knee injuries in their careers? If so, how does their ISO shift relative to their knee injury years and after? Is there a cliff of despair?

  2. In the game recap thread, there seems to be two schools of thought on Votto. One is that he gets paid to get on base/not make outs. The other says that as the team’s best ‘hitter’ he gets paid to drive in runs.

    John Smoltz alluded to this debate in the broadcast last night, saying (paraphrasing here) that while the walks are nice, all walks are not created equal. Working an 0-2 count into a walk is masterful, but coaxing one from a 2-1 or 3-1 count isn’t as impressive, and that some would prefer he look to do more damage in favorable counts.

    Thoughts?

    • I don’t have strong feelings about this (except that I trust Votto to know what’s best for him to do), but the 0-2 count that he worked into a walk last night was a thing of beauty. None of the following four pitches was remotely hittable, so swinging at any of them would have resulted (at best) in a foul ball or more likely in an out (either by strikeout, pop-up, etc.). Any other player on the team would have made an out in the situation by swinging.

      • Hmm, BP followed him the same way, starting out 0 and 2, but finished with a single. In other words, the same situation occurred, instead BP actually hit the ball and got a hit. Bottom line is simple. As of right now, Votto is a SHELL of his old self. He has no power anymore, and he swings late on balls on the inner half of the plate, just fighting them off to ultimately coax the base on balls. Votto is a mess, and is no longer even the best hitter on the team; at least right now.

        • I don’t think the bottom line is anywhere near that simple. Right now Joey Votto has a wRC+ of 154. That is far and away the best on the team if you don’t count Mes’ 2 week sample. In 2011 he finished the season at 156. He’s doing some things better now than he was then (working counts, getting on base) and some things not as well (hitting HR’s) but the net result is about the same. And it’s easy to see that he’s not even really on top of his game at this exact moment. He’ll get dialed in and when he does I expect big numbers form him this year. He may not hit 30 HR’s, but I’d bet his wRC+ is up over 170 again. People can discount advanced stats if they want, but the fact of the matter is that over 162 games that number is a lot more meaningful than one AB in one specific game.It is the definition of production,and Votto will without a shred of doubt lead this team in that production again this year.

        • Advancing 90ft is advancing 90ft. Drawing a walk is a sustainable skill… a skill BP tends to lack. (Votto career: 15% Walk rate; BP: 5.7%– League Avg- 8%)

          So if BP gets some sort of bonus points for putting bat on ball to make 90ft, what happens to the other times when he could have drawn a walk but swung away and K’d? Or GIDP?

          Yes, with a runner on base, a times a single can advance the runner further, etc, but at face value, just getting to first, one way is not better than another. And, BB’s never produce an out, whereas looking for the hit based on the pitches given can.

        • Great link, Wade. And what’s even misleading about that… they ranked the players by greatest difference from last year to this year so you don’t see him at the top, but Votto has the longest distance of ALL players on the list right now.

          I’ll take that process and trust results will come aplenty.

        • I agree Matt. People complain so much about Joey, it is insane. If we had one more like him in the lineup it would be huge. He is by far the best hitter on the team.

        • That’s what I don’t get about the people knocking Votto’s BB’s…It’s not like they’ve come with an increase in K’s looking. His K% is at the lowest of his career right now at 17.1%. League average is 20.5%. So Votto’s approach not only gets him on base more than anyone else in baseball, it also cuts down on his K’s. Any change to that approach that would involve swinging at more balls out of the strike zone, regardless of the game situation, can only possibly lead to more outs and more K’s. For every added hit he might get swinging at those balls, he’s likely to make 5 more outs. It just doesn’t make any mathematical sense no matter how you look at it. If pitchers are going to throw him balls, he has no choice but to take them and accept the BB. Doing anything else would be the definition of bad hitting.

        • I would assume that a lot of the folks that don’t fully appreciate Votto’s skill set also don’t fully appreciate the mathematical side of it either.

        • Wade… if people don’t like the math, let’s do it this way: Let’s play Strat-O-Matic baseball. I get 9 Joey Vottos, they get 9 BP’s. Let’s put $500 on the best of 7 series. :)

        • The thing about all of it that is somewhat confusing to me is why pitchers throw him so many balls. He has shown two things pretty clearly over the past 2 years: He has a better sense of the strike zone than any other hitter in the game, and he can’t really hit for power like he used to. Yet for some reason pitchers still approach him like he’s Pujols in his prime, nipping at the corners where they know he’s not going to chase. I’d think you’d at least see some more guys challenging him – not that he wouldn’t still punish them (I’d expect his BA to take a big leap) but at least you give yourself a chance and he’s probably going to keep it in the park. If I were opposing managers I’d at least try it for a while until he proved to me he was too much of a power hitting threat still.

        • Oh and since we’re all just playing with numbers in this thread, what woudl the run diff be in Matt’s fake game? Well Joey has 25 wRC this year in 32 games, Brandon has 14 in 31. So that’s .78 wRC/game for Votto, .45 for Phillips. 9 Vottos: 7 runs. 9 Phillips: 4 runs. The Fighting Vottos take it 7-4. It’d be a fun game to watch – think of all the defensive highlights.

        • Eric – I don’t think Votto has shown he cant’ hit for power. Certainly, his power numbers were down last year as he continued his recovery. However, there is not nearly enough information this year to say where his power is AND his power numbers rebounded at the end of last year.

        • Jason – I just said he’s shown he can’t hit for power like he used to. His ISO numbers have been on a steady decline since his MVP season. He’s unlikely to ever put up 30+ HR’s again in my opinion. If he started getting a steady diet of strikes I’d expect his BA to jump up in the .330+ range, but his overall OBP would probably come down if he wasn’t pitched so carefully. Just curious why so many pitchers try to make him chase at stuff off the plate when he clearly won’t. My only guess is that he just frustrates guys so much by spoiling good pitches that they don’t know what else to do. That’s the other thing that would probably happen if you just started feeding him strikes – his AB’s would last a half hour.

    • My thoughts are that it doesn’t matter how hard something is to do. No batter should swing at a pitch unless he has a reasonable expectation of a good result from swinging. If it’s 2-1 and Votto sees two pitches he can’t do anything with, well, what else is he supposed to do but jog on down to first.

    • I’m with Jason there… if coaxing a walk from a 2-1 or 3-1 count isn’t “impressive” to Smoltz… what exactly is Votto supposed to do with the pitch that would be ball 3 or 4 that is out of the strike zone? Not that all “balls” are un-hittable of course, but they usually are harder to make solid contact on. So sometimes the only “damage” is a weak grounder.

  3. Great stuff. These posts keep getting better and better. I’ve never learned more about baseball than I have from this site over the past few years.

    Funny we were just having a conversation about ISO in the recap thread regarding Phillips.

  4. The problems with JV thinking or even expecting his power to decline is that it becomes self-fulfilling.

    Love Votto and Love what he does for this team. Last night had a lot of moments where the team could have won it.

  5. Thanks for looking at this, Jason. Is ISO park/era adjusted in any way (or was your sample only from “modern” times? Because you may find a larger sample if you look at ISO as a percentage of the league average, or standard deviation, or some other math thingy.

    For example, Votto’s 2012 ISO of .230 is compared to an NL average of .146 – 158% of average.

    In 1968, the NL average ISO was merely .098. Willie McCovey’s ISO of .252 was 257% the league average. But a guy like Tony Perez (.149 ISO) is – compared to the league – a better comp for Votto.

    In any event, I think this supports my point: Votto doesn’t (necessarily*) need to see himself as on a steep power decline – and therefore happy with a walk. He should, absent other considerations, continue his Ted Williams style approach: Wait for a good pitch and drive it.

    * Only Votto knows what his knee truly allows.

    • Nope. No adjustments. This was (relatively) quick and dirty. The sample was heavily tilted toward modern players, but overall seemed to span eras in a reasonable fashion.

      Sadly, I just don’t have the time right now to devote to league adjustments and whatnot. That kind of thing might come in the summer, but we’ll see.

  6. I’m sure I haven’t thought this through, but wouldn’t OB% + ISO be a better indicator of a players performance then OPS (OB% + Slugg%)?

    • I’d think it would give you pretty much the same results relatively across all players, just a lower number so a different scale. If the point of ISO is to eliminate BA from the equation then adding it to a stat that relies on BA kind of defeats the purpose, so I’d think it would just be more math without much clarity added.

      At least that’s my gut reaction…

  7. To walk or not to walk, that is the question.
    Joey comes up to bat with Billy Hamilton on first. First pitch to Votto and Billy steals 2′nd. Now would you rather have Joey walk and Billy remain at 2′nd or would you like to have Joey hit a shot to the outfield potentially scoring Hamilton from 2′nd?
    Yes a walk or a single gets Joey to first, (same 90 feet) but how that effects the outcome of the other base runners is a different story.
    I love the fact that Joey knows how to work the count for a walk but sometimes I’d rather see him get the hit. I know he is at the mercy of the pitcher actually throwing a pitch he can get the bat on so we’re back to the same question.

    • I agree with this to some extent, though I’m still not 100% sure how to articulate my thoughts. I’ll try…

      Advanced metrics don’t seem to take into account that not all at bats are created equally. In 4 at bats, the batter may have 4 different “jobs” to do. Leading off the game…the job is to get on base. Votto’s approach is perfect. The situation you describe…if it’s in the 8th inning with 0 outs and the Reds trailing by one (like they usually do), his job isn’t simply to get on base. It should be to move Hamilton to third base at all costs, so Hamilton’s speed can have a greater impact on the game (score on a wild pitch, score on a ground ball out, etc.).

      If Votto hit a grounder to 2B and got thrown out at first, but Hamilton moved to third, the advanced stats would view that as less productive than taking a walk, even though it likely dramatically increased the probability that Hamilton would score to tie up the game (especially with this offense). So how do we account for that?

      It would be as if somebody said a quarterback’s completion percentage was the most important thing in football. Few would argue until it’s 2-minute drill time and you’ve gotta move the team down the field (a totally different “job” than earlier in the game).

      • If Votto hit a grounder to 2B and got thrown out at first, but Hamilton moved to third, the advanced stats would view that as less productive than taking a walk, even though it likely dramatically increased the probability that Hamilton would score to tie up the game (especially with this offense).

        Even in your “tie game” scenario, the chances of scoring one run are only a very slight bit better with the runner on 3rd: 67.4% vs 64.3%. (Based on 1993-2010 run expectancy tables).

        And you’ve VERY significantly reduced your chances of scoring the go-ahead run. With one out and a runner on 3rd, a team scores an average of 0.893 runs. With zero outs and runners on 1st and 2nd, a team scores an average of 1.409. (Those are 2013 numbers, but they’re remarkably consistent over time.

        In almost every single situation you can name, getting on base (even by walk) is more valuable than the most “productive” out.

    • Of COURSE everyone would rather see Votto get a hit in the situation you describe. 100% of people all the time would prefer that. But what is he supposed to do if the pitcher isn’t throwing him hittable pitches? What people with this criticism seem to not get is that Joey isn’t TRYING to get walks. He’s trying to not make OUTS. Pitchers throw Joey a lot of stuff off the plate because he’s very good at spoiling good pitches in the zone by fouling them off. With most normal hitters, you can keep using the zone and guys will eventually roll over on a strike or pop it up and if not you can get them to chase something off the plate. Votto doesn’t do that. He forces you to throw quality strikes in the zone where he can hit them. Most pitchers aren’t willing to do that, so they throw him balls. And he doesn’t swing at balls because pitches out of the zone are much harder to get hits off of and swinging at them leads to more strikeouts. Would you rather he get a walk or strikeout? Of course that’s a silly question, but it’s exactly as silly of a question as the one you’ve posed.

      In the situation you describe, the pitcher is actually going to be even LESS likely to throw Votto anything hittable and I would want him being even MORE patient at the plate. The odds of the AB leading to a walk with that approach are very high. The odds of him getting a hit off of bad pitches out of the zone are very low. And this, to Shawn’s point, is why advanced metrics don’t care about game situation. It’s nothing the player can control and statistically over a large enough sample size guys perform the same across all game situations.

      • Eric, I think you missed my point a bit.

        My point wasn’t that I’d prefer to see Votto get a hit vs. a walk in the situation describe above. All things being equal, I think everybody would prefer hits to walks.

        My point is that the advanced metrics essentially reduce players to robots: We remove all applicable in-game factors (situation, score, abilities of teammates, etc.) and expect a player to perform in line with what they’ve done over thousands of at bats. By nature, it’s backwards-facing: we use the past to predict what will happen in the future. (It is worth pointing out that I’m a huge fan of advanced metrics.)

        Sports isn’t simply about repeating things you’ve done in the past hundreds of times. It’s about adjusting your approach to the situation in order to produce results. We see this happen in other sports all the time (i.e., basketball players take more 3-point attempts in late-game situations in which their teams trail, quarterbacks take more risks when running the two-minute drill down by 7, hockey teams pull their goalies when time is running out and they’re down by a goal, etc.). All of these go against advanced metrics, but they occur at a time in which advanced metrics simply don’t matter as much (i.e., sticking to the more “productive” plays like 2-point attempts near the basket or short passes to the flats will not allow you to WIN). Your comments seem to suggest baseball players should NEVER change their approach, regardless of what’s happening around them. The advanced metrics certainly confirm that Votto swinging at pitches out of the zone is a lower-percentage proposition than taking a walk, but it also might the team’s only real chance to win the game (especially considering the players currently hitting behind Votto). Which would you prefer?

        • It sounds like your problem is with statistics, period. Old school stats do exactly what you’re saying as well. No doubt that using statistics changes every conversation, not just baseball analysis. I think you’re taking two things you don’t like (a) advanced metrics and (b) people ignoring the romance of baseball, and blaming one for the other. Even in your own descriptions that you seem to think are divorced from numbers, they really aren’t. When you say a “quarterback takes more risks when running a two minute drill” how can you know that without counting the risks and comparing them?

          Person one: Votto stinks. Person two: No, he’s just been unlucky, look at his BABIP. Which of those two people is treating the player more robotically?

          If sports is about “adjusting your approach to the situation” wouldn’t it be great if we had stats to determine whether players were doing that or not? Well, that’s what a bunch of the detailed advance metrics do, even more reliably than our own eyes can tell us. My post on Todd Frazier is an example of that.

        • I would prefer Joey Votto never swings at pitches with high probability of leading to outs or swinging strikes when he could take them as balls. 100% of the time. I don’t understand what you’re suggesting Votto do differently in these “high leverage” situations. His strikeout rate is the lowest of his career so he’s not just leaving the bat on his shoulder. He swings at a league average number of balls in the strike zone (around 65%) and well BELOW the league average in balls outside of the strike zone (18%). That right there is really all you need to know about why Votto is one of the best hitters in baseball. So what you’re suggesting is he swings at MORE balls outside of the strike zone based on game situations. For every extra run that might produce it will produce MANY more strikes and outs. You’d bring his swing rate on balls out of the zone close to league average which would, very predictably, bring Joey Votto the hitter closer to league average. Is that really what you want?

          Baseball is a very different game than basketball and football. First of all, there’s a clock in those games so yeah, there’s something outside of the players’ control that forces them to do things they might not otherwise want to do. The only clock in baseball is 27 outs. You can do whatever you want until you’ve given up your 27 outs. There is no reason for Joey to do anything except what he is very good at in any of his AB’s. His value is in his pitch recognition. If you ask him to compromise that because there’s a RISP then you basically turn him into Brandon Phillips – not bad, but a perfectly average hitter and then we’re still talking about whether he deserves $200 million.

          Baseball is also different in that the sample size for individual plays is SO massive, especially over a player’s career, that it’s the only sport where advanced metrics can be concretely applied to actual results. It’s why a stat like wRC is useful – it’s based on thousands of AB’s and has been shown to predict future performance very accurately. Statisticians don’t reduce ballplayers to robots, massive amounts of data make ballplayers more or less predictable. It’s not wishful thinking, it’s just math. It is what it is and time and time again it’s shown to be right.

        • The advanced metrics certainly confirm that Votto swinging at pitches out of the zone is a lower-percentage proposition than taking a walk, but it also might the team’s only real chance to win the game (especially considering the players currently hitting behind Votto). Which would you prefer?

          Why do you assume that Votto doesn’t do this? He most assuredly does, and it’s reflected – guess where? In the stats.

    • You’ve hit on the key – the pitcher gets a say in this.

      It’s what drove me nuts about Adam Dunn’s critics: “I’d rather he walk 25 fewer times and hit 25 fewer doubles.” Well, yeah.

      But those walks come for a reason — the pitcher threw four balls outside the strike zone. If Joey Votto was taking a bunch of third strikes, I’d listen to the griping. But until then, I’ll focus my energy on willing Brandon Phillips to stop swinging at balls in the dirt.

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