Joey Votto is Perfect

Breaking down Joey Votto’s career as a hitter

[Edit: This post was written by John Hay, loyal member of the Nation. It’s his second post at Redleg Nation, with the first being Why Votto Shouldn’t Expand the Zone. 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. Great work, John! – SPM]

After my first post, it was suggested that an area for additional research and analysis was whether Joey Votto has changed as a hitter and whether the change had been gradual or sudden as a result of his injury. In this article, we will analyze a number of Votto’s stats over the arc of his career, to see if we can gain any insight into those questions. Unless indicated otherwise, stats were obtained from FanGraphs.

First to define the years being considered. Votto only played in 24 games in his first year in 2007, so we will not bother looking at it. *In 2012, he was hurt on June 29 and missed several weeks, for the few weeks after he returned we can all agree he wasn’t the same hitter. So our 2012 data will come exclusively from the pre-injury period.

Votto’s Raw Power

The first thing we will analyze are the broad measures of power. Table 1 shows Votto’s basic stats for 2008 through 2013:

Table 1:

5ISO is isolated power and is simply slugging average minus batting average. In other words, it is the number of extra bases per at bat.

Looking at Table 1 a few things stand out. One is the pre-injury portion of Votto’s 2012 season. If he had not been injured and continued at his pre-injury pace, it would easily have been the best offensive season of his career. Another thing we notice is that the number of home runs he hit in 2010 is significantly higher than any other season in his career. Even his 2012 season was only on pace to match his 2011 season. The other thing that stands out is the relative lack of power in 2013. He still hit 24 home runs, but his ISO was the lowest of his career.

Votto’s Pitch Selectiveness and 2-strike Counts

One criticism of Votto that has been heard is that he has started taking more pitches, causing him to pass up pitches that he could have hit solidly, and also getting himself into more two-strike counts, where he needs to protect the plate and thus does not have as much power. First, lets look at the question of whether he is actually taking more pitches. Table 2 shows Votto’s swing rates and 2-strike counts for the six seasons.

Table 2:

7O-Swing % is the percent of the time he swings at pitches out of the strike zone. Z-Swing% is the percentage of times he swings at pitches in the zone. The data for 2-strike counts is from MLB.com.

From Table 2, we can see that since 2010, Joey Votto has been decreasing the number of swing he takes, especially out of the zone. Votto’s overall swing percentage in 2013 was similar to pre-injury 2012, although he did swing at a higher percentage in the zone.

Is this lower overall swing rate having the effect critics believe it does. Lets look at the two-strike question first. From Table 2 we see that though Votto is swinging at fewer pitches, it is not making a significant difference in the number of two-strike counts he finds himself in.

The question concerning whether Votto is passing up hittable pitches is more difficult (and maybe impossible) to answer. Let’s start by looking at the following heatmap from BrooksBaseball.net. It shows Votto’s slugging percentage for his career on batted balls in each of 9 areas of the strike zone and areas outside the strike zone.

Heatmap 1: 

1

Heatmap 1 shows Votto’s best area for hitting is the middle of the plate at the bottom of the strike zone followed by the heart of the strike zone and then the lower inside portion of the strike zone. Is he swinging at fewer pitches in these areas? Lets compare his swing rates in 2010 and 2013.

Heatmap 2A: Percentage Swings/Pitch 2010

2

Heatmap 2B: Percentage Swings/Pitch 2013

3

Comparing 2010 with 2013, Votto swung at fewer pitches in 2013, even in his hot zones. Those that say he is passing up hittable pitches might have an argument, but notice in his hot zones, there was no drop bigger than 6 percentage points, while his swing rate on pitches below the strike zone decreased at least 9.99 percentage points in every area. We can’t know for sure, but his decrease on swings in his hot zone may be a side effect of trying to lay off pitches outside the zone.

Votto’s Batted Ball Profile

A hitters batted ball profile — the percentage of line drives, ground balls and fly balls — can tell a lot about how he is doing. Let’s look at Votto’s batted ball profile to see what has changed over his career. Table 3 shows his line drive, ground ball, and fly ball percentage for each season.

Table 3: 

8

Fly balls generally result in more home runs, but also more outs. Line drives generally result in more hits, but less power. Ground balls generally result in more hits than fly balls, but considerably fewer than line drives. Also, the vast majority of hits on ground balls are singles. Looking at the data in Table 3 along with his overall stat lines in Table 1, we see a couple of unusual things.

In 2013, despite hitting more line drives than in 2009 or 2010 and fewer fly balls than in either of those years, his batting average is lower than in either season. Using the PITCHf/x search tool at BaseballSavant.com we find that in 2013, 37.2 percent of his line drives were outs. For his career, 27.2 percent of his line drives resulted in outs. That comparison indicates 2013 might have been an unlucky year for Votto and he wasn’t rewarded for hits off his line drives at nearly the rate he had in the rest of his career. Or he might have been hitting more soft line drives because of his injury. Or some combination of those factors. If Votto’s hit-rate on line drives in 2013 had matched his career rate, his slash line for 2013 would have been .329/.455/.501 (AVG/OBP/SLG). His ISO would have been .172.

Table 3 also gives us insight into the key to Votto’s great first half in 2012. Looking at the batted ball profile, we see that he had the highest line drive percentage of his career.  On top of that his line drives were going for doubles 32.3% of the time. This compares to a career percentage of 18.9%. (BaseballSavant)  Votto was on pace for 70 doubles in 2012, which would have broken the all-time single season record of 67.

Votto’s Home Run Numbers

The second thing that stands out from the data is that Joey Votto hit significantly more home runs in 2010 than in any other season despite his fly ball rate not being extraordinarily high. Let’s look at what percentage of his fly balls went for home runs over his career and also how far he is hitting the ball (baseballheatmaps.com).

Table 4:

9

We see in Table 4 that the percentage of fly balls going for home runs in 2010 is a serious outlier from the rest of Joey Votto’s career. Playing the “what if” game again, if his HR/FB ratio in 2010 matched his career ratio of 18.6 percent he would have hit 9 fewer home runs. If we replace 9 of his home runs with fly ball outs, then his 2010 slash line becomes .307/.410/.534, extremely similar to his 2011 slash line of .309/.416/.531.

So, why did his fly balls become home runs at such a much higher rate in 2010? In 2010, Votto hit the ball much farther than he did before or has done since. In fact, his 2010 distance of 318 ft is almost as far from his career average of 305 feet than is his post-injury 2012 distance of 287 feet. So, the higher HR/FB ratio in 2010 can be explained by better distance, but there is no explanation for the enhanced distance.

In regards to Votto’s lower power in 2013, we notice in Table 4 that his distance in 2013 was the same as it was in 2011 and his HR/FB ratio was almost identical in the two seasons. So why was his isolated power so much lower? The first hint is in the batted ball profile. His ground ball percentage went up in 2013 and since ground ball hits are usually singles, they reduce ISO. The second reason was the number of fly balls that went for doubles. For his career 11.7% of Votto’s fly balls have resulted in doubles. In 2013 this percentage was 4.9%. (Stats from BaseballSavant).  Once again, we don’t know if this is just bad luck or a symptom of something else.

The Changing Offensive Environment

It’s worth remembering that Joey Votto is not immune to significant changes and trends in Major League Baseball. Over the period in question, 2008 to 2013, the major league batting average has fallen from .264 to .253, slugging has declined from .416 to .396, ISO has fallen from .152 to .143 and the strikeout rate has risen from 17.5 to 19.9. Those are extremely large changes in a short period of time.

The suggested causes for these trends are: greater deployment of defensive shifts, more advanced data on hitter weaknesses, soaring fastball velocity and bullpen specialization. These trends continue in 2014. Any analysis of the arc of Votto’s career in terms of hitting, must account for the fact that run prevention is increasingly winning over run production in general.

Conclusion

The purpose of this post is to provide several levels of data that would allow us to offer theories about whether and how Joey Votto has become a different hitter from the start of his career in 2008. The data allows a few tentative conclusions.

First, Votto has gradually been reducing the number of pitches he has swung at, especially out of the strike zone. This trend began after his MVP season in 2010 and included the pre-injury part of 2012. Given the data, especially from the first half of 2012, it does not appear that Votto’s patient approach is the result of his injury or what is causing his power decline.

Votto did experience a significant drop in power in 2013. This was the result of two factors. He hit more ground balls. And he had worse results on line drives and fly balls. Given this all happened in the same season, it is reasonable to think his injury the year before may have had a lingering effect on this, though we can’t be certain.

Finally, fans tend to isolate his 2013 season and ask where did the power go? But it would be just as reasonable to look at his 2010 season and ask where did all those home runs come from or look at 2012 and ask about all those doubles.

20 thoughts on “Breaking down Joey Votto’s career as a hitter

  1. Very interesting article. The key for Votto and getting his numbers is health I believe. The back of baseball cards do not lie. He’s on pace for a HOF career but he must stay healthy and swing more to get the numbers to get in.

    • Why must he swing more? His swing rate pre-injury 2012 was the lowest of his career, and if he had continued at the same pace for the full season, it would easily have been the best offensive season of his career.

  2. he gets in too many 2 strike protection counts I feel which really limit is power output. I love Votto and his approach but at the end of his career the HOF voters may use it against him.

  3. Votto is a fine offensive player. The only problem I have right now is he’s hitting in the wrong spot; he should be hitting 2nd, not 3rd. It may sound odd to criticize the lineup construction since the runs have been coming in bunches recently, but I still say this:

    CF Hamilton
    1B Votto
    3B Frazier
    RF Bruce
    C/LF Mesoraco/Ludwick
    C/LF Mesoraco/Ludwick
    2B Phillips
    SS Cozart

    Would be the absolute ideal lineup for the Reds.

    Since Votto doesn’t like to swing, let him use his abilities to provide a patient at bat for Hamilton to get on 2nd or possibly third, let Votto take his walk, and Frazier and Bruce will come up with a runner in scoring position at worse and in sacrifice fly position at best.

    Votto is not an offensive catalyst, but he’s an extremely useful piece if he’s put in position to maximize the tools he has.

    • I agree w this line-up. Of course it will never happen since BP would never be put down in the 7 hole!!!!!! I like Votto in the 2-hole!!!!!!

    • this is absolutely the best spot for Votto. not only does it help Hamilton with V taking pitches but it will help V to also get fastballs to tee off of. Of course if Hamilton steals second and they intentionally walk Votto then they have to deal with sir Todd. I would imagine that opposing teams would hate it.

    • Votto doesn’t like to swing? What sort of nonsense is that?

      Here’s what the man has said himself:

      “I swung at too many pitches in the strike zone last year. I would like to swing less in the strike zone. And the reason why is so that I’m not just kind of good in a bunch of different areas. I want to be really good in very specific parts of the strike zone. So, instead of me practicing hitting singles you know up-and-in, low-and-away and MAYBE getting a double, I want to take swings that result in extra base hits or home runs every single time I swing. I want to know that I’m going to put a barrel on a ball, I want to know that when I face Clayton Kershaw in the 8th inning and he throws a ball in specific part of the strike zone that I’m going to put a barrel on it and give us a good chance of making contact and helping the team out. I think not wasting swings helps me be better and will help us play better as a team.”

      As for Votto’s drop in power last year, that was a product not of any lingering problem with the miniscus, but the time lost in the off-season resting the knee and allowing it to get healthy. No workouts, no strengthening of the legs and the core left him hitting too much with his upper body until August.

      Now an unrelated injury has sapped power once again–although we don’t know how much. We can reasonably expect Votto to return to his power numbers once he is healthy and has time in the off-season to get ready for the rigors of a long baseball season.

      All this talk of permanent diminished power is just that–talk.

      • Another of the many things I love about Votto is that he’s so quotable. He makes great points and doesn’t just give shallow answers. The guy knows exactly what he wants to do up there, not just “See the ball, hit the ball” tropes.

      • Great article and analysis by Mr. Hay. But it isn’t just the power that has been lost, it is his Tony Gwynn-like eye at the plate that needs a comeback. And it looks like Votto has that back almost.
        In 2008, Votto had 3 months hitting below .300. (.281, .257, .261)
        In 2009, Votto had 1 month hitting below .300. (.220)
        In 2010, Votto had 0 months hitting below .300.
        In 2011, Votto had 3 months hitting below .300. (.291, .297, .236)
        In 2012, Votto had 2 months hitting below .300. (.289, .281)
        In Sept. 2012, Votto hit .316.
        In 2013, Votto had 5 months hitting below .300. (Apr-.291, May-.388,
        Jun-.297, Jul-.287, Aug-.275, Sept-.281)
        In 2014, Votto has 2 of 3 months hitting below .300.
        (Apr-.280, May-.209, Jun-.319).
        Since his knee injury, Votto has played in 10 months. There have been 7 months below .300 and 3 months above .300. Votto had the worst month of his career in May 2014. In June he is bouncing back nicely. He is having the best month batting average-wise, with the exception of May 2013, since he came back from his knee injury. That is something to look forward to.

        • Good points, too bad nobody on this site will pay any attention since you use such an archaic stat as BA only Price and DatDude care about that.

      • Richard, that quote basically confirms what I said. Votto will only swing when he gets very specific pitches in very specific parts of the strike zone; otherwise, he’s not going to swing.

        Considering that his overall swing rate has dropped 7% since his MVP season, I think it’s fair to say that, compared to that year, he doesn’t like to swing as much.

        • No, it most certainly does not confirm what you said. What Votto said is that he’s uninterested in swinging at marginal pitches that have little payoff. He wants to swing only at pitches that will result in a quality AB. He wants to eliminate wasted swings. This is what Ted Williams did. It’s what Barry Bonds did. It’s what Joe Morgan did.

          That’s a far cry from saying he simply doesn’t want to swing. Frankly, your assertion is ludicrous.

        • And, again, how often is he going to get these very very specific pitches to hit?

          If he doesn’t get them, he won’t swing.

          Can you argue that he isn’t swinging less now than he was in 2010? No, because the stats clearly show he is swiging 7% less. He is swinging less at pitches in the the zone and outside the zone.

          Therefore, he doesn’t like to swing as much as he used to. The statistics tell you everything.

  4. Wow. Another great post, filled with information and clear analysis. Thank you for taking the time to put this together.

    Regarding Votto, my conclusion is that he’s an extremely intelligent baseball player who was having a season for the ages in 2012 before his injury. (My memory from that season is filled with doubles blasted into the left centerfield gap.) He’s been sapped of some of his power (and speed, such as it was) by injury and is still adjusting to that fact; the difference between “good” and “great” JV results going forward will be the interplay between his health and his adjustments. But there is no reason to change his approach at the plate, as this post shows. If the three guys hitting behind JV do a decent job, this is a team with a lot of offensive potential.

  5. I’ve always felt that Joey’s HR numbers in 2010 was an anomaly. I pictured Joey as more of a doubles machine than a HR hitter (He was on pace to hit 70 doubles in 2012). The HR numbers in 2010 really surprised me. I figured during his prime years he was good for around 25 HR and 40+ doubles with a batting average over .320 and 100+ BB (Those kind of number should give him an OPS well over .900). Since his injury, it seems to me the doubles he has produced have been where any loss of power is showing up. The 24 HR he hit in 2013 is within expectations, but only 30 doubles in 581 AB was worrisome. Hopefully, when his leg is fully healthy, he will continue driving the ball to the gaps.

    • I think that’s a good way to look at it. The data John presents here points to 2010 being an anomaly in terms of home runs. Even in pre-injury 2012, it didn’t look like he was going to repeat the home run part.

  6. Only 2 people hit more than 40 home runs last year and only 5 hit more than 35. Home runs are down all over the league. 25 is the new 35.

    • Yeah, it’s hard to get out of the late Bonds-era home run chase mindset sometimes. You see 30 home runs and you go “Not bad” when in fact you should be very impressed in today’s pitcher-dominated league. Speaking of 30+ HR, how about that Reds third baseman?

  7. Here is some additional data that you may find interesting. L/SO is strikeouts looking, S/SO is strikeouts swinging, and L/SO% is percentage of strikeouts that are looking. I can understand not swinging at marginal strikes with less than 2 strikes, but taking a 3rd strike is obviously taking the approach too far. Last year’s 45 L/SO was more than 50% higher than his previous high of 29, and he appears to be on a similar pace this year, and with the highest 2 L/SO% by a wide margin. Is this irrelevant, an acceptable negative consequence, or something else?

    Year  L/SO S/SO L/SO%
    2008 24 78 23.50%
    2009 28 78 26.40%
    2010 29 96 23.20%
    2011 22 107 17.10%
    2012 19 66 22.40%
    2013 44 94 31.90%
    2014 15 27 35.70%

    Please excuse the table if it is inappropriate or crude.

    • This is interesting. On first thought, it seems obvious that you would not want your hitter looking at strike three. But then, if you think about it, if the overall strikeout rate doesn’t change, does it really matter? His overall strikeout rates are as follows:

      Year K%
      2008 17.3%
      2009 19.5%
      2010 19.3%
      2011 17.9%
      2012 17.9%
      2013 19.0%
      2014 17.9%

      If he is not swinging on strike three, he apparently thinks the pitch is going to be a ball, and in fact pitchf/x says 25 of the 44 strike threes that he took last year were out of the strike zone. We saw in my previous article that he doesn’t hit nearly as well on pitches out of the zone. So it might make sense to try to take a ball and hope for better pitches or a walk.

      I don’t really know the answer, I am just saying that more looking strikeouts may not be as bad a thing as it would first seem.

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