Earlier this week, Fangraphs took a deep look into Joey Votto’s hitting strategy and how it changes over the course of an at bat. Votto will choke up on the bat when he has two strikes. He does that to help make contact with the inside fastball.
How does this strategy affect Votto’s power and on base percentage?
When Joey Votto chokes up on the bat, he trades power for a higher on base percentage. He admits this much. That much isn’t surprising. Votto may not hit has many home runs with two strikes, but he becomes a tougher out. That raises another interesting question:
How does Votto’s two-strike production compare to other similar hitters who don’t choke up?
The inspiration for this article comes from Joe Posnanski’s “The Count of Counting Counts”. Posnanski’s article is a simple but clear breakdown regarding how batters fare based on the ball-strike count. Not surprisingly, the league hits much better in batter-friendly counts (3-0, 3-1) than in unfavorable ones (0-2, 1-2). Perhaps the most interesting finding from Posnanski’s breakdown was that hitters hit for roughly the same power in 0 and 1 strike counts, but their power almost disappears when they have 2 strikes on them. Using this finding, Posnanski argues the 1-1 pitch is the most important pitch in any at-bat.
None of this is unexpected; hitters hit better when they have the advantage and hit worse when pitchers have the advantage. And then I looked at Joey Votto’s splits.
Joey Votto with an 0-2 count: 9.3 BB%, .728 OPS, 99 wRC+.
You know that guy who plays on your company’s softball team that is so good that you need to change the rules or it would ruin it for everyone? That’s Joey Votto. In Major League Baseball.
Votto’s line with an 0-2 count essentially says that if you give every other hitter in major league baseball 3 strikes per at bat and Joey Votto only 1, he will perform as well as the rest of the league. This is not even the most impressive aspect of Votto’s line, though. Votto’s BB% starting at an 0-2 count (9.3%) is not just better than the 2015 Reds BB% (8.3%), but also much better than the league’s (7.6%).
To be clear: When Joey Votto gets to an 0-2 count, he is still more likely to work a walk than the average professional hitter.
Votto’s OPS starting at a 0-2 count (.728) is also higher than league average starting at an 0-0 count (.721).
One common critique of Votto’s approach is that he gives up too much power when he chokes up in 2-strike counts. And it is true that Votto hits fewer home runs in a two-strike count than he does with one or zero strikes on him:
|Count||Home Runs Hits (2015)||Home Runs Per At-Bat|
Note: the total number of at bats in each count are not equally distributed, so in order to calculate the denominator, each of the possible at bats per category were added. For example, for the zero strikes at bat, I took the number of at bats that ended after a 0-0 count, 1-0 count, 2-0 count, and 3-0 count and added them together. This was then cross checked in the BBRef splits page. The final breakdown was: zero strike (143 ABs); 1-strike (152), 2-strike (335).
Home runs are not the end-all when it comes to power numbers or player production. In order to examine Votto’s performance in 2-strike counts, I compared Votto’s performance in these counts to five other “superstar” players (based on either historical or 2015 performance) and a second-tier of players who are having ~5.0 WAR years.
Votto’s OPS is right behind Bryce Harper, who is having one of the greatest seasons in the history of the game. But Votto’s hitting approach, choking up, allows him to be one of the most dangerous hitters in the league with two strikes.
The second tier of players demonstrates the tradeoff between power and on base percentage: With two strikes, Todd Frazier continues to hit for decent power (0.151 ISO), but has an abysmal on base percentage (0.236). Buster Posey maintains a decent OBP (.305), but at the cost of virtually all his power (0.086 ISO). All of the second tier guys hit for far below league average production with two strikes, and if you continue down the list of top hitters much further, it just gets ugly.
For opposing pitchers, the message is clear: Joey Votto remains a dangerous hitter until he is out of the batters box. Should a pitcher be fortunate enough to reach an 0-2 count against the Reds first baseman, only then is the playing field level.