Fridays Above Replacement

Neutralizing Joey Votto

If you are reading this, you’re either a Reds fan or a National League Central advanced scout who has been tantalized by the title of the article.  I’ll make the assumption you are a Reds fan.  Since you are a Reds fan you’ve likely noticed Joey Votto has looked somewhat less like Joey Votto than the Joey Votto we’ve grown accustomed to looking at over the last several years.  Why is that?  To the analysis!!

The analysis landscape during the month of April is always fraught with landmines.  Sample sizes, stabilization points, and good old-fashioned variance run amok with our (my?) beloved statistics, spreadsheets, and databases.

So then why am I doing analysis?  Well, my eyes noticed something that appears to be backed up by our early season data.  Also, I gave my word I’d write something every Friday!  This qualifies as “something,” I hope.

What I’ve noticed, along with many other Reds fans I’m sure, is that Votto is being pitched inside quite often.  More often than I ever remember.  But, memories have a way of being selective, so I decided to let Brooks Baseball act as my brain’s proxy.

I’d like to first show you the heat map representing every pitch Votto has ever seen.  It represents something like 19,656 pitches.  That’s a lot of pitches; certainly enough to paint a vivid, reliable picture of how pitchers have attacked Votto over his career.  Behold!

chart1_TotalPitches_2007to2016

The picture painted here should likely not be a surprise to anyone.  Votto, like many lefties, has been pounded down-and-away for most of his career.  More than 23% of all pitches Votto has ever seen have come in those three remote, bright red squares.

I also desired to paint my own picture (using MS Paint!), so I’ve highlighted ten squares with a lovely blue hue.  From now until the end of this column, when I refer to “inside pitches” or simply “inside,” I’ll be referring to these 10 boxes.  Please notice that three of the boxes make up the inner-third of the strike zone.

Ok, so now that you have the above graphic burnt into your mind, please take a look at the following graphic showing the pitches Votto has seen this season only:

chart2_TotalPitches_2016only

There is an awful lot of red, fuchsia, magenta, purple, plum, amaranth, and rose on that inner part of the plate.  This represents a fairly large shift in strategy aimed at combating our favorite first baseman.  Unless you like hugs, in which case Freddie Freeman might be your favorite first baseman.  At any rate, let’s see how much of a difference this pitching strategy is when compared to all of Votto’s seasons from 2009 to now:

chart3_inside_pitch_percent

Before 2016, Votto had not even seen a 30% inside pitch rate.  He was very close the last 2 seasons, but stayed just under.  In 2016, he’s more than half-way from 30% to 40%.  In terms of percent-difference from Votto’s career average inside pitch rate, he’s seeing nearly 28% more pitches on the inside of the plate.

Generally, a shift in strategy like this is due to something pitchers, pitching coaches, or scouts have noticed about a player, either on the field or in the data.  It could be as mundane as “Well, Votto kills us when leave stuff low over the plate, and he won’t swing at pitches down and away, so let’s bust him inside! Yeah! Good work! Let’s do lunch” or it could be something more insidious like “We’ve noticed Votto swinging at fewer pitches inside and we’ve also noticed his production has decreased on inside pitches.  He must be tipping us off that he can’t handle those pitches anymore.”  We know Votto is no longer young and often bat speed and other physical skills related to hitting begin to decrease as a player ages, making it harder to turn on an inside pitch and hit it with authority.

However, Votto understands aging extremely well. He knows his body and his swing, his strengths and his weaknesses.  Sometimes you don’t need to turn on inside pitches.  Here’s a quote from the linked article by FanGraphs writer Eno Sarris:

“I’m still willing to hit the inside pitch to the middle of the field,” said the Canadian slugger. “The key is how close I can get that barrel to my body. Part of that is choking up. If I shorten my 34-inch bat to 31 inches by choking up, all of a sudden the barrel is three inches closer to my body. The second part is… I don’t know if I’m steep as much as I’m willing to keep my elbows tight as I swing, and I’m willing to pull my hands in as close as possible as I swing. That majorly zaps power, but for me I have a chance to put the ball in play, I have a chance to hit the ball to the left part of second base in the air, and there’s only one fielder over there, and I have the power to hit the ball over the shortstop’s head.”

So this quote shows that Votto understands his approach to dealing with inside pitches zaps his power.  Can we find evidence of that?  Sure.  Consider the following chart:

chart4_slugging_inside

Votto’s career SLG currently sits at .530.  He has not exceeded that level on inside pitches since his 2010 MVP season.  He hasn’t slugged above .380 on inside pitches since 2013.  If we take Votto’s quote above at face value, we can assume Votto understands this interaction between his approach and inside pitches and has determined that this is the correct way to maximize his production given his current physical tool set. At this point I think he’s earned our trust on this topic.

But, if Votto has lessened production on inside pitches, we’d expect him to probably swing less often at inside pitches, right?  Well, sort of.  The following chart shows Votto’s swing rate on inside pitches, as well as his “adjusted total swing rate.”  I adjusted the measure because 7 of the 10 squares on the inside part of the plate are actually out of the strike zone, so we’d certainly expect fewer swings since most of this sample topology is represented by areas out of the strike zone.  So, for “Adj Total Swing%,” I simply used the following: 0.7*oSwing% + 0.3*zSwing%.   This should give us a meaningful comparison. (Note: oSwing% is the percent of pitches a batter swings at that are out of the zone, and zSwing% is the percent of pitches a batter swings at that are in the zone.)

chart5_insideSwingRates

Before 2015, Votto actually swung more often at inside pitches than at pitches crossing the plate elsewhere.  From 2015 until now, Votto has shifted that approach and is swinging less often.  This is not all that surprising when you consider the closing Votto quote from Sarris’ most recent Votto interview:

“What else can he do with pitches inside? ‘I can take them,’ Votto said with a wry smile.”

So we have Votto on record here stating he thinks not swinging at inside pitches is a valid strategy for combating pitchers busting him inside.

The interesting thing about this quote is the timing.  Votto said this in March.  His swing rate on inside pitches is higher in 2016 than in 2015.  So, if Votto has the “take the inside pitch” strategy in his repertoire, he’s yet to utilize it.

Perhaps he’s simply implemented a slightly different take on that strategy, though.   You’ll have to take my next statement with a grain of salt because I don’t have foul ball data or swing strength data, but it appears to me that Votto is attempting to foul off pitches on the inner part of the plate at a very high rate, rather than trying to shoot them to left field or rather than simply taking the pitches.  Consider the following chart showing Votto’s swing and miss percentage (Whiff%) on inside pitches:

chart6_whiff%

Votto is making career-best contact on inside pitches so far this year.  Seems like that should be a good thing, right?  Well, if Votto is taking defensive swings and attempting to foul pitches off, rather than driving them (as I, anecdotally, think he’s doing) then the shorter, more controlled swing leading to the better contact might only be prolonging his at-bats or causing weaker contact.  Prolonging at-bats can be good if it ends up with a hittable pitch or a walk, but Votto has also been walking less so far this year.

In the same interview with Sarris, published during spring training this year, he talked about inside pitches with Votto and how he handled them in 2015.  I’ll paraphrase a bit here. Votto basically said at the beginning of last year, he tried to pull inside pitches because he thought he could get some cheap home runs with that method.  “It was a mistake,” said Votto.  During the time frame he was attempting to pull the ball in the air for cheap homers, he ended up rolling over everything resulting in a large amount of ground balls to the right side.  Here are the heat maps Sarris pulled for his article, showing Votto’s hit placement in the first half and the 2nd half:

chart7_2015heatmaps

As you can see, there are many roll-over grounders to the right side on both maps, but that’s largely unavoidable because baseball is hard.  Also notice, like Votto mentioned, he was able to begin shooting the ball over the shortstop’s head into left and left-center field.  This was his plan to combat being pitched inside and he executed it quite well in his historic 2nd half of 2015.

Now, let’s fast-forward to 2016.  He’s seeing even more pitches inside this year, so is he keeping with what worked last year and trying to shoot the ball to left and left-center field?  Not really.  Or, perhaps he is trying, but it’s not working.  Here is a heat map and hit map for inside pitches so far in 2016:

hit_heat_map_2016

He’s spraying balls around the outfield just fine, with most of those being line drives, but he doesn’t really have a pronounced bias towards his left-center field target.

The next chart is a little easier to decipher and to understand just how much Votto’s been pulling inside pitches.

hit_map_inside_2016

If you drew a line straight from home through 2nd base and out to the center field fence, you’d have 5 balls to the left, 2 balls right on the line, and at least 15 to the pull side.

So what is the point of all this?  Pitchers are pitching Votto inside more than ever and are having success.  Votto, ever a tactician, is attempting to adjust to this assault, given the realities of his age and the seeming disappearance of the ability to hit inside pitching for power.

Should we worry?

I say no.  It’s still early, and Joey Votto is still Joey Votto.  His peripherals are all pretty decent.  He’s making contact around his career averages, he’s not swinging at more pitches out of the strike zone, and he’s hitting the ball hard at a career-best rate, thus far.

Perhaps the only small thing to worry about is what Votto has said in relation to what Votto appears to be doing. Votto stated it was a mistake trying to pull inside pitches for cheap homers.  He said he should shoot them to left field, rather.  He also said he could just take the pitches, hinting at his ‘zapped’ power on inside pitches.   So far in 2016, Votto isn’t following any of his own advice.

Maybe he’s attempting a next-level con; sacrificing a month of plate appearances to lull opposing pitchers into a false sense of security before they hear the full fury of the Ferrari’s melodious V8 bearing down on them.

One thing I know: You can’t really neutralize Joey Votto in the long run.  Opposing pitchers might be able to run a gambit like this on him for a while, but sooner or later, the most cerebral hitter in baseball will get his Ferrari tuned up and take it out for a spin and we’ll all wonder why we worried in the first place.

All heat maps and hit maps are courtesy of BaseballSavant.  All zone profile charts are courtesy of Brooks Baseball.  All quotes from Votto are courtesy of Eno Sarris and FanGraphs.  Most stats are courtesy of FanGraphs. All bad puns are courtesy of your author.

21 thoughts on “Neutralizing Joey Votto

  1. “Maybe he’s attempting a next-level con; sacrificing a month of plate appearances to lull opposing pitchers into a false sense of security before they hear the full fury of the Ferrari’s melodious V8 bearing down on them.”

    I like the con angle!

    I generally think that Votto will get it going. The only troubling thing that I see are those awkward check swings, which are becoming common-place on a nightly basis. It might be his “foul it off” approach, but his is coming up empty a lot, or putting it into play weakly.

  2. No statistical analysis here, just the unreliable old eye test, but I see an additional difference that I suspect has contributed to reduced effectiveness the first month of this season. Votto has never been strongly prone to chasing the first pitch (or even the second) but that seems to have dropped to just about nil this year. He’s letting the get-ahead fastball go by for strike one and starts most at-bats behind in the count. I’ll be curious to see if he adjusts by offering more at early pitches and, hopefully, driving them all over the park. In any case I am firmly in the “Votto will be better than fine” camp.

    • That’s interesting, because in listening to the radio call, I know Marty and Brantley have often observed that he seems to be swinging at the first pitch much more often than has been his style.

      I’m not sure if I am reading his split chart correctly on baseball-reference, but it looks like he’s swung at the first pitch 12 times in 90 PA’s so far. Last year was 69 times out of 695 PA’s, for about 9%… so he’s actually a little bit up from last year if I’m even reading that right.

    • Votto’s first pitch swing rate is currently 32.2%, which is actually lower than his career average of 32.5%. However, he hasn’t been above his career average since 2010.

      • Well that shows you the value of the eye test. I’ve only seen perhaps half his at bats so I’ll claim that I’ve missed a disproportionate number of the swing-at-the-first-pitch at bats. Yeah, that’s the ticket. Nice to see him 2 for 3 so far tonight with a walk. That’s more like the Votto we love.

  3. Thanks for the update.

    Two questions stand out:

    (1) Have opposing managers found (or changed) shift strategy when Joey is at the plate? If you are directing the pitchers to pitch inside, in the expectation of more groundouts/short flies to the right side (heat map notwithstanding), wouldn’t it make sense to augment that instruction by deploying an appropriate shift?

    (2) Joey’s position as third in the order. Cozart has excelled, when playing, at the leadoff, but Suarez at the two slot has cooled a bit and most of the production is coming from lower spots in the order (4-7). In other words, is Joey exposed by having less protection ahead of him in the lineup? (Haven’t the time/skill necessary to analyze the stats, but from the mk.1 eyeball, I have the impression that Joey’s numbers improve with men on base ahead of him….motivation or protection?)

    And, of course, all of these things – pitch location, shift deployment, protection effects work interactively.

    Still optimistic about him ultimately figuring it out – analytically, he’s probably as close to Ted Williams as anything the modern era has produced.

  4. Great read!

    The suprising thing to me is how often Votto was getting locked up/fooled when pitchers busted him inside these first few weeks. Still not sure he’s fully adjusted. I don’t think it’s cheap to occasionally look for an inside fastball with the sole purpose to drive it to the pull side. The term I’d use would be ambush. Opposing hitters have had A LOT of success against our pitchers employing that same tactic. Used sparingly, it gives the scouts something more to think about and makes it more difficult to game plan.

  5. Votto is Votto….he’s like the Steve Jobs of hitting but I just don’t see him hitting the ball out of the park with 2 strikes unless the conditions are perfect with how much he’s choking up now? I think the garbage time HR he hit vs the Cubs was on a 3-1 if I’m not mistaken? He’ll figure it out though like he always does….he’s an unconventional guy which is always interesting to me!

  6. Has Votto’s batted ball profile become more predictable?

    Votto against the shift: .167
    Votto with no shift: .344

    Votto with runners on base:.313
    Votto with bases empty: .149

    Seems like the key is to get runners on base for Votto so they can’t shift. And it also seems like if Joey hits the ball in the air it will be between center field and left center. If he hits it on the ground it will be somewhere between the second base bag and the hole between the first and second baseman. So the obvious shift would be to put your shortstop in that hole and shift your right and center fielders over towards left.

    Also interesting is the Reds as a team are getting killed by the shift. Coming into yesterday the were 13th in baseball in wRC with no shift and 29th in wRC against the shift.

    • That was essentially the point I was attempting to make. Thanks for clarifying it and supplying some hard numbers.

      What I -think- I’ve been seeing against Votto is:
      — first baseman playing closer to bag, protecting the foul line.
      — second baseman shifting two-three steps closer to first and deeper than norm
      — Right fielder playing just a shade closer in.
      (I know that’s something different from what you’ve described……)

      If Joey is sacrificing power and choking up more against the inside pitch, and timing ever so slightly off, a lot of balls that would normally hit the right side gap or chop-hit into the outfield are now going to find gloves. A lot of line drives getting stuffed by the first or second baseman for example…….

      • Thanks for the eyewitness data. I work second shift so I don’t get to see much of the night games.

        What’s interesting to me is what you said about the right fielder playing in. When Joey hits a deep fly ball, it’s usually to left or center. So the right fielder playing in could take away some line drive singles without having to worry too much about the ball being hit over his head.

        Slightly off topic: I am pretty excited about Jesse Winker after seeing him in person for 3 games last year because of his batted ball profile. I saw him bang a ringing double off the left center wall that looked like vintage Joey Votto and I also saw him rip a double just inside the right field foul line. But I also saw him hit 2 or 3 hard ground balls to the left side. It’s an extremely small sample size of 3 games, but in watching some video I saw him hit a hard ground ball between third and short for a walk off single in one of the Bats games this year.

        Being able to occasionally hit hard ground balls to the left side as a lefty makes you very tough to shift against. Votto rarely does it, but it seems like Winker has this skill. I’m not saying Winker will be the next Votto; I don’t think he has nearly as much power as peak Votto and while Winker will walk, he won’t put up the gaudy walk numbers like Joey does. But I could see him being something like a .300/.380/ .460 guy with possibly a batting crown in his best years.

        • Nice notes about Winker there. I’m also unresponsibly excited about him coming to Cincy soon.

    • Maybe it hasn’t become more predicable, I just think people have finally realized Joey has pretty much always pulled the ball when it ends up on the ground.

      He’s been shifted 25 times this year already and was only shifted 111 times all of last year.

      • Yeah, Joey has never really hit ground balls to the left side. I talked about this in regards to Jesse Winker in my post above.
        But there’s something else going on here:

        Votto avg on ground balls in 2016: .143
        Career average on ground balls : .226

        Votto avg. on fly balls in 2016 : .200
        Votto career average on fly balls: .364

        So, yeah his average on ground balls is down. But his average on fly balls is down even more. That’s partly a lack of homers. But it’s also a lack of deep fly ball doubles. Almost half.of his career doubles have been classified as fly balls as opposed to line drives.

        Outfield positioning may be hurting Votto even more. I still believe that while Votto is known for his oppo power, when he’s going well he can take the pitches on the inside half of the plate and hammer them to right or right center.

        • I wouldn’t worry too much about batting averages with a sample size of 20 or so, since he’s still striking the ball very well.

  7. Jerry use to change his stance according to the pitcher, the way a certain pitcher was pitching him, what part of the diamond he wanted to go. He was probably the most valuable utility player in the game. He finished in the low 20s in the NL MVP in 1961, a pennant winning year for the Reds, probably the highest ever for non-regular, excluding relief pitchers. I know Votto has adjusted his place in the batters box to the front in order to hit a late breaking, off-speed pitch but I’m not sure stances.

  8. Great analysis. Love the charts. One thing I noticed from the chart (#2 from Brooks baseball) with pitches seen by Votto this year, not only are the opposing pitchers working him in, but also low below the strike zone more. Pitchers aren’t giving him much up in the strike zone so far this year. When opposing pitchers miss, they are missing low on Votto a lot. Unlike most Reds pitchers who have been living in the upper two thirds of the strike zone, when they hit the strike zone, opposing pitchers aren’t giving Votto the same consideration.

  9. Great article, just caught it! Baseball, the ultimate game of “adjustments”! Its a chess match out there on the diamond in every aspect of the game for sure.Maybe Mr. Votto should consider standing further off of the plate and ditch choking up thus creating a wider contact/hitting zone over the plate. Choking up for a hitter is supposed to produce more contact but as we have all witnessed, Votto’s strikeouts continue to soar! Just sayin!!

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