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!
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:
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:
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:
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.)
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:
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:
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:
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.
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.