Fridays Above Replacement

Joey Votto’s Strikeouts

All astute baseball fans have noticed there is a big difference in Joey Votto’s game this year.  No, I’m not talking about his sub-.230 AVG or his sub-.360 OBP.  I’m talking, of course, about his strikeout rate (K%).

Votto has never had a K% at 20% or higher, with his career high being 19.5% in 2009.  As of the writing of this sentence, Votto is sporting a 26.3% K%.  This puts him in the same company as Khris Davis and Mark Reynolds.  Unless you’re talking about power on contact, a hitter of Votto’s caliber doesn’t want to be mentioned in the same sentence as those gentlemen.

Many might think the easiest-to-blame culprit would be swinging strike rate.  Whiffing at more pitches certainly correlates well to strikeouts.  So how that that look for Votto?

chart1

Votto’s at his highest rate since 2011, but not outlandishly so.  Furthermore, Votto’s current contact rate of 78.9% is almost identical to his career contact rate of 79.0%.  So, we can’t readily blame whiffs for Votto’s troubles thus far.

If you need 3 strikes to strike out and you aren’t whiffing more often, then you must be getting more unfavorable strike calls from the umpires, right?  Well, maybe.

The below chart is a strike zone visualization (from the catcher’s point of view) that shows the differential between the called strike rate (cStrike%) Votto has seen this year versus the cStrike% Votto saw in the aggregate of 2013 to 2015. The dark black box represents the rule book strike zone.

chart2

For this chart, a positive percentage indicates Votto is getting more called strikes in the zone in 2016 versus 2013-2015.  The very top-left square, for example, is just out of the strike zone high-and-away to the lefty Votto.  This year, that pitch has been called a strike 20% more often than in the 2013 to 2015 period.

As you can see, there is a strange thing going on with tons more strikes called high-and-away and a lot fewer strikes being called down-and-in.  I don’t know why this might be (likely umpire variance), but what is the net effect?

I won’t show the math for this because it’s a bit useless to view, but the net effect to the way umpires have been calling Votto this year is about 6 strikes.  That’s it.  Votto has been “unlucky” to the tune of 6 additional strike calls versus what he’d expect.  That could lead to no more than 6 additional strikeouts.  Best case scenario, if Votto gets those calls as balls rather than strikes on a 2-strike count, it lowers his K% from 26.3% to 23.6%.   And remember, that’s best case scenario.  If those 6 strikes occurred in PA that Votto didn’t K in, they had no effect on his K%.

Let’s keep looking.

The next chart shows contact rate differential between 2016 and the aggregate 2013-2015 period.

chart3

I’ve highlighted a box that could be said to represent the “middle-middle to middle-in” zones.  In this crucial zone, Votto has made significantly less contact this year than in his last 3 seasons.

We already talked about swinging strike rate, though, right?  So why am I bringing up contact again?   Well, because I want to!

If you think about the types of contact that occur in this middle-middle to middle-in zone, you are thinking line drives, homers, doubles, and generally good stuff. This is the heart of the zone!  A lot of the reason for Votto’s lowered offensive numbers this year almost certainly have to do with this particular contact issue.

Notice the area of red above the zone.  Votto is making a lot more contact on pitches just above the zone than ever before.  So, what kind of contact do we expect from those kinds of balls?  Fly balls, sometimes home runs, and a lot of foul balls.

So, here’s my assertion.  Votto’s strikeout issues are a combination of two main things.

First, the umpires are calling a zone that is slightly different than what Votto has grown accustomed to in the last 3 seasons.  This is likely causing him to take pitches he might normally swing at, or perhaps swing at pitches he might normally take.  Essentially, this has made him become more off-balance than we’re used to seeing.  Also, those 6 extra called strikes mentioned earlier might have led to an extra few strikeouts.

Second, even though Votto’s overall contact numbers are in line with his career averages, he’s making contact in different parts of the zone.  More contact on pitches out of the zone means more foul balls and more strikes.  Votto is putting himself into more unfavorable counts, meaning he doesn’t have to swing and miss more often to incur an increased K% as long as he’s making contact on 0- and 1-strike counts and saving the whiffs for 2-strike counts.

Is this correct?  Maybe.  There’s really no way to know for sure.  In the absence of perfect, sortable pitch-by-pitch data and a lot of time, I think it’s a solid theory given that the normal culprits of swinging strike rate and contact rate don’t seem to tell the whole story.

Regardless, an increased K% over two months is worrisome given that K% begins to stabilize rather quickly.  Based on the way Votto is approaching his at-bats, the way pitchers are pitching him, and the way umpires are calling him, this is Votto’s current reality; a 26% strikeout guy. He hasn’t been unlucky, and he probably isn’t physically declining.

This doesn’t mean he can’t make an adjustment and turn back into the 19% strikeout guy, though.  That’s the beauty of baseball.  Votto’s old “kill inside pitches” swing from 2010-2011 is likely still out there.  He might be able to find it again.  If he doesn’t get back there, however, the lessened amount of balls in play and walks will likely limit his ceiling to something closer to .280/.390/.480.  Still very good numbers, but not quite what we hope for from #19.

Data used for strike zone heat map creation courtesy of FanGraphs.

 

17 thoughts on “Joey Votto’s Strikeouts

  1. Here’s my sense. Votto decided before the year started that he wanted to be more cautious or protective about the middle-in strike, especially with two strikes. He took a defensive approach with two strikes, hoping to foul off that pitch or fight it to left. He’s been selective early in the count, as always, looking for,a,pitch to drive. But with two strikes pitchers have been pounding him inside and it turns out he’s not as quick or as good at recognizing the middle-in pitch, deciding if it’s a strike or a ball, and doing something productive with it if he thinks it’s a ball. The result – weak swing and miss for strike three. The good news is this is a result of a conscious decision on Joey’s part. So now I think he’s deciding it doesn’t work. I think we’re already seeing a changing approach. He’s less crouched and defensive with two strikes. He’s (a little) more aggressive earlier in the count. Most importantly he just looks more comfortable and less tentative. I think his K% for the latter two thirds of the season will be lower than for April and May. We may not see the same second half dominance we saw in 2015 but I’ll be very surprised if .220/.330/.440 from the first third of the year isn’t offset by something like .280/.400/.480 for June through September.

    • I tend to agree. His 2-strike approach has looked different (worse) this year than in the past. I suspect that might have something to do with how pitchers are pitching him this year.

  2. Thanks, Nick. This is what sophisticated analysis is all about. I’m impressed.

    Did you author the article on Frazier’s decline late last year?

  3. Great analysis. I’ve been wondering what is going on with him. It hasn’t looked like anything physical at all is wrong. Votto has seemed more frustrated at the plate this year than in any time I can remember. The umpires calling a little bit of a different zone on him will do that. Votto demands perfection from himself when at the plate. He’ll get it figured out soon enough. I hope.
    If only Votto had Reds pitchers to hit against. Belt high taters served up all day long.

    • Cookies! Get your cookies here! Cookies all day long!! Free cookies for the crushing! Get your cookies here!

      • Conversation from 1994:

        Manager: (Dryly) “You um, miss the take sign?”
        Me: “Come on skip. He threw me a 3-0 cookie, I had to crush it.”
        Manager: “Yeah, well the only reason you aren’t in trouble is now we’re tied at 3.” (Smiles)

        • I wonder how often that happens in the bigs. I can’t imagine a hitter taking a cookie if he’s a swing happy guy, Brandon Phillips, say.

  4. Really nice dig into the data. Thank you, Patrick.

    Three things have bothered me about Votto this year: (1) I see him choking up on the bat earlier in the count (often at 0-0 counts), (2) he chokes up even further than I remember (from 2 inches to what seems like 3-4 inches). Combine these with his obvious concern about defeating the shift, and I think he is undergoing a massive experiment at the plate…this seems to have led to the 3rd thing that’s bothered me — the increased K%. The experiment often has pretty ugly results, at least when measured against what we expect from Votto.

    I feel that Votto will complete his experiment and move forward with a new, more effective approach very soon, and perhaps it’s happened already. His offensive numbers have ticked up significantly the past week and a half. Whether this new approach puts him back into .900-1.000 OPS range by the end of the season, only time will tell.

    Great article!

    • I think it’s already happening. The last 15 games he’s hitting .293 with an OPs of 1.051. I still expect Votto’s OPS to get to .900 for the year before he’s done.

  5. I just hope Votto figures it out and makes the adjustment needed. Votto talked earlier of how everyone wants the Ferrari to start out fast. It’s not as much start out fast. But, when it seems like it’s still in the shop, it’s no better than any other car.

    The name of the game at the major league level for many, including the greatest, can they make the adjustments.

  6. I think Joey will always hit and have a high OBP for the length of his contract.His power will slowly go away but he will hit even if he has to choke up a foot.He is a professional hitter.

  7. Nice article. Well done. It seems to me Votto is making better contact this year on his swings. Seems he is not fouling off as many as last year. Don’t have any data, just an observation.

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