Fridays Above Replacement

Votto: Then and Now

On April 29th, I wrote a column titled Neutralizing Joey Votto.  To date, I think it is the best baseball analysis I’ve ever done.  If you haven’t read it and appreciate trips down memory lane, you should go check it out.  There are lots of charts and graphs, if you like that stuff, too.   I also wrote something later called Joey Votto’s Strikeouts.  Read that, too.  You’ll be happy you did.  If nothing else, I’ll have succeeded in wasting 20 or so of your minutes on a Friday morning.

On the day I posted the first linked article, Votto was batting a woeful .221/.311/.312, which is good for a 59 wRC+; basically a cross between 2016 Alcides Escobar and 2012 Drew Stubbs.  Not the Votto we have come to appreciate.

Since that article, Votto has batted .300/.443/.549, which is good for a 163 wRC+; basically, he’s hit like himself.

However, Votto’s production really didn’t pick up in earnest until the day after Clayton Kershaw did Clayton Kershawy things to the Reds on May 23rd.  Below is a chart showing production Pre-Kershaw and Post-Kershaw:

chart1

To say the difference is stark would be apt.  Votto has improved in all meaningful ways.  I’m guessing you already knew Votto was hitting well the last 2 months since you are smart.  I know you are smart because you are reading Redleg Nation.  It’s logic, or something.

So, why has Votto improved?  Well, if you read the linked articles above, you know why he wasn’t doing well early in the year.  A combination of the following; an inability to hit inside pitches with authority, umpires calling high-and-away strikes more than ever, and some poor BABIP luck; led to Votto’s poor start.

So,  what can we find to support Votto’s increased production?  That is what we shall endeavor to find.

First, I think it is important to look at how pitchers are attacking Votto.  The below set of heat maps show Votto’s pitches seen, both Pre- and Post-Kershaw.  Recall that this is from the catcher’s point-of-view, so an outside pitch to Votto is on the left of the heat map, while inside pitches are on the right.

chart2

Generally speaking, we can see a pronounced shift away from the “bust him inside” strategy.  Votto has seen a lot more pitches away, down, and mid-mid.   Below is another way to visualize it, where I show the differential between these two heat maps:

chart3

Red means “more pitches” and blue means “less pitches.”  I think this view is much easier to digest.  So, basically, Votto has seen a lot more hittable pitches.  That is good for Votto.

Why pitchers have seemingly abandoned a strategy that was working is a mystery.  We know not all pitchers are comfortable throwing inside, so maybe Votto faced a disproportionate amount on inside throwers early in the year?  Your guess is as good as mine as to the shift in pitch placement.

Next, I want to look at how Votto’s zone is being called by umps.  We know Votto’s approach lends itself to dogmatically taking pitches in certain parts of the zone.  One of those zones is up-and-away.  If you want more on that, go read the article about strikeouts.

So, here are the two heap maps showing Votto’s called strike percentages over our two periods in question:

chart4

Seems like Votto’s strike zone is much more symmetric now than it was then.  Once again, we’ll look at the differential view:

chart5

I’ve put a box around the up-and-away section that I discussed in the Strikeout article.  In the earlier part of the year, Votto was getting a ton of strike calls he didn’t expect.  This put him behind in counts more often than he should have been, and even Joey Votto doesn’t hit as well behind as he does ahead. More recently, he’s seen called strikes in that area decline significantly.  With a more predictable zone, Votto can do what Votto does.

The last thing I want to show is Votto’s contact rate differential between the two periods.  Rather than looking at all 3 heat maps, we’ll just look at the differential heat map:

chart6

Red means “more contact” and blue means “less contact.” The light coloration in the middle shows what you’d expect; Votto is making similar contact in the middle of the plate.  That’s usually something that doesn’t change much until your bat speed begins to decline.

This chart is very, very interesting to me for one specific reason.  Votto has covered both inside and outside pitches better over the last 2 months.  I know you’ve all heard announcers say something like “You can’t cover inside and outside at the same time!”  Well, Votto has done exactly that.

In closing, I’ve briefly shown that Votto has received a more symmetric, predictable strike zone, he’s somehow figured out how to cover the entire plate, and pitchers have inexplicably started throwing him better pitches to hit.  Add all that together with a BABIP that is approaching Votto’s career levels, and we have normal Joey Votto back.  I never doubted him for a minute…gulp.

BONUS CHART!!

I made this chart and it didn’t really fit in above, but I wanted to include it anyways!

What we have here shows Runs Above Average (RAA) per 100 pitches seen (RAA/100).  Essentially, this shows where you (as a pitcher) would want to throw the ball in order to minimize the impact a hitter has on the game.

chart7

On the left heat map, we see the infamous up-and-away zone. Votto was significantly below average in run production in this zone, largely due to taking called strikes (recall that taking strikes has a negative effect on run expectancy). Also, pitches over the middle of the plate, but down, were a problem for Votto.

If you examine those two zones Post-Kershaw, we see a stark difference.  These zones make up a large portion of Votto’s increased run production.  He’s destroying low strikes over the zone, and umps have stopped screwing him on up-and-away strikes!

Important to note… blue doesn’t necessarily mean “bad,” just “below average.”   Notice how a lot of Votto’s down-the-middle zone is blue.  That’s because everyone does well on pitches down the middle.  What has made Votto an elite hitter is what he does (or doesn’t do) on the edges of the zone.  Other hitters get themselves out on pitches outside the zone.  Votto gets to chat with the opposing first baseman.

BONUS FUN FACT!!

In the month of July, Joey Votto has put up a 219 wRC+.  That is 1st in all of MLB.  The player in 2nd (Yasmani Grandal) has posted a 196 wRC+.  The difference between Votto and Grandal, 1st and 2nd, is larger than the difference between Grandal and Hanley Ramirez, 2nd and 12th.

So, really, Votto has been the best hitter in baseball in July by a wide margin.  In fact, Votto’s July margin is larger than any margin between a 1st and 2nd place hitter in any other month of the year.

ALSO…Votto’s July wRC+ of 219 is the highest monthly mark of any hitter in baseball this season.  There are still a couple games left, so this can change drastically, but Votto just (maybe) put up the best offensive month in baseball this year.

Votto is something else.

Data used to create the heat maps is courtesy of FanGraphs.

 

 

18 thoughts on “Votto: Then and Now

  1. Thank you for all the time that must have taken. Very interesting stuff, well explained.

  2. “On April 29th, I wrote a column titled Neutralizing Joey Votto. To date, I think it is the best baseball analysis I’ve ever done.”

    yeah, after analyzing your self-analysis of past analysis, I conclude that your hypothesis of this analysis to have been analyzed correctly 🙂

  3. As usual, great stuff Patrick. Great Friday morning read.
    Votto back to being Vottomatic.
    The Reds front office has had about 4 years to surround Votto with a few more hitters similar to Votto. Yet here we are, still wishing for a few more OBP hitters to hit in front of Votto.

    • We could have Billy 9th and Peraza leadoff with Votto in the 2 hole! That way there might be atleast 1 speedster on in front of him and dividing the pitchers attention. The offense is rolling along pretty well right now and its not all Jay and Joey! 54 runs in their last 9 games = a nice even 6 runs a game!

      • If we ever got into this situation it would be an interesting analysis to see which of Hamilton or Peraza should bat 9th. Based on reputation, you’d probably want Peraza 1st, but his batted ball authority has been pretty terrible so far this year.

        • If they trade Jay then I think I would try a Schebler/Peraza platoon at leadoff/LF and move Duvall to RF. Schebler has bat speed that you can’t teach!

  4. Thanks Patrick

    So the Kershaw game is in neither chart? Just kidding. Oh those people who pick nits.

    I think Jay Bruce’s year has done a bunch that shows up in the Votto line. Just like Duvall is for Bruce. I would like that to continue…

    • Funny you should mention that. I actually thought about including a statement that the Pre-Kershaw period was inclusive of the Kershaw game but opted against it! 😉

  5. If he could only get in front of a ground ball. Like most players who make it out of Little League !!

    Basically, Votto hit below his norm the first half of the year and thus far in the second half he is hitting above his norm. Seems like to last year. Maybe a trend.

  6. “A combination of the following; an inability to hit inside pitches with authority, umpires calling high-and-away strikes more than ever, and some poor BABIP luck; led to Votto’s poor start.”

    That’s like the Perfect Storm scenario.

    From the outside looking in, Votto appeared to break down his problems to focus on one at a time.

    I think Votto understood that the problem with the umpire calls would resolve itself over time (and a little polite prodding), so he didn’t concern himself with that issue. The poor BABIP issue probably related to a combination of the umpire calls and his inability to handle the inside pitches. That really left just the issue of handling the inside pitches.

    Since pitchers had learned the hard way in 2010 that pitching Votto inside was dangerous to their career, they had gone to the lesser evil of not pitching him inside. Votto had adjusted his plate approach accordingly and everything was working fine until pitchers got tired of simply giving in and allowing Votto to put up MVP numbers against them. Since no one was getting on base in front of Votto and Phillips was hitting behind Votto, opposing pitchers simply didn’t have to fear Votto so much in the Reds lineup and began to challenge Votto inside again. The umpires appeared to buy into the opposing pitchers’ efforts and helped by expanding the strike zone beyond on the plate on the inside pitches. That assist by the umpires resulted in that wierd, inept swing by Votto as he attempted to adapt.

    A funny thing happened on the way to the forum. Actually three funny things happened. The umpires began calling a more legitimate strike zone again, Phillips was moved to the lower half of the lineup, away from Votto, and Bruce and Duvall began hitting HR in bunches behind Votto. With a more legitimate strike zone. Votto’s BB rate began sky-rocketing again and solo HR began to turn into multiple run HR. Busting Votto inside was no longer working and the Reds still had no one getting on base successfully, ergo Votto could once again be Votto.

    I’m really glad I have the opportunity to enjoy watching Votto ply his craft in a Reds uniform.

    • Good post, Cossack!

      I agree completely. Watching Votto is a treat we may never get again once he retires. For someone looking for the signs (like you have), you can follow his process from week to week. It’s very rewarding as an amateur analyst.

      • He’s just such a different kind of player…..and person too for that matter! The only other guy I can think of that walked a ton and loved to drive the ball out of the park the other way was the Big Hurt…Frank Thomas! I knew FT had a ton more HRs per season then Joey but their career OPS is fairly close .974 Thomas to .955 or something for Joey! I don’t remember the Big Hurt with any roid rumors so he might be like Jr Griffey in that regard but nobody is beyond questioning that played in the 90s! Joey is something else though! Anybody on here is too young to have seen Ted Williams play but he might’ve been the only guy as analytical about his craft as Joey!!

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