Joey Votto is like a self-aware computer program. He is constantly receiving data from his eyes, ears, and muscles during every plate appearance. His brain (CPU?) takes all of this data and formulates strategies and pre-planned responses, probably involving the terms “most likely” and “maximization of production.”
Synthesizing all of this data tends to lead to a bit of experimentation for Votto. After all, finding a way something doesn’t work can, at times, be just as valuable as finding a way something does work. In the past, Votto has tried pulling everything, and later admitted it didn’t work. He’s tried swinging less than normal. He’s tried swinging more than normal. The point is, Vottomatic is always in a state of trying to update himself to a new version with better features and higher efficiency.
In his career, Vottomatic has made two such successful updates, and we’ve just witnessed the most recent.
The useful life of Vottomatic v1.0 lasted from 2007 to 2010. This was a strong initial offering from Canada Software Co., receiving rave reviews and a Program of the Year award in 2010. Vottomatic updated himself to v2.0 in 2011. This version was particularly hearty and resistant to hacking (see what I did there?); it was in service until 2016.
In April of 2017, there was a power surge in the mainframe that handles updates, causing Vottomatic to go haywire, he’d reach out and try to swat everything in sight. It was causing poor contact and an approach that could not make use of Vottomatic’s superlative vision processors. Finally, after a few weeks, Vottomatic patched himself, eliminating the aggressive tendencies and making himself the greatest version yet; Vottomatic v3.0.
So… that’s a lot of weird words, and admittedly, not in my normal style. So let’s look at some charts and graphs and numbers, shall we?
I want to start first by looking at Votto’s swinging strike rate over time. This rate, of course, measures how often a player swings and misses.
From 2008 to 2010 (not counting his small-sample 2007), Votto’s swinging strike rate was very steady at just under 11%. From 2011 to 2016, Votto’s swinging strike rate was between 7.1% and 8.8%, with a mean of 7.6%.
In 2017, Votto’s swinging strike rate is 5.0%. This represents a very significant drop.
“But, Patrick! He’s only played in a handful of games! He probably has stretches like this all the time,” you might be thinking. Well…not really.
There was a brief blip at the end of Votto’s 2012 campaign where he was in the 5% range…other than that, this is new territory for Votto.
Now that we’ve identified something different and interesting, let’s try to figure out why we’re observing this change.
The first place to look would be his plate discipline stats; chiefly, O-Swing% and Z-Swing%, which measure how often a player swings at pitches Out of the strike zone, and in the strike Zone.
In order to meaningfully compare these two metrics, I like to look at the delta between the two. For example, if Votto swings at 25% of pitches out of the zone, and 75% of pitches in the zone, his Z-Swing/O-Swing Delta is 50%. If the delta is higher, it means you are differentiating balls and strikes better. This should lead to better results, since we all know swinging at strikes is good and swinging at balls is bad. The graph:
From 2007 to 2016, Votto’s Z-Swing/O-Swing Delta has been as low as 41.5% and as high as 49.5%, but always between 40% and 50%.
His current delta stands at a staggering 59.2%. Since you know Votto, and you know baseball players in general, I probably could easily convince you that his 59.2% measure is tops in baseball. But, rather than try to convince you with awkward writing about self-aware computer programs, I’ll just show you.
Freddie Freeman, who is having an insanely good year at the plate, is Votto’s closest competitor. The 3.3% absolute difference between the two might seem close, but it really isn’t. The sample size is all 186 qualified hitters. The mean of the sample is 38.3%, with a standard deviation of 6.2%.
Votto is 3.4 standard deviations above the mean. Freeman is only 2.8 standard deviations above the mean. If you remember back to your statistics class, virtually all samples in a normally distributed population fall between -3 and +3 standard deviations from the mean. Votto is an outlier.
[Math Geek Note: You maybe have noticed the chart I presented is a Top 12. Why do a Top 12 instead of a Top 10? Well, Votto’s career Z-Swing/O-Swing Delta would rank 13th on that list. Votto, on average, is better at differentiating balls and strikes than just about anyone else in their career year.]
Ok, so we’ve identified one way that Votto is avoiding swinging and missing; he’s identifying and differentiating between balls and strikes better than anyone in baseball, and even better than he’s ever done himself.
Let’s dig a bit deeper and look at the actual pitches he’s seeing and what he’s doing with them.
We’ll start earlier in his career, using the same timelines as we did with Vottomatic v1.0, v2.0, and v3.0.
First, from 2007 to 2010, here are all the pitches Votto saw and swung at:
Pretty nice profile. This profile made Votto an MVP. Notice he swings at quite a few pitches above the zone, and below the zone. Almost like an extended “down the middle.” He certainly seems to prefer the ball up or down, rather than in or out.
Now, for 2011 to 2016:
If you study the numbers, you’ll see an overall lowering of Votto’s swing rates. This helped create the narrative that Votto is too passive, which is still being perpetuated by some (although, Votto’s early RBI totals have silenced some of the ignorance).
But also, I’d like you to notice the gap between in-zone and out-of-zone is starting to become more red-and-blue, rather than red-and-purple.
Finally, let’s look at 2017 so far:
That’s fairly stark. Votto has, seemingly on purpose, stopped swinging at pitches above the strike zone. He’s swing at exactly 4 of the 52 balls that he’s seen above the strike zone. That is quite impressive zone discipline. Just look at the top of the strike zone. Within the zone, 20-for-20 swings. Out of the zone, 0-9 swings. Pretty amazing.
Interestingly, along with a better eye, Votto’s experience has also increased his ability to make contact. The following chart sums it up:
Notice that the red bars (Z-Contact%) stay in the 85-90 range for Votto’s whole career. The pinkish bars (O-Contact%), however, have a nice upward trend which mirrors the earlier graph showing Votto’s declining swinging strike rates.
In 2017, Votto’s O-Contact% nearly equals his Z-Contact%. Votto ranks 3rd in MLB in this metric. The two men ahead of him are Neck Tattoo and DJ LeMahieu. Inexplicably, Neck Tattoo has a higher O-Contact% (83.3) than Z-Contact% (83.0).
What is causing Votto’s increased O-Contact%? Your guess is as good as mine, but I’d guess that he is probably being so selective that he’s only swinging at balls that are nearly strikes. If he’s cutting down on swinging at pitches out of the zone, it makes sense that he’s cutting down on those pitches he sees that are furthest out of the zone. Pitches that are balls, but nearly strikes, should be easier to fight off or put in play.
In the last calendar month, Votto is running a .344/.463/.667 line with an 18.2% walk rate and an 11.6% strikeout rate. This coincides with Votto giving up on the “swing at everything” plan that he implemented for the first 2 weeks of the season.
If Votto can keep this level of strike zone discipline going for the whole season, I think it is likely that we’ll see Votto’s best offensive season yet.
Here is a .gif showing Votto’s swinging strike rates based on zone for the three periods we’ve been examining. The bright red on these just means “these are the areas Votto has the most wiffs.” Not necessarily that he’s swinging a lot, just missing when he does swing. Sort of fun, don’t you think?