[Edit: This post was written by John Hay, loyal member of Redleg Nation. John grew up in eastern Kentucky during the Big Red Machine era. Johnny Bench was his favorite player. He now lives in Owensboro and is a math teacher. – SPM]

We hear it all the time that “Joey Votto is too passive” and “he needs to expand the zone with runners on base.” This is said despite the fact that Joey Votto was the fifth best hitter in MLB last year by wRC+ and eighth best by OPS.

Joey Votto does swing at fewer pitches outside the strike zone than anyone currently in the game. Since 2000, 140 players have career O-Swing% less than 20 percent, which was Votto’s rate. So while his rate is the best of any active player, it’s not historically low. [O-Swing% is simply the percentage of pitches outside the strike zone the batter swings at.]

Is Joey Votto simply too passive? Let’s go back to the data. In 2013, of the 40 players with the lowest O-Swing%, only Dan Uggla swung at a higher percentage of pitches in the strike zone than Votto did. So it is not really fair to call Votto passive, as much as choosy. He doesn’t swing at pitches outside the zone and he swings at many pitches that are strikes.

Does Votto take too many strikes? Of the 493 pitches that were called strikes on Votto last year, a whopping 41.8% of them were actually outside the strike zone according to PITCHf/x. Votto also struck out swinging 77 times. In 48 of these the third strike was outside the zone. He only had a third strike swinging 29 times on pitches in the zone despite swinging more than twice as often at pitches in the zone.

What would happen if Votto did expand the zone? That is an impossible “what if” to answer with certainty, but we can look at what has happened in the past when Votto has swung at pitches outside the zone. I looked at Votto’s 2013 season and collected the data from Baseball Savant.

Here is a summary of the results:

Pitches in Zone Pitches out of Zone
Number of Swings 775 356
% of swings for hits 19 9.5
% of swings for singles 12.1 7.0
% of swings for doubles 3.2 1.4
% of swings for HRs 2.8 0.6
% of swings for sac flies 0.5 0.5
% of swings for strikes 13.4 29.8
% of swings hit for outs 23.6 20.8
% of swings for foul balls 43.1 38.8
BABIP .387 .272
Line Drive % 31.2 28.6
Fly Ball % 23.4 20.5
Ground Ball % 44.8 50

So while many people think Votto should expand the zone under the assumption that he would get more hits and RBI, it looks like the extra hits would be dwarfed by the extra strikes and ground ball double plays. We also need to remember that the pitches swung at in this study are pitches that either Votto thought he could do something with or felt the need to fight off. If he were to “expand the zone” even further, it would not be unreasonable to expect those numbers to be even worse.

I cannot say with certainty that having Votto expand the zone would be a bad idea, but I have seen enough data to be happy that he is not trying it.

45 Responses

  1. Kurt Frost

    This article needs to be removed immediately. We can not introduce facts into this debate. I want Votto making more outs. Many more outs. He’s too selfish taking the walk and expecting someone else to drive him in. He bats in the middle of the order. He needs ARE BEE EYES!!!

  2. charlottencredsfan

    A lot of the bellyaching is probably situational. If there are runners on 2nd and 3rd with two outs, would it be crazy if he expanded the zone? Maybe yes, maybe no. I don’t know the answer but it might be a legitimate argument. Tossing everything in together (all situations) probably isn’t fair, to at least some of the detractors.

    To me, Votto is Votto and the best spot is the #2 hole. 2010 is a memory and he is not the same player. Knee injury or whatever, another 100 RBI season is hard to see.

    • jdx19

      With the current roster, yes. There aren’t two high-ish OBP guys to hit in front of him.

      Last year, if it were Choo-Votto1-Votto2, then Votto2 would have hit 100 RBI, I’d venture.

  3. Kurt Frost

    Player A: .317/.404 /508/.911 21 HR 84 RBI
    Player B: .305 /435 /491 /926 24 HR 73 RBI

    Payer A is 2013 MVP, player B is Votto. I wonder how much Pirates fan cry and bitch about McCutchen’s RBI total?

    • Chris Miller

      Kurt, the problem with that comparison is that Reds fans have seen so much better from Votto. the Pirates fans haven’t seen much better from McCutchen.

      • jdx19

        The problem is fans want Votto to be superman and deliver all the time, rather than accepting his game for what it is.

      • greenmtred

        I think that’s accurate, JDX19, but part of the problem is that his game has clearly changed. Should he expand his zone? I’m not qualified to say, though I doubt that he should. What people seem to be mourning the loss of is power–he still has some, of course, but nothing to compare to a few years ago. Another issue for me is the idea that he plays his game in isolation–i.e.: unchanged by the game situation. I don’t actually believe that he is unaffected by the situation, but for his most ardent fans to contend so rigorously that his only job is to get on base ignores that the Reds have few legitimate threats to drive him in. Of course RBI’s matter: they represent runs, and you need runs to win. Joey doesn’t necessarily have to be the guy who drives them in, but if nobody does you end up with a 3-8 record. The World Championship is not awarded to the team with the highest obp, it’s awarded to the team that wins the most games, and you win games by scoring runs. Yes, I’ve been told, obp has, historically, a high predictive value for runs, but that does not mean that it does in the case of a specific team. Joey is very competent, but for his skills to translate into wins, he needs a supporting cast. Obp is, when all is said and done, valuable to the degree that it results in runs.

  4. ohiojimw

    I think I would like to see Votto more aggressive WITHIN the strike zone. The numbers may say that he takes fewer strikes than the norm; but the my eye test at least leaves me with the impression that many of the strikes he takes early in the count are not borderline pitches. They often look to be as Brantley would say ‘right down Broadway’. As a result, he often ends up either battling to work a walk or putting much less of a hitter’s and more of a pitcher’s pitch into play because they are not going to come back to that fat pitch when they know he has to swing.

    • jdx19

      So you want him to be more like… Zack Cozart? He swings at everything in the zone early in the AB.

      • Zach Keith

        And there is no happy medium, right? You either swing at nothing like Votto or swing at everything like Cozart. Excellent black or white argument.

      • greenmtred

        Your comment assumes that the only difference between Zack and Joey is which pitches they swing at. I suspect there’s more to it.

      • ohiojimw

        Yes, comparing Votto’s ability to put a bat squarely on a ball with Cozart’s ability to do the same is about like comparing a fine wine at its peak to cheap wine aged to vinegar.

  5. ohiojimw

    I liked the “situational” comment above. Given the state of the Reds offense, there are times it would serve the team better for him to try and drive the run in than to take the walk.

  6. 6-4-3 DP

    I think what most people miss in this conversation is we need a bat to protect Joey. He going to get pitched around until we have a hitter behind him that is a legitimate threat. Buster Posey gets a lot more pitches to hit because they don’t want to face Pablo Sandoval with people on. It doesn’t matter where he hits in the lineup, we don’t have a bat to protect him.

    • Shchi Cossack

      It’s not really a bat to protect Votto. Votto himself refutes the efficacy of such an argument. That doesn’t mean the Reds do not need such a bat, but it’s more a bat to take advantage of the opportunities Votto creates. On the flip side, if someone else was creating those opportunities, then Votto would be available to take advantage of them as a #3 hitter. Any pitcher can avoid a single hitter in any lineup, if that hitter is far and away the biggest threat.

  7. charlottencredsfan

    Exact same line-up as yesterday:
    Hamilton – cf
    Votto – 1b
    Phillips – 2b
    Frazier – 3b
    Ludwick – lf
    Mesoraco – c
    Cozart – ss
    Cingrani – p

    I like it, no Sunday line-up here. This shows urgency on Prices part. Agree with many here that Phillips needs to bat down in the order. Right now every time he reaches base I wonder how is he going to get himself thrown out.. He has displayed some of the worst base running I have seen in my years of following the game.

    Let’s start a winning streak today.

  8. Shchi Cossack

    Actuall, not exactly the smae lineup as yesterday. Apparently Frazier has completely surplanted Ludwick in the #4/#5 rotation with Bruce, depending on the starting pitcher facing the Reds. Since the starting pitcher for the Rays in today’s game is LH, frazier has moved to the #4 hole with Bruce to the #5 hole. Ludwick looks solidly implanted in the #6 hole with Mesoraco implanted in the #7 hole.

  9. charlottencredsfan

    Where did you see this? I’m looking at Cincinnati.com?

    • charlottencredsfan

      Wonder who is better connected Sheldon or Rosencrans? We will soon find out.

    • Shchi Cossack

      Almost inexplicably, I’m looking forward to today’s game as much as any game yet this season.

  10. Shchi Cossack

    Take a look at the lineup posted by the Rays with Ramos (P) hitting
    in the #8 hole and Rodriguez (1B) hitting in the #9 hole! Hey Bryan, have you got some room on that learning curve? Of course with players like Zobrist & Jennings available for the top of the order, Maddon has more flexibility for some creative thinking and roster options.

  11. Zach Keith

    I think the deeper you have to dive into metrics to explain why someone is a great player, the more you’re grasping at straws. Do the Reds think Joey Votto is perfect the way he is? I think they’ve made it pretty clear they’re paying him that kind of money to be the 2010 version, not the confused mess he is now where, really, a walk is pretty much his best case scenario.

    Someone mentioned it above: He IS looking at pitches right down Broadway. And oftentimes he’s getting jammed by those same pitches with that awful crossed-up check swing. How does someone get jammed on pitches not on the inner third of the plate? So Votto looks bad and the Reds can’t score, but everything’s perfect. Someone tell Miguel Cabrera he’s doing it all wrong with those homeruns and rbis. Walks and awkward check swings are where it’s at, baby.

    • CP (@nomoresalads)

      Yes, the more data/evidence you collect to support your hypothesis, the flimsier the findings. You’ve invented the anti-scientific method!!!

      Votto, like every single hitter in MLB, will occasionally take a few strikes down the middle. Shocking.

      • Zach Keith

        No, it’s a matter of cherry-picking specific data here and there to support something this site continues to double down on, while completely ignoring what’s visible to the eye. He looks terrible. My point is: No one has to get into such minutia to explain why Kershaw, Trout, Cabrera, etc…are at the top of the game, while the argument for Votto belonging in that crowd is, yes, very flimsy at this point.

        But hey…if you’re jazzed with this 29 rbi pace and feel nothing at all is awry, more power to you. But I would suggest watching a few of his at bats.

      • Steve Mancuso

        His home run off David Price the other night looked pretty good. Price gives those up to lefties once every three months.

      • Steve Mancuso

        The side that cherry picks data is the one that focuses on RBI, one that depends largely on teammates. Dozens of other stats prove Votto is a top ten hitter in baseball.

      • Zach Keith

        The Price homerun was no small feat, but according to what I’ve seen this year it was a matter of him finally guessing right. He looks confused otherwise. Hopefully he figures it out. I really do like the guy.

        Doesn’t the ultimate value of OBP also depend on teammates since walking does very little if no one knocks him in? And it’s not like Votto is out there swiping bags and causing havoc on the basepaths. He really does need help from his teammates to score.

      • ohiojimw

        Track the number of times he loses the count advantage by looking at pitches middle/ in but that are strikes. He consistently looks away, away away, Many of the excuse me/ emergency swing fouls are him spoiling middle/ in pitches at two strikes because he was looking away.

        Nobody, at least not me, is doubting that Votto is possesses a very unique talent talent for not just putting the bat on the ball but for squaring it much of the time.After all if what he does was so easy, everybody would just play for a walk every trip to the plate unless they got the exact pitch they wanted wouldn’t they?

        My thought is that he is actually selling himself and his talent short with the approach he has taken since his knee injury,

    • Kurt Frost

      Did you go back and read this and realize how igonart it sounds? The more evidence provided the more flimsy it gets? That gave me a headache.

      • Zach Keith

        It’s data, Kurt. Not evidence. Whether or not walks (aka not putting the ball in play) makes you a great hitter is purely subjective. Again, my point is: No digging required to recognize the greats in this game. There’s a good reason a much greater presentation is required to place Votto in that group.

        Hope that’s a typo.


      • greenmtred

        Really doesn’t sound ignorant to me. More a difference of opinion. Few here would question that Joey is a terrific talent. For me , at least, the question transcends Joey. Yes, rbi depends largely on teammates. Why would you or Steve not also recognize that the VALUE of obp (if not the act of getting on base, though I’m not certain that even that is totally independent) is dependent on teammates. Unless, of course, your obp is mostly the result of home runs.

  12. vegastypo

    Something I wonder about regarding Votto…Do the best hitters get the benefit of the doubt about close pitches?? Depends on the pitcher, obviously. But with all the fuss about Votto and his walks, I wonder if some umps are less likely to give him the close calls because he’s supposedly just interested in walks. That first inning at-bat a few days ago was horrid. Not a strike in the bunch.

    • Shchi Cossack

      That’s a very good observation and question. From the Old Cossack eye test (certainly of questionable validity), Votto does get a lot of bad calls against him.

      • charlottencredsfan

        Makes sense because of volume of the pitches he takes. The more you take, the more bad calls you will get.

    • ohiojimw

      My guess is that Molina had more suck with that ump than Votto. Or maybe the ump was just channeling DJ Raeburn.

      Don’t know how far back you go; but in the 1970’s the legend was that with most umps, Morgan and Rose ruled the roost and got their way on virtually every close ball/ strike call that counted. Perhaps it might come as a surprise to some younger folks but actually Morgan had the reputation for having the better eye of the strike zone than Rose, Rose would at times chase pitches out of the strike zone if he saw a chance to slap it somewhere for a hit (hint, hint)

      • Shchi Cossack

        I find I still have visions of Morgan flapping his wing and hitting at the top of the lineup, then I wake up with drool running down my chin.

  13. vegastypo

    Yeah, I go back a ways, too. The thinking was that if Morgan didn’t swing, it wasn’t a strike. Rose too. … Rose seemed to always take that first pitch, which I thought was Votto’s MO, but is Joey swinging at more first pitches these days, trying to hit that one good pitch?

    • greenmtred

      And the thinking was correct. Morgan and Rose and the rest of the Reds didn’t swing at bad pitches. Nor do the Reds of today.

  14. Crouse

    Swing percentage is not the issue. However, Votto’s approach may be the issue. Is his lower ISO a result of swinging later in the zone more often or less power post injury? Perhaps it is a little of both. I don’t think chasing pitches out of the zone is going to help him, but aggressively meeting the ball out front may produce more extra base hits and a natural consequence with that approach would be a slightly higher O-Swing %. I’m ok with that if both of those numbers move closer to where they were in 2010. The non-stat heads may not say it the same way, but I think what they really want to see is a more aggressive approach. I may be wrong, but my eye tells me that he makes contact later in the zone, resulting in more walks (extending at bats), less power (making contact later) and it could also be the reason he strikes out more often (behind on fastballs). Look at his spray chart pre-injury vs post injury. It is like night and day.

  15. the next janish

    Walk, walk, walk, strikeout, strikeout, and strikeout.(Choo, Votto, Votto, Cozart, Janish, Cozart) 500 OBP, 3 LOB with zero runs scored. The walks are appreciated, but without proper protection we get nothing to show for it (at least far too often). The hard part to swallow is that are best batter is often deferring to a batter that is far less competent to achieve the optimal outcome.

    • the next janish

      Or maybe a walk, walk, walk, tootlblan/dp/Phillips, strikeout, strikeout, strikeout (would that be Choo, Votto, Choo, Phillips, Cozart, Janish, Pookie Reese)
      400-500 OBP, 0-3 LOB, 1-4 runs scored. In short like in chess, one doesn’t usually win by trading a queen for a pawn!

  16. Jimmy

    I was not going to read the article, then I saw the author lives in Owensboro where I was born, so I clicked on it. Then I saw it was based on math and facts, plus who moves to Owensboro (just kidding), so I did not read it because obviously Joey Votto should not stop being Joey Votto.

    PS I got out of Owensboro to Las Vegas and still love the Reds even when I lose money on them, which is often so far this year.