As you may have heard, some fans, radio personalities and other critics of Joey Votto think he has an approach problem. They have suggested he expand the strike zone and swing at more borderline pitches, especially with runners in scoring position. They propose that by swinging more, Votto will be more “productive” by driving in more runs.

Votto has been adamant that he has an effective approach, even calling his critics ignorant. Votto has refused to alter his approach even after some in the organization publicly condemned the Reds best player for being too passive. He has become the face of a debate that most of the baseball world has declared over already.

But the Votto detractors are having a difficult time these days. Votto has stormed out the gate with a nifty .353/.463/.735 slash line and 9 MVPs. Whoops! I mean RBIs. Predictably, some commentators and commenters around the web have suggested he has changed his approach from his controversial 2013 season, a season in which Votto had the fifth highest runs created score in all of baseball (156 wRC+).

On the latest broadcast, Thom Brennamen even said that Votto looks like the 2010-2012 version, apparently as opposed to the 2013 Votto. Has Votto’s approach changed now that he is on pace for 162 RBIs? Has he finally recanted his patient ways to appease management and the radio booth? Let’s take an early look at Votto’s plate discipline in 2015 to see just how free swinging he has become.

Fangraphs uses PITCHf/x data and Baseball Info Solutions (BIS) to keep track of stats related to a player’s plate discipline. These two systems generally agree closely with one another, though there are discrepancies at times as we will see.

Both systems use O-Swing% to display how often a player swings at pitches outside of the strike zone, Z-Swing% to display swings inside of the strike zone, and Swing% to display the percentage of swings on all pitches. Let’s compare Votto’s 2013 season to the short sample of his 2015 season using both PITCHf/x data and Baseball Info Solutions data.

PITCHfx

According to PITCH f/x, Votto has swung at a significantly smaller percentage of pitches in 2015 than he did in 2013. He has swung at fewer pitches out of the strike zone and swung more at pitches inside the strike zone. Votto hasn’t expanded the zone at all. The average O-Swing% thus far in 2015 is 30.2%. Votto has swung at about half that rate, further cementing his reputation as lord of the strike zone.  According to PITCH f/x data, Votto has swung at 7.2% more pitches inside the strike zone in 2015 as opposed to 2013, which is a significant number. The BIS data is similar.

BIS_data

We learn essentially the same thing when we look at BIS data. In 2015, Votto is swinging at fewer balls and more strikes. The discrepancy between Votto’s 2013 and 2015 Z-Swing% is much less pronounced using BIS data. Looking at these numbers, Votto hasn’t really changed his approach inside the strike zone at all. He is just swinging at fewer balls and doing serious damage on contact.

In 2015, Votto may or may not have become a little more aggressive in the strike zone during the the first week and a half. Regardless of which system is more accurate, one thing remains clear, Joey does what Joey does: avoid getting himself out on bad pitches.

It’s still too early to conclude much of anything, but Votto’s 9 RBIs are not a result of a major change in the way Votto approaches at bats. He looks healthier than he has for years, and he has made pitchers pay for challenging him early. Maybe Votto has some idea of what he is doing after all.

39 Responses

  1. susan WILTSHIRE

    Joey is awesome they should leave him alone

  2. greenmtred

    It seems clear that it is not Joey’s approach but his health that has changed. When he couldn’t “drive” the ball, he did what he could instead to help the team. Now he’s healthy, and when he gets a pitch to drive, he does so.

    • ManuelT

      Yeah, this debate is obsolete as Joey has said himself he did what he needed to do with what he had at the time. Now that he’s healthy, he’s back to a more aggressive approach.

  3. riverotter68

    Great stuff. The data matches what I saw during the few games I’ve been able to watch. Loved the “lord of the strike zone” line.

  4. whereruklu

    To those “xperts” out there in medialand, “OFF HIS BACK, JACK!!!!”.Nobody knows Joey like Joey knows Joey. As long as he is healthy, check his numbers at the end of the season and we’ll see who has the last laugh…..

  5. Steve Schoenbaechler

    I’ve never complained at all about Votto walking. Walks can be good, most likely are always good, given the situation (game winning run on base, I want my best hitter up there to hit them in, not walking to leave it up to a worse hitter behind him to win the game). And the close pitches are always iffy calls for all batters, so I would never have complaints with that. I’ve always said, with me, it’s Votto’s approach of letting pitches go by early in the PA that are coming right down the middle. The pitchers get an early 2 strikes on him, then they start nibbling the corners. They get a K, great for them. They give up a walk, at least Votto doesn’t drive anyone in, still good for them. I’ve also said Votto shouldn’t be swinging at “all” the balls early, either. I’ve said he needs to “change it up”, “adjust”, something all the players do. And, all the best players do it the best.

    And, still, I’ve said on here, as critial as many (including I) were of Votto after his 2013 season, I said I would take a “2013 Votto” this season rather than a “2014 Votto”.

    • Nick Carrington

      Steve, the article doesn’t mention walks at all. It merely shows that Votto’s approach to at bats thus far in 2015 is consistent with his 2013 season. Votto has continued to swing at good pitches and lay off bad ones. He is certainly taking advantage of pitcher’s mistakes at the moment.

    • John Hay

      I know it often seems that Joey is taking pitches down the middle, especially the first pitch, but I wondered how often it actually happened. So, I did a little searching on BaseballSavant.com. In 2013, Votto took 160 first pitch strikes. In those plate appearances, he hit .216 and had on OBP of .319. 17 of those first pitch strikes were down the middle. In those 17 PA’s, he went 6 for 17. He took a total of 37 pitches down the middle in 2013, and never twice in the same plate appearance. He hit .333 and had an OBP of .459 in those 37 PA’s.

      In 2015, he has taken a first pitch strike 6 times, but never down the middle. He has gone 2 for 6 in those PA’s. Only once this year (this past Monday) has he taken a pitch down the middle, and he later grounded out in that PA.

      I am defining “down the middle” as zone 5 (out of the 9 zones in the strike zone) in the BaseballSavant search tool.

      • jdx19

        Great info, John. No matter how many detractors come out of the woodwork, the data always supports that Joey knows how to hit.

    • jdx19

      You think a pitcher walking Votto is good for the pitcher? You greatly misunderstand how runs are scored.

      • Chris Miller

        So are you suggesting that Bonds should have always been pitched to? There are plenty of times that it behooves a pitcher to walk Votto; certainly there was in his pre-injury 2012 days.

      • jdx19

        Stopped reading when you said Bonds. His seasons were several standard deviations from where Votto is. Bonds was an anomaly. You can’t compare anything to him and have it be valid.

      • jdx19

        But, in reply to your other spot, I never said there is no situation where walking Votto doesn’t behoove the pitcher.

        The original post seemed to suggest walking Votto was a win for the pitcher. It’s not, unless you’re in a very small set of situations. In that case, it isn’t a win, it’s neutral.

        If Votto walked 100% of the time, he’d be he most valuable player by a country mile.

      • Steve Schoenbaechler

        Exactly, Chris. Some simply don’t understand how to minimize a hitter’s effectiveness. They immediately think that means “get the player out”, when it never does mean that. If you had to define it, it would “involve” not allowing the hitter to move the baserunner up more than 1 base if on first, no bases if the baserunners are on 2nd and 3rd. That can happen if you walk the hitter.

        Whereas, if you decide to pitch to hitters like Votto or Bonds, you’re taking the chance they get a hit, potentially moving the runners up if not scoring. Odds are great, no one scores on a walk. Odds are great, a baserunner can score on a hit.

        Now, of course, a hitter like Cozart, you wouldn’t need to worry about this aspect so much, because he would be much more likely to get out than Votto or Bonds. But, again, in getting them out, do you allow the hitter to move the baserunners up any? Nope. So, that aspect still holds. Notice, I specified “minimize” a hitter’s effectiveness, not “negate” it, not “reduce it to zero”, but “minimize it”.

      • Steve Schoenbaechler

        JDX, and you are saying Votto is more of a regular hitter? He’s far from that. He’s much closer to Bonds than an average MLB hitter.

      • greenmtred

        I don’t think that Steve is saying that it is always good for the pitcher. I think he’s saying that, with runners on base and the game on the line, most pitchers would rather pitch to any Red other than Joey. Not an unreasonable point. Not all at bats have the same weight.

    • Matt WI

      Sometimes letting pitches go by is a sly way of setting up for something later. I think you just have to accept it’s part of how he does his thing, and he does it better than most.

      • preacherj

        It’s sort of a win to walk Votto when the rest of the team is hitting a combined .200

      • Steve Schoenbaechler

        Again, I never said Votto should be swinging at all initial pitches. I specified he shouldn’t do that. I specified he would need to change that aspect of his game, adjust, exactly what all MLB hitters, even the great ones, do. As in , one PA, swing at the initial pitches when they come down the middle. Another PA, take some pitches.

        Shoot, with him batting directly behind Hamilton right now, which I can understand and would probably support, that would set up Hamilton to more likely steal a base. Then, if Hamilton does that, the other team is more likely to walk Votto to set up forces at the 3 bases with a worse hitter at the plate.

        Which sort of goes back to, we needed a better hitter to sign over the off season.

  6. jas428

    Interesting, but not enough information yet. Strikeout rate, looking strikeout rate, production with two strikes, production with two outs, production with RISP, et al.

    • docmike

      Not relevant. The best hitters are the most productive, period. I don’t care if it’s with 2 strikes or none, 2 outs or none, RISP or bases empty. That’s what makes them the best.

    • jdx19

      RISP is a subset of simply “runners on base.” From 2009 to now (so, a long time), Joey has a 174 wRC+. That is exactly first. No one is higher.

      Over any significantly large sample size you can put together (ie – more than 1 season), Votto is simply among the best (if not the best) at hitting with runners on base.

      This is not a special skill. This is because, simply, Votto is among the best at hitting period. In any situation. You’ve got Trout, Cabrera, and Votto in some order. That’s the list, really.

  7. Tom Reed

    Joey Votto works the count. The definition of an intelligent hitter.

  8. Jeremy Forbes

    It almost feels like pitchers were simply challenging him more than they had in 2013, making him prove he was healthy. Votto has actually seen the most fastballs of his career so far this year (64.2%). Compare that to 2012 (58.1%) and 2010 (56.4%) and you get why he’s increased his swings in the zone this year.

    Jason Linden said it best a few days back… “–I hope you all enjoyed seeing what Joey Votto can do when pitchers forget to be afraid of him. I don’t think you’ll see it again this season. Votto walked three times today, and I expect we’ll see a lot of that this year.”

    • jdx19

      Billy Hamilton I think helps that, as well. If Billy gets on base, Joey will see more fastballs. He stated it himself and without checking, i think the data backs it up, too.

  9. charlottencredsfan

    Mes still out:

    Ham – 8
    JV – 3
    TF – 5
    BP – 4
    JB – 9
    Byrd – 7
    Pena – 2
    ZC – 6
    JC – 1

    • lwblogger2

      Crap! The Reds need a healthy and productive Mes.

  10. Jerry Davis

    It’s obvious to anyone watching the games he has changed his approach for the better. When runners are in scoring position, he is swinging and not grafting the bat to his should. I am glad for Joey and the Reds.

    • Matt WI

      No… it’s that people are looking at results first and then changing opinions about the process… what this post is saying is that his process/approach has stayed the same, only the results are different because he’s healthy. When people type “Joey is more aggressive” what should be typed is “Joey is healthier and able to physically drive the ball in a way he couldn’t when he wasn’t as healthy.”

      This gives the appearance of aggressiveness… it’s simply a matter of physics and force.

    • jdx19

      And, to be honest, it’ll be July before we have a somewhat useful amount of ABs to even make statements about him swinging with RISP.

    • docmike

      Jerry, it’s not obvious. If you look at the stats, you will see he has NOT changed his approach one bit.

  11. Red Giant

    “Maybe Votto has some idea of what he is doing after all.” Funny!

    That some people have wanted Votto to change his approach is beyond me… As the title of this post says, Joey Does What Joey Does, and I like it!!!

    Thanks for the analysis.

  12. charlottencredsfan

    Fat pitch and JV nails it!

  13. John

    Joey Votto is not the problem with this team, we need to quit ignoring the elephant in the room. Weak bullpen and the other 8 positions in the line up lack consistency at the plate.

  14. davidmp2

    It’s the Z-Swing numbers which I’ve been talking. Everyone interpreted the criticism as wanting Votto to hack at bad pitches or pitches out of the zone. To the contrary, many thought he was taking too many pitches in the zone. This very well could have been on account of the fact that he was hurt, so some balls in the zone were outside of his zone.