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.

swstr

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.

swstrFG

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:

ZOdelta

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.

deltaleaders

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:

2007to2010

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:

2011to2016

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:

2017

Well, then.

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:

contactrates

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.

BONUS GIF!!!!

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?

vottogif

26 Responses

  1. Jason Linden

    As I’m sure you’re aware, Votto stopped striking out in July or August of last year. It’s an incredibly pronounced shift that I’m sure involves some of the stuff you’re highlighting here. It was, he says, in response to how much he was striking out. Anyway, here’s a rolling 80-game average of his k-rate for his entire career. It is as fun such a graph can possibly be. http://www.fangraphs.com/graphs.aspx?playerid=4314&legend=1&statArr=35&split=base&time=game&ymin=&ymax=&start=2007&end=2017&rtype=mult&gt1=80

    • Jeffrey Copeland

      I love this article and Jason’s graph. Votto has seriously just decided he is no longer striking out.

  2. Simon Cowell

    so you are saying this is an update and we should expect more of this type of performance instead of it being 6 weeks of data for the 2017 season?
    Like the update don’t get me wrong hope it is a permanent update but Joey isn’t in his prime anymore and I would expect that as the season gets long and his body gets worn that his numbers will drop.

    • Jordan Barhorst

      What about Joey Votto’s performance makes you think he isn’t still in his prime? He might be approaching the upper end of the scale of what the masses label “prime years”, but he’s only seemed to improve in just about every facet of his game.

      Last year, Votto was third in the MLB in wRC+. Mike Trout, of course, was #1. Guess who #2 was. I’ll wait.

      It was 40 year old David Ortiz. We aren’t talking .ISO, in which Ortiz ranked #1 by a mile, but wRC+, which takes into account all facets of a guy’s hitting ability.

      I’d be really interested to see any data you’ve got to prove Votto is out of his prime. You’ve just been presented with a ton of data suggesting the opposite. Heck, I’d even take a video, gif or even a detailed memory of an instance in which you might have actually thought “Wow, he’s just not the player he used to be”.

      Spoiler alert: That instance doesn’t exist. Because Joey Votto is the man, period.

      • Simon Cowell

        He’s 33. Proof enough primes physically is 25 to 27. Steroids…. if he hits 50 homers no question in my mind he’s on the juice. you don’t go from a max of what 29 homers and then in your age 33 hit 50 dingers. Doesn’t happen…. unless you are on the juice.

      • Streamer88

        I don’t lol at your comment like others but let’s just see how it goes. Votto probably won’t hit 50, and I agree that Ortiz’s season last year (last few), along with Thames season this year, has some interesting anomalies to explain.

        Votto has been 1.000 OPS guy before though. So counting homers is one thing, but he’s done a lot of damage for a long time. And he takes this stuff pretty seriously.

      • Jason Linden

        Have you read any of the recent interviews with Thames? He spent several years social isolated in Korea and used the time to study and improve his approach. He ALWAYS had crazy power. His approach just stunk.

        We’ve entered a time where, whenever a player has a suddenly big year, people scream about PEDs. And it’s absurd. Making accusations without evidence is intellectually irresponsible.

      • Simon Cowell

        and ruors of steroid or other enhancements circle around Ortiz. It’s not normal.

  3. DaytonRedLeg

    I’m new-ish to advanced statistics, and by no means am I a mathematician or stat-geek, but this is becoming more and more fascinating to me. I’m the perfect example of a casual fan developing a deeper appreciation for advanced stats. It really helps me understand and enjoy the game even more. Paging FSO and WLW….let’s start implementing more of this talk!!

  4. Joe McManus

    Great stuff. His ABs are must watch TV for me. His plate discipline is absolutely incredible.

    • Simon Cowell

      This I can agree with. But if he winds up with 50 dingers at the end of the season I’ll be the first one calling for an investigation to see if he has had contact with Bonds medical team.

      • Jason Linden

        First, not everyone declines instantly at 30. There is a long history of truly great hitters continuing to hit into their late 30s. It doesn’t always happen, but it happens often enough that you can’t scream STEROIDS!!! every time someone has a good season.

        Also, I doubt Votto hits 50, but if he did it’s not as though such one-year power spikes are unheard of. Larkin, for instance went from 15 homers at age-31 to 33 homers at age-32 and only ever had one other season where he even hit 20. Willie Mays was 34 when he had his career-high home run total.

      • Simon Cowell

        Jason I admit it is possible but it looks suspicious. All I”m saying it looks fishy to me. Votto is the best no question but even most guys at their age 30 wear down as the season goes. If he maintains his pace for the entire season… he is defying the probablities at many levels.

      • Streamer88

        Wow Patrick good stuff. Exit velocity is huge and I recall a famous SI article about Bonds 73 homer year that used average measured length of HR I’m guessing exit velocity wasn’t available then?

        Either way, I believe there needs to be a balance between every one accusing but also not putting our heads in the sand. We tend to do the latter when it’s someone we love.

      • Streamer88

        Excellent OP and follow ups man. Big fan of your work.

      • Simon Cowell

        I”m pro steroids by the way. If they improve your game then go for it.

  5. Cartel

    Hopefully, I do not speak to soon but that contract looks more and more like a bargain…

  6. james garrett

    Votto can do it all as a hitter.He has a plan and never ever gives away an at bat.If our young hitters would pick up that concept and that one only they would be much much better.Just think if he had guys hitting ahead of him that reached base at a high level what he could do.

  7. Darrel Schick

    Votto is the man. He’s a Picasso at the plate. And I agree – it seems he never gives away an at bat. Pete Rose once said that’s how he got so many hits in his career – he didn’t give away at bats. Pete said he wasn’t satisfied with a 3 for 3 or a 4 for 4 – he wanted another hit! (You may not like a lot of things about Pete – but the man knew how to hit!)

  8. wkuchad

    If we don’t extend Cozart (which I’m on the fence if we should), you could see Suarez move back to SS if Peraza doesn’t show improvement.

    • IndyRedMan

      I’ve seen numbers on Cozart in the 14 mil/yr range and I ran across the fact that Asdrubal Cabrera is making 9 mil this year! He’s the same age and has had a better offensive career then Cozart by far which is the overwhelming factor when it comes to player salaries. Cozart might take $35 mil for 3 years or something and both sides would be happy!

  9. Chuck Schick

    Is it possible that Votto is directly benefitting from the fact that the team doesn’t completely suck? For the past 2 years, the Reds were often behind so there was often no reason to give him anything he could hit. Just walk him and dare Skip or BP or whatever other stuff they rolled out there to beat you…..and if they did best you, so what? You get to face Jumbo Ohlenhoover and can just make up the runs.

  10. cfd3000

    Two thoughts on Votto, besides the obvious “Love to watch him hit”. 1. He’s the only guy on the Reds who screams and swears when he misses a pitch he knows he can crush, or swings at a pitch he realizes he shouldn’t have. He does it at least a couple times a week. No one else on the team, and maybe in MLB, reacts that way. Not only does he not ever give up an at bat, he’s focused on every pitch. That’s part of how his plate discipline is so good. 2. In terms of fighting an aging curve decline, Chris Welsh was talking about conditioning early this year and said that the two guys who work the hardest and are in impeccable physical condition on the Reds are Lorenzen (have you seen his workouts?) and… Votto. There’s a reason he doesn’t wear down as the seasons go on and often gets better, and it’s not luck. Votto is, indeed, the man.