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Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Joey Votto is speaking my language

Despite a rough time in Kansas City a few years ago, Eno Sarris has been turning in some amazing content that blends interviews with analysis in recent months.  One of his best yet (#fanbias) was this piece on Joey Votto and his hitting approach that appeared yesterday at FanGraphs.  Votto notes that he thinks he actually was swinging too much in the strike zone last season.
Take, for example, his command of the strike zone. Some in Cincinnati were beating the drum for Joey Votto to swing at more pitches. Even his General Manager commented that he might benefit from swinging at more pitches with men on base. Too bad. Votto saw things a little differently: “I swung too much in the strike zone last year.” 
In general, Votto has swung less at pitches inside the zone as his career has progressed — 73.4% over his first four years, 66% over his last three. And in general, his contact on pitches inside the zone has increased, if marginally — 83.9% his first four years, up to 86% the last three. So when he says that he’ll swing less in the strike zone this year, he’s talking about really swinging at the pitches he wants to make contact on. In other words, he’d like to be “more in that [Joe] Mauer category, really efficient, swinging at a really low rate inside the strike zone, and outside the strike zone, very rarely swinging.” Nobody swings less than Joe Mauer.
Eno does a great job of breaking all of this down, but I thought I'd offer a graph.
So.  Yep!  Swing rate at balls in the zone has declined, until last season.  Also, this:
So, overall, Votto has trended toward fewer swings overall.  But while he kept his amazing ability to avoid swinging at balls out of the strike zone last season (tied for 5th overall in MLB), Votto increased his swing rate slightly last year because he was offering at more pitches that were in the zone.

As Eno noted, Votto has seen a slight uptick in his contact rates as a result of being more selective in the zone.  And while we know his contact rate, we don't know the quality of that contact, so perhaps that would show even better returns for Votto's increased selectivity.  But there is a counter to this: Votto had his best offensive season in 2010.  Therefore, if he's shifted his approach since that time, he might be shifting away from what is optimal in terms of his production.

My take is this: the physical tools of a hitter changes as he ages.  Votto is 30 years old, and it's possible that some of the talent that permitted him to do what he did in 2010 isn't with him anymore.  Votto has shown an uncanny ability to make adjustments to maximize the value of whatever capabilities he has at the time (think the 2012 playoffs when he did nothing but walk due to his injured knee).  I trust him to adopt the approach that will maximize his value.  This is a guy who has been worth 25 fangraphs WAR over the past 4 years, and that's after losing about 2.5 WAR for his fielding.  He's a fantastic player.

Before I close, another bit from Eno's article I just loved:
And if the idea is to move him in the order to a spot that fits him better, Votto was contrite: “I don’t care.” He admitted that he knew “a guy like Tango” would say to hit him second or fourth, but as long as Votto is near the top somewhere, he doesn’t care. A guy with a “high career ISO” like himself would probably be a little more valuable somewhere outside of the leadoff spot, but that’s for the manager to decide, and where he is in the lineup hasn’t mattered to him in the past.
Exactly. Honestly, I think this is the first player--heck, this is the first person on the field, managers included--that I've ever seen that is aware of Tom Tango by name, much less he and his co-authors' work on lineups.

Now if you'll excuse me, I need to go order a Joey Votto jersey...