Aggression Isn’t the Reason for Joey Votto’s Resurgence

Joey Votto is a passive hitter. Over the last five seasons, he’s swung at around 40% of the pitches that have been thrown in his general direction. During that same span, the average hitter swung at 45-46% of pitches he faced. Over 2,500 pitches, that’s a difference of about 125 swings, or something like 0.77 swings per game. Despite the fact that Votto is one of the most conservative swingers in the league, one fewer swing than an average hitter per game makes the difference appearĀ small.

Commentators and fans have frequently criticized Votto’s approach. He’s paid more than $22 million per year and many people equate that kind of money with power hitters who collect RBI. The criticism of Votto is that if he were less concerned about his own statistics (read: walks) and was more willing to put the ball in play, his team would score more runs. Votto’s an on-base machine because he has an excellent eye and derives a good portion of his value from reaching via the walk. This isn’t new information and the criticism has been ongoing for at least a few seasons.

The advanced stat community has defended Votto because he’s an excellent offensive player and there isn’t a lot of evidence that his club would be better off if he were more aggressive — and Votto himself has voiced similar opinions. Votto argues that if he was more aggressive, his overall value to the team would decline even if his home run or RBI totals went up. Based on the evidence we’ve compiled over the last couple of decades, it seems like he’s right. The funny thing is, in 2015, Votto is actually walking less and his results have been terrific. Did Votto listen to the critics?

Let’s start by setting aside 2014. Votto was clearly injured and it dramatically affected his ability to drive the ball regardless of his approach. Let’s look back to 2013. Votto played in every game and finished with excellent individual statistics. To compare:

2013 726 18.6% 19.0% .186 .360 156
2015 303 14.9% 18.5% .230 .332 155

His wRC+ is virtually identical in both seasons, with 2013 leaning more on walks and 2015 leaning more on power. Two different ways to arrive at the same individual numbers. His batted-ball types are relatively similar and his batted-ball direction has shifted from a heavy focus on the opposite field to a much more pull-friendly approach:

Year LD% FB% GB% Pull% Cent% Oppo%
2013 27.2% 29.2% 43.7% 31.2% 32.3% 36.5%
2015 24.7% 31.3% 43.9% 39.8% 36.3% 23.9%

If you only had these bits of information, it might be reasonable to wonder if Votto is becoming a more aggressive hitter. He’s walking less, hitting for more power, and he’s pulling the ball more. That sounds an awful lot like someone who is trying to attack the ball a little more and is having good results.

But the story is more complicated. Votto isn’t really swinging more often.

Year O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact% Contact% Zone%
2013 21.0 % 61.6 % 39.8 % 68.1 % 86.2 % 81.0 % 46.3 %
2015 20.4 % 63.3 % 40.4 % 71.4 % 82.8 % 79.7 % 46.5 %

The difference between a 39.8% swing rate and a 40.4% swing rate is about 15 swings per 2,500 pitches. It’s not nothing, but it’s pretty close to nothing. Of course we know that not all swings are created equal, but Votto’s not seeing a much higher percentage of pitches in the strike zone. In fact, the Zone% increase is larger than the Swing% increase, indicating that, on average, Votto is swinging at a lower percentage of pitches outside the zone, which we know is the case based on his O-Swing%.

However, this is all top-level analysis. We observe that Votto’s overall strike-zone behavior is very similar to the super-passive 2013 Votto, but perhaps we need to dig into Votto’s behavior in certain situations that might favor more aggression. If Votto is trading walks for hits in situations in which hits are much more valuable, this would be interesting. If he’s simply walking a little less because pitchers are throwing pitches he’s been looking for, then this isn’t much of anything.

Let’s explore Votto’s behavior with men on base compared to with the bases empty. Obviously, there are sample size reservations, but let’s see if there’s anything going on. We’ll shift to Baseball Savant for the splits now (through Wednesday’s action), so be mindful of minor differences in the data. We’ll call it Take% to distinguish it.

Year Total Take% Bases Empty Take% Men On-Base Take%
2013 61.1% 60.6% 61.6%
2015 60.3% 59.3% 61.7%

There’s almost no change. Votto takes a few more pitches with men on base in both seasons, but the difference is virtually identical. In fact, he’s actually a little more passive with men on base in 2015 compared to 2013.

To break it down even further, we can look at Votto’s approach in all 24 base-out states. The problem, however, is that you run into sample-size issues for some of the less common base-out states. For example, Votto saw three pitches with the bases loaded and no outs in 2013 and hasn’t been in that spot yet in 2015. Instead of showing a matrix with 10-12 useless cells, let’s collapse it down and compare assorted out states and then on-base states. Below we have tables that shows the change in Take% from 2013 to 2015 by base or out state. Positive numbers mean he’s taking more pitches in 2015 than 2013, negative numbers mean he’s taking a lower percentage of pitches. Starting with out state:

Year 0 Outs 1 Out 2 Out
2013 58.4% 61.8% 62.6%
2015 59.7% 60.5% 60.4%
Difference +1.3% -1.3% -2.20%

It’s not clear how much we should regress these numbers toward the mean, but it is interesting that Votto used to get progressively more patient as the number of outs increased, but has flattened that trend out in 2015. He used to get even more cautious about swinging with two outs, but now he swings about as freely as he does with no outs.

Now base state:

Runners 2013 2015 Difference
Empty 60.60% 59.30% -1.30%
1 _ _ 59.50% 63.30% +3.80%
_ 2 _ 62.30% 61.40% -0.90%
1 2 _ 58.30% 58.20% -0.10%
_ _ 3 62.30% 59.50% -2.80%
1 _ 3 52.90% 61.80% +8.90%
_ 2 3 65.80% 69.40% +3.60%
1 2 3 62.50% 58.80% -3.70%

We have the same uncertainty about regression toward the mean, but it doesn’t seem like there is a pattern here. As a rule, the sample size decreases as you move down the chart. With the bases empty, we’re talking about 1,647 pitches in 2013 and 752 pitches in 2015, but only 56 and 17, respectively, when we get to the bases loaded. Keeping that in mind, we find that Votto has been more passive in some spotsĀ and more aggressive in others. The 8.9-point jump with runners at first and third looks large, but the 2015 sample is just 34 pitches. In general, the base states don’t seem to indicate much.

Overall, his approach doesn’t seem different and if you squint, you can find that he’s been a little more aggressive with two outs and a little less aggressive with no outs. And that’s not only the case when it comes to takes and swings, it’s true when it comes to walk rate as well:

Year 0 Outs 1 Out 2 Outs
2013 12.9% 22.7% 19.5%
2015 19.0% 21.1% 13.6%

For reference, I also checked his wOBACON, which is his wOBA on contact for 2013 and 2015 and it came out to .445 and .458, respectively. Votto’s lost some value via the walk, but he’s on pace to add an extra six or seven runs above average of offensive value on contact over a full season. Can we say that’s because of a slightly altered approach? Probably not, but it’s worth mentioning as you evaluate the 2015 version of Votto. It’s entirely possible that the difference is random variation or it’s unrelated.

If you’re watching the RBI total, Votto is racking up more per PA than he did in 2013. He’s also producing a higher RE24 per PA, if you’re into context-dependent statistics that are a little more useful. Does that mean Votto has heard the complaints of the masses and has started to change his approach to cash in on run-scoring opportunities? I think the evidence slightly favors that conclusion, but only in a very limited way.

Yes, Votto is more aggressive with two outs than he was in 2013. He’s taking less and walking less in those situations in 2015, but here’s the kicker: in 2013, he had a .390 wOBA with two outs; in 2015, it’s .203. He has just four two-out RBI in 92 PA compared to 22 RBI in 251 two-out PA in 2013.

He’s been more aggressive with two outs this year, but the results have been worse any way you slice it. It might be too soon to suggest Votto has altered his approach to become a “run-producer,” but it seems pretty clear that if he attempting to do that, it hasn’t been a worthwhile pursuit. Votto is one of the best hitters in the league when healthy and there’s no reason for him to change. If this is a conscious effort, he’s better off returning to his old ways and if it’s simply the confluence of other contextual factors, a return to normalcy will only aid his spectacular resurgence.

Neil Weinberg is the Site Educator at FanGraphs and can be found writing enthusiastically about the Detroit Tigers at New English D. Follow and interact with him on Twitter @NeilWeinberg44.

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Neil, have you watched a Reds game this year? Tigers v. Reds don’t count.