Dictating the Action with Joey Votto

“It’s like a boxer who is always trying to lead the guy into his straight. You have to manipulate him with your footwork. Same type of thing in baseball. You have to figure out a way to funnel [the pitcher] into your hot zone. That comes with patience and that comes with accepting or realizing there will be some error on their side.

“It’s almost like as a hitter you have to be a counter puncher. The best way to be a counter puncher is just to sit and wait and absorb and then counter with whatever you think your strength is.”

Joey Votto to David Manel, last September

CLEVELAND – Baseball is an unusual team sport in that the defense possess the ball. Pitchers have the advantage of dictating the action, the location, and type of pitch. But the idea articulated by Votto in the epigraph above is fascinating, this idea of “funneling,” of batters influencing pitchers. It led me to Votto’s locker in the corner of the visiting clubhouse at Progressive Field last week.

A willing and introspective Votto is a great resource if you’re interested in discussing the art of hitting. I suppose it’s akin to having access to this generation’s Ted Williams. I was curious to learn more about this idea of dictating action from the batter’s box, imposing will from there, to learn more about Votto’s renowned selective aggressiveness. Votto leads baseball in the ratio of swings on pitches in zone compared to swings out of the zone as Ben Lindbergh noted recently. But I was particularly curious to speak with Votto because it seems like several of the game’s best young hitters are following elements of Votto’s approach. With the data-density charts that have become available in recent years, we can now see what maturation, what selective aggressiveness, looks like.

Miguel Sano has become a fearsome hitter because he’s more selective. It appears as though he’s looking in a smaller area to do damage this year. While Bryce Harper declined to discuss his approach, he also appears to be having great success by zeroing in. And there was, of course, the great April surprise that was Eric Thames, who credits his success in part to taking advantage of idle hours in South Korea where he learned to be selectively aggressive, or perhaps and even more refined version of that philosophy that Votto dubbed “funneling.”

Consider a data-density chart of Thames’ swings this year (via Baseball Savant). Thames clearly has an area he prefers to target.

Compare Harper’s swing frequency last season…

… to his MVP-caliber start to this season:

Sano chased more pitches far out of the zone last season…

… compared to this season:

To me, all of them appear to be funneling — whether or not they would characterize it that way. How much of the skill is innate, from physical gifts and temperament? How much is a learned discipline? Players don’t often claim to read newspapers or blogs or listen to talk-radio shows, but Votto said he had read my FanGraphs piece on Thames and boredom. He said it resonated with him.

“Eric reminded me a lot of me. That sounds incredibly arrogant,” said Votto with a laugh, catching himself in comment he didn’t intend to sound immodest. “What I mean, what he was saying about being in isolation in Korean and watching [Barry] Bonds video and trying to copy that, I was doing that at 18, 19 years old when I was in the minor leagues. What he is describing, I tried to implement. He and I are running parallel. He did it kind of in an environment that allowed for a little more failure because he was not on the biggest stage. I was kind of the same way in the minor leagues. You get to try things and fail and make them into a reality, if you are so lucky.

“I don’t know if there is something to that, or if he and I are two guys with similar skill sets. But what he was saying about visualization, about attempting things in games… trying to be a different version of a hitter, of himself. That really, really hit home.”

Votto said he was lucky to have entered pro ball in the internet era, at a time when MLB.TV existed. When he was with Dayton in the Midwest League in 2003 and 2004, and Potomac and Sarasota in High-A 2004 and 2005, Votto said he spent many hours in hotels, on team buses, in the room of his host family’s house logging onto his MLB.TV account and watching video of hitters’ complete at-bats, hitters he wanted to emulate. He most often watched Bonds and Todd Helton. “I told Helton when we played against him that I used to watch him and he said, ‘I feel old. Thanks a lot,'” Votto recalled.

Votto watched their approaches against left-handed pitchers, the direction in which they hit certain pitchers. He watched them work at-bats, their ability to not expand their zones.

“I have not been passionate about anything except this,” Votto said of hitting. “I think [about] the Einstein quote ‘I am not intelligent, I am passionately curious.’ I think I’ve been very, very curious and consistently passionate about hitting, about my job, about being a complete player, and helping the team win. I think that stands out to me, and I felt that from a very young age.”

Votto and Thames — and perhaps also Harper and Sano — have taken parallel tracks to arrive at the same selectively aggressive approach, patiently waiting for pitchers to make a mistake in their preferred zones, “funneling” pitches there.

Even Votto is still evolving. Consider data-density charts over the last three years illustrating where Votto has swung (once again, via Baseball Savant). Votto’s swings seem to have become more concentrated:

Votto’s swings in 2015:

Votto’s swings in 2016:

Votto’s swings in 2017:

Votto believes elite hitters are elite athletes and getting the barrel to the pitch is a skill very few people possess. Hitting, of course, is said to be perhaps the most difficult athletic feat in major pro sports. What Votto has done, though, is combine those gifts with a refined and honed philosophy of counterpunching, what he described to me as “creating a really consistent habit of swinging at pitches in that zone give you a really good chance.”

And this season, Votto keeps counterpunching, he continues to influence and dictate the action — only he has done it in a slightly different fashion this year. He’s had to come up with a counter-counterpunch as pitchers aggressively attacked his passivity early in counts.

Last week, Jeff wrote about how Votto has simply stopped striking out and how he’s swinging at fewer balls and more strikes. His 19.3% out-of-zone swing percentage would be nearly a career low. His 69.7% in-zone swing rate, meanwhile, would represent nearly a career high. The 50-point gap between those figures is unprecedented in Votto’s career.

It’s really been a tale of two months for Votto. In April, Votto was as aggressive as we’ve seen him. He swung at a nearly 22% of pitches out of the zone, 81.0% of pitches in the zone, and 46.7% of pitches of overall. Votto was a hacker.

This approach was intentional. But pitchers were also more often testing Votto early in counts, throwing first-pitch strikes at a 60.6% rate. Only in one season since 2010, had pitchers thrown first-pitch strikes to Votto more often than 54.5% of the time and that was back in 2014 (57.4%). Pitchers have thrown into the zone against Votto at a 48.4% rate this season, the most in-zone pitches Votto has ever seen.

Said Votto to intrepid Cincinnati Enquirer reporter Zach Buchanan on May 9:

“I’ve got a lot of pitches out over the plate,” Votto said. “In this league, if you’re going to be tested, you have to answer quickly. I feel like if you show signs of weakness, people attack that pretty quickly. I felt I was getting a lot of pitches and my instincts were to swing. I think that was a good sign.”

In May, pitchers backed off, throwing 54.6% first-pitch strikes, and Votto’s walk rate has spiked to nearly 23%. After testing Votto in a different way, they have seemingly backed off, and Votto has reverted to being Votto. Votto has become a more extreme version of his former self, hardly swinging at any balls. He’s offered at just 13.2% pitches out of the zone in May and just over 41% of pitches overall (42.5% career mark).

If you prefer visuals, here is a data-density chart of Votto’s swings in April, a beautiful heart-shaped — or perhaps it’s Ohio-shaped — heat map:

In May, Votto has zeroed in in specific areas within the strike zone.

The data, the visuals, Votto’s statements: all of them seem to verify that he was able to effectively counterpunch. He posted a .322 isolated-slugging mark in April. He’s now back to being ultra-selective and hunting select zones in which he can do damage as pitchers revert to the norm of carefully pitching to Votto.

He’s a counter puncher with a variety of counter measures, and it’s allowed him to dictate action, to influence events, even in a sport where he doesn’t possess the ball.

A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
6 years ago

It’s a shame Votto doesn’t get the mainstream attention that someone like him deserves – the man offers a level of firsthand insight that you don’t hear often. Hopefully he joins MLB Network when his playing days are up

6 years ago
Reply to  ARodTheGOAT

It would be pretty cruel to subject Votto to a forced conversation with Chris Russo or Harold Reynolds every day.

6 years ago
Reply to  gfas

Oof… Fair point!

mr. N
6 years ago
Reply to  gfas

what if his TV moniker was Vlotto? It’s gritty, it’s got street cred. Plus he can keep his monogrammed slippers.