How Long Can Joey Votto Hold Off Decline?

GOODYEAR, Ariz. — As you might imagine, Joey Votto has excellent eyesight.

And as you might also suspect, Votto knows his exact quality of eyesight, improved after undergoing LASIK surgery as a minor leaguer.

“20-13 and 20-17,” Votto told FanGraphs of his most recent right and left eye test scores. “I had good vision beforehand. It started going wonky [early in my professional career]. I didn’t want to deal with contacts.”

At 33, Votto was the best hitter in the NL last season. After a down 2014 season, in which he was limited to 62 games, he’s shown no signs of aging– if anything, he has improved, “aging” like a bottle of Mouton-Rothschild.

But he shouldn’t be improving. That’s weird. He should be showing some signs of skill decay. But instead, he posted his fourth-best wRC+ (165) last season, along with the second-best slugging (.578) and home-run (36) totals of his career. He trails only Mike Trout in wRC+ (166) over the last three seasons. All in his age-31 to -33 campaigns.

If anyone is going to challenge expectations and aging curves, and have us rethink what is possible, it’ll probably be either Trout or Votto. But Father Time remains undefeated.

A New York Times story last spring by David Epstein examined why athletic champions are getting older in certain sports. But despite that larger trend, Epstein argued such performance improvements might not be possible for baseball hitters. He wrote that decline in baseball is more predictable and harder to stave off, in part because visual acuity and processing begins to decline at age 29. Hitters do not age like Tom Brady. We haven’t exactly seen teams invest significantly in a bunch of age 30-plus hitters recently. And in no sport is visual identification and processing more important than in baseball, where batters have only milliseconds to decipher whether a 95 mph pitch is in or out of the hitting zone.

Votto is perhaps the most intellectual hitter in the game. He’s certainly on the short list of candidates. He can articulate his craft like few players can. So I was curious to ask Votto why he wasn’t showing any signs of declining as he ages, even as pitchers are throwing with more velocity and breaking stuff than ever before.

“Neither of us know if there is a decline,” Votto said. “I may have found ways to mitigate that [loss of physical skills]. I don’t have that answer.”

Maybe Votto is declining. On the surface it seems strange to suggest — especially after his MVP-caliber 2017 season — but Votto is perhaps the best or among the best at making adjustments, and he has acquired a great wealth of experience and baseball wisdom. That wisdom and its attendant curiosity might be overcoming physical decline. (This is an argument for rostering smart and curious players.)

Votto is willing to question everything and do just about anything. How many MVP candidates have the curiosity and lack of vanity to choke up four inches on a bat? That odd choking-up strategy may have helped Votto decrease his strikeout rate by six percentage points, to a career-best 11.7% last season.

While Votto choked up more aggressively in all counts last season, he tied Austin Barnes for the best two-strike wOBA mark (.359) in the game.

But at what point do physical skills and visual acuity decline so much that any amount of wisdom or best practice or choking up begins to fail to mitigate a decline? Is sight and visual processing the main culprit behind the rather predictable aging pattern for hitters?

We’ve tried to understand what hitters actually see at FanGraphs.

Eno Sarris surveyed hitters last summer, asking what they actually see out of a pitcher’s hand.

I explored how long batters can keep pace with velocity and am cited in this Driveline study by Anthony Brady on rethinking how a hitter’s brain works.

Wrote Brady:

“Experienced baseball players were found to actually have decreased activity during the Go/No-Go pitch recognition task in certain brain areas—specifically the frontal cortex, a part of the brain that is primarily in charge of deliberate decision-making. In the half a second that it takes for a pitch to travel to home plate, there is not enough time for a hitter to go through a deliberate decision-making process on whether or not to swing. Intuitively, this makes sense.”

So there might not be a conscious decision at all. Hitting is about processing speed. It’s a reaction.

“You’re definitely not making conscious decisions,’” Votto said. “I’m almost 100% certain about that.”

What does perhaps the game’s greatest left-handed hitters actually see?

“Little frames. Little flashes,” Votto said. “A swing or no-swing window.”

Votto’s articulation seems to verify the aforementioned Driveline research.

His performance against fastballs was second in the majors last season, according to linear weights. How is Votto, and how are other hitters, adapting to velocity?

“It’s a subtle difference,” Votto said of the increasing velocity in the game. “Most of the stuff I do, and I think I speak for a lot of guys, is anticipation… Five mph from 10 years ago doesn’t mean it’s this entirely different pitch. It’s a subtle difference. We’ve seen fastballs since we are little boys. It’s more of a timing thing. As far as a thought process, it’s really an instinctive move.”

Carlos Santana, an owner of an elite walk rate, also spoke to me about a swing or no-swing window for a piece I wrote for The Athletic last summer. Since 2010, Votto ranks first in the majors in walk rate (17.5%), while Santana ranks third (15.2%). Santana said he employs a visualization trick where he imagines a circle half between the plate and the mound. If the ball goes through the circle he begins to trigger his swing.

But walk rate doesn’t age that well, as Jeff Zimmerman found in updating aging curves a few years back.

Maybe decline is right around the corner. Velocity keeps increasing. Reaction time keeps decreasing. Time erodes physical skills, including sight, which isn’t just tied to an eye exam score but in tracking objects and processing what we see. The human brain starts to slow down earlier than you might expect.

Choking up four inches on a bat probably doesn’t hurt, either. But Votto won’t be able to adapt forever.

A year ago, I approached Jose Bautista after a World Baseball Classic exhibition match in Bradenton, Fla. I asked him about his belief in defying aging curves, and also about bouncing back in 2017 (which didn’t happen).

Bautista was adamant that his strict workout regime, eye work, and diet would allow him to beat aging models. He wanted to be the Tom Brady of baseball. And if modern sports science and training allowed hitters in their 30s to begin to age more gracefully, there could be significant impacts for, say, free agency.

Said Bautista last March:

“I can’t predict the future but I can tell you the average human lifespan now is better, longer, healthier than it was 50 years ago,” Bautista said. “I feel like your body has gauges with blood work and different medical assessments to see what is moving, what is not, what is inhibitive. I believe you can develop a system to work on it and improve it.”

The tests in which Bautista regularly engages are designed to “identify dysfunctional movement patterns and asymmetries within the body.” Still, despite this maintenance and the “eye work” Bautista does to try and enhance reaction time, he continued to decline last year. Every hitter, if he plays long enough, will enter that phase.

How long can Votto keep his at bay? It’s difficult to know because even the game’s most intellectual hitter cannot explain precisely how he is doing it. But whatever he’s been doing, he’s been doing it well.

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.

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6 years ago

God, I love Joey Votto.

(Sawchik ain’t half-bad either.)