Joey Votto Is Playing With His Food

Hi! You read FanGraphs, so you probably like Joey Votto. As such, you’re probably aware that, two seasons in a row, now, Votto has gone crazy in the second half. Last year, he boosted his game by increasing his hits, his power, and his walks. He ran a second-half wRC+ in the neighborhood of 200. This year, Votto is again running a second-half wRC+ in the neighborhood of 200. Once again, he’s increased his power. Once again, he’s increased his hits. Yet this time, the walks have stayed where they were. Votto isn’t earning free pass after free pass. Rather, somewhere around the middle of this season, Joey Votto just decided that he didn’t like striking out anymore.

votto-strikeouts

So he stopped. Votto, earlier, was more strikeout-prone than ever in his life. More recently, Votto has been less strikeout-prone than ever in his life. That graph seems like it should be impossible — where first-half Votto struck out a quarter of the time, second-half Votto has struck out a tenth of the time. To put it another way, while second-half Votto again has one of the highest walk rates in the league, he’s also managed a lower strikeout rate than Jose Altuve. You just can’t get the ball by Joey Votto anymore. He doesn’t allow pitchers to do it.

Perhaps just as amazing — second-half Votto hasn’t done any better in terms of avoiding two-strike counts. In the first half, Votto saw 29% of his pitches while in a two-strike count. In the second half, that’s risen, ever so slightly, to 30%. Votto is still disciplined, and, clearly, Votto is still letting counts run deep. And even when swinging in two-strike counts, Votto hasn’t necessarily gotten more aggressive or better at hitting the ball fair. His swing rate has risen just a couple points, and the same could be said of his in-play rate. That’s not where you can find an explanation for the whole drop-off.

The answer involves foul balls. When Votto swung with two strikes in the first half, he hit 38% fouls. That ranked him in the 39th percentile. When Votto has swung with two strikes in the second half, he’s hit 49% fouls. That ranks him in the 98th percentile, or, put differently, it puts him in second place. Votto has replaced two-strike whiffs with two-strike fouls, and there’s no penalty for a two-strike foul for a hitter. If you foul off a tough pitch, you earn the opportunity to see another pitch. Votto has fought pitches off and earned himself additional looks, and that’s how he’s maintained his sky-high walk rate while also keeping the defense on its collective toes. He’s refused to strike out, and he’s remained really good at everything else.

I don’t know why it would just click like this, and I don’t know why Votto wouldn’t have done this before, given how well it’s worked. I’m sure there’s a little bit of a hot-streak factor involved. But it’s not like there’s ever been any question that Votto is outstanding, and while there’s limited evidence that hitters overall are able to fight pitches off consistently when they need to, it makes sense that Votto could be an exception, given his almost unparalleled bat-to-ball skills and knowledge of the strike zone. At some point this year, Joey Votto didn’t want to strike out so much anymore. So he quit striking out so much. Everything else, he’s mostly maintained. You can’t say it’s mattered very much for the Reds, in the bigger picture, but at least Votto’s been able to have himself some fun.





Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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Garyth
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Garyth

That’s a graph. And I am a fan.