Last year, Joey Votto put up the kind of year that is hard to live up to, winning the NL MVP with a monster +7.4 win season and carrying the Reds to the NL Central title. He hit .324/.424/.600 and was essentially Pujolsian throughout the summer. He hit for average, hit for power, took his walks, and stole 16 bases to boot. If you wanted to find a flaw in his game, you’d have to nitpick at things, and maybe you’d start with his slightly elevated strikeout rate, which suggested that he probably couldn’t keep hitting .320+ while racking up 100 whiffs per year.
So, rather than watch his average regress, Votto has apparently decided to just do away with the strikeouts instead. Through the first ten games of the season, Votto has come to the plate 46 times, but struck out on only four occasions. While the sample is obviously too small to draw any firm conclusions, the zone data suggests that pitchers are being far more careful with Votto this year, and he’s adjusted quickly to being pitched around.
For his career, 45.3% of the pitches Votto has been thrown have been in the strike zone, though that number has been dropping for each of the past few years as pitchers have figured out how good he really is. This year, only 36.2% of the pitches Votto has seen have been strikes, the lowest total of any hitter in baseball. Rather than getting frustrated by the lack of pitches he’s being given to hit and expanding his zone, Votto has actually gone the other way – he’s cut his O-Swing% to 23.1%, down from 29.9% last year.
He’s still swinging at strikes just as frequently, but he’s getting more pitches out of the zone and chasing a lower rate of those pitches to begin with. The result is Votto being in more hitter’s counts, and as most good hitters are, he’s a beast when he can sit on a fastball – the only count that Votto posts wOBA of lower than .400 on is 0-2 and 1-2, but he’s essentially avoiding those counts entirely by not swinging at pitches out of the zone early in the count.
As a result, his walks are way up and his strikeout rate is half of what it was last year, and he’s now putting balls in play at levels you normally expect from slap-hitting middle infielders. Rather than sacrificing power to make better contact, he’s just sacrificed swinging and missing at pitches out of the strike zone, and the result is a guy who is essentially impossible to get out right now. He won’t be able to sustain this kind of performance, of course, but the fact that he could so quickly adapt to pitchers changing their approach in how they pitch him is a good sign.
The other “flaw” that Votto had last year was his relative struggles against left-handers. He put up a .468 wOBA against RHPs, but “just” a .382 mark against LHPs. So far in 2011, in the 10 plate appearances he’s had against same-handed pitchers, he’s 7 for 9 with a walk and, of course, no strikeouts.
Yeah. Good luck, National League managers – I have no idea how you’re supposed to get this guy out.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.