Think of some facts about Joey Votto.
Chances are that your brain just made a number of connections. The first things that came to mind were an image of Votto, the fact he plays first base for the Reds, and perhaps his number and his contract. He’s also Canadian, which you may have known. Once your brain had covered some basic personal data regarding Votto, you probably moved to a summary of him as a baseball player. His elite on-base skill, his patience, his power (when healthy) and the whole controversy about how aggressive he should be at the plate. Beyond that, perhaps you considered his WAR, his freakish ability to avoid pop ups and maybe even the fact he’s known as a contemplative guy.
The preceding paragraph is a flyover view of Votto. It’s the kind of thing an average fan of an American League team might be able to recite about him. He’s the Reds’ really good left-handed-hitting first baseman who has a big contract and is known for his high on-base percentage.
So while I hardly expect the average person or even the average FanGraphs reader to be a Votto scholar, there is one significant component to his game that doesn’t seem to receive enough attention: Joey Votto is extraordinarily good against lefty pitching.
Votto debuted in 2007 and has collected 1,472 PA against left-handed pitching. His slash line against southpaws during that span is .298/.399/.505, which is a .394 wOBA. He’s come to the plate 3,285 times against right-handed pitching and has hit .316/.434/.547 (.417 wOBA). That 23 point wOBA split doesn’t seem terribly exciting right off the bat. Since 2007, Votto is third in overall wRC+ among hitters with at least 1,000 PA, so that fact he’s good against righties and lefties doesn’t immediately seem like a revelation.
Take a step back and look at wOBA against left-handed pitching since 2007 for hitters who have at least 500 PA against lefties. Votto’s .394 wOBA ranks 19th. To find another lefty, you need to drop down to Daric Barton — at 75th — and his .361 wOBA in 577 PA. Chase Utley is next — at 83rd — with a .359 wOBA in 1,663 PA. Hideki Matsui, Nori Aoki, David Ortiz, Robinson Cano, Bryce Harper and Prince Fielder slot in between 117th and 126th with wOBAs — ranging from .343 to .347.
Keep in mind this is a low PA threshold. Asking for 500 PA against left-handed pitchers in a nine-year window should catch a lot of players. It’s 333 hitters, 95 of whom are left-handed. You’re obviously going to miss players whose careers ended early in the window and players whose careers began late in the window, but that’s always true. Among the 95 left-handed hitters who got a decent number of plate appearances against left-handed pitching in the past nine years, Votto is significantly better than all of them. He appears to be uniquely positioned as the left-handed batter least vulnerable to being neutralized by a good southpaw.
To give you a sense, left-handed hitters had a .295 wOBA against left-handed pitching in 2015. It was .324 against right-handed pitching. Putting it up against that backdrop makes it seem ordinary, but there’s a lot you miss when you just consider the overall average.
For example, many left-handed hitters don’t start if a tough lefty is on the mound, or they get pulled when a tough lefty comes into the game. You wouldn’t pull Utley, Ortiz or Cano when someone brings in Andrew Miller — but you would definitely pull someone like Alex Avila or Adam Lind. So in reality, the LHH vs LHP split oversamples good left-handed hitters and makes the average true-talent split much higher. So let’s take a look at those 95 lefties and plot their overall wOBA against their wOBA split for the same sample. Votto stands out big time.
This chart essentially communicates that left-handed hitters who are good overall are usually good because they hammer righties. There isn’t one way to be a valuable player, but Votto basically stands out as the only super-good, left-handed hitter without a sizable platoon split. Now, of course, we don’t want to confuse an observed platoon split over multiple years with a true-talent platoon split. You always want to regress a player’s observed split depending on the number of plate appearances and performance against both types of pitchers. For our purposes, though, the observational data is sufficient. Votto has done something remarkable, even if random variation drives some of its unusual nature.
You can also pull out some fun batter-versus-pitcher stats, if you’re into that kind of thing. While this doesn’t tell you much on its own, Votto had a 1.000 OPS against Madison Bumgarner, a 1.053 OPS against Cliff Lee and a 1.533 OPS against Gio Gonzalez. There are plenty of counter-examples, however, like his .393 OPS against C.C. Sabathia.
So we’ve established an interesting baseline: Votto is tremendous overall. He’s one of the best hitters in the game, period, and he’s also the only left-handed hitter who is anywhere close to the top of the “Versus Left-Handed Pitching” leaderboard. Votto makes his money by killing both righties and lefties in a way that’s quite unusual. What is it about Votto that makes him lefty-proof? I have a theory, but that’s all it is.
There are basically two reasons hitters have trouble with same-side pitchers. The first is we think it’s hard to make solid contact with a ball traveling away from you. So lefties can neutralize lefties with breaking balls, and righties can do the same to righties — especially utilizing sliders. We often think pitchers with good changeups are less prone to platoon splits because the changeup breaks toward the same-side hitter.
One explanation might be Votto is exceptionally skilled at handling breaking balls, but I can’t find any clear evidence that is the case. Maybe it’s true — as pitch sequencing and location are critical to a thorough analysis and beyond what we can analyze simply — but I think the cause is something else.
The other part of the platoon advantage, we think, is visual. The way batters are set up to face pitchers makes it harder to see the ball from the same-side pitchers. The ball is coming from behind them to some extent and the way vision works, perhaps hitters lose a fraction of a second in reaction time, meaning their brain calculates the expected location of the pitch a bit later than they’d like and it leads to slightly less favorable contact. This is why pitchers with lower arm angles seem to have bigger splits. Jared Cross’ recent work supports both of these platoon explanations.
Like I said, I have a simple theory that explains Votto. Obviously, he’s an amazing hitter, but there are lots of good lefties who can dominate righties without nearly as much success against lefties. Which brings me back to those Joey Votto facts.
Votto is known for his walks. He’s known for his patience. In other words, he’s known for his eye. His ability to discern balls from strikes is legendary. Votto is better than anyone at deciding which pitches are strikes and which aren’t.
It stands to reason that Votto has an exceptionally good view of the baseball, relative to his peers. Maybe that comes from the way he turns his head, the quality of his actual eyeballs, or his brain’s ability to process visual signals from his eyes. It would make sense that a lefty who could hit lefties would either have to be good at hitting sliders or would have some skill that mitigated the visual advantage left-handed pitchers seem to have.
Given that we think of Votto as having a great eye, could it be as simple as Votto merely being able to get a better look at left-handed pitchers than his fellow left-handed hitters? If platoon splits are driven in large part by visual factors, you would expect to see batters with good eyes have less pronounced splits. Obviously, FanGraphs doesn’t have the resources to put hitters through complicated visual tests to verify this claim, but it’s one that is at least intellectually satisfying.
Votto is known for being a great, patient hitter who is allergic to pop ups. Most right-handed bats would kill for Votto’s numbers against lefties. And while his year-to-year platoon split bounces around like we might expect, his overall career arc is pretty clear: he hasn’t been as vulnerable to lefties as most left-handed hitters. There has to be a reason why that’s the case. Variation is one factor, perhaps, but it’s not as if Votto is a little better or has only been better for a short time. This is sustained, substantial advantage.
The best theory I can spin is that something about Votto’s eyes allow him to see the ball from a lefty much better than other left-handed bats. While we can’t necessarily prove it, it makes sense. And it reminds us that having a good eye isn’t only about talking walks. It’s about laying off bad pitches so you can swing at good ones. It’s about squaring up the pitches you do swing at to get the maximum contact quality. Votto is about to finish in the top three in the National League’s most valuable player race in no small part because he dominates lefties in a way none of his peers do. Even though we appreciate so much about Votto, that particular fact hasn’t received the attention it deserves.
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.