Joey Votto wasn’t always Joey Votto. Not only is his mother happy about that fact — it would have made for quite a delivery — but his journey from the 44th pick in the 2002 draft to the hitter he is today covers a lot of ground. Talk to him about pulling the ball, infield fly balls, swing planes, and batted ball distance and you quickly understand that this is a man that studies and understands his craft. Learning his story from him can help us understand baseball better.
“I was a big pull hitter in high school, but when I tried to do that in Midwest League, I failed,” he said when we talked about hitting. He’s remembering it right, too — his .231/.348/.287 line in that league was very un-Votto-ian even if the walks were there. But since then he’s changed his approach in order to use the entire ballpark.
“The ability to spread the ball all over the field prevents shifting,” he said, and with his current approach, Votto thinks he’s “a tough guy to defend.” Specifically, Votto thought that the shift (and avoiding it) might be part of the reason why his .359 batting average on balls in play leads all hitters with with more than 2000 plate appearances since 2008.
That’s something we can check. The average BABIP for the top 10% of pull hitters (minimum 100 balls in play) was .273 in 2012. The top 10% of opposite-field hitters? They had a .308 BABIP. Already, without checking the handedness of the batter, we have some evidence that the opposite-field approach helps balls fall into play. But lefties are shifted more often. Now the effect is even more stark — the top 10% lefty pull hitters had a .274 BABIP and the top 10% lefty oppo hitters had a .312 BABIP. And there’s Joey Votto, the lefty with the third-highest opposite field percentage in baseball last year.
But it’s not just where he hits it. “I hit the ball hard,” said Votto. That understatement belies a kernel of truth: going opposite field means something different for Joey Votto than it does for the guy ahead of him on the list — Skip Schumaker.
The league had an isolated slugging percentage of .151 last season. Let’s take all the batters with an ISO above .150 as our sample. These guys ‘hit the ball hard’ even if not quite as hard as the Reds’ first baseman. Now the effect is even more stark. The top 10% power pull hitters had a .263 BABIP, and the top 10% power oppo guys had a .325 BABIP, and that was mirrored among the (now small-sample) power lefties (.268 pull/.315 oppo). Perhaps it’s not only about the exaggerated shifts that we think of with Mark Teixeira and David Ortiz — maybe it’s just that defenders have less ground to cover against pull hitters in general, and any amount of defensive positioning can have an effect on the hitters’ BABIP.
Most BABIP estimators have a component that uses batted ball mix. The thinking might be that more ground balls turn into hits than fly balls (.238 batting average vs .223), but maybe there’s more to it than that. “I learned my swing plane in rookie ball,” Votto said, once again referencing that bad stint in the short league, and agreeing that his new approach allowed him to cover more of the plate. The levelness of his bat through the zone is absolutely related to his pull vs. opposite field approach, he agreed, so it’s hard to separate these out.
But in the major leagues, Votto has always been an opposite field guy, it’s just a question of degree. “The year I won the most valuable player, I hit quite a few home runs, and I had a good swing plane, but last year was really my best,” Votto pointed out. Perhaps a look at two random swings from those two years will help us understand better what this means?
On the left is an early June swing at home in 2010. On the right is an early June (pre-injury) swing at home in 2012.
It does look like Votto finishes higher and with more of a flourish on the left, doesn’t it? Votto knows his swing well.
Certain pitchers will still try to induce pop-ups from the player that has hit the fewest infield flies in baseball — Jeff Sullivan famously noted that there have been more perfect games than Votto infield flies since 2009 — but being level with his swing allows Votto to “cover up” whatever holes a pitcher might be trying to target. “It’s got to be the perfect sliver of the strike zone, up and in-ish, and I have to take the wrong swing, and I have to swing at it,” said Votto. (And, yes, he agreed that Matt Cain is good at it.)
The data once again supports Votto’s assertion. Jeff Zimmerman showed last year that for all hitters, high and inside is the spot for infield pop-ups. The difficulty is that, as he points out, 73% of pitches taken in those spots are called for strikes, so batters often have to swing. He looked at Buster Posey against Edwin Encarnacion — Votto’s infield fly in 2012 came after his injury and didn’t make for good comparison — and found that batters that keep up their back elbow find success. That back elbow is also related to how pull-happy your swing is.
We’ve talked about how level his swing is, and how pull-conscious he’s been. But how hard Votto swings is part of it, too. As he said above, he’s had better power years than he had before his injury last year, and yet he felt better about his swing last season than he ever had before. “I bet if you took my average home run distance my rookie year, it was probably a good ten or twenty feet further, maybe.” Last year, Votto’s fly balls and home runs averaged 300.8 feet, good for the bottom of the top 20 among qualified batters. In his MVP season, they averaged 316.7 feet, or third in baseball.
As you can see, Votto “took less risks” with his swing as he puts it. And his swinging strike rate, which used to be above average (10.4% in 2010), has plummeted the last two years (6.9% last season). “There’s less of a chance I miss the ball with this swing,” says Votto, once again backed by the numbers.
He knows there’s a tradeoff — more ground balls and line drives means fewer home runs. “I might only hit 25 or 30 home runs,” with this approach, Votto said, but that approach is also “the reason why I was going to walk 140 times,” and “the reason why I was going to hit .340 or .350 or whatever I was going to hit by the end of the year before I got hurt.” Has he ever felt pressure to hit more home runs? “Not when you lead the league in slugging,” laughed Votto. And obviously the Reds value his contributions whether he leads the league in home runs or not.
Is Votto worried about his legacy, or place among the greats in the game, if he doesn’t have the home run totals traditionally associated with Cooperstown first basemen? “I just want to be in the conversation for the best player in the game, and I’d like to be in that conversation as long as I can,” he said. “Even if my numbers don’t match up to Eddie Murray, a 3,000/500 guy, if I do this for an extended period of time, maybe you can compare someone to what Sandy Koufax or Pedro Martinez did — you know great, for a short period of time, but they didn’t have the 300 wins or 3,000 strikeouts or whatever. If I don’t catch any of those numbers, that’s alright, that’s okay.”
There came a time after his debut where Votto decided his approach wasn’t working. As he puts it, “I chose not to make outs any more.” He leveled his swing, chose to hit the ball to all parts of the field, focused on contact, patience, and line drives, and became one of the best hitters in baseball. This might not all be prescriptive, since not everyone has the combination of contact ability and power that he does, but it certainly worked for him. And the numbers — maybe not the home runs or RBI — have agreed with him every step of the way.
With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.