Joey Votto’s Most Joey Votto Game

Excuse me there. May I have just a minute of your time? Maybe five. I know there’s a playoff race going on. I know Gary Sanchez is hitting all of the home runs and Rich Hill is back. I know the Royals are surging and the Giants are freefalling, and that’s all well and good, but would you mind if I spent some time this afternoon talking about a game played by a last-place team three weeks ago? I’m bringing it up now because I’m afraid we all missed it when it happened, and I can’t let that go on any longer. You see, since the start of June, Joey Votto’s been safe more than he’s been out, and in the midst of this ridiculous run, he had what may be the most Joey Votto game of all the Joey Votto games, and that seems like the sort of thing of which we should all take note. I’m glad I have your attention. Let’s begin.

The first article we wrote about Votto after Opening Day this season was about the unfathomable reality of a bad Votto month. Unfathomable, because Votto is amazing. Reality, because it really was a bad month. Votto started the season by hitting .213 over his first 212 plate appearances. Even with all the walks and some decent power, that nearly two-month stretch made for just an 91 wRC+. Not great, Bob.

In the three months since then, though, Votto’s gotten back to Votto. Very nearly peak Votto. His slash line dating back 311 plate appearances is the sort of thing at which you simply look and laugh: .380/.502/.603. Which has led to a 190 wRC+. Three months of that. Votto hit like Coco Crisp for the first two months of the season, and now he’s got one of the 10 best batting lines in the league. Funny what having a .500 OBP for three months will do.

Back on August 2, the Cincinnati Reds hosted the St. Louis Cardinals in the first game of a three-game series. The Reds won, 7-5, on a Scott Schebler walk-off, three-run homer. Votto represented the winning run. That means Votto was on base. That’s because Votto was on base the entire game. He went 4-for-4 with a double and a walk. He also drove in two. That’s not what’s important. I mean, that’s impressive, but it wasn’t even his best game of the year by wRC+, or by WPA, or by RE24. A great game, but judging just by results, he’s had better.

I don’t care to judge just by results. The most Joey Votto game ought to encapsulate what makes Votto Votto, and that means not only a spectacular performance, but a spectacular performance combined with the thing which Votto does better than anyone in the world: control the strike zone. Votto saw 15 pitches that day. Here are those 15 pitches:

Votto

Votto saw 10 pitches classified as being outside the PITCHf/x strike zone. He swung at zero of them. That’s an O-Swing% of 0%. That’s the best O-Swing% one can have. He saw five pitches inside the parameters of that same strike zone, and swung at four. That’s a Z-Swing% of 80%. Votto’s started 1,200 games in his career, and that 80-point difference between his Z-Swing and O-Swing rates ranks 41st. In none of the 40 games in which he showed better swing discipline did he post a higher WPA.

August 2, 2016 was arguably the greatest combination of strike-zone control and single-game performance in Joey Votto’s career. Of course we’re going to look at all the pitches.

Plate appearance No. 1

Fittingly, the ever-patient Votto begins the game that might best encapsulate his entire career by swinging at the first pitch and smacking a ground-rule double into center field. Despite an overall swing rate that routinely ranks among the league’s lowest, Votto’s first-pitch swing rate is actually right around league average, perhaps a product of pitchers attempting to prey on his passivity combined with Votto’s recognition of when to attack hittable pitches when they’re given to him. Like this one, which was thrown right in his new wheelhouse.

Plate appearance No. 2

It’s the worst pitch Votto sees all day. Adam Wainwright knows it slipped as soon as it leaves his hand. You don’t have to be Joey Votto take this pitch. This concludes the most uneventful .gif in this post.

Another pretty poor pitch, one which doesn’t take much effort to lay off. Wainwright’s feeling out his mechanics. Or he doesn’t want to give a red-hot Joey Votto a fat pitch in a 1-0 count of a tie game.

Owing to the latter theory above, Wainwright tries to get back into the count from 2-0 by flipping in a breaking ball. Wainwright’s got more confidence in his curveball than most any pitcher in the league, and he spots a pretty great one just inches outside. The remarkable thing about this clip is how quickly Votto spits on the pitch. This beautiful, well placed curve has barely reached the apex of its break before Votto recognizes it as a pitch at which he doesn’t want to swing and takes the bat off his shoulder. Ball three.

Two Votto plate appearances, two seemingly un-Votto-like moves: a first-pitch swing and a 3-0 swing. Except, the 3-0 swing actually is quite Votto-like. He’s swung at a quarter of all 3-0 pitches this season, three times the league-average rate. It’s not a normal 3-0 pitch from Wainwright, either; he gives Votto a different look by exaggerating the leg kick in his delivery, but throws a fastball right now the middle which Votto laces into center for a single.

Plate appearance No. 3

Unlike the first-pitch fastball in the last plate appearance, this one’s close, but Votto still correctly takes to get ahead in the count, 1-0. Votto’s been ahead in the count for 26% of all pitches he’s seen this year, which unsurprisingly ranks in the top 10 of all qualified batters.

Another great curveball thrown by Wainwright in an attempt to get back into the count, and another great take by Votto. Wainwright’s curve generates one of the highest swing rates of any curveball in baseball. Wainwright thrives on getting batters to chase this very pitch in hitter’s counts. Except for when Joey Votto is batting.

Close to the 1-0 pitch from their second encounter, Wainwright comes inside with the fastball but misses too far in, and Votto lays off. Back to 3-0.

Here’s one of two “incorrect” decisions made by Votto all game, and PITCHf/x didn’t even think it was a strike. It’s a 3-0 cutter, high, which barely catches the upper edge of the zone. Votto, clearly, isn’t pleased with the call. My gut tells me in any non-3-0 count, this goes for a ball. One of Votto’s two “incorrect” decisions sure is tough to classify as incorrect.

Doesn’t matter. Votto spits on yet another relatively well spotted Wainwright curve in a hitter’s count and draws the walk. Wainwright probably wanted this pitch a little more up, but Votto’s clearly seeing the curve well out of the hand. Most batters likely swing and miss at this pitch. Votto reaches for a third consecutive trip.

Plate appearance No. 4

Wainwright’s been replaced by Kevin Siegrist, and Siegrist starts Votto off with a first-pitch knuckle curve, something he rarely does. Wainwright, with his slowed 3-0 delivery, and Siegrist, with this first-pitch curve, have now each deviated from standard practice in an attempt to throw Votto off. Neither attempt worked. Votto’s ahead again. Votto’s been ahead all game.

Another curve. Siegrist throws the curve behind in the count to lefties even less often than he throws it first pitch. It’s an unbelievably perfect curveball. This is my favorite pitch of the game. Nobody takes this pitch. This is advantage: Siegrist, 99 times out of 100. Votto is the one. He’s ahead, 2-0.

Votto’s only real “mistake” of the game, as he takes a 2-0 fastball down the middle for a strike. Still ahead, 2-1. Ends up not mattering.

Look at the bat in Votto’s hands. Look where he’s holding it. Votto told our own Eno Sarris last year that he chokes up to get the barrel closer to his body so he can hit the inside pitch to the middle of the field. Seriously. Votto wins.

Plate appearance No. 5

It’s Seung Hwan Oh now, one of baseball’s most unhittable pitchers, in to attempt to preserve a one-run lead. The ultimate Joey Votto game ends the same way it began: with Votto going after a high fastball on the first pitch for a hit. For a fifth time in five tries, Votto’s on base. Three batters later, Votto scores the winning run on Schebler’s walk-off homer.

* * *

Since June 1, Joey Votto’s on-base percentage is .505. On August 2, it was 1.000. On that day, he saw 15 pitches, and made the correct decision on what appears to be 93% of those pitches. Maybe 100%. Baseball doesn’t always have to be a game of failure.





August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at august.fagerstrom@fangraphs.com.

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dirtbag

“He saw six pitches inside the strike zone, and swung at four. That’s a Z-Swing% of 80%.”

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