Owen just wrote about the fact that Joey Votto is having a fantastic season on a team that isn’t fantastic. That’s not exactly what Votto would prefer — on some level, every player has to be selfish, but Votto, like everyone, wants to be on a winner. One benefit of playing for a winner: winning is fun. Another benefit of playing for a winner: winners get attention. Votto is having an MVP-caliber year, but because of the team built around him, he’s putting his season together in almost total silence, which is greatly unfortunate. His overall numbers are outstanding. And his more recent numbers are almost inconceivable.
Maybe you’ve seen some of these; maybe you haven’t. If you saw some of these a few weeks ago, it’s not like Votto has slowed down. I’ll concede that splitting at the All-Star break is mostly arbitrary, but if we do that, then what’s revealed is nuts. It’s not just the categories that Votto’s leading. It’s the extent by which he’s in front. Over the last several weeks, Votto’s posted the highest walk rate in baseball, by eight percentage points. He’s posted the highest wOBA in baseball, by 69 points. He’s posted the highest OBP in baseball, by 101 points. Since about the time the All-Star Game rolled around, we’ve seen a player go the full Votto. The output is bewildering. We can see what’s happened. What’s driven what’s been happening?
I’ve gotten in the habit of doing something, so let’s do it again. This year, in what we call the second half, Votto has played 49 games. His OBP is an otherworldly .575. So let’s observe his career OBP on a plot of 49-game rolling averages. This should drive home the point that this stretch is almost genuinely unbelievable.
There you see him on the right, pushing .600. There are some strong, strong forces working against a sustained elevated OBP. Pitchers in the major leagues are incredibly good. Regression to the mean is like statistical gravity. Yet here’s Votto, reaching almost 60% of the time over almost a third of a full season. The plot is impressive in a few ways. Votto’s never had a long stretch of a sub-.300 OBP. There’s the obvious recent peak. There’s the fluctuation around .400. But before now, Votto spent very little time in the .500s. He’s blown by his old record. This is new offensive territory, for a player thought to be in decline.
A big part of OBP is hitting. Votto has hit very well. Unreasonably well. It’s not like he’s making much stronger contact — relative to the season’s first half, Votto’s second-half batted-ball speed is up a little more than two miles per hour. But he has sprayed the ball around a little more. With the help of Brooks Baseball, here’s Votto’s first-half spray chart:
And his second-half spray chart:
It’s not a dramatic shift, but it’s there — Votto is spending less time these days in right field. By the Baseball Info Solutions numbers, first-half Votto pulled 41% of his balls in play. Second-half Votto, meanwhile, has pulled 31% of his balls in play. At his best, Votto specialized in going up the middle and hitting toward left, so this looks like a conscious decision. He might’ve tried to pull the ball more when he was getting over his lower-body problems. Now that he has his legs under him again, he can go back to the way that he likes.
You can’t talk about this Votto, though, without talking about the discipline, and the walks. Last week, when I expressed surprise over what Ryan Goins has been doing, I listed him with Votto among the walk-rate leaders, but Votto’s really blowing everyone else away. This is the other part of OBP, and Votto just can’t stop reaching base. In the second half, he has baseball’s lowest swing rate, by three percentage points. In the second half, exactly 50% of the pitches Votto has seen have been balls. It reads like a case of productivity through passivity.
Yet that wouldn’t be totally accurate. For example, in the first half, Votto swung at 29% of first pitches. In the second half, 27%. His chase rate has gone down just two percentage points. The biggest change: Votto’s rate of swings at pitches in the zone has dropped from 63% to 53%. This version of Joey Votto is hunting, and when he’s in control, he doesn’t make compromises.
Pulling now from Baseball Savant, here’s Votto’s first-half swing map:
And, his second-half swing map:
I don’t know how clear certain differences are to you, so I’ll throw out some numbers. How much has Votto been hunting? Compared to the first half, Votto’s second-half swing rate at inside pitches over the plate is down 12 percentage points. A little more remarkably, Votto’s second-half swing rate at high pitches is down 13 percentage points — cut nearly in half. Votto has been looking for those pitches middle-away, at or below the thigh. This might be my favorite representative statistic:
First Half: 41% swing rate when ahead in count
Second Half: 28%
When Votto has been in control of the count, he’s sat his version of dead-red, and he’s been far less willing to go out of his own zone. So that’s made it more difficult for opposing pitchers to regain ground, and it’s also helped Votto directly, as the first-half version slugged .524 in such counts, while the second-half version is up at .944. Votto, basically, has been better about swinging at his pitches. He’s also maybe just put better swings on them, but Votto’s offered less frequently at pitches in his colder zones, and he’s been happy to take the resulting walks and hits. Pitchers probably realize they can work Votto up or inside, but they have to be precise, because missing means either a ball that Votto will take, or a strike that Votto will hit. He’s showing the world his zone, but it’s hard to exploit, because he’s too good, and most pitchers aren’t good enough.
We know now that Joey Votto is feeling healthy. He has his swing where he wants. And his eye never left him. Now he’s perhaps more focused than ever on just staying within his own hot zone, and though some might call that too passive, there’s simply no arguing with what Votto’s been able to accomplish. For a couple months, he’s essentially been Barry Bonds. Not all that many people have noticed, but then again, maybe that’s the way Votto likes it. He’s going the full Votto, and he’s playing like an MVP.
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.