It’s always a little dicey writing negative articles. Pointing out deficiencies simply isn’t as fun as pointing out strengths, and there’s something that just feels, well, a little wrong about basing work on something a player is trying so hard to do well. That doesn’t feel like it pertains to this article about Joey Votto, however, mostly because he’s always been extremely good at baseball, and will almost certainly be extremely good at baseball in the near future. Votto has a great contract, an incredible career under his belt, and the prospect of many more wildly successful seasons. The dude is smart and awesome, and we’re simply not too worried about him. However — and the however is important — for really the first time in his career, Votto has been terrible at the plate for almost a full month. That’s at once unbelievable and utterly fascinating, and it’s the reason why we’re here.
So let’s start with a chart. Here’s a readout of Votto’s monthly wRC+ figures since he was called up to the majors in September of 2007. We could have gone with a rolling average, but the monthly delineation gives us a few clear reference points. Mouse over the chart for more information:
Of note: Joey Votto is decent at hitting baseballs. Of further note: we can see a few months of his career during which he dipped down below league-average offensive production, but there’s no other month like April of 2016. Nothing even really comes close. From this chart, we’d be hard-pressed to say that Votto is prone to slumps, in the general understanding of slumps. In the past, Votto’s “slumps” have amounted basically to producing at around the same level as Danny Espinosa has during his entire career. Espinosa does other things well, but regardless, that tells us the level of slumping with which we’re dealing. We talk a lot about ceilings for star players because we like to see humans achieve incredible things, but we don’t pay a ton of attention to the strength of the floor. We know Votto has a hell of a ceiling; he might have an even better floor.
About a month ago, our own professional sandwich artist/baseball-analyst moonlighter Eno Sarris wrote about what Votto did last May. In essence, Votto tried something different: He pulled the ball at the highest monthly rate during his career, ostensibly to try to hit more home runs. It was a reaction to being pitched inside, and it ended up not really working. Or, as Votto told Eno: “[It] just doesn’t work with my swing.” He’s right: per the chart above, May of 2015 was his worst month offensively since September of 2011. He ended up pulling only two fly balls that entire month.
As it turns out, Votto is at it again! He’s showing a lot of the same tendencies as last May, especially related to pulling the ball. Take a look at his batted-ball approach between his career average, last May, and this April:
He’s right on with May of 2015, pulling the ball at over 10 more percentage points than his career average. We also see that Votto has been hitting the ball extremely well from a contact perspective, but is also hitting more ground balls than he has during his career — about splitting the difference between his career norm and May of 2015. So let’s dig a little deeper. Does the way he’s being pitched tell us anything? Take a look at his pitch heat map from last year vs. this year:
That’s a pretty remarkable difference in how pitchers have approached him this season. He’s getting pounded on the inside part of the plate, off the inside edge, and down. We know who Votto is, and that is a hitter with a tendency to go the other way — often with authority. Pitchers want Votto to pull the ball, and pull the ball on the ground, because that takes him out of his comfort zone. As it turns out, there’s more than one reason they want him to pull the ball:
|PA% w/ Shift||Shift Pull%||Shift GB%||wOBA vs. Shift|
This is about as neat and tidy of a yearly increase as we see. Every year, Votto has seen an increase in the percentage of plate appearances against a defensive shift, and every year he’s pulled more balls toward the shift. The pitching approach above certainly has something to do with it, but the outcomes from the shift increase this season look extra brutal due to a BABIP of just .160 when the shift has been employed. From a hard-contact perspective, he’s never hit more balls with authority against the shift than this month, so that will normalize to some extent. His overall BABIP of .268 this season is almost 90 points lower than his career average of .356, so a lot of what we’re seeing overall is probably noise given the quality of contact statistics. Things will almost certainly get better, even if Votto keeps doing the exact same thing he’s been doing. That’s the good news.
Yet it seems like this is becoming a new paradigm for Votto, and one to which he’ll have to adjust. It’s not just his balls in play toward the shift that are suffering as a result of being pitched inside so much; he’s also running a career-high strikeout rate, and he currently has the lowest walk rate since his first full season in 2008. We only have just reached/are approaching the stabilization point for those strikeout and walk statistics (respectively), so there’s still a lot of noise there. But there’s some signal, too: for the first time in his career, Votto’s running significant negative run values against off-speed and breaking pitches, and we’ve seen him take multiple swings like this:
The batter in that clip resembles Joey Votto: he is hitting with a full count, he’s choked up on the bat, he’s wearing his tight pants. And yet that swing is not a normal Votto swing. That’s the swing of a hitter who just got a type of pitch he didn’t expect in a place he didn’t expect it. You could point out, hey, that’s just one swing, even the great ones take swings like that sometimes — especially against a pitcher like Gerrit Cole. And you’d be right.
But we can pull video of four or five more examples of that type of swing, and it’s the story of Votto’s 2016 so far: pitchers are doing things they haven’t done to him before. They’re surprising him, and busting him inside, and trying out a new — and so far successful — strategy to get one of the best hitters in baseball out more often. To their credit, it’s worked so far, better than anything else has before. But the incredible thing is that Votto is almost surely making the adjustment back already. This is all a funny mirage, and May comes in a few days, and we’ll probably look back on this month and remember that one time when Joey Votto was terrible — somehow.
Owen Watson writes for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. Follow him on Twitter @ohwatson.