Joey Votto Has Cut Strikeouts…..But At What Cost?
Every decision a hitter makes about their approach comes with both benefits and costs. In the past, the thinking was that all power hitters had to get used to high strikeouts and lower batting averages to reap big power. Conversely, all contact hitters would settle for single digit homers and shoot for a high batting average. Obviously, things have changed in many ways in today’s game, not just the new stats that are used to judge hitters but also the philosophy. Hitters like Miggy, Trout and Joey Votto have showed that power and consistency can be obtained together. Brian Dozier shocked the baseball world hitting over 40 jacks last season as one of the smaller guys in the game showing shocking elite level power and arguably THE smallest guy in baseball, Jose Altuve, has also combined both elements at the same time.
Hitters like Joey Votto have artfully combined a blend of both power and consistency, while leading the charge in On Base Percentage, the analytical equivalent of the fountain of youth. Votto is certainly impressive on many fronts but let’s take a look at the numbers related to his recent rebellion against striking out.
In the case of Votto’s recent downward spiral in strikeouts, which is being touted as a huge improvement in an already analytic superstar’s arsenal, there are certain negative things that go with that benefit of less strikeouts. The first bill to come due is in the form of Exit Velocity, which the analytical world is just now beginning to embrace as a key metric, while it has been at the core of Effective Velocity for a couple of decades. Votto’s average Exit Velocity, which has gone down from 89.6 (2015) to 87.8 MPH this year, puts more than 160 MLB hitters ahead of him in this stat.
His average Exit Velocity with 2 strikes is at 86.2 MPH (127th in MLB), on the surface, a seemingly insignificant tradeoff, but we’ll dive into that. Votto’s top Exit Velocity is also much lower than one might expect from an elite level power hitter, even though that has not gone down recently. There are, however, more than 100 hitters topping Votto’s 110.9 MPH max effort this season. Top Exit Velocity is a function of mechanical efficiency, philosophy and strength as well as timing, but those are subjects for another day.
In and of itself, the loss in Exit Velocity is not really a big deal, if the production is enough to make the cost worth it. In other words, if he gives up just a little power to gain a lot more consistent contact, leading to less K’s, it would be more than worth the loss in speed off the bat. But…… is it really working that way?
Votto, when ahead in the count, puts up some impressive numbers, .287 BA – .413 OBP – .567 Slugging % and .980 OPS. However, when he is behind in the count, those numbers slip dramatically to .186 BA – .205 OBP – .256 Slugging % and .460 OPS, becoming virtually half the hitter he is when the count is in his favor. This is due to employing a completely different approach when he gets to 2 strikes, including choking up on the bat and shortening his physical swing. Again, there is a lot to explore in that sentence, but the physical aspects are for another article.
The balls in play labeled ‘Barrels’ and ‘Solid Contact’ on Statcast, total only 6 in 2 strike counts out of 47 balls in play, or a makeshift hard hit average of .127 (Barrels + Solid Contact divided by balls in play in those counts) with an average Exit Velocity of 86.2 MPH (over all 2 K counts) and only 1 homer. When ahead in counts, he is 22 for 99 in those categories, giving him a hard hit ball average of almost double at .222 with 12 homers.
Above – Joey Votto with less than 2 strikes.
Above – Joey Votto in 2 Strike Counts.
While the decrease in strikeouts seems really impressive on the surface, the almost 50% loss in production seems like a steep price to pay, especially when his approach to choke up and completely change his swing is not the only answer to cutting down strikeouts, just his chosen method. The Time Training hitting program (the hitting side of Effective Velocity) is designed around the understanding of game approaches that address the 2 strike approach issue, among many others.
The Exit Velocity by counts above shows that his 0-2 & 1-2 counts are significantly lower than the other more predictable counts. This is yet another piece of evidence showing that ALL HITTERS have a measurable ‘Hitters Attention’ (Measurable Reactionary Limitations), but that isn’t the main point of this article. This is important to note because 0-2 and 1-2 counts are the most ‘Reactionary’ counts, so how hitters are able to perform in these counts more accurately speaks to their ability to identify and react to multiple pitch speeds or a ‘Metric’ for timing, pitch recognition skills and mechanics together.
In these counts, the pitcher becomes more aggressive and the hitter is in a more defensive mindset (at least the reactionary hitter – Votto in this case). The hitter is trying to wait to see if it’s a strike before swinging so they tend to apply a mechanically compromised swing due to bad timing. In other words they use their C or D swing rather than the A version because after they wait to see the pitch, there is no time to perform the A swing, so they cheat their mechanics trying to make up for the poor timing. These counts are a great test of a hitter’s ability to ‘see it and hit it’, assuming they are in a reactionary mindset as we know Votto employs with most of the 2 strike counts.
While it is true that Votto can ‘see it and put it in play’ in those counts, with an average Exit Velocity of around 79 MPH (0-2 & 1-2 averaged), he is certainly nowhere near 100%. It is also certainly NOT proof that he can ‘see it and do damage to it’, in fact, quite the opposite. This is one of the very core elements of Effective Velocity, which leads pitchers to the ability to control Exit Velocity. And YES, pitchers that understand and employ EV have the ability to control hitter’s Exit Velocity, when they are ‘REACTING’, which is clearly what Votto does in most 2 strike counts. Votto’s is one of the most evident cases of a great hitter that obviously morphs into a different more reactionary hitter in 2 strike counts with a measurable loss in production, meaning his Exit Velocity is being controlled by the pitcher and the count.
There is one more factor we should look at before deciding if this 2 strike approach trade-off is worthy. While many Saberminded analysts are pushing for electronic umpires calling balls and strikes, it would appear that if that happened, they might have to alter their view on just how well Votto ‘actually’ controls the zone. The graph below is all the pitches called balls versus Votto this season. It would seem he has been awarded quite a large number of gift calls on the inside part of the zone. So much so that you can’t really make out where the line of the zone box is located.
Pitches vs Votto called balls – the inside zone line is covered from strikes called balls.
In the Braves’ golden era, Tom Glavine was quoted as saying he had ‘Earned’ that strike call that was 6 inches off the plate, when it was questionably even that close at times. It would seem that Votto has the same honor bestowed to him, only in reverse. His eye at the plate has been so talked about, umpires tend to give him strikes as far ‘on the plate’ as the inner third of the zone as a called ball, with a few of them bordering on middle middle. Careful what you ask for, robot umps might paint a different picture, in regards to Votto’s zone control at least.
By my rough count, there are about 6 to 9 (red) strike calls on pitches outside the zone (depending on where you draw the line) to almost 40 (green) ball calls inside the zone, umpire gifts to Votto, a difference of roughly 4 to 1 in Votto’s favor. What happens if that reverses?
Lastly, what is the ‘Opportunity Cost’ of applying less than his A swing in 2 strike counts? What is the price for taking a very compromised swing at good/great pitches to hit, especially fastballs in the plus part of the EV strike zone? These are the pitches that are the hardest to adjust to with an altered swing approach, even though traditional thinking says ‘everyone crushes the ball when left up in the zone’. Votto has only managed 2 barrels out of the 32 plus fastballs in 2 strike counts.
The video example (above) of a recent at bat with Votto, you can see how compromised his 2 strike swing is, as well as the opportunity lost of the elevated fastballs he didn’t hit. If you go back to the Exit Velocity by counts graphic, you will see that when he is in 0-2 & 1-2 counts, the Exit Velocity goes down dramatically. If you don’t think 79 MPH (0-2 & 1-2 count Exit Velocity) is a dramatic decrease, then consider that these counts yield only 71% of his max Exit Velocity, which would be the equivalent of Aroldis Chapman throwing 74.6 MPH in his 2 strike counts, rather than his max of 105 MPH.
Below are the 32 fastballs, sinkers, cutters and 2 seamers that Votto saw in 2 strike counts.
The graphic above shows fastballs thrown in the plus part of the EV zone, as well as dead central, in 2 strike counts. Of the 32 plus fastballs, he had only 2 barrels and these are all prime pitches to hit. When hitters are ‘reacting’, these fastballs gaining Effective Velocity have to be hit on time with an A swing to do damage, thus the loss of 21% of his Exit Velocity in 2 strike counts clearly proves neither good timing nor great mechanical efficiency. Every plan has strengths and weaknesses and waiting to recognize the pitch and ‘reacting’ is death for the Effective Velocity concept of 100/100 (100% on time contact with 100% mechanical efficiency).
All hitters have strengths and weaknesses and Joey Votto’s overall offensive approach has certainly produced incredible results. This piece is not to say that his 2 strike approach is good or bad, just that if we are to truly measure an approach, we have to look at it objectively from all angles. We also have to consider the costs before applying the golden seal of approval as ‘the wave of the future’, as it seems to be trending at present. Statistics are set in stone, but the interpretation of statistics can be far from concrete, as we are beginning to see.
The facts show that when Votto goes into a pure reactionary state, he becomes half the hitter in most statistics that are important, in order to cut down his strikeouts. This is one of the primary Effective Velocity tenets. Hitters cannot wait to recognize the pitch and react at 100/100 to EV efficient pitches. The interpretation of those facts…………..? Well, just Google it……. The tendency is to look at his overall performance and assume every aspect of his hitting approach is elite. Now that you know the cost of his 2 strike approach, you can decide for yourself……………