Joey Votto's Increased Aggressiveness Is Paying Huge Dividends
Cincinnati Reds first baseman Joey Votto is a really good baseball player. Unless you've been living under a rock for the last decade, this shouldn't be breaking news. What has been interesting, though, is watching how Votto has stayed true to his approach while finding ways to improve and exploit opposing pitchers.
He's very much on the outside looking in when it comes to National League All-Star voting, but the 11-year veteran is having another campaign worthy of a trip to the midsummer classic.
Through 329 plate appearances, Votto is slashing .305/.416/.588, which has become customary for him, along with a 156 wRC+ and .415 wOBA. What has been different is his Isolated Power (ISO), which currently sits at .283. That number is on pace to be a career best, and after hitting 29 home runs in each of the last two seasons, he's already hit 20 bombs in 2017.
In the midst of his age-33 campaign, this is around the time when some players start a slight decline from their physical prime. That doesn't seem to be happening this year for Votto, so how is he accomplishing the power surge?
Sacrificing Some Liners for Taters
Throughout Votto's tenure in the middle of the Reds' lineup, he's built a reputation on being a rather balanced hitter, maximizing the balls he puts in play with a solid rate of hard contact.
His career line-drive rate settled in at 25.5% entering this season, and that number has dipped below 25.0% in a single season on just two occasions. It hasn't happened since his NL MVP campaign on 2010, when he launched a career-high 37 homers. That performance also included 34.8% fly-ball rate, which is a couple ticks above of average between 2007 and 2016 (32.9%).
Upon comparing his batted-ball profile so far this year to his 2010 performance, we can start seeing some similarities that can help explain an increase in power production. The below table shows how his line-drive rate (LD%), ground-ball rate (GB%), fly-ball rate (FB%), homer-to-fly-ball ratio (HR/FB%), and ISO compare between what he's done so far in 2017, what he did in 2010, and the average of his career numbers between 2007 and 2016.
So, while he has done some sacrificing in certain statistics like batting average and on-base percentage, his 1.005 OPS doesn't look all that different from recent years. And in some instances, it's gotten even better.
Votto has done this because of his ability to make contact, which is well known. He's even taken that skill up another notch, though.
No More Strikeouts
The veteran first baseman has been an on-base machine for a while now, but he's also decided against striking out anymore.
Votto's 15.5% walk rate is one of the top-10 marks among qualified hitters this season, but so is his 10.9%% strikeout rate. And if we compare them against one another, the 4.6% difference between these two numbers is the highest in baseball.
His ability to draw walks isn't much different from his career mark entering 2017 (15.9%), but that strikeout rate is quite an improvement (18.0%). In an age where strikeouts are becoming increasingly common -- the current league average is 21.5% -- Votto already stood out as an outlier when it came to limiting punchouts while still producing in the power department.
It's not as if he hasn't earned those numbers, either -- his 86.6% contact rate and 5.9% swinging-strike rate are both on pace to be career bests, along with being among the league leaders.
The Perfect Kind of Aggressiveness
There is nothing wrong with a hitter being aggressive at the plate. What usually is the problem, though, is that hitters aren't always aggressive in the right situation. Based off Votto's plate-discipline numbers in 2017, this is not an issue.
The below table displays how his chase rate (O-Swing%), swings on balls inside the strike zone (Z-Swing%) and the corresponding contact rates have progressed since 2015, when his Z-Swing% was a single-season career low.
This progression is basically every hitting coach's dream.
His overall swing rate is trending up for the third consecutive season, but his O-Swing% is on pace to be a career low, while his Z-Swing% is on pace to be the highest it's ever been. And in case you were wondering, that 55.6% difference between his O-Swing% and Z-Swing% is the best among qualified hitters.
Votto's decrease in strikeouts and increased aggressiveness have been noted on multiple occasions by the good people at FanGraphs, so this hasn't exactly come out of nowhere -- he's been doing it since Opening Day. However, the fact that he's remained consistent with it as we approach July is astonishing.
During a time when in his career when it's not outrageous to think that some of his biggest strengths may start to diminish, Votto has found a way to take his game to another level, further distinguishing him amongst his peers.