Saying that Joey Votto is a good hitter is not news. That doesn’t make it fake news – it would be hard to make a more accurate statement – but it’s not newsworthy. If you do not know this already your baseball fan card should be forcibly revoked.
That said, what Votto has done with the bat is beyond his normal level of extraordinary. In a season where home runs have come in bunches, and the heroics of Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge have reigned supreme in baseball’s collective consciousness, the Canadian’s more subtle mastery at the plate is both easy to miss and worthy of our attention.
Votto’s not exactly a slouch when he puts his bat on the ball, his 33 home runs rank eighth in the majors and he’s popped up the ball just once all year. However, what makes him special is the way he handles the one-on-one duel of an at-bat. That’s always been the case, as Votto has made a name for himself with his ability to take his walks, but this year there’s a new wrinkle: he’s not striking out.
Strikeouts have been steadily climbing across the game, but Votto’s have fallen precipitously. Just a couple of weeks from his 34th birthday – when his bat is meant to be slowing down – he’s suddenly become far harder to sit down on strikes.
That fall in strikeouts is backed by a massive upswing in contact, suggesting that it’s more than a two-strike tweak, it’s a legitimate change in skill set. All of a sudden, it’s extremely difficult to get a pitch by Votto.
Right now, Votto sits 15th in the majors in contact rate. On the surface that seems far from mind-blowing, but none of the hitters above him are even close to the kind of power threat he is. Here’s what the average one of those 14 players looks like compared to Votto:
Normally there is an interplay between contact and power where hitters have to trade some of one to improve the other. Votto is heading for a career-high in both home runs and contact rate. For good measure, his signature ability to walk has not been impaired as his 18.4 percent BB rate is above his career average and tops in the league.
As a result, his walk-to-strikeout ratio of 1.54 is the best in the league by a wide margin. He has 36 more walks than strikeouts, the next best total is eight by Justin Turner. Votto has cut strikeouts, perhaps the hardest thing for a hitter to do in today’s game – and seemingly sacrificed absolutely nothing to do so.
The reason this astounding improvement has flown largely under the radar is twofold. The first is a constant in Votto’s career – the fact he plays for the utterly irrelevant Cincinnati Reds. Cincinnati is neither a big market nor anywhere near the playoffs – a rough combo in terms of Votto getting the attention he deserves.
Perhaps the most important reason Votto’s feat has garnered relatively little attention is because his total production is more or less unchanged. Right now the first baseman is slashing .316/.447/.599 – a line not too different than his career .313/.427/.542.
The reason for that is a BABIP drop from his average of .359 prior to this year, to .308. Some of that is certainly earned – his line drive rate has fallen while his fly balls rate has increased – but considering his comically-low popup rate and the way he sprays the ball, Votto likely deserves a higher mark. With a few more balls falling in, his slash line would take on a level of gaudiness that would bring his impressive step forward more into light.
Joey Votto deserving a bigger share of the spotlight is a well-established phenomenon, but it’s never been more true than it is this year.
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