July 23, 2016

We are watching vintage Votto

by Daniel Conmy

Joey Votto is my favorite player. There's no way I can be impartial with that fact. I rave every day and night when he walks. Many roll their eyes when I say this, but the walk is something so fascinating to me. The value that it can add to the slash line is immense. Walks can only help you in the game of baseball and very few have mastered it like Joey Votto has. What makes Votto so special, though? It's his ability to control the strikezone and force pitchers to make his pitch. Last week, Corinne Landrey wrote at FanGraphs about Joey Votto and the effect of a bad April. Here, we will look at Votto's month to month differences and commentary from other media members.

Before we get into the more stark analysis, Votto is a character in the game of baseball. Some might remember this:

I apologize for the poor .gif quality, but this is Votto facing off against Derek Lowe. Votto through this whole at-bat did not move his feet. This was an incredible plate appearance, which, of course, ended in a walk. Lowe being the usual fast worker was perplexed by Votto's tactics, but later on in the full video, you can visibly see Lowe take his time on the mound. 

We cannot forget the other side of Votto that can be a little angry:

Votto did have a very good argument stemming from a bad strike call. Nonetheless, we have a fun Joey Votto and an angry Joey Votto above us. Some can question what that means, but no one can question Votto's unique ability in the game of baseball. The Cincinnati Reds first basemen can hit homeruns, choke up throughout whole at-bats, and seemingly create a walk out of thin air.

Votto is also a human who had some tough bouts with depression. Mark Sheldon of MLB.com covered this story in 2009:
"The 25-year-old Votto revealed publicly that he was battling depression, anxiety attacks and issues that finally came to the surface several months after the sudden death of his 52-year-old father, Joseph, in August."
Death is something as humans we all have to deal with, but dealing with it on a very public stage is something that cannot be easy. Teammates are relying on you and you simply cannot be your best for those that are counting on you.

Votto obviously stuck around the game and is crushing it in this very season and it might be because of his idol, Ted Williams. Joe Posnaski of Sportsworld caught up with Votto in more recent years to talk about his hitting approach. In a previous interview with Reds reporter, Hal McCoy, Votto was very excited to have Ted Williams brought up:
"Only then McCoy mentioned how Votto’s hitting approach reminded him of Ted Williams, and Votto’s face lit up. He reached into his bag and pulled out a dog-eared copy of Williams’ classic, “The Science of Hitting.” He carried the book with him wherever he went and memorized entire sections. Votto said that when he was growing up, he had a Ted Williams poster on his wall."
Now that's a fandom. Votto studied one of the best hitters in the game of baseball. He worshiped the Red Sox star and now he's turned himself into a star in Cincinanti, but some fans of the Reds do not appreciate the patient approach. Votto does not let those followers phase him:
"Votto has analyzed the numbers as thoroughly as any hitter in the game, focusing much of his attention on Weighted Runs Created. He has endured injuries and depression and boos and criticism of the very way he plays the game. Through it all, he has continued to work obsessively hard and hit his own way."
It's time to stop romanticizing Votto, but I think you get the point. Votto is a human, with human emotions, that is possibly the best student of hitting we've ever seen. The fascination he has about the game of baseball has rubbed off on plenty of people, including the author of this piece.

Given the long intro, lets now look at how Votto is currently running a 136 wRC+, including yesterday's performance.

In the month of April, Votto was bad. The type of bad where media members write you off and believe you are in your decline phase bad. Votto was running a 66 wRC+ in the month of April and was only walking in 12.2 percent of plate appearances (well below his average, but above league average) and striking out more often than his usual career 19 percent. Then, like most people that have a bad month of April, Votto got better.

In the month of May, Votto was already better than league average with a 113 wRC+. This is only in the month of May, so the sample size is small, but we saw remarkable improvement from the month of April. There was an issue with Votto in April. He was striking out in 29 percent of his plate appearances. To counteract that, Votto hit the ball out of the park nine times. This might please some of those who despise his patient approach, but Votto was still running a .200/.333/.484 slash line for the month of May.

In June, we already reached vintage Votto. Votto ran a 171 wRC+ due to his 20.7 percent walk rate. Yes, Votto did damage with his bat and not looking at pitches throughout the month, but Votto, with his ability to foul off close to every pitch was finally paying off in his season.

In the smallest sample size, July 1 to July 20, Votto posted a 207 wRC+. You guessed it, more walks and the occasional power that seeps into his game, but that is not his strength.

That brings us to July 22. On that day, Votto went 1-3 with a home run and two walks. The home run made it to the highlight reels, but what sticks out in my mind is his two walks.

His first walk of the night is a classic case where a pitcher not wanting any part of Votto:

Four pitches, low and away, to a dangerous hitter. It should be noted that Zac Curtis, Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher, walked Jay Bruce after this, too. Curtis was probably hoping for Votto to chase one of those pitches and get a swinging strike to expand Votto's zone. This walk is probably not the expertise of Votto, but it is a walk nonetheless. And I hate to break it to the reader, but Votto was then intentionally walked in his next plate appearance. 

One of the more impressive things that Votto does is the amount of pitches he sees per plate appearance.

Last night, Votto hit a home run on the second pitch he saw. He then worked an eight pitch line out and a seven pitch flyout. That's 17 pitches in three at bats, which averages out to 5.67 per plate appearance. In 2015, Votto was third best in pitches per plate appearance

What I am getting to is that Votto is one of the more difficult outs in the game. Yes, he will strikeout once every five times he goes up to bat, but it is a grueling process most of the time. Votto has some incredible ability to frustrate opposing pitchers, opposing fans, and even Reds fans. This student of the game is finally back on top of his game and  he continues to keep his amazing approach that he obtained from Teddy Ballgame.

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