Votto's plate discipline in a league of its own

Reds star's approach at the plate has him set up for big 2019

February 24th, 2019

Joey Votto, by his own account, did not feel like himself last season. He felt out of sync, and he's entered Spring Training looking for a bounceback to his usual MVP level in 2019.

When he reported to camp, the Reds star called his 2018 season "frustrating" and "a bit of a shock," the same sentiment he expressed in December at Redsfest. Votto said he expects a higher level of performance from himself.

It's true Votto's power was down. It's also true that a disappointing season for Joey Votto means a weighted runs created plus of 131 -- that is, he was 31 percent better than league average offensively.

Here's how Votto has such a high floor: elite plate discipline, his defining trait as a hitter. Votto has a unique control of the strike zone. That comes first, and it was as amazing as ever last season. Votto was in a league of his own, both on the stat sheet -- he led the league in on-base percentage -- and in his underlying numbers.

That's why, when he says he expects to re-attain that higher level this season, you should believe him. Joey Votto is still Joey Votto, and the foundation for a better 2019 is already in place.

Votto very rarely chases

Let's start here: last season, Votto only swung at pitches out of the strike zone 13.1 percent of the time. That was the lowest chase rate in the Majors, and less than half of the MLB average, 27.6 percent.

Some stars near him on the leaderboard just have a very selective approach overall -- like Mookie Betts (16.2 percent) or Mike Trout (18.1 percent). They also have some of MLB's lowest swing rates on pitches in the strike zone (Betts at 56.5 percent, Trout at 57.7 percent).

Votto is different. When a pitch was in the zone in 2018, he swung at a slightly above-average rate, 66.8 percent of the time. He balances patience outside the zone with aggression inside the zone.

It's the combination that's so impressive. Votto's swing rate on pitches in the strike zone was more than five times as high as his swing rate on pitches outside the strike zone. He had by far the best ratio of in-zone to out-of-zone swings of any regular MLB hitter last year.

Votto's strike-ball identification is unparalleled

But we can break it down in even greater detail, with Statcast's strike zone mapping. There are "clear strikes" -- pitches in the interior of the strike zone; borderline pitches -- those within a baseball's width of the edges of the zone; and "clear balls" -- pitches that are non-borderline and out of the zone.

To really see why Votto's plate discipline is so brilliant, we need to take out the edges. Borderline pitches are basically a 50-50 call. If a hitter takes, they could be called a strike or a ball, so it's not a definite choice whether to swing or not swing. Instead, we'll look specifically at the clear strikes -- the pitches a hitter wants to swing at, since they're in the heart of the zone -- and the clear balls -- the pitches a hitter definitely wants to take, because they're far from his wheelhouse and will almost always be called a ball.

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When it comes to identifying those pitches -- clear strikes to jump on and clear balls to lay off -- there's Votto, and then there's everyone else.

First of all: Votto swung at just 5.2 percent of non-borderline balls in 2018, by far the best of any MLB regular. He saw 581 pitches that were clearly out of the zone. He swung at 30 of them.

That 5.2 percent swing rate on non-borderline, out-of-zone pitches, was twice as low as second-ranking Brandon Nimmo (10.4 percent). It was less than one-fourth of the Major League average (22.3 percent).

But when a pitch was a clear strike? Votto swung 77 percent of the time. That placed him right around the top 20 percent of the most aggressive hitters in swinging at those pitches.

Now look at the two numbers in concert. Votto swung at three of every four clear strikes in 2018; he swung at one in every 20 clear balls. When a pitch was clearly within the strike zone, Votto was nearly 15 times as likely to swing as when it was clearly out of the strike zone.

That's incredible. The difference between Votto's "clear strike" swing rate and his "clear ball" swing rate wasn't just the biggest in MLB, it was more than twice as good as the next-best hitter.

In fact, Votto's 2018 plate discipline numbers were right in line with his 2017 numbers. In 2017, his general in-zone swing rate was 70.1 percent, while his chase rate was an MLB-best 13.7 percent. He swung at a league-low 6.7 percent of clear balls, versus 79.0 percent of clear strikes. So even in a 2018 season that left him so dissatisfied, he didn't compromise or lose that fundamental skill to his approach.

That's why the groundwork for a superstar 2019 is already laid. Now Votto can focus on correcting his power production, and he's said he thinks he's identified the root of the problem in his mechanics.

If he fixes that, it's just extra on top of the unique on-base talent he's already carrying into the season. And it would mean the return of peak Votto.