Votto receiving the sign from Mark Berry to "be self."
My first reaction to the fact that Joey Votto is currently striking out at a Stubbsian 25.6% - a pace 6 percentage points higher than his highest season mark - was that I don't really care. It's early and he's posting a .430 OBP. But that doesn't mean it's a positive development. And it may say something about the way Votto is being pitched and his response to it, if not the Reds' offense as a whole.
We've seen this before from Votto - in his best season, no less. Votto struck out 22.2% of the time during the first month of 2010. That's the first line of defense for anyone who doesn't want pay any attention to his current strikeout rate and it's a pretty good one. In fact, there have been several months where Votto has struck out at a similar rate, including the last month of 2010, June 2011 (26.5%!) and Sept/Oct 2011.
A pessimist might point out that April's strikeouts could be a continuation of his struggles at the end of last season. In the larger picture, however, Votto has reduced his strikeout rate every season he's been in the majors. His walk rate his ballooned to 20.9% this season - a fact which might hold the key to how he's approaching things in the early-going.
Fewer swings, but more Ks
Votto is swinging less than he ever has in a single season, continuing a trend that has seen his swing rate decline every year since his major league debut. Albert Pujols saw his swing rates bottom out below 40% during his age 27 season, when his walk rates hit a then-career high.
It's obvious enough, but Votto isn't getting much of anything to hit. Formerly borderline pitches are becoming pitch-around fodder, while former meatballs may be retreating for the edges of the zone. His plate discipline, however, is intact.
When he does make contact, by all accounts, he's hitting the ball hard. His line drive rate is up and his groundball rate is down. His BABIP, higher than its ever been, might be more an indicator of how hard he's hitting the ball when he puts it in play than "good luck." His HR-per-flyball rate seems to contain the bad luck (it sits at 7.1%, while he's never been below 17%).
It seems counter-intuitive that Joey would be swinging less and striking out more. According to Pitch F/X, Votto has made better contact with pitches outside the zone than previous seasons, while opposing pitchers have also been in the strikezone more. What gives?
When he does decide to swing, he's making a little bit less contact. But not so much less to explain the huge jump in Ks. He's also looking at more pitches and more are being called for strikes. Part of this might be a wide zone from umpires:
And part of it might be passing on good pitches - the enemy of the perfect:
Votto is striking out looking over 50% more than he did last season so far. It's possible he was trying to work the count too much in order to try and lead by example when his teammates were swinging out of their shoes. Pitchers may also be setting him up with a lot of away pitches, distorting the way the zone looks to both Votto and the men in blue.
According to this hot zone, Votto hasn't done anything in three zones: middle of the plate and up, middle of the plate and down, and inside, but below the chest. He's crushing everything else he sees in the strikezone. While it's early to speculate, it's not impossible there's a new-found hole in his swing.
The only pitch Votto is really struggling with making contact is the split-fingered fastball (and he's only seen 14 of those so far). There just isn't enough information to say whether pitchers have really stumbled on an Achilles' heel.
I don't think there's much here that's out of character for Votto over a month's span. The fact that he isn't hitting for power is the biggest concern, but I think that's early-season tentativeness and bad luck.
Still, it's entirely possible that pitchers are attacking Votto in a new way, but we'll have to see over the course of the season whether that's (a) true and (b) something they can expect not to be punished brutally.