“There were some aspects of my performance in 2016 that I have decided were lacking,” Votto said in his statement. “I would like to use 2017 Spring Training for preparation.”
At the time, he was fresh off having hit over .400 during the second half of 2016, having logged his second consecutive Top 7 MVP finish with another banner offensive year. Offensive year, that is, since the former Gold Glove winner had also posted a career worst -2.4 dWAR on the season, far and away the worst defensive year of his career (knee and quad injury seasons included). So, the obvious assumption was that he was referring to his defense having slipped, something reiterated by Bryan Price in comments to MLB.com’s Mark Sheldon at the start of Spring Training in late February.
But what if defense wasn’t the only ‘aspect’ of Votto’s performance the star 1B was referring to?
Over at FanGraphs today, Jeff Sullivan dove into something I’d begun to take notice of lately, too. Namely, how Joey Votto has just stopped striking out. It’s a fantastic read, one that went in a different direction than my initial admittedly light research had taken, one that focuses not just on how he’s shaved his K% from 19.4% in 2015 down to a minuscule 11.8% this year, but how he’s done so by refining completely how he swings at pitches both in and out of the zone.
Considering where Votto was this time one year ago - back when he was mired in the worst start to a season of his career - the change is even more remarkable. On May 26th of last year, he owned a pedestrian .205/.337/.353 line through 47 games, but more importantly for this specific exercise, he’d struck out an alarming 51 times, good for a 26.8% rate that would’ve been far and away the worst of his career over a full season. Obviously, as his season turned around last year, the strikeouts dissipated, and so far this year he’s continued on that turnaround with just 24 Ks through 46 games (an 11.8% rate).
That improvement alone is remarkable in its own right. However, a little bit of added perspective into how rare that is given his other statistical rankings helps show just how absurdly talented and unique he is in today’s game.
For one, he’s striking out less while getting older, but he’s also doing so while the league as a whole is striking out much more than at the beginning of his career.
Beyond that, Votto’s .293 ISO at the moment ranks 10th best among all qualified players in the game, and when you stack that up next to the players ranked near him, the disparity in their respective K rates becomes obvious.
Bryce Harper’s 18.3% mark is the closest to Votto’s 11.8%, though those two rates really aren’t that close at all. In other words, among the league’s best of the best sluggers, nobody strikes out as seldom as Votto does, and it’s not even close.
Next, when you look at the profiles of players who actually do strike out as seldom as Votto does - of which there aren’t many - you’ll see some pretty stark contrast in their numbers compared to Joey’s.
Daniel Murphy’s .237 ISO is the closest to Votto’s .293, and again, those numbers aren’t even in the same universe as one another. Also of note, Buster Posey’s 11.2% walk rate is the second best among this group, and it pales in comparison to Votto’s 17.2% rate.
Speaking of that 17.2% walk rate of Joey’s, it’s the third best in all of baseball. But if you look at the profiles of the players who walk the most frequently in the game, you’ll also see a bunch of players that don’t profile anything like Joey.
Among those 12 players who walk at least 15.1% of the time, Cameron Maybin and Paul Goldschmidt’s 17.8% K rates are the closest to Votto’s, but - pardon me sounding like a broken record - those aren’t anywhere close to Votto’s 11.8% rate.
In other words, Votto isn’t just “not striking out” this year. To date, nobody who strikes out as little as Votto hits for anywhere near the power he hits for. Nobody who walks as often as Votto does strikes out anywhere near as little as he does. And nobody who hits for power like Votto manages to do so while also not striking out at all.
That’s as unique a player has been at being absurdly good that I can remember in recent memory. And if you look closer at what Votto’s been hinting at since last year, that’s no coincidence - it’s something he’s specifically been working to achieve.
In other news, TJ Friedl cracked Baseball America’s most recent Prospect Hot Sheet fresh off his 3-dinger day on Thursday.
The Toronto Blue Jays have activated stars Josh Donaldson and Troy Tulowitzki from the 10-day DL. That might not seem the slightest bit relevant until you consider that they’ve both been out for the bulk of the year yet managed to squeak back in the lineup right before the Cincinnati Reds roll into town to face them on Monday. I wonder if they’re aware of Reds starting pitching stats...
Finally, SI.com’s Jay Jaffe went back through the prospect rankings from 2008 to re-rank them based upon what we know now from the players listed then. If you’ll recall, that was the golden age of the Cincinnati farm system, so this particular piece is quite Reds-centric.