As late as April 25th of last year, Joey Votto owned a very un-Votto .598 OPS. The moment his 3-run homer off Tyler Glasnow touched down some 450 feet from home plate on Tuesday night, his 2017 slugging percentage alone was better than that.
It took Votto a full 52 games in 2016 to finally crack his 9th dinger of the season, yet here he is, age 33, and on an early season power surge that’s been the finest of his incredibly fine career. Back in his MVP season of 2010, it took Votto 39 games to finally hit his 9th homer, and to date that’s the quickest he’s ever reached that number. 2010, you’ll remember, also stands as the only season in which Votto has hit more than 29 homers, the 37 he hit that year looking more outlier than again achievable over the six seasons that followed.
Until this year, perhaps. The question then becomes whether Votto, a recent slow-starter to seasons who’s still hitting just .253 with a .348 OBP, is doing something wholly different so far this year to buck that trend, or if this power surge is small-sample-size freaky and will brownout as the year goes on.
Diving into the shallow end of his stats, Votto’s 27.3% HR/FB is the highest of his career, besting the 25.0% mark in his 37 homer season. That doesn’t necessarily indicate he’s approaching things differently, however, since a few days with favorable wind direction could be all that’s behind that. His 41.5% groundball rate seems right in line with his career mark of 41.6%, and echoes well the 43.0% and 42.2% groundball rates he’s posted in each of his last two extremely productive years, so there’s no significant change there, either.
Move a column in either direction on his batted ball table at FanGraphs, however, and you’ll begin to see something that looks wholly out of character as compared to previous years. His 18.3% line-drive rate isn’t just a career low, it’s a career low that’s rather markedly different than his 25.4% career mark. And since batted ball data is funneled into three neat silos, that affirms that his fly-ball rate - which sits at 40.2% - is also far and away a career high, well above the 33.0% he’s sported in his career.
Huh. That data would seem to suggest that assuming he has any control over the type of contact he’s making, he’s been trading line-drives for fly-balls in a much different way this year than ever before, the rewards of which have come in the form of more homers than he’s usually cracked. What’s odd, however, was exemplified in a great piece from yesterday by Eno Sarris over at FanGraphs about whether or not Ichiro Suzuki could have been a power hitter had he ever tweaked his swing to aim for that as a goal. In that piece are quotes from Votto from a conversation he had with The Enquirer’s Zach Buchanan about the recent trend of players tweaking the launch angle of their swings in search of more elevation and, as a result, more home runs.
Votto’s quotes, interesting enough, seem a bit dismissive of chasing new trends, which would make it a bit odd that his first 26 games worth of 2017 data seem to be a card-carrying example of the benefits of hitting fly balls more often.
Things get even more interesting when you look closer at not just that he’s hitting fly balls, but where he’s hitting them. A quick look at a chart of his fly-ball percentage as compared to his pull, center, and opposite field percentages shows something that looks certainly non-random: Votto is pulling the ball at a career high 43% this year, a spike coinciding exactly with his increase in fly-balls.
In other words, all things point to him hitting the ball higher than ever before, and him pulling the ball more than ever before, and the result has been a dinger burst that has him on pace to crack more than 50 this year. His quotes, however, would indicate that he hasn't actively tried to change things purposefully, which makes this all the more odd. It's not even really like he's being pitched to significantly different, with only a slight increase in cutters thrown his way standing out at all when you look at the types of pitches he's seen so far this year.
On the heels of him hitting over .400 during the second half of the 2016 season, Votto has again found a way to baffle not just opposing pitchers, but those like us who try to break down how in the hell he's so good at hitting baseballs. The result: over the last 365 days, he owns a .330/.437/.593 line in 678 PA, with 35 homers, 104 RBI, and more walks (108) than strikeouts (107) in the 157 games he's played in that time. Perhaps more interesting, however, is that it appears he keeps finding new ways to be that incredible.