Last month, FanGraphs' Jeff Sullivan summarized my feelings on a certain Reds first baseman:
I love that point in the year where God decides he wants to play some baseball without anyone noticing and assumes the form of Joey Votto— Jeff Sullivan (@based_ball) August 4, 2016
Mike Trout is historically great, and we really don't appreciate him enough – for more evidence of that, check out my colleague Henry Druschel's analysis from last week. Yet when I ponder the title of the most awe-inspiring player in baseball, I keep coming back to Joey Votto. Maybe it's because I, like most fans, overvalue offense and undervalue defense, but something about those patented Votto hot streaks captivates me like nothing else can. I mean, just look at his post-All-Star break numbers:
In the second half, no other qualifier has surpassed Votto’s 205 wRC+. This seems to happen, as Sullivan quipped, every year – Votto just turns things up a notch at will, leaving his adversaries helpless. For evidence of that, check out this graph, which I can’t look at without laughing:
Since the Midsummer Classic, Votto has played 54 games – or a third of a season – in which he’s been the best hitter in baseball. And this isn’t even the second-best stretch of his career! Hell, it’s pretty close to a number of periods from 2009, 2010, 2011... even earlier this year! When Votto gets going, no one in the league can stand in his way.
But one characteristic of Votto’s current tear makes it distinct. As always, he’s taken a ton of walks, and he’s supplemented that with an elevated ISO and BABIP. What really stand out are the strikeouts, or the absence thereof:
Prior to this, Votto put up his best 54-game strikeout streak in early 2011, when he went down on strikes in 13.6 percent of his plate appearances. In addition to falling pretty far behind his current strikeout rate, that clip came in a different offensive environment. Major-league hitters struck out in 18.6 percent of their plate appearances in 2011, which has inflated steadily since then; this year, the MLB-wide strikeout rate sits at 21.0 percent.
So not only has Votto avoided Ks – by the way, his second-half strikeout rate ranks 14th in the majors – he’s done so against pitchers who fan more batters than ever before. How? Obviously, he’s relied on his contact abilities. His 6.1 percent second-half whiff rate has approached a career low:
This can’t explain all of it, however. Votto cut down on his swings and misses in different portions of 2013 and 2015, yet the strikeouts remained. To make the leap this time, Votto has also cut down on his called strikes, swinging at 72.8 percent of pitches inside the strike zone:
Early in his career, Votto hacked at most of the strikes he saw, reducing his called strikes and pumping up his swinging strikes. He then switched to a more passive, contact-heavy approach, which reversed both those trends. Nowadays, he gets the best of both worlds, as this scatter plot illustrates:
See the red circle? That’s Votto’s second half. It stands apart from the rest of the pack (aside from that cluster down and to the right, which contains the streaks that preceded this one). This strategy, should he maintain it, would presumably keep his strikeout rate low and his triple-slash elevated.
Earlier on in the 2016 season, Votto’s story was the exact opposite. He struggled so badly that he considered quitting baseball. And his strikeout rate sparked a lot of that hardship; as the rolling-average K graph shows, pitchers fanned him like never before to start off 2016. Whatever caused those woes has gone away, though, and if it stays away, we might see Votto reach another echelon of dominance.
Before the 2016 season began, we knew it would be a miserable one for the Reds, and that prediction has come to pass. With that said, some bright spots have emerged, as they always do. Anthony DeSclafani is breaking out, Adam Duvall has hit the crap out of the ball, and now Votto has done something unprecedented, even for him. I mean it somewhat literally when I say: thank God for Joey Votto.