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Why 2017 was great: Joey Votto

The best part of the 2017 season took place in the NL Central cellar.

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MLB: Cincinnati Reds at Milwaukee Brewers Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Now that the 2017 regular season has come to a close, we can look back on it and appreciate it fully. While we wait for the playoffs, some of our writers will be breaking down their favorite things from this year, and telling you why they made 2017 a great season.

Here at Beyond the Box Score, we are celebrating the end of the 2017 regular season with a series of articles centered on the general premise that 2017 was an amazing season. Personally, I am in 100 percent agreement with this assessment, and couldn’t agree more with the specific sentiments of Devan Fink (and others to come). As young Mr. Fink noted, the 2017 season has brought us an NBA-level of super-team-dom that saw the the top of the league as strong as any other season in MLB history.

However, it wasn’t just the goings on at the top of the league that were great. To paraphrase Love Actually, what made 2017 so great was that the awesome storylines actually were all around.

Just look at the Cincinnati Reds. Despite a 68-94 record, excellent plotlines abounded. There was Zack Cozart, who took a simple question from Barry Larkin and went from Baseball Bruce Banner (OPS+ of 82 from 2011-2016) to Baseball Hulk this season (OPS+ of 141 in 2017). They got post-breakout-now-proven seasons from Adam Duvall (31 HR) and Eugenio Suarez (117 wRC+), another 55+ steals from Billy Hamilton, and Scooter Gennett made a piece of baseball history rarer than a perfect game with his four-homer game in early June.

(No comment on the whole pitching side of things.)

However, none of these Reds stories can compare to that of their main man, Joey Votto. The newly-minted 32-year-old had another unreal season in Cincinnati, and he clearly is not affected at all by the relative obscurity in which he plays in the Queen City (the real Queen City). Votto played each and every one of the Reds’ 162 games this season, one of only five players in baseball to play all 162.

Votto didn’t just show up, though; he showed out. With 106 runs and 100 RBI, Votto was one of only eight players throughout baseball in 2017 to reach triple digits in both runs and RBI. Of that octet, only Justin Upton did so for a worse team offense (per teams runs scored).

Votto finished the year with 36 home runs, one off a career-high, and he (easily) completed his third-straight .300/.400/.500 season, with a crazy .320/.454/.578 slash line. That .454 on-base percentage led the majors, and his wRC+ (165) trailed only Mike Trout and Aaron Judge among qualified hitters.

Votto’s OBP is a nice transition to what really makes Votto so fun. The man practically defines plate discipline. In fact, as a baseball collective, we may need to create a word stronger than “discipline” to describe Votto’s approach at the plate. Plate will? Plate control? Plate dominance? None of those feel strong enough.

In a league that is trending towards more and more strikeouts, Votto flipped the script in 2017. Votto posted an 11.7 percent strikeout rate. That rate represents a six percent drop from his career rate and was a career-low, despite the league striking out 4.5 percent more frequently in 2017 than in 2007 when Votto made his debut. The league-wide strikeout scourge has had no impact on Votto; if anything, he’s going the other way:

It’s not just about the results, though. Votto is all about the process.

I’m going to throw some numbers at you for a second, without context. In 2017, Votto had a 15.8 percent O-Swing rate, a 71.4 percent Z-Swing rate, and 5.7 percent SwStr rate. Now for the context:

Votto’s 15.8 percent swing rate on pitches outside of the strike zone was the lowest in baseball since 2010. Not since Daric Barton in 2010 has a player offered at fewer pitches outside of the strike zone than Votto in 2017. The league-wide swing rate on pitches outside the strike zone was more than a whole percent lower in 2010, as well, making Votto’s selectivity in 2017 all the more impressive given his environment.

It’s not just that Votto doesn’t swing, though. When Barton swung at 15.2 percent of pitches outside of the zone in 2010, he also only swung at 57.5 percent of pitches in the zone; in other words, he just didn’t swing at any pitches. Votto, on the other hand, swung at over 70 percent of pitches in the strike zone this season (the aforementioned 71.4 percent Z-Swing rate). No player has combined a sub-16.0 percent swing rate on pitches outside the zone with a 70.0+ percent swing rate on pitches in the zone since Chipper Jones in 2009. Over the past 15 seasons (basically since the inception of FanGraphs’ plate discipline statistics), there have been only 12 such instances. Here is a complete list of the hitters to fit the above qualifications:

Low O-Swing% and high Z-Swing% last 15 years

Player Year O-Swing% Z-Swing% HR
Player Year O-Swing% Z-Swing% HR
Chipper Jones 2004 10.4 73.1 30
Milton Bradley 2004 12.2 73.7 19
Lance Berkman 2005 12.5 70.7 24
Kenny Lofton 2003 14.1 71.6 12
Chipper Jones 2003 14.2 73.9 27
Brian Giles 2003 15.1 70.7 20
Jim Edmonds 2004 15.5 72.0 42
Chipper Jones 2009 15.7 73.0 18
David Ortiz 2005 15.8 72.0 47
Scott Rolen 2004 15.8 71.7 34
Joey Votto 2017 15.8 71.4 36
Derek Jeter 2005 15.9 72.3 19

I have included each player’s home run totals to show which hitters were able to be selective while still driving the ball for power. A few things stand out: Votto is the only player in the past eight seasons to accomplish the feat, and he’s one of only two in the past dozen seasons. Only twice (Big Papi and the severely-underrated Jim Edmonds) has a player shown this kind of plate discipline in addition to the power Votto had in 2017.

What Votto did in 2017 was totally unprecedented for this modern era. No one has posted as low a swinging strike rate as Votto did in 2017 with as many homers as he had since Albert Pujols a decade ago in 2008. To reiterate: no one else is doing what Votto is doing right now. He’s truly one of a kind.

This is man who seemingly needs to invent little side games (Larry Bird-style) to continue to challenge himself. Earlier this season, with the Reds already out of the picture, Votto had his infamous five-walk, no-official-at-bat, 43-pitches-seen game. While Votto didn’t come out and say it, it almost felt like it was something he chose to do before the game and then went out and did.

There were only five qualified hitters in baseball this season with more walks than strikeouts. Votto had fifty-one more (non-intentional) walks than strikeouts. The other four (Justin Turner, Mike Trout, Anthony Rendon, and Anthony Rizzo) combined for just 10 more walks than strikeouts.

Anyway you cut it, Votto is unbelievable. He’s Ted Williams in the modern era, but he’s stuck in Cincinnati so we don’t realize it.

There was a lot to love in 2017, but for me, nothing was greater than the magical Joey Votto.

Jim Turvey is a baseball diehard who also writes for DRays Bay. You can follow him on Twitter @BaseballTurv.