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Yet another area where Joey Votto is great

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The Reds first baseman is insanely skilled. Here’s another thing he’s really good at.

MLB: Cincinnati Reds at Chicago Cubs Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been frustratingly slow goings this Hot Stove season. The utter inaction on the free agent market, the dearth of moves on the trade market — there’s not much to talk about, let alone write about. That, of course, means that looking back to the season that was continues to be a major source of subject material.

In a recent stat dive, I found yet another amazing thing about Joey Votto. For most any baseball writer, he is truly the gift that never stops giving. Indeed, Beyond the Box Score has written about the Reds slugger three times in the past two years.

Of all his superlatives, Votto’s greatest attribute is his insane sense of his own zone combined with a preternatural ability to recognize pitches. He simply doesn’t go after pitches that he can’t do damage on. He even set another personal best in 2017, swinging at pitches outside the strike zone just 15.8 percent of the time. That clip was the lowest rate in all of baseball; Matt Carpenter, at 16.6 percent, was the only one who even came close. And Votto wasn’t chasing too far, either — here’s all the pitches out of the zone (or on the edges) that he swung at last year:

Baseball Savant

Aside from that changeup away (a groundout to Jhonny Peralta), basically everything was two or so baseball widths from the edge of the zone. It looks impressive on its own, but for comparison’s sake, let’s look at the pitches that two other NL MVP candidates swung at. Here’s Paul Goldschmidt, who swung at pitches outside the zone 24.4 percent of the time:

Baseball Savant

And here’s MVP and newest Yankee Giancarlo Stanton, who went out of the zone 27.4 percent of the time:

Baseball Savant

It goes without saying, Votto certainly has a better sense of the zone than these two, even as good as they are.

But what really precipitated this piece was how often Votto makes contact on pitches outside the strike zone. He ranked seventh among all hitters in making contact on non-strikes:

2017 Top 10 O-Contact%

Rank Name Team O-Contact%
Rank Name Team O-Contact%
1 Andrelton Simmons Angels 79.9%
2 DJ LeMahieu Rockies 79.9%
3 Melky Cabrera - - - 79.3%
4 Denard Span Giants 79.2%
5 Nick Markakis Braves 78.4%
6 Ender Inciarte Braves 78.3%
7 Joey Votto Reds 78.3%
8 Joe Panik Giants 78.3%
9 Dee Gordon Marlins 77.9%
10 Joe Mauer Twins 77.5%

This does make sense, considering Votto’s patience and sense of the plate. He allows himself better pitches to hit even when they’re out of the zone, simply by not reaching too far.

It’s more the collection of players around him is so, well, un-Vottoesque. For the most part they’re slap hitters, groundball-heavy guys and players who make their bones on defense. Of course, at 11 we see the exception — Daniel Murphy, who is substantially more aggressive on out-of-the-zone pitches (31.2 percent swing rate) and yet less aggressive on pitches in the zone, swinging 67.1 percent of the time compared to Votto’s 71.4 percent.

Once again, all praise to Votto’s weird strike zone radar. For the most part, though, it’s a place hitters of his character who get pitched very tough shouldn’t really find themselves on.

One last thing I noted, which is driven by Votto’s refusal to swing at unhittable pitches: When he does make contact on balls out of the zone, he owns a .302 wOBA. That’s not great, a far cry from the .428 wOBA he posted in 2017. But it’s not dreadful, either. It’s as good as Kevin Pillar did this year in general, and it works out to about an 87 wRC+.

So Votto’s a below-average hitter on pitches outside the zone — but not as much as you’d think. Comparatively, those two other MVP candidates were much worse:

Edge and O-Zone wOBA with player offensive output equivalent

Player Edge/O-Zone wOBA General Offensive Comp.
Player Edge/O-Zone wOBA General Offensive Comp.
Votto .302 Kevin Pillar
Goldschmidt .262 Jeff Mathis
Stanton .248 Austin Romine

Votto is amazing, in his own special way. Well, he’s generally amazing too, I suppose. This low-chase/high-contact strategy, and the merely subpar damage (rather than none) he does on would be non-strikes, is hard to replicate in another player, if not impossible. It’s always good to be able to appreciate him. Hopefully the Reds can get him back in the limelight again soon.

Merritt Rohlfing delves into baseball and writes for Beyond the Box Score and in particular the Indians at Let’s Go Tribe, and podcasts at Mostly Baseball, among other places. Follow him on Twitter @MerrillLunch.