Stats as of 9/2/2020
Ever since 2017, a year where he put up a 163 wRC+ and undeservedly lost in the NL MVP race by a mere two voting points, Joey Votto hasn’t been the same hitter. The inevitable age-decline hit him, rather hard and very quickly. Although he still posted a 130 wRC+ in 2018, it was his first healthy season below a 150 wRC+ since his 2008 rookie season. Then the drop-off hit harder in 2019, when he slashed .261/.357/.411 with 15 homers and a 101 wRC+, career-low rates across the board (and by a good margin). 2020 started with more of the same. In his first 106 PAs, Votto held a .191/.321/.326 slashline and a 76 wRC+. And as if it couldn’t get any worse for one of baseball’s best personalities, Votto found himself in new territory — the bench. It was only for two games, but the message was loud and clear to Votto.
In the five games since Votto’s return to the starting lineup, he’s hit .533/.588/1.200 with three homers. He’s raised his season wRC+ to 115 and doubled his home run count. So what changed? Well if the title wasn’t any hint, Votto revamped his swing and probably the approach associated with it. But as someone who constantly watches Reds games, this swing change felt like a déjà vu moment, and for good reason. Because after a little digging, I found that Votto had made this EXACT swing change last season and saw the same positive results.
Joey Votto 2019:
Crouched stance, choked up (start of season to 7/17):
87.5 MPH EV
Tall stance, leg kick (7/18 and on):
90.9 MPH EV
— Kyle Horton (@Hortonimo) August 30, 2020
Let’s put some video to the swing so we can all see what I’m talking about. Here’s 2019, with before and after the swing change.
And here’s 2020.
I’m going to hold back on adding screenshots comparing each position of his swings, since it would get a little lengthy, but I encourage you to pause the GIFs at each point (load/peak of leg kick, heel strike, contact) and see what you find for yourself.
Here’s what I see:
Now, take some of this with a grain of salt, since I’m nitpicking at two singular swings. Some of what we see at contact may just be a result of the pitch, pitch location, or even just how Votto’s swing was feeling that day. But nonetheless, we can see differences in his swing, his intentions, and the results that followed. Let’s call the pre-change swing “crouched” and the post-change swing “upright” (it’ll be easier for both you and me to follow).
In my opinion, the crouched swing looks like a swing based on the goal of only maximizing contact. Votto looks like he’s swinging just to get the barrel on the ball. It’s awkward and stiff and just way too short. He’s never had a swing with a lot of moving parts, but the crouched swing looks way too simple for a hitter who no longer has tons of raw power. He’s even looked super defensive at times, like versus Yu Darvish last season and Jon Lester this season.
But the upright swing is everything that Votto always has been. A more reminiscent swing of his earlier seasons, it looks like it allows for Votto to attack the ball with authority and maximize his separation. The swing looks looser, stronger, and quicker. Votto looks less worried about not making contact and more focused on making the right contact. Of course, I have no clue what Votto’s approach at the plate is, or if it even changed with the swing. No one truly knows more about Votto’s swing than Votto himself. These opinions are only what my eyes and past playing experiences tell me, so it’s good thing we have statistics to turn to.
Everyone likes numbers (right?), so let’s take a look at some.
It’s important to not pay too much attention to the 2020 upright swing, since it’s only 17 PA and nine batted balls. But if we are going to add any weight to the effectiveness of his upright swing, then it’s great to see that in both seasons the swing yielded much better results. The biggest difference-maker between swings is how much harder Votto hit the ball. Hitting the ball harder will directly benefit every expected stat, since harder hit balls go for hits, specifically extra-base hits, more often than softer hit balls. So Votto sees jumps in his expected results with his upright swing, because he’s making much harder contact with it. Again, the 2020 data shows a lower Hard-Hit rate with the upright swing only because it’s two of nine batted balls (but both were barrels!). If we want to see more support of this improvement, check out his rolling line chart for 2019, which pinpoints the exact date that I noted he changed his swing and the increase in hard hit balls thereafter.
For the next 100 batted balls, Votto blistered the baseball, peaking above a 60% hard hit rate. His last 50 batted balls slowed down a bit (he had a lower back strain in late August), but even at his weakest, Votto still hit the ball hard at a better rate than most of his batted balls with his crouched swing.
We can see how much impact the upright swing has on Votto’s success with one more statistic — average exit velocity. Most people would point to his overall average EV, like I did in my tweet above, but I don’t think that paints the full picture of his improvement. His average EV still clumps in his weak contact, which we ideally want to minimize. So instead of just looking at the increase in his average and saying he improved, let’s scatter it across the zone and see how it would effect his plate coverage.
Sure enough, the new swing results in harder contact on average in almost every zone and significantly increases exit velocities across the lower part of the strike zone, where the majority of his pitches cross. I can’t stress enough how important hitting the ball harder is for Votto. Earlier in the 2020 season, MLB’s Mike Petriello discussed Votto’s absurdly low K-rate and increased consistency in contact. But the conclusion showed Votto was doing so with extremely soft contact. In a season where he is seeing a 50% pull rate and 42% ground-ball rate, the soft contact is going to create for a lot of easy outs. Votto hitting the ball harder is a positive for his batted balls in any way you want to dice it.
Your next question might be: how did the swing change affect his plate discipline? If Votto is taking what some might say is, a bigger swing, wouldn’t it be natural to expect worse discipline? Well that’s not the case.
A slight increase in swings outside of the zone, but that’s it. Votto didn’t strikeout or swing and miss any more with the upright swing than he did with the crouched swing. Plus, he even walked a tad bit more. The upright swing seems to be only beneficial for Votto.
Does this mean that Votto is going to mash for the rest of the season? Maybe! If he’s going to make a lot harder contact while maintaining his still excellent plate discipline, I don’t see why he wouldn’t get positive results. Does this mean he’s going back to his 2015-2017 form? No. Those days are past him, and sadly, they aren’t coming back. However, Votto could realistically finish as an above average hitter and still put up a wRC+ in the range of 115 and 130. If one thing is certain, he still has some fuel left in the tank. Votto still bangs.
(Photo by Quinn Harris/Icon Sportswire)