All-Star's perception of strike zone allows him to pile up the walks
By Joe Trezza
Every afternoon, the man with the best grasp of the strike zone since Barry Bonds walks into the cage and sets up a tee basically on his bellybutton. The baseball sits stationary about a fist's width from and center with his hips. To hit it with authority appears a near impossibility of physics, the angle forcing him to contort some 40 degrees to get the essentials -- eyes, hands and barrel -- onto the proper plane and the ball. It's a drill that seems designed to spawn a slew of catcher's interferences.
This is how Joey Votto begins each workday, swing after laborious swing, a master carpenter slaving over wood still unfinished. The way he smacks the bellybutton balls to the top left corner of the cage astounds his teammates, carves one of baseball's best all-field swings and sharpens Votto's signature skill -- the ability to see pitches deep enough to win more at-bats than anyone else.
"His routine is different from everybody's," said Reds third baseman Eugenio Suarez. "I tried it, but it doesn't work for me. I don't want to swing at that pitch!"
Neither does Votto, and he rarely does during games. But his perception of the strike zone, and where his barrel can reach beyond it, starts at that unhittable pitch and radiates outward. It is the pitch he measures all other pitches against, the baseline of a strike zone command most pitchers wish they had, and no other hitter does.
Joey Votto is on another level. Look at where his chase rate ranks compared to the next best hitters. Votto is red. Corey Dickerson yellow. pic.twitter.com/yJ22HtV3sD
"We are all trying to learn how he walks so much," Suarez said.
Those walks keep piling up as they always have -- Votto led baseball with 125 at week's end -- but what's different this season is how little he's striking out. Votto had 52 more walks than strikeouts entering Monday. With the season's finish line two weeks out, that's an Ohio River-sized difference, and it's worth unpacking both historically and in a modern context.
Only three qualified hitters entered Monday with more walks than strikeouts, and four others have a legitimate shot to end the season with such. Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner ranks second in baseball with a 1.06 walk/strikeout ratio. Votto's is 1.71, more than 60 percent higher.
If the season ended today, Votto would lead the category by the largest margin since Bonds in 2004, when he was intentionally walked a record 120 times. Before Bonds, no hitter had commanded the zone as well as Votto, relative to his peers, since Wade Boggs in 1988.
"My objective this year was trying to get better at that," Votto said. "Becoming a better hitter. When I say hitter, I mean actually swinging the bat with better ball-strike."
To which Votto means he set out to cut down his strikeouts. "It was a priority," he said. That alone makes him the rarest kind of modern hitter, in an age where plate discipline is said to reign paramount but on-base percentage often comes, ironically, at the expense of contact.
Votto always hit for enough power to strike out a bit, but he often walked more he whiffed. Which is what made the first half of his 2016 season so strange, when Votto hit .213 through May and racked up 88 strikeouts (against 61 walks) by the All-Star break. For context, he's struck out just 73 times across all of 2017.
"I know exactly why it happened," Votto said.
Votto said he put too much pressure on himself after posting a .459 on-base percentage in 2015. Already armed with four OBP titles and an NL MVP, Votto sought a new challenge.
"I'd looked at some of the all-time greats, and I set a goal of getting on base half the time," Votto said. "I read a long time ago Tony Gwynn said he'd try to hit .400. This was my own version of hitting .400."
Besides Bonds, whose on-base numbers are skewed based on how he was pitched, nobody has managed a .500 OBP since Ted Williams in 1957. Frank Thomas came closest at .487 in strike-shortened 1994. Votto has led the NL in OBP in six of the past eight seasons. In another, he placed second by .001. His .428 career OBP is tied for eighth all-time with Ty Cobb, Jimmie Foxx and Tris Speaker.
Getting to .500 for a one full season seemed unlikely, but not unfathomable for Votto. Then it became his white whale.
"It ended up being an unrealistic goal for this day and age, and at least for my skillset," Votto said. "I ended up making it too hard on myself. I'd get far too deep into at-bats, complicating things, and taking good pitches I probably should've swung at."
Votto scratched the goal, and as soon as he did, embarked on the most dominant stretch of his career. He hit .408/.490/.668 over 2016's second half and .317/.453/.582 this season, with 35 home runs and 301 total bases. Over the past 222 games, he's hit .348/.465/.611 with 67 more walks than strikeouts.
"I still probably strike out too much," Votto says, a statement that feels both wildly out of touch and perfectly in character for a player always trying to improve.
Statcast™ helps show us how Votto's increased stinginess drives in his success. He's swung at just 13.9 percent of out-of-zone pitches he's seen this season, a 6 percent increase from a year ago and easily the top mark in the Majors. Put two strikes on Votto and narrow the parameters to include only pitches Statcast™ deems near-strikes, and Votto passes an elite 94 percent of the time.
Such are the fruits of a meticulousness that puts Votto in another league in terms of swing efficiency, and has him building a resume toward Cooperstown, one borderline pitch at a time.
"Everybody I know asks me, how does he do it?" Suarez said. "I tell them, he always tries to be better every day."
Joe Trezza is a reporter for MLB.com based in New York. Follow him on Twitter at @joetrezz. Matt Kelly contributed research to this report. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.