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More on Joey Votto’s Swinging Habits

Responding to my piece earlier on Friday about the Cincinnati Reds’ Joey Votto and his approach to at-bats with runners in scoring position, reader Keith Anderson asked:

How does his [swing] percentage compare to when there isn’t anyone in [scoring] position? Is there a noticeable/meaningful difference? I just wonder if people are picking at how his play changes or just how he plays.

Funny you ask, Keith! Before deciding to focus specifically on whether Votto swings at pitches in the strike zone with runners in scoring position, I collected a bunch of other data covering different scenarios.

Let’s look at this year first. Here are Votto’s 2014 numbers in RISP situations versus bases empty.

Votto with RISP, 2014

  • 121 pitches
  • 47.1 percent strike rate (strikes + balls in play/pitches)
  • 29.8 percent swing rate
  • 24.7 percent called strike rate
  • 8.7 percent chase rate (swings at pitches out of the strike zone)
  • 57.9 percent fastballs
  • 57.7 percent swings on pitches in strike zone

Votto with bases empty, 2014

  • 437 pitches
  • 58.8 percent strike rate
  • 40.5 percent swing rate
  • 30.8 percent called strike rate
  • 17.4 percent chase rate
  • 59.3 percent fastballs
  • 64.8 percent swings on pitches in strike zone

So Votto is swinging a lot more often this year in bases-empty situations than he is with runners in scoring position. Not coincidentally, he’s getting a lot more strikes to swing at with nobody on. Interestingly, he’s also doing something very un-Votto like: chasing pitches out of the zone, in this case twice as often with the bases empty as with runners in scoring position. Of course it’s only May 9, so we’re dealing with relatively small sample sizes.

Now let’s take a look at how often Votto has swung at strikes with the bases empty over time.

Votto swing percentage on pitches in strike zone with bases empty, 2009-2014

  • 2009 73.3
  • 2010 69.4
  • 2011 66.8
  • 2012 59.7
  • 2013 64.3
  • 2014 64.8

Votto swing percentage on pitches in strike zone with RISP, 2009-2014

  • 2009 78.2
  • 2010 76.2
  • 2011 69.8
  • 2012 62.4
  • 2013 69.2
  • 2014 57.7

The same trend governing Votto’s swing rate with runners in scoring position can be seen with the bases empty. He’s far less aggressive today than he was in 2009, and somewhat less aggressive than he was during his 2010 MVP season. After that, things level out, assuming we discount (or simply ignore) 2012, when a knee injury messed with his entire stat line. Also note that the small-sample-size issues that make Votto’s swing percentage on pitches in the strike zone with runners in scoring position has not carried over to the same stat with the bases empty; 2011, 2013 and 2014 look nearly identical with the bases empty.

One other thing. If we assume that the 57.7 percent figure for runners in scoring position this year is a small-sample-size fluke that will even out shortly, then we’re left with a clear and healthy trend: The better the RBI opportunity, the more Joey Votto swings at pitches in the strike zone.

Jonah Keri is a staff writer for Grantland and a contributor to FiveThirtyEight. His book “The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team From Worst to First” is a New York Times best seller. The paperback edition of his new book “Up, Up, and Away,” on the history of the Montreal Expos, comes out 3/3/15 and is now available for preorder.