Joey Votto routinely dominates in the second half, but the numbers reveal a new approach every time.
Joey Votto plans to wear “Tokki-2” on the back of his Cincinnati Reds jersey this coming Players’ Weekend (August 25th-27th). The story behind this nickname dates back to 2013, when Votto met new teammate Shin-soo Choo. Choo got off to such a blistering start in his first (and only) year in a Reds jersey that Votto thought he was chasing him from day one. He asked his teammate how to say “rabbit” in Korean, given that he felt like a greyhound pursuing one of those decoy rabbits at a racetrack, and very soon Choo had a new nickname.
The fortunes reversed in the second half of 2013. Now Choo was chasing Votto, who escalated his game to another level. There were now two rabbits in Cincy, so Choo became “Tokki-1” and Votto “Tokki-2.”
Until this August, “Tokki-2” was a brand-new and rarely used nickname for Joey Votto. For years, Reds fans (and many a fantasy baseball team name) went with “Votto-matic,” a rather suitable name for the on-base machine that Votto was and is to this day. The first baseman is on pace to lead the National League in OBP (.447) for the sixth time in his 11-year career. Only seven other players have managed that feat, and their names – Ted Williams, Barry Bonds, Babe Ruth, Rogers Hornsby, Ty Cobb, Wade Boggs, Stan Musial – are among the most renowned and revered in baseball history.
While “Votto-matic” makes reference to his offensive consistency and batting eye, the lesser-known “Tokki-2” reminds us of a lesser-known Joey Votto factoid: nearly every season, Votto becomes a monster in the second half. All of a sudden, the calendar hits August and there’s Votto, reaching base multiple times in 20 consecutive games. His career second-half OBP through 567 games, according to the Play Index at Baseball-Reference, is .444. Since the All-Star Game was introduced in 1933 only two other players can top that: Williams (.485) and Bonds (.469).
Even though Votto consistently takes his game up a notch after the Midsummer Classic, precisely how he elevates his level of play is rarely repeated. Before we look at how Votto’s most recent second-half surges differ, we need to examine what — besides date — separates the first half from the second. That is, how does the game change from mid-July onwards?
First of all, there is an issue of sample size. Put concisely, the first half is long. In 2017, there are a total of 90 days before the All-Star Game compared to 83 games after. Total game days will vary depending on the team, but in every circumstance the first half is always the larger of the two. Take the case of Nolan Arenado, last season’s leader in games played (160), who played in 14 more games in the first half than in the second. The second-half sample is still large enough to draw conclusions, but rate stats have the potential to jump out a little more because the playing time is just slightly smaller.
To jump back to 2017, here are the league-wide splits between the first and second halves, according to Baseball-Reference:
|First Half 2017||.255||.324||.425||.750|
|Second Half 2017||.258||.327||.433||.761|
Before we jump ahead and try to explain that 11-point gap in OPS with any number of theories, it should be mentioned that not every season complies with this paradigm. In 2016, second-half OPS was lower than first-half OPS, then it was higher in 2015, and then lower again in 2014. The ebb-and-flow nature is presumably statistical noise, but in all of these cases there is rarely a substantial gap. The greatest instance of such is a 25-point improvement in 2015, which, if you subscribe to the “juiced ball” theories, is approximately when teams begin to replenish their ball stock.
Let’s dig deeper: what else separates the first and second halves statistically? Here are two more tables with data from 2017, both of which contain stats from FanGraphs. The first table is broadly defined as a table of outcome rates, while the second would be characterized as a table of plate discipline measures.
As you may have noticed, most of these differences are extremely minor, as in fractions of a percent. To summarize the first set of data, there is a slight uptick in line drives, fly balls. and the productivity (HR/FB) of balls in the air. Walk rates and strikeout rates have hardly changed, and hitters in the second half have been a little luckier on balls in play (BABIP). In the second table, we can see that batters are swinging slightly more often even as pitchers are throwing in the zone slightly less often. In spite of this, contact rates are up a tad.
In 2017, at least, the beneath the surface changes between the first and second halves are extremely minor. One can correlate any number of factors to these changes: warmer temperatures, updated scouting reports, injuries to starting position players and pitchers alike, in-season adjustments to the record-high rates of home runs and strikeouts, and so on and so forth. The key word is “correlate,” given the sheer number of factors and the difficulty of proving causation with any of them.
The last major change between the first and second halves of a baseball season has not even occurred yet in 2017. I mean, of course, the September roster expansions, when teams have the option to carry as many as 40 players on their active rosters. Of course, how one month of enormous rosters affects second-half statistics is also difficult to prove. On one hand, some teams use this peculiar feature of the MLB schedule to test young players on both sides of the ball who may go all Shane Spencer for a month. On the other hand, contending teams might afford this opportunity to rest their star hitters or pitchers. The roster expansion is so difficult to place one way or another, but it is unique to the second half for good or for ill.
A Tale of Three Hitters
John Minchillo - AP Photo
Right now, my claim that “Votto becomes a monster in the second half” is without real context. To remedy that, here is a table of Votto’s triple slash rates and wRC+ in the first and second halves over the past three seasons:
|First Half||Second Half|
Votto is never a bad hitter in the first half, but he becomes Ruthian once the season hits mid-July. There is a narrative here in these outrageous numbers. Maybe you can see it in the triple slash rates, but to be clearer let’s focus on these second halves and examine his rates and plate discipline statistics.
(Note: For Votto’s statistics in context, compare these tables with the league stats in the section above.)
If you compare 2015 and 2016, it is hard to believe that is the same guy. Votto in the second half of 2015 was as patient as we have ever seen him, walking at a 26.5% rate and swinging only 34.4% of the time. It may have also been the luckiest Votto we have seen to date, given his astronomically high .452 BABIP and greater-than-average HR/FB rate (though, on the latter, remember that he plays in the hitter-friendly Great American Ballpark).
In contrast, the Votto of the 2016 second half was the most contact oriented and slap-happy Joey Votto of recent memory. His swing rate (74.3%) hardly resembled the prior season’s, to the point that he was chasing pitches far more often as well. Nevertheless, his contact rate (89.3%) was at an elite level and he put up a very solid line drive rate (27.7%). His BABIP is still high, but this version of Joey Votto was jumping on — and punishing — pitches in the zone.
That brings us to 2017 and, if you noticed this tidbit in one of the tables above, Votto is actually providing less cumulative offensive impact in the second half (163 wRC+) than in the first half (165 wRC+). He is still a phenomenal hitter, but he is a drastically different one. His adjustment in 2017 stands out among his other second halves not because it is the worst of the three, but because it stands in such stark contrast to the first half of the same season.
Joe Robbins - Getty Images
Despite the nearly identical wRC+ in each half, Votto achieved such numbers in radically different ways. In the first half, the Canadian first baseman cracked 26 home runs and had that .631 slugging percentage. He still possessed a great .427 OBP, but his offensive impact was reliant on his power more than is usually the case. In the second half of 2017, Votto is still an offensive force. Even though he is only slugging .504 since the break, his OBP is almost above .500 (.494). His on-base streak is a testament to just how great he is at not making outs, even when the power is undergoing a slight drought.
Dig deeper, and Votto in the first half of 2017 looks nothing like any of his recent second halves outside of his strikeout avoidance (10.9%). Votto was lifting over 40% of balls in play (41.2% fly ball rate) over the first few months of 2017. In addition, his use of the whole field was astoundingly even - 34.7% of balls in play were pulled, 31.4% went up the middle, and 33.9% were to the opposite field. Fast forward to the second half, and Votto is lifting far more infrequently (32.7% FB%) and favoring his pull-side (41.8% Pull%) as opposed to showing no spray chart preference.
It is regrettable that Votto is not providing as much thump as he did in the first half, particularly because of his unfathomable low chase rate (9.4% O-Swing%) since the All-Star Game. Votto knows the strike zone better than anyone and, apparently, better than ever.
There is one final table (last one, I promise) that provides another perspective of Votto’s second-half dominance: his contact quality. I have mentioned a few of these numbers earlier, but the full list is pretty revealing. Again, these are from the second halves of each of the past three seasons:
In 2015, when Votto was at his most patient, he generated his strongest contact and attacked the middle of the field. This approach is in accord with his high BABIP (remember, this was before the shift was a nation-wide phenomenon) and plate discipline. In 2016, Votto had a contact-oriented approach. His hard-hit rate was down, but he made consistently solid contact (52.5% Med%) and used the whole field at a level similar to the first half of this year. In 2017, Votto has a pull-heavy approach and is minimizing soft contact, perhaps because he is chasing so few pitches. This path has not had the mind-boggling results of prior seasons, but there is still potential for his power numbers to increase.
Adjusting with Joey
“Votto-matic” has a great ring to it and “Tokki-2” is apparently Joey’s new nickname of choice. Meanwhile, reigning NL MVP Kris Bryant has taken to calling Votto “the best player ever,” while FiveThirtyEight laments that his greatness is lost on the playoff-starved Reds. Not to add to a growing pile of nicknames, but I have one more to submit for consideration: The Magician.
You see, Votto’s dominance — season-long or exclusively in the second half — is the product of adjustments. Votto was never egregiously strikeout-prone, but starting in the middle of 2016 he adjusted and cut them from is profile. He began 2017 with an aggressive approach, only to now boast a chase rate below 10%. Evidence suggests he adjusted his plan of attack at the dish according to the changing trends of the strike zone. Even as teams adjust to him, trying to get an edge with wacky tactics like the four-man outfield, Votto still finds a way to beat it.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1JNbnaro0JM
That he is a new and seemingly improved hitter in the second half is nothing less than magical. That he can hit for power without strikeouts or pop-ups is almost unheard of. That he admits to “funneling” opposing pitchers into throwing where he wants them to throw almost sounds like hypnosis.
What is Joey Votto’s next trick? Your guess is as good as mine. The cerebral slugger generally likes to play things a little close to the chest where his adjustments are concerned. After all, the Magician never reveals his secrets. The audience should just sit back and be amazed.
**All statistics are accurate as of August 20th, 2017 and were obtained, unless otherwise noted, from Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs, respectively.**
Edited by Joe Sparacio.
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