Joey Votto may be silencing his critics by swinging more

Cincinnati Reds first baseman Joey Votto has always had a complicated relationship with some of his supporters. Despite being one of the best players in the game over his career, Votto receives an inordinate amount of criticism from fans and even team broadcasters for his patient approach.

The main issue stems from Votto’s elite plate discipline. During his career, Votto has displayed a tremendous eye. He’s led the league in walks four times and on-base percentage five times. It’s a skill that has made him a perennial MVP candidate.

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But his detractors have questioned that approach. If Votto were truly a great player, he would drive in more runs, they say. He shouldn’t go up to the plate looking to take a walk, especially with men in scoring position. He should go up there swinging.

If the early evidence is any indication, the critics may have finally gotten their way. After years of extreme patience, Votto is being far more aggressive at the plate. That will be one of the storylines to watch in Thursday’s Free MLB Game of the Day on Yahoo Sports. Votto and the Reds will take on Adam Jones and the Baltimore Orioles. The contest, which can be streamed on our MLB page, the Free Game of the Day tab or right here in this very post, will begin at 7:10 p.m. ET. Local blackouts apply per MLB’s rules.

Joey Votto’s free-swinging ways are leading the Reds to victory. (AP)
Joey Votto’s free-swinging ways are leading the Reds to victory. (AP)

It’s still early, but it looks like Votto has adopted a new mantra at the plate this year. Zach Buchanan of the Cincinnati Enquirer covered Votto’s change in approach after just a few games.

“P Double-i P” read the shirt that Cincinnati Reds assistant hitting coach Tony Jaramillo wore around the clubhouse Monday at PNC Park. It was a gift from first baseman Joey Votto, and it translates to “Put it in Play.”

If Votto’s trying to do anything differently at the plate in 2017, that shirt may be the only clue. And it’s a pretty meaningless one.

Still, Votto is undeniably hitting differently through the first six games. He’s swinging far more often, and making far more contact. He’s walked once, and it took him six games to do it, the longest he’s gone without a walk to start a season since 2008.

While it could be an instance of trolling on Votto’s part (something he’s done in the past), that sentiment bears out in the numbers.

Thus far, his swing rates are up across the board. In particular, Votto is hacking away at pitches in the strike zone. He swung at 63.3 percent of those pitches last season. That number has skyrocketed to 76.2 percent this year, according to FanGraphs. Overall, he’s swinging seven percent more often.

All of that is meaningless if the new approach isn’t helping him “put it in play,” right? Thankfully for Votto, he’s been able to do that as well. His contact rates are also up. On pitches outside the zone, Votto is making contact 84 percent of the time (up from 79 last year). He’s been even better on pitches in the strike zone, posting a contact rate of 94 percent. All in all, Votto is making contact with 91.7 percent of all pitches at which he swings. That’s good for the fifth best contact rate in the majors.

The results of Votto’s experiment have been mixed thus far. His .235/.333/.529 line shows that his average and on-base percentage have suffered, but his pop has remained strong.

Were the critics right about Joey Votto all along? (AP)
Were the critics right about Joey Votto all along? (AP)

But there’s hope the first two areas see significant improvement. Votto managed to cut his strikeout rate significantly early on. He’s striking out at a career-low 11.7 percent. Players who don’t strike out and make a lot of contact typically post decent batting averages.

The only reason Votto hasn’t done that yet is his .195 BABIP. Considering his career BABIP is a robust .357, and his career batting average is .312, we’re going to write off the early batting average slump as small-sample nonsense.

What does that mean for Votto moving forward? It’s really tough to say. Assuming his numbers rebound, it’s reasonable to think he could be even better than before. He’s still hitting for power and he’s not striking out as much. On top of that, his walk rate is still solid at 11.7 percent. He’ll still take his walks.

The only reason we’re hesitant to go that far is because Votto has been exceptional throughout his career. He’s won an MVP and routinely contends for the award. He has consistently posted fWARs over 5.0. He’s already really great. It’s tough to expect him to get better.

And yet, there’s evidence he’s improving. We don’t fully know what this new version of Votto will look like once everything falls into place. But the early results have us wondering whether his harshest critics actually had a valid point all along.

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Chris Cwik is a writer for Big League Stew on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at christophercwik@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @Chris_Cwik

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