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The New And Possibly Improved Joey Votto

Joey Votto hit more home runs on Sunday than he did in the first 32 games of the season. But that's not the interesting part of his season so far ...

CINCINNATI, OH -  Joey Votto #19 of the Cincinnati Reds hits a grand slam in the ninth inning against the Washington Nationals at Great American Ball Park. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
CINCINNATI, OH - Joey Votto #19 of the Cincinnati Reds hits a grand slam in the ninth inning against the Washington Nationals at Great American Ball Park. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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Even with close to a month-and-a-half of the season gone, it's still a good idea to note that small-sample goblins are still chewing on things. An 0-for-4 from Joey Votto on Sunday would have meant that he remained fifth on the Reds in home runs, behind Jay Bruce, Drew Stubbs, Ryan Ludwick, and, uh, Zack Cozart. The obvious angle to a Votto-themed article: Where's the home-run power? Votto was still doing good things -- leading the NL in walks and doubles -- but it was a little curious that the doubles weren't going out of the park.

One game and sixteen pitches later, Votto's slugging percentage is up to .593 -- .102 points higher than it was at the start of Sunday. In a single day, he took his slugging percentage from a career-low to just seven ticks below his career high. You can see how the small-sample goblins are still messing with what you think you know about the 2012 season.

But because Votto hit three home runs, it felt like you should be greeted on Monday morning with a column based on the general theme of, "Good morning, friend! Say, did you hear about this Joey Votto chap?" The only trick was to package or frame it around an interesting kernel of an idea. Rejected ideas:

  • Joey Votto is good.
  • Joey Votto is really good.
  • Joey Votto is better than the other first basemen in the National League
  • Joey Votto and the Neil Peart lyrics that correspond with his development.

Fascinating angles, all. But nothing worth a few hundred words just yet. Except here's something of note: Joey Votto has been a much different hitter this year. Before the three-homer game, he was a doubles factory, sure. But there's been something even more different about Votto so far this year. With the help of the good folks at FanGraphs, a few Joey Votto statistical trends:

Swings taken at pitches out of the strike zone
2010: 29.9%
2011: 25.5%
2012: 20.5%

Nothing good comes from swinging at pitches outside of the strike zone. There are hitters who make their careers doing just that -- Vladimir Guerrero and Pablo Sandoval, for instance -- but it's hard to argue that the reason they've had success is because they swing at pitches outside of the strike zone. They just happen to be better at getting value out of those swings than most players. They'd still be better served laying off pitches outside of the zone. It's the unspoken goal of every hitter in every at-bat. Get a good pitch. And Votto has been better at that so far than at any point in his career.

Swings taken at pitches inside the strike zone
2010: 68.2%
2011: 62.8%
2012: 58.8%

But it isn't just the balls he's laying off so far. He's swinging the bat less overall.

Swing percentage
2010: 47.0%
2011: 41.9%
2012: 37.1%

A kindler, gentler, more patient Joey Votto. And this is happening right under the nose of his manager, who just said this to Hal McCoy:

"Man, we’re taking fastballs," Baker added. "And they’re all getting ahead of us. This game is not designed for two strikes and four balls. If that’s the case, none of us would have hit."

Being aggressive can be a good idea for some players. Baker might be absolutely right in certain cases. Joey Votto isn't on board, though. Not so far this year, at least. He isn't concerned with an 0-1 count here and a 1-2 count there. And if you think that pitchers are muttering "screw this" under their breath and serving a steady diet of balls to Votto, that doesn't seem to be the case:

Overall percentage of pitches thrown inside the strike zone
2010: 44.8%
2011: 44.9%
2012: 45.3%

Same as it ever was. Votto's just swinging less.

And here's where you get a grand conclusion, right? Joey Votto ate Reggie Willits and learned his secrets. Now Votto is going to enjoy a career season. Nice and tidy hypothesis. We'll check back in September. Except those numbers in the first year of every statistical trend? They were from 2010. Votto hit .324/.424/.600 in 2010 and won the National League MVP. Maybe Votto is much better served when he abides by the Dusty Baker school of aggressiveness.

Or maybe nothing's different at all. I opened with the small-sample goblins for a reason. In another couple of months, maybe the numbers will snap back into place. But in the first 33 games of Joey Votto's 2012 season, something's been different. It's a big part of the reason his on-base percentage was ..454 going into Sunday's game. If he didn't change a thing with his current pace -- trading in some homers for doubles and walks -- he would have remained a ridiculously valuable player. But if he can do all of this and keep the home-run swing going?

Man, oh, man. For the player who already had everything, here's some improved plate discipline. Just throw it on the pile of attributes and talents. Best of luck, rest of the National League.