The Science of Hitting: Jay Bruce and Joey Votto
By Justin Suer
In 1971, The Science of Hitting by Ted Williams was published. It was one of the first comprehensive “how-to” books on hitting by one of the greatest hitters who ever played. It featured an illustration of Williams and a rectangle representing his strike zone. Inside the rectangle are seventy-seven baseballs, each representing a fraction of the strike zone. Williams was serious and studious about hitting. He also didn’t lack confidence. In the illustration, Williams attempted to estimate his batting average for each pitch location. In the middle of the strike zone, Williams estimated, he hit .400. On the lower-outside edge of the strike zone, he estimated, he hit just .240.
If you have paid close attention to baseball or read Moneyball, you know that statistics, or Sabermetrics, have become a widely used tool by baseball executives and their staffs. In fact, Bill James and his understudies have created an industry that produces information Williams only dreamed of examining. The Williams illustration, at right, was a crude estimation by Williams based on his experience. Today, digital video and computers have made it possible to produce images like it using factual data. The internet has made it possible to deliver the information to fans and baseball enthusiasts.
Last month, I downloaded a free app called Bill James Baseball IQ on my iPhone. I was amazed by the depth of information that I could retrieve, in seconds, on a device the size of a 1955 Ted Williams baseball card.
So, I began mining for information about Reds hitters. I found a fountain of information that will provide ammunition for a series of blogs that will study and analyze their strengths, weaknesses, and tendencies. I’ll start with left-handed sluggers Jay Bruce and Joey Votto. Votto is an accomplished hitter whose credentials include an MVP award. Bruce, on the other hand, has shown flashes of brilliance mixed with periods of ineffectiveness. The first graphic, like the Williams graphic, illustrates each hitter’s batting average for each pitch location (from 2007-2011).
Votto, a career .313 hitter, likes the ball just above the knees in the middle third of the plate. He handles the ball just fine on the inner third of the plate. In fact, Votto’s diagram shows plenty of green off of the inside part of the plate. He clearly prefers the ball below the waist but hits well over most of the strike zone. There aren’t many holes in Votto’s diagram.
Bruce, a career .256 hitter, likes the ball in the lower-inside quadrant of the strike zone. There are blue areas in Bruce’s strike zone. Up and In, low and in, and down and away are Bruce’s weaknesses, making him more vulnerable to pitchers with good command.
The next diagram illustrates each hitter’s plate discipline. It graphs swing percentage by pitch location (2007-2011).
Votto owns a career .414 on-base percentage. Bruce gets on base at a .331 clip. Bruce swings at a very high percentage of pitches above his waist which is not a high-success area for him. Votto swings at a very high percentage of pitches on the inner half of the plate which corresponds with his high-average area. Neither player expands the strike zone beyond reason. Votto swings at a relatively high percentage of pitches off the inner part of the plate, but he also hits for a relatively high average in that zone. Votto swings at strikes 68% of the time. Bruce swings at strikes 65% of the time.
The final diagram illustrates the pitch locations that fan Bruce and Votto (from 2007-2011):
Bruce strikes out in 23% of his plate appearances. Votto fans at an 18% rate. Most of Bruce’s strikeouts come on pitches down and away or down and in. Votto handles the two-strike pitch down and in, but is prone to whiff at the pitch down and away. Bruce expands the zone with two strikes more than Votto, striking out 61% of the time on pitches out of the zone versus Votto’s 57%.
104 (22%)Out of Strike Zone
In Strike Zone
Swinging Out of Strike Zone263 (55%)
Looking In Strike Zone
Swinging In Strike Zone
Looking Out of Strike Zone
29 (6%)34 (7%)
There are a lot factors that differentiate Votto and Bruce. Votto’s swing is a bit shorter. Despite having a shorter swing, Votto doesn’t sacrifice any power. He generates plenty of bat speed with less movement in his hands than Bruce. From the diagrams above, it is evident that Votto is a more disciplined hitter. Votto tends to swing at pitches that he can square up. Bruce tends to swing at pitches up in the zone where he is less successful. Because his swing is a bit shorter, Votto is able to square up more strikes than Bruce. Overall, Votto appears to possess a better overall recognition of the strike zone.
Throughout their minor league careers, experts consistently ranked Bruce ahead of Votto among Reds prospects. Keep in mind, Votto is three years older. As he learns and matures as a hitter, I believe Bruce will improve and close the performance gap between he and Votto. How much will he close the gap? That’s anybody’s guess.
Click here to read The Science of Hitting II: Drew Stubbs and Brandon Phillips.
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