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Joey Votto and Josh Hamilton: A Study in Contrast

It has been a good week for the 2010 MVPs. On May 8th, 2010 AL MVP Josh Hamilton hit four home runs in a single game, becoming jus the 16th player in basball history to do so. On May 13, 2010 NL MVP Joey Votto managed just three home runs in a game, but the final one was a walk off, grand slam, the first since Adam Dunn in 2006. Hamilton currently leads all of baseball in batting average, slugging percentage, wRC+, wOBA and fWAR. Votto is second in baseball in OBP, behind only the New York Mets David Wright and sixth in wOBA and wRC+. Both players have already won MVP awards and rank among the best players in the game today, but they have reached the upper echelon of the game in very different ways.

Josh Hamilton’s story is very well known. After being taken as the top pick in the 1999 draft, Hamilton was the number one prospect in baseball in 2001 according to Baseball America, but by 2004 he was out of baseball entirely due to his struggles with drug addiction. Since getting sober and returning to baseball, Hamilton has more than fulfilled the promise that he showed in 1999, finally settling in as a center and left fielder for the Texas Rangers and leading them to back to back AL Championships.

Joey Votto’s story is not as dramatic or as well known. Votto was selected in the second round of the 2002 draft by the Cincinnati Reds and though his advanced approach at the plate was immediately apparent, he was rarely ever mentioned among the game’s top prospects. Despite posting an on-base percentage over .400 across two levels in both 2003 and 2004, Votto did not crack the Baseball America Top 100 until 2007 and never ranked above 43rd on that list. As ridiculous as it may seem now that has averaged 31 home runs per 162 games as a major leaguer, as he was coming up through the minors, scouts had serious questions about his power given that he was limited to first base as a defender. In A and A+ ball he had middling power and a distinct opposite field approach. It was not until he reached AA that he managed a slugging percentage over .500 for a full season and even at that point, he was more of a doubles hitter. As a minor leaguer, he never hit more than 22 home runs.

The two players may represent two very different plate approaches, but both are capable of massive production.

Josh Hamilton is extremely free swinging and depends on his excellent batted ball profile and phenomenal power to keep his batting average and on-base percentage up. He has swung at pitches out of the zone at and aggressive 36.4% and he is even more aggressive in the zone, swinging at 81.1% of pitches there, while the league average is just around 64%. He misses a great deal, 13.9% career and is below average at making contact.

When he does hit the ball, however, he makes it count. His career .341 batting average on balls in play is excellent and a quick look at his batted ball averages explains why. Hamilton has an almost perfect batted ball profile. He has hit line drives 21.6% of the time he makes contact. He also hits almost an even number of ground balls and fly balls, and very few (2.9%) infield flies. To the surprise of no one, he also has an excellent 19.4 HR/FB rate. His hitting approach may make Hamilton’s production a bit more streaky than a player who swings less and takes more walks (his 8.1% walk rate is basically average, but low for such a prodigious power hitter), but Hamilton has yet to suffer a major downswing in his BABIP and aside from the injury marred 2009 season, he has been consistently excellent as a hitter, with a career 141 wRC+. Hitting line drives and home runs the way he does, he can sustain plus production without being a very disciplined hitter

This season he is benefitting from an excellent .407 BABIP and a crazy unsustainable 45% HR/FB. Given that success, you can’t blame him for swinging at even more pitches than normal; he is currently chasing 45.5% of pitches out of the zone and swinging at nearly 60% of pitches overall. However, this super-aggressive approach will likely cool down when a few of those extra hits turn into outs. No one should reasonable expect Hamilton to hit over .400 for the season or slugging at anywhere near his current .866, but it would still be wrong to call his success unsustainable. Hamilton is the classic free swinging masher. When he is on he hits at other worldly levels, when he is off, he misses a ton. Over the course of a season, he will go through periods of both.

Joey Votto is the opposite type. He is extremely selective and has swung at just 26.1% of pitches out of the zone. He has also begun to swing and miss at fewer pitches, down from 10.4% in 2008-10 to just 8.7% last season. He does attack balls in the zone though, swinging at an average number of pitches in the zone on his career. This excellent pitch recognition and patient approach has lead Votto to consistently post stratospheric walk rates and his career 13.4% is among the best in the game.

Add to that an even better line drive rate (24.4% career) and BABIP (.353) than Josh Hamilton and the same HR/FB rate (19.4%) and you have an unstoppable run production force. Votto lacks the obvious athleticism thatHamiltonhas in spades, but he is a more complete hitter. His approach will slump less thanHamilton’s, but it also means that people who lean on traditional numbers like batting average and RBIs are likely to underrate Votto at times. When he was coming up as a minor leaguer, his lack of speed, positional limitations and modest power output for his position left people understandably skeptical. Now as major leaguer, those issues are largely irrelevant.

Like Hamilton, Votto has been an extreme version of himself during his early season surge. He is swinging at even fewer pitches overall (just 37.6%) and not chasing anything outside the zone (just 19.4% O-swing%). He is walking an absurd Ted Williams-esque 21.2% of the time and getting some breaks on BABIP with a .388 average there. While he also won’t sustain those levels, he is due for less regression than Hamilton, who is producing at superhuman levels. Votto actually hasn’t been hitting as many home runs per fly ball as he usually does (17.9% HR/FB) He won’t hit 34.1% line drives forever, but he depends less on contact than Hamilton and so his numbers will ebb less when they do.

These two players may be on the opposite end of the spectrum when it comes to plate approach but the similarity in their overall results is a good reminder that there isn’t just one way to succeed in the Majors. Many sabermetic people lean too far towards players like Votto and overlook the value someone likeHamiltoncan provide. I have been guilty of that often enough. Similarly, the cool reception Votto got in prospect rankings points out that raw tools like Hamilton’s can be overrated too. The difference between the value of a Joey Votto and a Josh Hamilton is much less distinct than the differences in their styles and, in the end, that is really all that matters.