Which MLB hitter has the best eyesight?

redsOn its face, it’s an easy question. You could look at who leads the league in walks or even check who swings outside the zone the least over any given span, but you probably didn’t need to pull up any Fangraphs leaderboards to answer it. And yet, if you said Joey Votto, you were dead wrong.

Since baseball analytics began with converting newspaper box scores into more useful metrics, we naturally tend to continue in that tradition. But I think we should start shifting our focus from end-of-the-day outcomes we see in box scores (like walks and, by extension, WAR) and towards estimating players’ physical capabilities. That’s what this blog will try to do today and in the future.

With the realization that we aren’t confined to “counting numbers,” what’s the most straightforward way to gauge pitch recognition? One solution would be to give the hitter a test he can’t afford to fail. He relies on his eyes most when he chooses not to swing in a two-strike count. If what he sees is wrong, he’s out.

So without further ado, the ten lowest strikeout rates on two-strike takes (CK%) over the last three seasons:

1. Brandon Phillips, 3.2
2. Mike Moustakas*, 3.4
3. Didi Gregorius*, 4.3
4. Adrian Beltre, 4.5
5. Nolan Arenado, 4.8
6. Adam Jones, 5.1
7. Yoenis Cespedes, 5.7
8. Josh Reddick*, 6.0
9. Yangervis Solarte*, 6.2
10. Jose Ramirez#, 6.4

Most of those guys are free swingers, so the pitches they do decide to take are obviously easier to guess on than the ones Votto is taking. But he’s not in the top 25 or even the top 50. Actually, he’s right in the middle, ranking 82nd out of 166. How is that possible? He led the league in walks in five of the last seven seasons and he did it with potentially average MLB vision?

As alluded to earlier, Votto is always comfortably last in the league in swings outside the strike zone. This suggests that he knows the zone better than anyone and thus never gets fooled into chasing unreachable pitches. But in reality, his conception of the zone is just too small, which means he’s punching out on pitches that half the league would know better than to take.

The secret isn’t his vision–it’s that he’s the best in the world at protecting the plate. You can get called strikes on the edges against him just like any other hitter, but you still need pinpoint control. Missing out of the zone will put you further back in the count. Missing in the zone will lead to a hit or a foul ball. Foul balls extend at-bats and make walks all the more likely, and the major league leader by far in foul balls over those three years we looked at was–you guessed it–Joey Votto.

Needless to say, we really need to redefine what walks are and aren’t.