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Buy or Sell – Red Hot Joey Votto & Sean Manaea’s Velocity Bump

What a better week than to talk about Joey Votto. In July, Votto crushed over 50% of his season-long total, which made me want to dive into Votto’s profile. You can read the previous installments of the buy or sell series here. Votto made some changes late last season that is translating over to 2021.

With Sean Manaea, admittedly, I didn’t draft him anywhere, and I regret that decision since he’s pitching well this season. As the title notes, Manaea’s velocity bump stood out at first glance with an improved K-BB%. We’ll dig into both player’s profiles to note any skills contributing to their success. 

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Buy or Sell – Red Hot Joey Votto & Sean Manaea’s Velocity Bump

Joey Votto (1B – CIN)

Oh, baby, Joey Votto is crushing it this season, especially over the past month. In the offseason, I wrote up the first base tiers article and noted Votto’s aggressive approach and stance change from a Mining the News article by Jeff Zimmerman. We’ll touch on that a little later, but let’s first look at the surface stats before diving deeper.

On the season, Joey Votto has 21 home runs, 40 runs, 59 RBI, and one steal with a .272 batting average and .918 OPS. Although Votto’s 23.6% strikeout rate is up from his career rate of 18.1%, his OBP still sits high at .366. Outside of Votto’s 28.4% HR/FB rate, the rest of his batted ball profile appears similar. However, we’ll note that his career-best HR/FB rate is up from his career rate of 18.1%. 

Part of that extreme HR/FB rate is due to Votto’s home run surge in July. Last month, Votto hit 11 home runs and a 35.5% HR/FB rate. Votto boasts his best month of the season with a .319 batting average and 1.174 OPS in July. He went on a ridiculous tear with nine home runs in a seven-game stretch to close out July. 

More Aggressive Approach For Votto

In that first base tiers article, I noted Joey Votto’s splits from July 24 to August 31, then September 2020. Votto’s strikeout rate jumped in September because he used a more aggressive approach plus changed his batting stance. In 2021, we notice Votto’s aggressive approach continuing with a 24.3% O-Swing% up from a career O-Swing% of 21.6%. 

However, Votto is making less zone contact with an 80.3% Z-Contact% down from a career rate of 85.3%. Even Votto’s swinging-strike rate (11.4%) is a career-high since his rookie season in 2007. For reference, Votto didn’t record a swinging-strike rate above 8% since 2011. 

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Joey Votto Plate Discipline

Hitters can manage a more aggressive approach, particularly if they crush baseballs. In fairness, Votto’s plate discipline metrics look different from his career rates but still better or near the league average. 

Votto Crushes Baseballs

At 38 years of age, Joey Votto is crushing baseballs and setting records. Votto boasts a 16.2% barrel rate (94th-percentile), 114.1 mph maximum exit velocity (92nd-percentile), and 50% hard-hit rate (88th-percentile). Even Votto’s .399 xwOBA and .490 xwOBAcon rank in the top 4% of the league.

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Joey Votto Statcast Data

Amongst hitters with 200 batted ball events, Joey Votto ranks No. 12 between Josh Bell and Nelson Cruz with a 97.4 mph exit velocity on FB/LD. For reference, Votto finished with an exit velocity on FB/LD of 92.6 mph (No. 85) in 2020 and 91.4 mph (No. 109) in 2019. That’s quite a drastic difference, but glad to see it’s turning into production for Votto. 

Should We Buy or Sell Votto?

At this point, most fantasy baseball trade deadlines may have passed or close to that. However, more often than not, I’m considering whether we should buy or sell a player’s production in recent weeks or throughout the season. With Joey Votto, it appears his HR/FB rate should regress a bit, but the Reds and fantasy managers should grab their popcorn and enjoy.

Votto boasts a more aggressive approach with a higher chase rate and lower contact rate that typically concerns us for hitters. However, the quality of contact for Votto remains elite, so that doesn’t even matter for him. Votto’s peak levels of xwOBA look near his 2015 season, where he had 29 home runs, 95 runs, 80 RBI, and 11 stolen bases paired with a .314 batting average.

Although Votto’s plate discipline varies from his career rates, it isn’t terrible compared to league-average numbers. All that said, I’m buying into Votto and not selling, given the plate discipline, approach, and quality of contact changes in 2021.

Sean Manaea (SP – OAK)

Admittedly, Sean Manaea wasn’t on my pitching radar for 2021 redraft leagues. Manaea came into the final weeks of the draft season with a 245.66 NFBC ADP near pitchers like Cristian Javier, Zach Davies, and Brady Singer. Manaea is smashing that ADP as the 25th ranked starting pitcher on the Razzball Player Rater behind the likes of Yu Darvish and Trevor Rogers.

I faded Manaea because he often provided lower strikeout rates yet limited the walks. Typically I like pitchers that control the strike zone, but Manaea was off my draft list. So far in 2021, Manaea is proving me wrong with a 3.26 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, 26.9% strikeout rate, and 5.5% walk rate in 127 innings pitched. Manaea either set career bests or near career highs across the board. For reference, Manaea has a career 21% strikeout rate and a 6% walk rate. 

Manaea ran into some fortune with an 80% LOB% though a reasonable .310 BABIP allowed. Unsurprisingly, he boasts his best swinging-strike rate (12.6%) while limiting contact. In 2021, Manaea allowed an 81.3% Z-Contact% with a 75.1% Contact% compared to a career Z-Contact% of 86.4% and Contact% of 77.5%. Seeing that makes us want to look a little deeper on a pitch-by-pitch basis. 

Pitch Mix & Results

An intriguing pitcher, who uses three pitches, Sean Manaea relies on his sinker (58.7%), changeup (25.7%), and curveball (15.5%). Sinkers typically have value for ground balls, but interestingly Manaea’s sinker elicits a 35.4% ground ball rate in 2021, similar to his career rate of 35.1%. Manaea’s sinker results in a career-best 11.3% swinging-strike rate, and he bucks the ground ball trend.

His sinker velocity stands out this season, with it sitting at 92 mph compared to 90.4 mph in 2020 and 89.9 mph in 2019. We have to go back to 2017 to find a sinker velocity close at 91.7 mph.

buy or sell

Another aspect we love involves Manaea’s changeup usage as a weapon against opposite-handed hitters. Manaea has thrown 478 changeups against righties compared to only 55 against lefties. His changeup is his best whiff pitch with a 31% whiff rate, and it limits the quality of contact with a .251 wOBA. Manaea uses his offspeed pitch to elicit a 54.9% groundball rate that typically has above-average vertical movement. However, his changeup movement isn’t as much compared to past seasons.

Although Manaea’s sinker and changeup look like mainstays in his arsenal, the curveball evolved from a slider earlier in his career, or at least the way it’s classified. Manaea’s curveball is performing well with a 29.2% whiff rate and .224 wOBA allowed. Interestingly, the velocity on his breaking pitch increased to 82 mph, up from 77-79 mph in the past. With that velocity jump, his curveball is dropping much less in 2021.

buy or sell

All this data makes me want to dig a little deeper into potential spin rate changes, release points, and more. I’m not 100% sure what Manaea’s curveball spin rate indicates, but it sits at 2,022 RPM compared to 1,996 RPM in 2020. The slider ranged from 1,891 RPM to 2,000 RPM from 2016-2019. It makes me wonder if it’s a pitch classification issue with either breaking pitch.

Should We Buy or Sell Manaea?

Given I faded Sean Manaea heading into 2021, my mind changed, and I’m buying rather than selling his profile. On the surface, Manaea increased his strikeout rate and kept the walk rate in check. Although his strand rate (80%) could regress closer to his career rate of 74%, it’s still a mid-3.00’s ERA pitcher.

Overall, Manaea is pounding the sinker in the zone with a career-best 11.1% swinging-strike rate on any of his fastballs. The velocity bump helps too. Manaea’s changeup and slider look consistent in swinging-strike rate from previous seasons with similar or slightly reduced contact rates. According to Baseball Savant, all three of Manaea’s pitches in 2021 have a negative Run-Value, some of which look like career-bests so far. Manaea is a must-start pitcher in 15-team leagues, given the skill changes to buy into this season.

Thanks for checking out this week’s article. Be sure to check out Eric Cross’s updated Top Fantasy Baseball Prospects.

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