The Decline and Stall of Joey Votto

The Reds star bounces back at the plate in the season’s second half, but Father Time remains undefeated.
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This spring, in typical Joey Votto fashion, Cincinnati’s 35-year-old first baseman gleefully toyed with all of the armchair analysts who were eager to predict that the Reds legend would never be the same, that age was finally catching up to him. In a pre-season workout at Great American Ball Park, Votto wore a T-shirt picturing a graph with the heading “Decline Phase.” It was a subtle jab indicating Votto’s determination to bounce back from an admittedly poor year (by his standards). And then Votto promptly proceeded to decline further.

 

There is no way to evaluate Votto’s 2019 season without first conceding that it’s been the worst campaign of his 13-year career. I believe there is plenty of evidence, however, that he can and will be a productive player for the Reds, at least for the foreseeable future.

Votto had a good season in 2018—he led the league in on-base percentage for the seventh time—but it was not a typical Votto-esque performance. His walk rate was down, his strikeout rate was up, and his power numbers dropped like a rock. Still, he was a well-above-average hitter.

Hoping for a bounceback campaign in 2019, Votto has mostly struggled. So far, he’s hitting .265/.357/.415, career lows in all three slash categories (if you exclude 2014, when injuries limited him to just 62 games). At the moment, his wRC+ is precisely 100, which means he’s actually been a league-average hitter, but (again) this isn’t the Votto we’ve grown to know and love.

To be fair, his season-long numbers are still being depressed by a horrific start to the year. I wrote about his slump here in mid-May, and shortly thereafter he perked up somewhat. (You’re welcome!) Over the last 81 games—half a season, dating back to about a week after publishing the column linked above—Votto has hit .296/.378/.461. Those are credible numbers for a 35-year-old. (He actually turned 36 on Tuesday.)

Votto doesn’t want to talk about an age-related decline, but it’s the most likely explanation for what we’ve seen the last two years. Over and above the downturn in his slash numbers (not to mention his lack of power), he’s become a different type of hitter entirely. For example, his walk rate this season is 11.9%, down from 17.3% last year (and 19% in 2017), far and away the lowest mark of his career. It’s an astounding drop for someone with Votto’s track record.

Certainly, some of that decline can be attributed to aging; as Steve Mancuso noted, as reflexes slow with age, hitters are forced to compensate by swinging earlier. That was going to happen to Votto eventually, and it’s safe to assume we’re seeing that in real time.

But that’s not the entire story. This year, Votto has chased 21.6% of pitches outside the strike zone. That’s a significant increase in just one year; last year, his mark was 16.4%, and it was 15.8% the season before. The percentage of total pitches thrown to Votto within the strike zone this season (43.6%) is almost perfectly in line with his career mark, so it’s difficult to make the argument that pitchers are pitching him differently because he isn’t as feared as he once was. More likely, it’s the result of Votto’s well-documented search for a swing that can work for him in the current environment.

It has resulted in fewer walks but has also contributed to the highest strikeout rate of his career (20.2%). Of course, Votto has struck out looking more this season than ever before, so it isn’t only his swing that’s getting him in trouble. And, to be fair, Votto leads the universe in being rung up on called strikes that are actually outside the zone (i.e., umpire error).

Perhaps there is reason for hope. As FSN-Ohio statistician Joel Luckhaupt pointed out, Votto’s walk rate since August 1 is closer to his career norms, so maybe he’s finally finding a swing that works for him. It’s difficult to say, because it seems like Votto is constantly doing battle with his own swing in an attempt to achieve results that are satisfactory in his own perfectionist mind.

Over the last two seasons, he’s hitting .275/.389/.417 with an OPS+ of 113 and wRC+ of 116. To me (and others), that seems like a pretty reasonable guess for what we should expect out of Votto next year. Those numbers put him almost exactly in the middle of the pack when it comes to his peers at first base. Perhaps, as Wick Terrell suggests over at Red Reporter, the Reds can manage Votto’s rest and he could bump those numbers up a bit. Ultimately, though, my conclusions from that column back in May still seem accurate:

After all, he’ll turn 36 before the season ends, and Father Time is undefeated. There’s a very real chance that he’s going to be a solidly above-average hitter with great on-base skills whose power is dissipating before our very eyes. He can still be a valuable member of the Reds offense in that scenario, though no longer the cornerstone.

Then again, this is Votto we’re talking about. I’m certainly not going to bet against him returning to being Joey Votto. Are you?

That last line is key. After all, Votto is just one year removed from leading the league in OBP. Less than two years ago, he finished second in NL Most Valuable Player balloting. He’s one of the hardest-working players in baseball, so you shouldn’t be surprised if Votto comes screaming out of the gate next year and has one (last?) monster season.

Whatever happens, Votto’s ability to stave off the inevitable age-related decline will be a key factor in Cincinnati’s 2020 chances. Keep those fingers crossed, Reds fans.

Chad Dotson authors Reds coverage at Cincinnati Magazine and hosts a long-running Reds podcast, Redleg Nation Radio. He wrote about the 1970s Reds as part of the magazine’s “10 Events That Shaped Cincinnati” package. His first book, The Big 50: The Men and Moments That Made the Cincinnati Reds, is available in bookstores and online.

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