When the dust settled on the 2019 baseball season, Joey Votto had suffered through his worst year ever as a professional. His slash line was a disappointing .261/.357/.411 with just 15 home runs and 47 RBI. For the first time in his career, he was a below average hitter according to OPS+.
The next season, the decline from the lofty heights of Votto’s prime appeared to be even more pronounced. Halfway through the shortened 2020 campaign, he was hitting just .191/.321/.326. He hit rock bottom near the end of August, when he went 0 for 18 over five games against division rivals St. Louis and Milwaukee, walking just twice and striking out six times. The Reds won just one of those five games. Something had to give.
That’s when Reds manager David Bell benched the six-time All-Star and former league MVP. Votto responded not by sulking or criticizing his manager. He decided to change everything. “Maybe you get put in a position where you feel like your career is threatened, or the opportunity to be a part of a winning team is threatened, the opportunity to do something you’ve done since you were a little boy is threatened, perhaps. Not playing was an awfully humbling experience, for sure.”
What was obvious to everyone, including Votto, was that as he aged he was sacrificing power in an attempt to control the strike zone as he’d done for most of his career. Here’s how he explained it to C. Trent Rosecrans:
“I just got so dead-set on commanding the strike zone and assuming that I was going to help the team that way. I led the (Gulf Coast League) in extra-base hits when I was 18 years old as a newbie from Canada. I have to remind myself that at the core, that’s who I am.”
So Votto decided to stand up taller in the batters’ box, accept the fact that he will swing and miss (and strikeout) more often, and make a concerted effort to, in short, hit the ball harder. The results were immediate and have been nothing short of remarkable. In one fell swoop, he changed his approach at the plate and has become one of the more dangerous hitters in the league again.
Since that three-game benching last August, Votto has played in 90 games, just more than half a season. In 343 plate appearances, he’s hitting .257/.359/.492 with 19 home runs, 15 doubles, and 54 RBI. If you prefer the more advanced metrics, Votto’s wOBA over that span is .366 (that’s great, for the record) and his wRC+ is 128 (which essentially means that he has been 28% above league average).
But those numbers don’t tell the entire tale, not by a long shot. The Statcast metrics show that not only has Votto achieved his goal of hitting the ball harder, he’s returned to elite territory. Take a look at this chart from Baseball Savant:
Here is another one that shows just how much Votto has improved this year, when compared to recent seasons.
Take note of the insane improvements in Votto’s Barrel % (which measures how often he makes hard contact) and his exit velocity this season. Such improvement is not something you see often in a 37-year-old hitter. He’s essentially reversed a multi-year decline and returned to the power hitter he was during his prime. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a player do something like this, if we’re being honest.
Of course, this doesn’t mean Votto is as productive a hitter as he was at the heights of his power; he’s not walking as much, and the batting average is way down. But he’s come to terms with the fact that he has lost some of his abilities thanks to the age-related decline that no one can hold off forever. He’s made a compromise with Father Time, sacrificing walks and more-perfect control of the strike zone in exchange for hanging onto the power for a little longer. In the process, he has once again become a hitter that pitchers need to fear, for the first time since perhaps 2017.
Votto expressed hope this spring—since realized—that the mechanical changes prompted by the 2020 benching were going to reap even more benefits in 2021. “I’m back to kind of a more comfortable place in terms of hitting,” he said. “Of course it’s going to come with some more swings and misses and of course strikeouts, but as long as I’m productive and as long as I’m dangerous at the plate it’ll pay itself off.”
Votto’s return to form last year coincided with Cincinnati’s late-season push to the playoffs, and he’s been a big reason why the Reds have sustained one of the best offenses in baseball throughout the 2021 season and are well-positioned at the All-Star break. Reds fans can hope that a more dangerous Votto will get a chance to show the world that he’s still here and still productive by making it to the postseason for the fifth time in his illustrious career.
Time is running out, even if Votto has slowed down the aging process temporarily. With the trade deadline approaching, owner Bob Castellini and Reds management owe it to one of the greatest players in club history—not to mention a really fun team that’s pulled to within four games of first place—to patch the holes on this roster and help Votto finally get the championship he deserves (and the championship we were promised).