Earlier this week, in a crushing 3-2 loss to Milwaukee, Reds first baseman Joey Votto struck out four times, just the fifth time that’s happened in his long career. Three of those strikeouts came on called third strikes and after the final one, Votto exchanged words with umpire Shane Livensparger and was summarily ejected. Manager David Bell followed with an ejection of his own.
After the manager and the team legend trudged back into the clubhouse, the Reds proceeded to lose in embarrassing fashion, dropping to six games under .500 for the first time this year before rallying to sweep a doubleheader last night. A season that began with so much hope is on the brink, and much of the finger-pointing has to be in the direction of some veteran bats who were counted on to carry the load for the team.
I don’t want to pile on Votto, because there are plenty of other culprits (see below), but it’s time to concede the fact that he’s almost certainly never going to be an elite hitter again. And there are real questions about whether he’ll ever be above-average again. This pains me to write more than you know, because Votto is a Hall of Famer and perhaps the greatest hitter who ever pulled on a Reds uniform. But Father Time is undefeated, as they say.
This year, Votto is hitting .191/.321/.326, a paltry 72 OPS+ (100 is the average). This comes on the heels of a season last year that was the worst of his career. Sure, there is reason to hope that he will rebound somewhat; after all, Votto’s BABIP (here’s a primer on BABIP if you’re interested) is .194, which is probably unsustainably low. It’s just possible that he’s been unlucky this year, and it’s also possible that this is just small sample size noise. Maybe?
On the other hand, so far this year, Votto simply is not hitting the ball as hard as he used to. His average exit velocity is 85.3 mph; that ties him with the immortal Drew Butera for 335th in baseball. (Butera’s career slash line: .200/.257/.297 over parts of 11 years.) His hard-hit rate is just 24.0%, by far the lowest of his career (one season ago it was 38.2%). That’s good for 349th in baseball, behind such luminaries as Andres Gimenez, Monte Harrison, and Kevin Plawecki.
Ugh, I piled on Votto and didn’t want to. He’s an all-time great Red! And he’s certainly not the only hitter who has failed to live up to our expectations in 2020. We have to talk about Eugenio Suarez.
I have been very vocal in these digital pages over the years about how much I enjoy having Geno on the Reds. He’s blossomed into an All-Star, a legit power hitter who launched 49 bombs last year, while maintaining a smile on his face every single day.
Well, not every day, I guess, because there have been some rough ones this year. Suarez is hitting .167/.286/.363 while generally maintaining his spot in the middle of the batting order. Unless he’s still feeling the effects of his January shoulder surgery—and the Reds have given no indication that is the case—I feel confident in Suarez returning to form sooner rather than later. Players don’t just fall off the cliff at age 28 like this. (Again, unless they’re hurt. Is there something we don’t know?)
But while we can expect Suarez to improve, a few other veterans offer less hope. Fortunately, help may be on the way in short order.
Shortstop Freddy Galvis is hitting .214/.305/.429, which actually isn’t far away from what we could have expected. He did, however, make a baserunning blunder in that 3-2 loss mentioned above that ultimately cost Cincinnati the game. The next day, the Reds called up stud shortstop prospect Jose Garcia and handed him the keys to the position, with David Bell saying that he’ll be the regular.
The 22-year-old Garcia is the shortstop of the future, though he’s never actually played above Single-A. He did mash the ball at High-A last year, and he’s smooth in the field. His performance at spring training this year opened a ton of eyes, including Hall of Famer Barry Larkin’s. “The impressive thing is his work acumen, his attention to detail and maturity level,” Larkin said back in February, according to this piece from beat writer Mark Sheldon. “What everyone is seeing is certainly what we expect from him. He’s a special player.”
We can only hope the Reds will make a similar transaction soon behind the plate, where the Reds have the catcher of the future waiting in the wings. I could not be a bigger fan of Tucker Barnhart, and I hope he remains with the Reds for the rest of his career. But the time has come for the Reds to hand the lion’s share of the playing time at catcher to young Tyler Stephenson.
Barnhart is hitting .188/.278/.271, while his catching partner Curt Casali is doing somewhat better at .190/.333/.500. Casali is already on the wrong side of age 30, and Barnhart will be as well before next season begins. Stephenson, on the other hand, just turned 24 a couple of weeks ago. He’s a former No. 1 draft pick of the Reds (11th overall back in 2015) who’s overcome injury issues early in his career to cement his place near the top of Reds prospect lists. You may have gotten a glimpse of his potential when Stephenson made his big league debut, blasting a long home run in his first at-bat and collecting a single in his second plate appearance (career slash line: 1.000/1.000/2.500).
My hope has always been that Barnhart would shepherd Stephenson through the early days of his career, with Barnhart stepping back to become a great defensive backup catcher and veteran leader. The time for that to happen is now.
After all, something has to give. Votto and Suarez are here to stay, but the Reds need to pull out all the other stops they can to improve an offense that’s nearly dead last in every category in baseball (including batting average, where the team is collectively hitting an almost-inconceivable .213). Time is running out on this short season; Cincinnati needs to go 17-13 the rest of the way to finish .500, which should get them in the neighborhood of the expanded playoffs.
But that’s not going to happen if the Reds front office (and on-field manager) don’t begin to show some urgency. Bringing up Garcia was a good first step. What management does next—and what the veterans on this team do in the next few weeks—just may determine whether this team, despite all the high hopes, is destined to join nearly every other Reds team of the last 30 years in the dustbin of history.
Chad Dotson authors Reds coverage at Cincinnati Magazine and hosts a long-running Reds podcast, Redleg Nation Radio. His first book, The Big 50: The Men and Moments That Made the Cincinnati Reds, is available in bookstores and online.