What’s Wrong With Joey Votto?

Actually, his season numbers are in line with career averages, except for home runs; maybe Father Time is finally catching up with him.

 

I don’t mean the “right lower leg contusion” that Joey Votto suffered when he was hit by an intentionally thrown pitch from Nationals reliever Ryan Madson during the first week of August. That has pretty much healed, and Votto should be good to go very soon. No, I mean: What’s wrong with Joey Votto? Like, why is he hitting just .284, with only nine home runs this season? That’s an interesting question, and there aren’t any quick and easy answers.

One way to answer the question: There’s nothing wrong with Cincinnati’s veteran first baseman. This season, Votto is hitting .284/.422/.419. He’s leading the league in on-base percentage (again). Votto’s OPS+ is 129, and his wRC+ is 132. He’s still a really good hitter, and most of the advanced metrics rate Votto as the second-best hitter on a pretty good offensive club (behind Eugenio Suarez).

Yes, those numbers are all good … but they aren’t Joey Votto good. When you dig into his peripheral statistics, however, a strange thing pops out at you: With one notable exception, Votto’s 2018 metrics are pretty much in line with his career performance. In other words, Votto is hitting almost exactly like he always has, except for the fact that his power has mysteriously disappeared.

It’s really bizarre to look at. His walk and strikeout rates have remained steady. Opposing pitchers are essentially throwing Votto the same mix of pitches they’ve always thrown him. The percentage of pitches at which he swings, both inside and outside the zone, is basically unchanged, and he’s making contact on those pitches at almost the exact same rate as last year (when he nearly won the National League MVP).

(If you aren’t interested in getting deep into the analytical weeds, feel free to skip the next four paragraphs and rejoin me later in the column. You won’t hurt my feelings, I promise.)

Votto’s BABIP is somewhat lower than his career rate, which could explain the lower batting average this season (thought his BABIP is higher than it was last year). And he’s actually hitting the ball harder this season, with a 39.8% HARD% (percentage of balls in play that were classified as hit with hard speed) that’s his highest since his memorable 2010 MVP season.

So why does Votto have only nine home runs in 509 plate appearances in 2018? His ISO (a rough measure of power) is a career-low .135 this year; compare that with a career ISO of .220. Since arriving in the majors, Votto has hit home runs on 18.4% of his fly balls, including 19.7% in 2017 and 22.0% in 2016. For some reason, that ratio in 2018 is an astonishing 8.9%.

He’s hitting slightly more line drives and slightly fewer fly balls, but the changes aren’t massive. Votto’s exit velocity is actually up, and while his launch angle of 13.3% (for those of you who are into the Statcast data) is slightly lower than last year, it’s higher than either of the two previous seasons, when Votto hit 29 home runs.

Statcast also shows that Votto’s xSLG (his expected slugging percentage based on the way he has hit the ball this year) is .532. Yet his actual slugging percentage is .419, and all of a sudden (as Thom Brennaman might say, every single night) the fly balls aren’t leaving the yard for Votto at the same rate this year.

I know your eyes were probably glossing over as you read through those numbers—I actually took a brief nap while I was writing—so here’s the short version: Something really strange is going on here. Votto is still hitting the ball as well as ever, but his home run power has taken a nose-dive for no immediately apparent reason.

Except one: Perhaps Votto, who will turn 35 in a couple of weeks, is getting old. Even that isn’t an obvious explanation; after all, he showed no signs of slowing down last year, putting up some of the best power numbers of his career. It seems unlikely that he’d fall off a cliff so fast. But he did miss some time earlier this season with back issues. It’s possible that has lingered and hampered his swing a bit, and his slow return from the knee injury has caused some to wonder if time is finally catching up with the remarkably durable Votto.

Before the season, Travis Sawchik of FanGraphs asked Votto about the aging curve:

Votto is perhaps the most intellectual hitter in the game. He’s certainly on the short list of candidates. He can articulate his craft like few players can. So I was curious to ask Votto why he wasn’t showing any signs of declining as he ages, even as pitchers are throwing with more velocity and breaking stuff than ever before.

“Neither of us know if there is a decline,” Votto said. “I may have found ways to mitigate that [loss of physical skills]. I don’t have that answer.”

I don’t have the answer either. Honestly, I think we’re seeing a bit of a fluke. There is probably some age-related decline that can be factored in; Votto’s average home run distance is down a bit more than the league average, for example. But all the peripheral numbers say that Votto remains one of the best hitters in all of baseball. There’s no reason to believe that he can’t continue to be an excellent hitter for the foreseeable future.

Whether Votto is declining or not, Reds fans are going to have to come to grips with the fact that it’s going to happen eventually. After all, Father Time is undefeated. This is precisely why the Reds absolutely must go all-in this winter. Right now, Votto is still Votto for the most part. Cincinnati management, assuming that the owner gets out of the way, needs to make a big splash during the off-season to improve the team for 2019, so as not to waste their star player’s final productive seasons.

If we’re lucky, Votto, mustache and all, will be a veteran presence on the next good Reds team.

Chad Dotson is a contributor to Nuxhall Way, and the founder of Redleg Nation. His first book, The Big 50: The Men and Moments That Made the Cincinnati Reds, is available now in bookstores and online.

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