Joey Votto Falls from the Reds’ Pedestal

The franchise cornerstone can still be a productive hitter and leader, but his days of domination are coming to an end.
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Joey Votto is an international treasure and one of the greatest players in Cincinnati Reds history. Let’s get that out of the way right from the outset. In fact, Votto can make a credible claim to being the best hitter ever to wear a Cincinnati uniform, and that’s saying something. After all, this is the same franchise that employed Frank Robinson, Joe Morgan, and Billy Hamilton.

 

So yes, Votto is a great player. Or would it be more accurate to say that Votto was a great player? If you’re a Reds fan and you aren’t worried that Votto might finally be declining …  well, you aren’t paying attention.

Last year, I asked “What’s wrong with Joey Votto?” The answer at that time was reply hazy, try again later. Mostly it looked like a bit of an age-related decline in power numbers, but otherwise some bad luck as he was still an effective hitter—though not an elite one—at that point.

Well, here we are, a quarter of the way through Cincinnati’s 2019 season, and we still have more questions than answers when it comes to Votto. In a loss to San Francisco this past Sunday, he struck out four times, for just the fourth time in his entire career (out of 1,613 career games) and the first time since 2009. It dropped his season line to .206/.325/.338 with just three home runs; he’s struck out 39 times while collecting only 21 bases on balls in 160 plate appearances. (He did hit his fourth homer of the season May 14 against the Cubs, an encouraging sign.)

The Statcast metrics are not much kinder to Votto. His xwOBA (essentially a metric that gauges how productive a player should have been, based primarily on exit velocity and launch angle) this year is .316, which ties him for 189th in baseball with Kansas City shortstop Adalberto Mondesi. The good news, if there is any, is that the MLB average is .322, so Votto isn’t too far away from that, despite the horrific surface numbers.

When asked to explain his struggles last week, Votto was succinct: “My strikeout rate has been too high. I’m not getting enough line drives.” He was right on the nose—his current strikeout rate of 24.4% would be the highest of his career. His LD% (percentage of balls in play that are classified as line drives) stands at 19.6%, which would be the lowest rate of his career by a significant margin. I would also note that his walk rate (13.1%) is lower than any full-season mark in his career since 2009, Votto’s second full season in the league.

As we attempt to analyze what is “wrong” with Votto, if anything, let us not forget that he’s struggled like this in the recent past, only to return to form. In late May 2016, Votto was hitting just .207/.330/.367 with seven home runs, 54 strikeouts and only 28 walks (in 203 plate appearances), numbers that look suspiciously similar to his 2019 totals to date. By season’s end, Votto put up a slash line of .326/.434/.550 with 29 home runs and finished in the top 10 in National League MVP balloting.

Then again, Votto wasn’t 35 years old back in 2016, as he is now.

I thought it might be interesting to go back one full year to see if there are any trends that become visible. In the last calendar year, Votto has 609 plate appearances and posted a slash line of .262/.396/.395 with 10 homers. That’s better than just his 2019 numbers, even if it isn’t a line that we’re accustomed to seeing from him. His walk rate (16.9%) and strikeout rate (18.9%) during that time frame are in the same neighborhood as his career numbers. His .350 wOBA and 117 wRC+ would place him within the top 25 NL hitters.

Again, not elite but not far away. And despite the poor start to this year, Votto’s LD% over the last calendar year (26.9%) is actually higher than his career mark (25.7%). So what’s actually going on with his 2019 performance?

Votto is well-known as a cerebral player who digs into his stats and thinks more about his performance than most big leaguers. I believe he’s responded to last year’s lack of power by trying to show that he can still drive the ball … and it’s thrown some other things out of whack. In fact, Votto’s launch angle so far this season is 16.7, by far the highest since MLB began measuring. That corresponds with a LD% that’s cratered.

I expect Votto to get that straightened out sooner rather than later, and he may already be on the way to fixing it. As he told beat reporter Mark Sheldon, “I really like how I’ve swung the bat in May, despite getting very few results. Sometimes that’s how the luck goes. I felt I swung the bat very poorly at the very beginning of the year. I started transitioning to what I feel is an everyday, repeatable approach.”

His season numbers are absolutely going to improve. Votto’s BABIP of .266 is nearly 100 points below his career average. He’s still making good contact, as his exit velocity and Hard Hit % are in line with his norms. There is also some evidence that pitchers are pitching Votto differently, and he’s better than anyone at adjusting to that particular chess game.

We can’t ignore the possibility, however, that the Votto we’ve seen over the last year is closer to the Votto we can expect to see going forward. 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?

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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