Joey Votto has been one of the better hitters in Major League Baseball for more than a decade. For his career, he has posted a 149 wRC+. That puts him with the likes of Jeff Bagwell, Edgar Martinez, and Mike Schmidt. Those are Hall of Famers. This article is not going to dive into whether or not Votto should be in Cooperstown (he should), but it’s important to note just how good the now-37-year-old has been over the course of his career.
Strictly from a power point of view, Votto was a different hitter in 2018 than we had seen up until that point. He still put up a 130 wRC+, but much of that was due to his incredible walk rate. He hit just 12 home runs in 145 games and his ISO dipped to a career-low .135. This was his age-34 season, so many believed that this was the beginning of the end for Votto. His 2019 didn’t do much to change that perspective. In a season where seemingly everyone was setting career-highs, Votto hit 15 home runs in 142 games and his wRC+ dropped to a career-low 101.
Then in 2020, his power came back. The first baseman appeared in 54 games in the shortened season, hitting 11 home runs. That’s a full-season pace of about 30. Of course, it was a small sample, but Votto almost matched his home run total from the year before in 90 fewer games. That’s unusual for a 36-year-old. His batting average did drop all the way down to .226 (Votto is a career.303 hitter) so some major changes were going on here. As a result, it was uncertain what type of hitter we’d be seeing in 2021.
So far, we’re seeing a version of Votto that nobody thought existed: an aggressive hitter.
Career v. 2018-19 v. 2020
Let’s take a look at just how different some of Votto’s recent seasons were compared.
|Home Runs (avg)||25||13.5||11|
Votto’s home run and games averages in the first column are held down by a 2014 season in which he only played in 62 games. In full season action, his home run average was closer to 30. Still, it’s evident by the slugging numbers that Votto was one of the better power hitters in the league during his prime. Naturally, as he entered his mid-30s in the 2018-19 seasons, his power numbers started to decline. This was not unexpected. For the most part, his plate approach remained in the same ballpark for the 2018-19 seasons as they were in earlier in his career, but we do see some hints of the rates heading in the wrong direction. Votto’s walk rate has always been among the best in the game so it was no surprise to see this trait carry over even as the power was vanishing.
In 2020, though, we saw a different Votto. The batting average plummeted, the walk and strikeout rates increased, and the power returned. What could be causing this? A quick look at Votto’s spray maps gives us a visual of the biggest change in Votto’s game in 2020.
Votto has always been one to go the other way – especially on his fly balls. In the Statcast era, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who used all fields more often than Votto. But in the two visuals, you can see a difference between 2019 and 2020. The first map is from 2019 and almost all of his balls hit to the outfield went to left or center. In 2020, we see a much higher percentage of balls being taken to right field. Compared to most MLB players, Votto still went the other way on line drives and fly balls more than most but this is a change, and most likely an intentional one. In 2020, Votto set a career-high pull rate at 40.6%. This marks the first time in Votto’s career that he had a higher pull rate than the MLB average. The video below illustrates a stance chance for Votto between 2019 and 2020.
In the above clip, the first home run is from 2019. You can see that Votto is more in a crouch position while in the second highlight, which is from 2020, Votto is more upright in his stance. In the 2019 highlight, Votto is also choked up on the bat whereas he has a more standard grip in 2020. The 2020 swing allows Votto to open up his swing and pull the ball and hit for more power. Many players have transitioned to a heavier pull approach in recent years in an attempt to hit for more power and that appears to be just what Votto was aiming to do in 2020. As the results show, it worked. Votto’s home run total spiked compared to the previous two years and his slugging also jumped. His batting average did dip as a result, likely because he was pulling the ball more often and being shifted on a career-high 78.7% of the time. Overall, Votto was trading some base hits for a mix of a few more outs and many more home runs.
Votto’s increase in pull rate in 2020 has carried over to 2021. Votto is now through 113 plate appearances in 2021 and his pull rate is even higher than it was in 2020, currently sitting at 41.8%. This is the new version of Votto. But he’s made an even bigger change this season, one that has made Votto look anything like the Votto we’ve seen for the last decade: Votto has become an aggressive hitter at the plate. Coming into 2021, Votto acknowledged that his approach in recent years was focused on being patient and being a tough out.
“I lost some of my strengths that I first came to the league with — hitting the ball all over the field with power, being difficult to defend,” Votto told AP News in February. “I did that in exchange for command of the strike zone, putting the ball in play, being a tough at-bat. And it zapped my power.”
So, Votto has flipped the switch and become the attacker. His 47.2% swing rate is his highest since 2010. For the 2011-2020 seasons, Votto’s swing rate was 40.9%. This is a massive jump and it doesn’t stop there. The charts below show just how different Votto’s Zone Swing rate has been in 2021 compared to 2020.
Votto’s intent is to attack the ball and do damage. He’s being aggressive. His Whiff rate has also jumped as a result, checking in at a career-high 31.7%, but swings and misses are likely a welcomed trade-off for weak contact if it means Votto can pound the ball more. So far, he’s done just that.
|Hard Hit %||38.2||35.7||49.4|
Make no mistake, Votto is absolutely killing the ball this season. Not only are all of those numbers in the chart above improvements on his 2019 and 2020 outputs, but they are career highs for Votto in the Statcast era. Each of the 2021 numbers above also ranks in the 80th percentile or better among all MLB hitters. In addition, Votto’s also registered his career-high Max EV this season, a 113.6 MPH single to right field. He also belted a 114.1 MPH liner foul. He’s scolding the ball harder than ever before at age 37.
Unfortunately for Votto, the results have yet to catch up to these expected statistics. Votto is currently triple slashing .235/.310/.441 with five home runs. Those are fine numbers, but nowhere near what his expected numbers would indicate. On his 39 hard-hit balls this season, his .410 batting average is significantly lower than his .597 xBA. His overall .257 BAPIP is the likely culprit for the seemingly down production. That’s the second-lowest mark of his career. We should expect that number, along with the rest of Votto’s numbers, to climb given how hard he’s hitting the ball in 2021.
Votto has undergone several changes in the last two years and is now a completely different hitter than the one that we saw for most of the 2010s. The lefty bat is no longer trying to work pitchers, draw walks or put the ball in the play for the sake of putting it in play. He’s trying to hammer the ball and pull it for power. So far, he’s been absolutely scorching the baseball but has been a bit unlucky. As long as Votto keeps this approach, we should expect some positive regression in his future.
Given that Votto’s production in 2021 is much lower than what his expected statistics would indicate, and there is a general perception that he has been on the decline for the past few seasons, Votto is the perfect buy candidate for contending teams. Yes, he’s 37-years-old and his MVP years are behind him, but the price to acquire Votto should be extremely low and given how hard he is hitting the ball, he could be one of the most productive first base options for the rest of the season. For rebuilding teams that are looking to compete down the line, Votto should be a hold until his results start to reflect how hard he has been hitting the ball. Wait for the inevitable hot streak to maximize the return.
Votto has been one of the best offensive players for more than the past decade and it’s exciting to see a new version of him surface so late in his career.
Photo by Quinn Harris/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Aaron Polcare