Going Deep: Don’t Count Out Joey Votto
One look at the slash line of Joey Votto would probably leave you uninspired. It currently sits at .262/.352/.410, good for a roughly league-average 98 wRC+ and less than one WAR, as his defense has also taken some steps back this season. Votto is also a first baseman, so this is far from the typical profile of one and ideally not the type of stat line you would want from the position. At age 35, Joey Votto could finally showing signs of aging that first showed up last season with his massive decrease in power. He was still an on-base machine in 2018, which helped prop his overall slash line en route to a solid, but he had an un-Votto like 131 wRC+, the lowest for him in a full season since his first one way back in 2008. Like other slugging first baseman of the past decade such as Albert Pujols and Miguel Cabrera, it seemed like we were witnessing the downfall of one of the all-time greats. And now a back issue has landed him on the injured list, which looks like another roadblock on his worst season to date.
It comes at an interesting point for the Cincinnati Reds, who despite being several games under .500, have played well and have been exciting and fun to watch this season. Their positive-22 run differential puts them ahead of the Mets, Brewers, Phillies and Giants, all teams who fancy themselves a spot in the postseason and with their core of pitchers like Luis Castillo, Sonny Gray and Trevor Bauer and batters like Aristides Aquino, Nick Senzel, Eugenio Suarez and Jesse Winker, and it looks like the Reds could compete for real as early as next season. As the Reds as they try to improve, however, it’s easy to see Votto’s $25 million dollar salary—which runs until he’s 40 years old—hampering the small-market team.
So it’s interesting that just now, before landing on the injured list, he was hitting like he hadn’t hit in quite some time. Those results have to be encouraging for the team who needs their highest-paid player to play like it. Though Votto and his salary might be seen as the thing holding the Reds back into the next decade, I would argue that and say that you should never count out Joey Votto.
Votto has always been considered one of the smartest hitters in the game, constantly making adjustments even when he was in his prime. After what’s been a bad year for him to this point, it looks like he’s finally made adjustments to try and remedy that.
For context about how down this season has been for Votto, 2019 is the first season of his career where he is striking out over 20% of the time, he’s walking less than 12% of the time and his .328 wOBA is by far the worst of his career. Two of the worst months of his entire career have come in 2019, with a wRC+ of 77 with a .295 wOBA in May and a 75 wRC+ with a .292 wOBA in July. After one of the worst stretches of his career, Votto decided he needed to make adjustments, and this is what he has done August:
It’s a small sample and we won’t be able to reevaluate this until he returns from the injured list, but it looks like the adjustments paid off. Frustrated by his lack of power and overall lack of results, Votto went back to the drawing board with a still-evolving change in his approach that he debuted in late July. He talks about in more depth here, but basically, he has gone back to an approach that he used earlier in his career. The changes are easily noticeable even if you aren’t actively looking for it. Here’s a look at his swing from May:
It’s basically what his stance and swing have looked like for a few years now, with his signature choking up on the bat and low, crouched stance. He made this adjustment at the start of the 2017 season, where he put up an MVP-type season and lost the award in a historically close race to Giancarlo Stanton. Those 36 home runs must feel so far away, I’m sure for not only Votto and the team, but also his fantasy owners. That approach may have made it easier to hit for power when Votto was a little younger, but with the effects of age creeping in, he felt like he wasn’t getting the easy power like he was used to with that approach. Now compare that swing with one from earlier this month:
Right away, the difference should be clear in just his batting stance. It’s a more upright and tight stance and he has also ditched his choking up on the bat at all times. Something a little bit more subtle, though, is the difference in his leg kick. I took a still shot as best I could of the peak point in his leg kick in both swings, and his new swing features a much more pronounced leg kick. See for yourself—the swing from May is on the left and the swing from August is on the right:
Look at how much more lift he is getting on his leg kick in August compared to back in May. I also like that there’s the same yellow “Geico” ad in the background that can be used to measure where his hands are, because it shows they’re higher too. It’s not perfect and the camera angles are a bit different, but the picture showing his August swing looks more like a hitter trying to hit for power more than the one on the left. This approach also looks like a younger version of Votto. Looking back at some video of Votto’s swing from pre-2017, it does look like this newer version of his swing is more in line with his swings from earlier in his career. Votto himself even stated as much, and those seasons saw him routinely put up seasons with slugging percentages greater than .500 and isolated power marks well above .200, so going back to those types of swings sounds pretty good to me. I did the same thing and grabbed a still from a swing from 2016 and compared it to his swing from August of this year. Take a look:
While there are some differences in the overall form, there are still some similarities here (including the yellow Geico ad). We can see a similarly pronounced leg kick, a more upright position and hands being held higher up than where he had them earlier this season. It does ultimately look like Votto has gone back to an approach at the plate that’s similar to earlier in his career.
The Votto Rises
Fortunately, it looks like these adjustments are giving Votto the best results he’s had in some time. Let’s look at some splits:
Votto has simply been tearing the cover off the ball. Statcast even thinks Votto could have performed better in this stretch with expected stats that outpace his actual ones. While Votto in his prime would put up numbers better than this (prime-Votto really was something special), it would be hard to expect much more from a player who will be turning 36 in September, and if he maintains this in the future, there would be little doubt over whether he still has it. The key for Votto will be maintaining this, as this is still a small sample of 57 plate appearances. Another thing to keep in mind is that he’s seen an increased strikeout rate in August of 21.1% compared to 15.5% in July, but 21.1% is still more than fine for a power hitter. Still, maybe we shouldn’t expect prime-Votto strikeout rates with him using this approach.
Another thing that’s coming from this change in approach is the quality of his contact, specifically in his fly balls. This season, Votto is hitting more fly balls than ever, but as described in more detail here, those fly balls weren’t leading to better results, as they simply weren’t going very far. This led to career-worst slugging percentages on fly balls. I’m happy to report that in August, Votto’s hitting his fly balls further and more often, which has led to high slugging on fly balls returning:
|Split||FB%||Avg FB Distance||SLG||xSLG|
Again, keep in mind the small sample size caveat, but in August, Votto has hit more fly balls, hit them further and is putting up better slugging percentages on them, slugging right in line with his past few seasons. In terms of average fly ball distance, Votto’s 26-foot change from March through July to August is among the top 20 in baseball, among other players having strong months such as Bryce Harper, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Ronald Acuna.
While the overall slash line may not look good for Joey Votto, he has changed his approach lately to try and make sure that his 95 wRC+ through July isn’t more of what his future holds. Always a smart hitter, Votto has shown he can make adjustments in the past to make himself a better hitter, and it looks like he has done it yet again recently. During an admittedly small sample size of plate appearances with this new approach, Votto has looked more like the hitter he once was, hitting the ball harder and in the air more for longer distances which have led to better results.
While this small sample of success has been interrupted by a stint on the injured list, if he returns and keeps putting up these strong numbers, it should be seen as a good sign for the future for Votto, the Reds and his fantasy owners. For a team on the upswing like the Cincinnati Reds, having your face of the franchise back to being his usual self is definitely a benefit and as it stands, Joey Votto is positioning himself to play a big role for the next great Reds team and we shouldn’t quite count him out yet.
Featured Image by Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire.