Patience or Panic 5/15: Votto, Darvish, Harper
We’re now a quarter of the way through the 2019 MLB season, and things are finally starting to get back to the way they should be. The Houston Astros, Chicago Cubs, and Los Angeles Dodgers have the three best records in baseball, while the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox seem to have figured things out and are quickly climbing back to the top of the standings. On top of that, most of the league’s struggling superstars are beginning to look like themselves again. However, the key word in that last sentence is “most” as there are still some traditionally great baseball players who just look plain bad right now. And as a result, we have another edition of Patience or Panic, so we can determine which of these still-struggling stars are worth keeping our faith in or not.
Joey Votto (1B, Cincinnati Reds) – .207 AVG, 19 R, 4 HR, 8 RBI, 1 SB
For the last decade, Joey Votto has been arguably the most consistent hitter in all of baseball, batting above .300 in every season except an injury-plagued 2014 season that held him to 62 games. This made his .284 batting average last year seem that much more alarming, despite it being a perfectly fine average for most professional baseball players. With his power down too, the major question entering 2019 was whether he would bounce back this season, or if father time was beginning to catch up to Votto. Unfortunately, it appears to be more of the latter.
Votto has not looked like his old self at the plate this year, striking out 24.4% of the time. Prior to this season, the veteran had never stuck out even 20% of the time. Part of this may be a result of the different way in which pitchers are attempting to deal with the lefty. Votto is facing fastballs 44.6% of the time this season, and he saw them on 41.1% of pitches last year, compared to seeing fastballs just 35.7% of the time over the course of his career. He is also seeing sinkers thrown to him just 11.6% of the time this year, versus 22% of the time for his career. This new, more direct approach toward facing him seems to be working very well for opposing teams, at least for now. Votto also is not drawing as many walks, with a walk rate of 13.1% compared to the 18.3% walk rate he averaged over the past five seasons.
When putting the ball in play, Votto is hitting fly balls and pop ups much more than he is known to do. He is hitting fly balls 44.3% of the time, compared to his lifetime average of 33.5%. Furthermore, his infield fly ball rate currently sits at 4.7% for the season, drastically higher than his utterly ridiculous career infield fly ball rate of 1.2%. In fact, you have to go all the way back to 2008 to find a season in which Votto had an infield fly ball rate higher than 1.8%. Interestingly enough, his launch angle this season is a career high 16.7°, compared to his 12.7° average launch angle since 2015. Unfortunately, this increase in launch angle has not brought him an increase in power, with just four home runs to this point. After a career-low .135 ISO a season ago, Votto currently has an even worse .132 ISO this year.
While his hard-hit rate and exit velocity are right around his career norms, it is clear that Votto is not the superstar first baseman he has been for the last decade. The 35-year-old’s best days are clearly behind him, and his power stroke looks like it may never be coming back. I still believe his average will rise at some point, and he won’t look quite this bad the rest of the season, but it’s entirely possible that Joey Votto may never again be a top-100 fantasy player.
After an injury-shortened 2018 season, Yu Darvish looked ready to bounce back in a big way this season. Unfortunately, that has not been the case thus far, as seen in his disappointing 5.40 ERA and 1.72 WHIP. To make matters worse, his FIP is an even uglier 6.49. Darvish’s struggles this season primarily stem from his extreme lack of control and inability to find the strike zone. While he has never demonstrated great control, his walk rate is considerably higher than ever before, walking 19.3% of batters—twice as high as his 9.5% career average. In fact, Darvish has incredibly walked 33 batters across 36.2 innings, the most in the league. Darvish is also failing to keep the ball in the park, allowing 1.96 homers per nine innings pitched. His 29.6% home run to fly ball rate is more than double his career average of 12.9%.
However, there are some positive signs to look at as well. Darvish is still missing bats at a healthy clip, with a 25.7% strikeout rate, less than 2% lower than in his strong 2017 season that saw him post a 3.44 ERA with a 1.15 WHIP. He is also inducing ground balls at the highest rate of his career by far. His ground ball rate of 52.8% is 11.2% better than his career average. This is due to batters having a launch angle of just 6.9° against him this year, compared to the past three seasons in which their launch angles against him were 12.6°, 12.9°, and 13.2°. Batters are also making hard contact against Darvish 28.6% of the time, which is right in line with past seasons. Overall, it appears he still has the same stuff that made him such an effective pitcher in previous years. While the walks and homers certainly won’t help, Darvish should start to see better results sooner than later.
Bryce Harper (OF, Philadelphia Phillies) – .219 AVG, 25 R, 7 HR, 25 RBI, 1 SB
After signing a monstrous $330 million, 13-year contract to play for the Phillies this past offseason, Bryce Harper has had a tough time living up to his paycheck in the early going. While his numbers on the year are far from spectacular, he has struggled even more in recent games, batting just .188 with three home runs in the last month, and he has just two hits with no homers or RBI in the last week. Harper has been striking out more than usual this season and is currently tied for the league lead in strikeouts (54), owning a 30.9% strikeout rate, compared to 21.5% for his career. This may have something to do with how pitchers are attacking Harper, as he is being thrown fastballs 39.8% of the time, 6% more than he faced throughout his career. He has also seen sliders 19.9% of the time, over 5% more than he dealt with in prior seasons. When he does connect with the ball, he is pulling it more than half the time. His pull rate of 52.2% is a full 7% more than he has in any other season. However, he is still making hard contact just as much as he always has, and his exit velocity of 91.3 mph is actually slightly higher than in any other season. Harper is still getting on base, having drawn the second most walks in the league so far, and his expected batting average of .247 shows that he should start to get a few more hits in the future. Overall, Harper has proven to be one of the streakier players in the game, and it’s only a matter of time before he’s performing like one of the best players in baseball again and living up to his monumental contract.
(Photo by Quinn Harris/Icon Sportswire)