It’s Too Early to Panic About Joey Votto

Joey Votto was on my mind even before I read The Athletic’s latest dive into the Reds first baseman’s singular personality. Chess devotee? Aldous Huxley reader? Mop enthusiast? Add it all to the Hall of Fame plaque alongside the MVP award, six All-Star appearances, and seven on-base percentage leads.

It wasn’t Votto’s quirks that were on my mind, however, so much as it was his lagging production. When he spoke of a changed approach to The Athletic’s C. Trent Rosecrans and Eno Sarris back in February, my ears perked up, and I made a mental note to track his progress.

Which, yikes. Through Monday, the 37-year-old first baseman was hitting .171/.209/.244 for a 24 wRC+, with a lone homer in 43 plate appearances representing his only extra-base hit. Keep hitting like that and he might wind up tending to a @JoeyMoppo Instagram account (please give us a @JoeyMoppo Instagram account) while somebody else plays first base. I kid, of course, but even in the season’s first two weeks, before any individual statistics have begun to stabilize, a 24 wRC+ isn’t where anyone want to be.

Votto is coming off a season in which he hit just .226/.354/.446, setting career lows in both batting average and on-base percentage but posting his highest slugging percentage and isolated power since 2017, his last big season. The extra thump helped him to a 114 wRC+, which was at least an improvement upon the previous year’s 101, but still down from the 130 he posted in 2018, when he led the NL with a .417 OBP. Even getting to last year’s decidedly un-Votto-like line required an adjustment in approach after a slow start and a brief benching amid an 0-for-18 skid. He hit .191/.321/.326 (77 wRC+) with three homers through August 25, but .258/.385/.557 (148 wRC+) with eight homers thereafter, trading some control of the strike zone for some power, as he explained to Rosecrans and Sarris in February:

“I just got so dead-set on commanding the strike zone and assuming that I was going to help the team that way… I lost some of the things, some of my strengths that I first came to the league with — hitting the ball, specifically, hitting the ball all over the field with power, being difficult to defend, and I did that in exchange for command of the strike zone, putting the ball in play, being a tough at-bat,” Votto said of those choices. “It sapped my power.”

He also described an adjustment in philosophy:

“The adjustments I made last year after the benching were very, very natural,” he said. “I’ve always hit the ball like that, stood up taller. I’m back to kind of a more comfortable place, in terms of hitting. It’s going to come with some more swings and misses and more strikeouts but as long as I’m productive and as long as I’m dangerous at the plate, it will pay itself off.”

One look at Votto’s stat line through Monday would suggest that his newer approach wasn’t paying off, but there’s more to the story — including what he did on Tuesday night, after the bulk of this was written — and it begins with a look at his Statcast metrics.

Joey Votto Batted Ball Profile
Year GB/FB GB% FB% EV LA Barrel% HardHit% xBA SLG xSLG wOBA xwOBA
2017 1.03 39.0% 38.0% 87.5 14.1 8.7% 32.8% .298 .578 .553 .428 .415
2018 1.21 37.5% 31.1% 88.1 13.4 6.7% 34.8% .286 .419 .476 .370 .392
2019 0.98 37.0% 37.8% 88.9 15.2 6.4% 37.3% .254 .411 .437 .332 .341
2020 0.98 38.5% 39.2% 87.4 15.4 9.1% 35.7% .253 .446 .478 .347 .369
2021 1.89 47.2% 25.0% 92.9 12.2 8.3% 44.4% .320 .244 .577 .204 .384
SOURCE: Baseball Savant
2021 statistics through April 12.

While his slash numbers are anemic, Votto has been hitting the ball very hard; by both average exit velocity and hard-hit rate, his current numbers top anything he’s done during the Statcast era (though for the display above, I only went back to 2017, his last big season). The thing about Votto is that he’s not exactly known as an exit velo king: He hasn’t ranked in the 50th percentile or better in that category or in hard-hit rate since 2016. He has been back in the good graces of barrel rate in each of the past two seasons after dipping in 2018–19, but only in Statcast’s first season did he have a figure of 10% or better.

Beyond that, there’s some good news and bad news here. The bad news is that within the small sample of this year’s data, Votto is hitting the ball on the ground with a higher frequency than any of his full-season rates, which for a slow-footed 37-year-old — his sprint speed is in the ninth percentile — isn’t a winning strategy. The good news, beyond the fact that we really shouldn’t be reading much into a 36-batted ball event sample (50 to 60 is about where rates start to stabilize), is that even with that slew of groundballs, Votto’s batted ball profile includes a .318 xBA (expected batting average) and a .564 xSLG (expected slugging percentage).

Within Votto’s batted ball splits — and here I’m sticking with the traditional numbers for a moment — two things stand out. On those grounders, he’s 1-for-17 (.059/.059/.059), which is well below his pre-2021 career mark (.226/.226/.244; remember, there aren’t many extra-base hits to be had via this route) and even his 2018–20 mark (.199/.199/.218). Note that I’m going to keep lumping those three seasons together for this exercise because they consolidate his decline years and because I want to avoid getting too wrapped up in his short 2020 season numbers, even given the aforementioned point of inflection. Anyway, that 2018–20 slash line on grounders is good for a 60 wRC+, whereas he’s at -75 through Monday, which is to say, incomprehensibly bad. Some positive regression in that department should improve his batting line.

Meanwhile on his fly balls, Votto entered Tuesday 1-for-9 with his lone homer (.111 AVG/.444 SLG, and from here on, I’m going to dispense with the on-base percentages for these splits, since aside from the odd sacrifice fly, they’re basically identical to the averages) for a 41 wRC+. By comparison, he hit .335/.990 for a 239 wRC+ on fly balls from 2007 to ’20, and .231/.665 for a 121 wRC+ from ’18 to ’20. As with the grounders, some positive regression on those fly balls is in order, though there’s a bit more at work here.

The grim truth is that Votto’s 2018–20 line on fly balls is nothing to write home about, given that the major league average on such balls over that span is .242/.742 (143 wRC+). Some portion of Votto’s comparative lack of power owes to the diminished returns yielded by his hitting to the opposite field in recent years:

From 2018 to ’20, on balls hit to the opposite field, Votto batted .346/.511, well below the .409/.768 he hit while doing so from ’07 to ’17. By comparison, all of MLB hit .299/.432 going oppo in that 11-year span, and .320/.492 from ’18 to ’20, meaning that Votto was no longer much more productive than the average hitter via that route.

Hence his adjustment towards pulling more balls. Not only was last year’s 46.2% pull rate the highest of Votto’s career, but so was his 19.6% rate of pulled fly balls, as Rosecrans and Sarris pointed out. Pulled fly balls are where the big hits are at for most batters: The league hit .435/1.550 on such balls from 2018 to ’20, and Votto outdid that, at .479/1.646. Through Monday’s small sample, he’s at .500/2.000 while pulling 22.2% of his fly balls, so you can understand why he’d want to do that more often.

Getting back to Statcast and expected stats, Votto entered Tuesday with the largest gap of any batter between his wOBA and xwOBA, which is to say between his actual results and his expected results based upon his batted ball profile:

Largest Gaps Between Actual and Expected wOBA
Name Team PA BBE wOBA xwOBA wOBA-xwOBA
Joey Votto CIN 43 36 .204 .384 -.180
Cesar Hernandez CLE 39 26 .275 .450 -.175
Freddie Freeman ATL 41 30 .305 .471 -.166
Tommy Pham SDP 44 32 .196 .362 -.166
Brandon Crawford SFG 34 26 .262 .425 -.163
Ozzie Albies ATL 42 35 .168 .327 -.159
Bryce Harper PHI 38 21 .416 .567 -.151
Avisaíl García MIL 36 24 .321 .470 -.149
Jake Cave MIN 31 18 .195 .322 -.127
Paul Goldschmidt STL 42 31 .258 .381 -.123
Charlie Blackmon COL 37 29 .270 .392 -.122
Michael A. Taylor KCR 32 24 .406 .525 -.119
Lourdes Gurriel Jr. TOR 30 21 .171 .282 -.111
Enrique Hernández BOS 42 30 .286 .395 -.109
Josh Rojas ARI 32 20 .142 .245 -.103
Manny Machado SDP 48 30 .351 .451 -.100
Trevor Story COL 45 36 .315 .415 -.100
Jorge Polanco MIN 43 31 .169 .267 -.098
Travis d’Arnaud ATL 32 22 .325 .423 -.098
Elvis Andrus OAK 41 34 .147 .243 -.096
All statistics through April 12. Minimum 30 plate appearances.

Not all of these gaps are due to bad luck. A player’s speed often has something to do with the difference between wOBA and xwOBA (a player who can take the extra base in a given situation versus one who can’t) as does his ballpark (a ball that might have been out in one venue might be a routine out in another). Nonetheless, this is a good place to look when a player is performing to one extreme degree or another, for it often serves as a reality check, and here the reality is that Votto hasn’t been as bad as that anemic slashline would lead you to believe. He’s hardly the only player in this boat, but a guy with a career .399 wOBA — second only to Mike Trout’s .420 among active players with at least 1,500 career PA — sticks out in this context, even given his career downturn. Votto’s xwOBA is in the 72nd percentile, but his actual wOBA is in the ninth percentile.

Since both wOBA and xwOBA include walks and strikeouts, it’s also worth noting that through Monday, Votto — who has walked at a 16.0% clip for his career — had walked just twice (4.7%) and struck out in just 11.6% of his plate appearances; both of those would be career lows if they held up. He’s been swinging at more pitches outside the strike zone (24.7%, about three points above his career norm), making contact earlier in counts (3.81 pitches per plate appearances, 0.27 below his career norm), and rarely getting to 3–2 (7.0% of his plate appearances, just over one-third of his career norm of 19.1%). It’s a very un-Votto-like pattern.

Even so, it’s early in the season, and for Votto as with any other player, many of the struggles and anomalies will come out in the wash with larger samples. As if on cue, Votto began Tuesday night’s game with a two-run homer off the Giants’ Kevin Gausman:

The opposite field shot doesn’t quite fit the pattern I’ve outlined above, but hey, Oppo Moppo! Votto did also strike out twice in his four plate appearances and chased a couple of pitches outside the zone. None of that is included in the numbers above, but his work from the previous night — a splash hit into McCovey Cove off Aaron Sanchez, as well as a strikeout — was.

With two homers in two nights, it’s fair to suggest that Votto might be coming around. Let’s not panic just yet.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

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Original Greaser Bob
2 years ago

I love seeing this right next to yesterdays Baez piece.