Last week, I wrote about the disproportionate impact a disastrous April can have on our perceptions of a player. The example I used then was Ken Giles, who has largely put an awful first month of the season behind him and returned to being a dominant reliever. Now seems like as good a time as any to talk about another player who struggled mightily in April: Joey Votto.
As Owen Watson pointed out at the time, April was the worst month of Votto’s career. His slash line was an almost unfathomably awful .224/.320/.306. Votto is one of the precious few who fall into the category of perennial MVP candidates and, for better or worse, those players can’t post a 62 wRC+ through the first month of the season without generating countless inquiries to the effect of “What’s wrong?” or “Is this the start of his decline?” or “Hoo boy, just how bad is that contract?” However, if you’ve been watching the Reds this season, you (a) have my condolences and (b) can confirm that Joey Votto is, in fact, still Joey Votto.
The hitters over the past 30 days who’ve recorded a better wRC+ than Votto can be counted on one hand. His recent hot streak has helped catapult his season stats back to their expected level. He has resumed his rightful spot among league leaders in walks, trailing only Bryce Harper among qualified hitters in walk rate (17.2%). His .404 on-base percentage ranks third in the National League. His poor April is still depressing his season line somewhat, but he’s currently batting a reasonably Vottoian .271/.404/.475 with a 134 wRC+. Here’s his rebound in graph form:
Sure, he’s not reaching the astronomical heights of his phenomenal second half a year ago, but he has clearly managed to climb back towards his expected level of production. Now that we’re firmly back in a world where we don’t have to imminently ponder the mortality of one of the game’s best hitters, there are two questions worth asking: 1. How did he rebound? and 2. Is he really back in a sustainable way?
As Watson noted back in April, much of Votto’s struggles were attributable to his difficulties when pulling the ball. Pitchers were pitching him in and he was responding by pulling the ball on the ground which, as it turns out, isn’t a great way to generate success at the plate. Since the end of April, however, Votto has been seeing pitches in his preferred middle and outside zones at a higher frequency. Here is a strike-zone plot of the pitches he saw in April (left) and those he’s seen since (right):
As you might expect, this shift in pitch location has resulted in his ability to return to hitting the ball to all fields. In fact, his percentage of batted balls hit to the pull field has declined each month this season.
These charts and numbers are really a fancy way of dressing up the fact that things have regressed to the mean for Votto. He’s never been that pull-happy guy he was in April (save for one experiment in May of last season), so there was no reason to expect he’d suddenly become one.
He’s also returned to normal in one other obvious way which I alluded to earlier. Back in April, he had a 12.0% walk rate. That walk rate may look fantastic if you’re Yoenis Cespedes or Ben Revere, but for Joey Votto? He of the preternatural plate discipline? That walk rate had to regress towards his career norms and regress it has.
So, that’s it? Small samples are just small samples? Regression to the mean restores balance to the world? Yes, but also no. Joey Votto is still a great hitter, a fact which should shock no one. But there is one early season trend which has yet to right itself: strikeouts.
Votto has never posted a strikeout rate above 20% over a full season, but he currently sports a 23.7% mark on the season. Strikeouts are up across the league, so the fact that Votto’s rate is elevated isn’t particularly damning in and of itself. What is worth paying attention to, however, is the way in which it’s up:
Throughout his career, Votto has maintained impressively balanced platoon splits, recording a 162 wRC+ versus right-handers and 140 wRC+ versus lefties. Like any hitter, he’s better against opposite-handed pitching, but it’s never been a problem for him to also crush lefties. Until now. His current 29.8% strikeout-rate against lefties is far and away the highest of his career. His overall performance the season is even worse: 148 wRC+ vs. RHP, 84 wRC+ vs. LHP. The main culprit? Per BrooksBaseball, it would appear to be a complete and total failure against offspeed pitches from southpaws.
Only a fool would bet against Joey Votto’s batting abilities. Yes, Votto has struggled in 103 plate appearances against left-handers this season but, also, Votto has struggled in just 103 plate appearances against left-handers this season. Expectations are impossibly high for him season after season, and yet he’s managed to sustain his tremendous level of production for the better part of a decade. With that track record in place, of course he put his April struggles behind him and, presumably by extension, of course he will hit lefties again — he’s Joey Votto.
Corinne Landrey writes for FanGraphs and MLB.com's Cut4 site. Follow her on Twitter @crashlandrey.