Bryan Price finally took the fall on Thursday, but as the manager of a team short on major-league talent, with a rebuilding effort that isn’t yet close to paying off, it was only a matter of time. It’s difficult to see why the Reds waited until now instead of dismissing him last October — after four full seasons, another 18 games shouldn’t have changed the thinking of the Reds’ brass — but one thing that didn’t enhance Price’s chances for survival was the early-season struggles of Joey Votto. On the heels of one of the best seasons of his career, the 34-year-old first baseman is off to an uncharacteristically bad start, one that can’t help but stand out even given the small sample sizes.
Votto is currently hitting just .258/.315/.273, with one extra-base hit and five walks — as many as he had in a single game last August 27 — in 73 plate appearances. That’s from a five-time All-Star who hit .320/.454/.578 last year, with the majors’ best on-base percentage and walk total (135) and the NL’s top wRC+ (165). His SLG and .258 ISO were his highest since 2010.
In fact, before we dig into this year’s dismal numbers, it’s worth noting that Votto may have done more to enhance his Hall of Fame case last year than just about any player. With his second seven-win season in three years (according to Baseball-Reference WAR, which I continue to use for my JAWS system), he surpassed the seven-year peak score of the average Hall of Fame first baseman and put himself in range of surpassing the JAWS standard as well.
Going by what appears to be slightly revised numbers from the ones I relayed to The Athletic’s C. Trent Rosecrans in February, Votto entered 2017 with 47.8 career WAR, 42.6 peak WAR, and 45.2 JAWS. Via a 7.5 WAR season in which he narrowly missed winning his second NL MVP award, he climbed to 55.3 career/46.1 peak/50.7 JAWS, where the average Hall first baseman is at 66.8/42.7/54.7. Another 8.0 total WAR would bring him level with the JAWS standard for first basemen, and any season above 4.8 WAR (his seventh-best) would further enhancing his peak score and lower the needed career WAR (JAWS is the average of career and peak). Of course, Votto will also need to get to at least 2,000 hits (he’s at 1,603), and he’d probably better go far beyond that, given that his home run total (currently 257) won’t wind up anywhere close to 500. He’s averaged 177 hits over the past three years; averaging 153 over the remainder of his deal (which runs through 2023), would nose him past 2,500, which when accompanied by his impressive rate stats ought to do it.
First, though, he’s got to dig his way out of an early-season slump that could stand in for the Reds’ entire offense. The team is averaging just 3.00 runs per game and has produced only a 73 wRC+, numbers that both rank second-to-last in the National League. Combine that with a pitching staff conceding 5.56 runs per game (also the league’s second-worst mark), and you’ve got a recipe for a 3-15 start — and, in this case, the end of Price’s tenure.
What’s the matter with Votto, other than the fact that the stats apparently haven’t come to their senses yet and placed him where he belongs? The coincidence of his struggles with Price’s dismissal is enough to justify another trip to Small Sample Theater, where at least it’s warm inside. The first thing that stands out is his 6.8% walk rate, which is just over one-third of last year’s mark (19.0%) and less than half a career rate (16.1%) that leads the majors over the timespan of a career that began in 2007. Only in his 89-plate appearance cup of coffee in 2007 has Votto ever walked in less than 10% of his PA. If Joey Votto is indeed a hitting robot, then this robot appears to be malfunctioning.
As it turns out, Votto is seeing far fewer pitches per plate appearance than ever before, just 3.48, compared to 3.97 last year (his first below 4.0 since 2010) and 4.08 for his career. In other words, he’s not going deep into counts. Where he went to a three-ball count in 32.5% of last year’s plate appearances, he’s gotten that far in just 21.9% this year. And once he’s gotten to three balls this year, he’s walked in just 31.3% of those PA, compared to 58.2% last year. Meanwhile, he’s seeing more pitches in the strike zone than at any time since he was a rookie (2008), and swinging at those in-zone pitches more often than ever before… but his contact rate on such pitches is down:
Votto is particularly making less contact with pitches on the outer third of the strike zone. Compare 2017 (on the left) to 2018 (the right). Both heat maps are from the catcher’s perspective:
Note the four blue squares on the left side of the 2018 heat map, with contact rates in the 55-63% range. Those were in the 84-88% range last year. At the 18-game mark, I’m loath to get more granular than that in terms of pitch types or handedness in that particular area, but it might be worth noting that, in general, Votto is seeing more four-seam fastballs than ever before (41.0%, up from 38.6% last year and 35.0% for his career), and he’s got a comparatively high whiff rate against those pitches (9.6%, up from 6.6% last year and 8.9% for his career).
I don’t profess to know why Votto, perhaps the most disciplined hitter on the planet, suddenly has a case of batter’s box shpilkes, though I do know that the age-old complaint against him from certain quarters of the hometown media has been that he walks too often instead of expanding his strike zone to drive in runs. For what it’s worth, even on a team whose .307 OBP ranked 12th entering Thursday, Votto has batted with a runner in scoring position in 30% of his plate appearances (up from 22% last year) and is hitting .438/.545/.500 in those spots.
The second issue is Votto’s sudden lack of power. Here, the picture painted by the metrics is more muddled, a good reminder that we’re a long ways away from such numbers stabilizing. In terms of batted-ball classification, his line-drive and ground-ball rates currently match, at 36.8%, which is something you don’t see every day, particularly at that level. His line-drive rate is third in the league, his ground-ball rate is slightly below last year’s, and his fly-ball rate has dropped significantly (from 38.0% to 26.3%). But once we turn to the quality of contact metrics, we get a different story: his hard-hit rate has dropped from 36.3% last year to 24.6%, the league’s 13th-lowest mark. Hmmm. Via Statcast, his overall average exit velocity is 0.9 mph higher than last year, but in terms of just fly balls and liners, it’s down 1.4 mph (91.2 mph versus 92.6 mph), and his expected wOBA on those balls has dropped from .585 in 2017 to .526 in 2018. His overall expected wOBA of .374 suggests he should be doing far more damage than he is.
As frustrating as it is for Votto, the Reds, and their supporters, this is probably nothing to get wound up about. Votto turned in a similarly appalling 67 wRC+ in April two years ago, albeit with less alarming discrepancies in walk rate and isolated power relative to his career rates, and he finished with a 159 mark overall. To illuminate April underperformance is practically to invite positive regression. Last week, I turned my attention to the struggles of Paul Goldschmidt, who at the time had a 70 wRC+; eight days later, he was up to 161. Evan Longoria and Andrew McCutchen went a combined 5-for-8 the night after this was published. It’s worth checking into these things, if only to remind ourselves that with good hitters, they usually work themselves out.
Votto will probably be fine, and despite his frustrations with the Reds’ rebuilding program, he probably isn’t leaving town anytime soon, not with a minimum of $132 million due after this year for his age 35-39 seasons. You can wishcast him onto the Yankees or the Blue Jays or the Angels — somebody in my chat suggested an Albert Pujols-plus-prospects package for him, which, I can’t even — but there’s no sign of that happening.
Talk of Cooperstown seems silly when you’re looking up at Scooter Gennett on the wRC+ leaderboard. But three weeks in, the smart money is obviously on Votto turning it around sooner rather than later — and sooner than the team as a whole.
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. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.