If I was writing this article a few years ago, it would have been very short. “Joey Votto is a hitter with excellent plate discipline, power, and bat control. He is a solid defender, one of the most cerebral players of the game, and one of the better players of his generation.”
Obviously, this article is not going to be that. Things have changed for Votto over the past several seasons. His .261/.357/.411 slash line in 2019, while overall above league average (.252/.323/.435), was not close to what he typically produces. Further, his 15 home runs and 47 RBI were below average and definitely not what have come to be expected from him. Entering his age-36 season, can Votto still be a contributor to a Reds team that became more competitive this offseason? We’ll dig into Votto’s advanced metrics as well as his approach to the game to answer this question.
Less Discipline, Less Production
Several disheartening stats stood out from Votto’s 2019 season. The first was his dip in batting average; Votto’s .261 average was the second-lowest of his career and was much lower than his .307 career average. While his .313 BABIP does suggest that he was unlucky throughout the season, it was also the second-lowest mark of his career and was a good deal lower than his .349 career BABIP.
The second set of stats that raised concerns were Votto’s walk rate and strikeout rate. Votto has been one of baseball’s most selective hitters throughout his career, averaging a 16.0% walk rate and a 17.8% strikeout rate. However, in 2019 he produced a career-high strikeout rate of 20.2% and a 12.5% walk rate, his lowest since 2008. The culprit behind the lesser numbers could be a relative lack of discipline. Votto’s average chase rate (the rate at which he swung at pitches outside the strike zone) since 2015 is 16.3%, but in 2019 he chased pitches at a 18.4% rate. Making things worse, he made less contact on those pitches compared to previous seasons (62.7% vs 69.7% average since 2015). Not surprisingly, Votto’s decreased discipline led to decreased production in 2019.
Ineffective Plate Approach
Votto’s overall plate approach was affected by more than just his plate discipline last season. As indicated by his HR count and slugging percentage, he did not hit the ball hard; his 37.7% hard-hit rate was in just the 42nd percentile of baseball. The lack of power was coupled with an increase in launch angle, as Votto’s 15.0-degree launch angle was the highest it had been since Statcast began collecting the metric in 2015. The combination of a low hard-hit rate and an increased launch angle led to an increased fly-ball rate (37.8% vs 33.7% career) but an immensely decreased HR/FB rate (9.8% vs 17.5% career).
Votto’s decreased performance in situational hitting was also a sore point in 2019. Like many left-handed hitters, Votto was shifted on fairly frequently throughout the season (32% of plate appearances). Given his mental approach to the game, he has typically done well hitting against the shift, performing almost as well with the shift on as with it off. However, last season he did not perform as well against the shift overall (.314 wOBA) and also performed worse with the shift on relative to with the shift off (.029 wOBA points difference).
Stance Changes: Trending in Right Direction
To this point there has been little to support the notion that Votto could be a key contributor to the Reds in 2020. That being said, there were signs over the course of last season to indicate that he was analyzing his game to make improvements. The most noticeable change was in his batting stance.
Votto implemented a crouched, wide-spread batting stance to start the season. He had a quick, subtle front leg lift and choked up on the bat. Votto’s swing was quick and hypothetically allowed for more bat control, but decreased his ability to produce power.
Then, starting roughly around August, Votto drastically changed his batting stance. He started standing taller with his hands positioned on the bottom of the barrel of the bat. He also implemented a higher leg kick in his load. The changes in stance produced positive results. From the beginning of the season through July, Votto posted a .262/.347/.402 slash line with 10 HR, 33 RBI, an 11.0% walk rate, a 20.5% strikeout rate, and a .323 wOBA in 429 plate appearances. From August through the end of the season, he posted a .259/.380/.435 slash line with five HR, 14 RBI, a 16.2% walk rate, a 19.6% strikeout rate, and a .352 wOBA in 179 plate appearances.This is an example of Votto analyzing his game and taking advantage of potential existing gains, which offers hope that he could turn things around for the better next season.
It is clear that Votto’s most productive years are behind him, but it also seems that 2019 was uncharacteristically poor. Votto successfully analyzed his batting stance for the last several months of the season, and I believe that his approach to the game will allow for him to remain a productive player in 2020 (should we have a season). He is still an above-average fielder (62nd percentile outs above average in 2019) and should continue to hit towards the top of a bolstered Reds lineup, which means that he doesn’t need a ton of power to be an impactful contributor.
His biggest contribution should come from getting on base, which is something he has been great at throughout his career, allowing the rest of the lineup to drive him in. Given the improvements he made to his stance and the assumption of some regression to the mean, it would be reasonable to think that Votto could hit .270 with a 15% walk rate, 20 HR, 60 RBI, and 80 runs scored in a full season (or that pace for how ever many games are actually played).
Votto can still be an impact player for the Reds as he enters the later stages of his career. The shortened season and longer offseason should benefit him, allowing him to enter the season fully rested and healthy. Hopefully, we will have baseball soon enough to be able to watch Votto continue to tweak his game and find success.