[This post was written by Justin Berg, who has his own website at Bergonsports.com and @bergonsports on Twitter. Thanks, Justin. — spm]
It’s the two hundred million dollar question on everyone’s mind: Will Joey Votto ever be the same hitter?
I played golf recently with two good friends, both are huge Reds fans, one is a medical doctor. We naturally landed on the subject of Votto’s health and whether the Reds’ first baseman is destined to be punchless at the plate for the rest of his career.
“To be honest,” our M.D. friend told us, “it would have been better for Votto if he’d torn his ACL. That way it would have been fully repaired and rehabbed, and he comes back with possibly more strength in that knee. Those meniscus tears linger. The tendons and cartilage continue to become battered; arthritis sets in something like twenty years earlier than the average knee.”
2014 has been a nightmare for Votto. The pride of Toronto has been dealing with a weakened distal quadriceps muscle for most of the season, allowing him to play in just 62 games thus far—most of those on one leg. His .255/.390/.409 more closely resembles Eduardo Perez than what we’re used to out of Votto.
Votto’s return to the lineup remains unknown. He’s had that Kobe Bryant platelet-replacement procedure twice since being shelved on July 8 for the second time this season. He tried to field ground balls this past Wednesday, but his body didn’t respond well to the side-to-side movement. Votto did not make the trip to Pittsburgh.
What path will the rest of Joey Votto’s career take? Considering the size of and remaining years on his contract, let’s hope it’s nothing like former Yankee Don Mattingly’s.
A Stellar Career Cut Short
If you were born before 1980, you likely have a vivid memory of just how sweet first baseman Don Mattingly was in pinstripes. “Donnie Baseball” won the AL MVP in ’85 and finished second the following season. But in 1987, the smooth-swinging lefty tweaked his back while engaging in innocent clubhouse horseplay, and by 1990, the back had become a major issue. From then on, Mattingly was never the same, and he eventually retired in 1995 at age 34.
Let’s compare Mattingly’s numbers with Votto’s, pre- and post-injury trouble.
Of course, 2014 isn’t over for Votto—he may still return and add to his season totals—but we’ve seen his productivity sapped by the prolonged injury. If it continues to linger, might we see a similar decline to what Mattingly suffered through?
Clearly, Joey Votto finds himself at a crossroads in his career. The way I see it, Number 19 has two choices:
- Continue with the same batting stance/approach and try like Hell to keep that back knee, quad and entire leg as strong and healthy as possible, even if it means taking more days off. He may be relegated to a catcher’s scenario: No day games after night games, a limit on consecutive games, etc.
- Completely overhaul his batting stance, load and stride from “back leg dominant” to more of a balanced position where he hits primarily through his front
Let me explain what “back leg dominant” means. Take a look at this slow-mo of a Votto home run.
Note the following:
A. Votto uses a leg kick during the loading phase as he leans his weight on the back leg, coils his weight on that back leg, then pushes off from that position to generate his hip rotation.
B. From hip rotation until follow through, his body is balanced from the back leg and his torso finishes even with the middle of his back leg. This has allowed him to “stay behind the baseball.” It’s why he drove balls out of the yard the opposite way so often before the injury.
The video clearly displays how much dependency Votto has on his back leg. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Plenty of great hitters have excelled with that style—a guy like Jeff Bagwell comes to mind. However, if that back leg isn’t 100 percent, you simply cannot generate any power.
As we’ve seen since Votto returned from the initial injury in 2012, there is simply not the same amount of power being generated from the former MVP’s swing. That begs the question: Does Votto need to completely scrap the batting stance he’s used for years for an entirely new approach? And that question leads to another: Can a hitter re-invent himself at this point in his career?
Front Leg Hitters
There have been some pretty decent front leg hitters over the years. You may have heard of guys like Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron and George Brett. Roberto Clemente belongs on that list as well. It’s an approach former hitting coach Charlie Lau (“The Art of Hitting .300”) preached when he turned the Kansas City Royals around in the 1970’s. Hall-of-Famer George Brett attributes most of his success to Lau’s philosophies.
To clarify, hitting through your front leg means to shift your weight forward and through the baseball at impact, to the point that your back foot nearly comes off (or does come off) the ground when you meet the baseball.
Check out this Hank Aaron slow-mo. Note the difference between his body at impact and Votto’s in the above example.
Here’s Willie Mays. He had a wider base, but you can see how he is nearly walking forward at the end of his swing, really powering through that front leg:
And then of course, Babe Ruth. See how his torso finishes above his front leg?
Now, nobody’s expecting Votto to transform into Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron or Willie Mays. The point I’m trying to make is that you can generate power from either approach. And with Votto’s health situation, it may not be feasible to generate power from the back leg approach anymore.
If Votto were to accept his fate and totally swap approaches, he’d have a few choices for his stance, load and stride. It would be a matter of trial and error until he finds the one that best suits his body. His options:
- Votto could spread way out and eliminate the stride altogether, like Jim Edmonds:
Votto briefly went with the “no stride” at the end of April in 2012, amidst a long homer-less drought, and he cracked a home run off of Houston’s Jordan Lyles on an 0-2 count. Here’s the video:
This approach allows for maximum balance, and while it still puts some pressure on that back knee to generate the hip rotation, it’s nowhere near the amount of stress that Votto’s leg-kick approach creates.
- Votto could keep the leg kick but stride forward a little bit and then finish with his momentum going toward the pitcher like Josh Hamilton:
- Votto could go real extreme like Ruth, Aaron or Mays and in essence “run through” the baseball at impact. Out of the three, I’d say this would be the least likely.
If I were working with Votto, I’d recommend the “no stride” approach. It worked well for Jim Edmonds and we’ve seen guys like Albert Pujols, Moises Alou and Joe DiMaggio stay incredibly balanced and hit with power. We saw Votto briefly utilize this approach in ’12 when he was in a slump. If anything, eliminating the big leg kick can only help with a hitter’s timing.
A complete overhaul at this point in a major league hitter’s career is certainly not unprecedented—just ask Toronto’s Jose Bautista. “Joey Bats” made huge alterations to his approach and stance after his Age 28 season when he hit just thirteen home runs…and then promptly pumped 54 over the fence the following season.
The bottom line: The choice is ultimately Votto’s to make. But if he and his doctors feel that his back leg issues will be chronic, he must accept that providence and begin figuring out a new approach and stance at the plate.
The good news is that Joey is blessed with incredible hand-eye coordination and a genius ability to quickly compute a number of thoughts in the batter’s box before he takes a cut at a pitch. What’s more, his hands are quick and his swing path is top notch, so there will be no adjustments needed in that area.
At the end of the day, the Reds need Votto to produce. If his left leg will never be the same, then he must adjust accordingly.