Here’s my latest column for Cincinnati Magazine, in which I explore some positively baffling numbers from Reds first baseman Joey Votto this season:

What’s wrong with Joey Votto?

I don’t mean the “right lower leg contusion” that Joey Votto suffered when he was hit by an intentionally thrown pitch from Nationals reliever Ryan Madson during the first week of August. That has pretty much healed, and Votto should be good to go very soon. No, I mean: What’s wrong with Joey Votto? Like, why is he hitting just .284, with only nine home runs this season? That’s an interesting question, and there aren’t any quick and easy answers.

Read the entire thing. Please?

35 Responses

  1. CI3J

    I’m really rooting for Votto to replicate Jim Thome in his twilight years. Really, look up what Thome did once he got past 35. He did decline, some, but his numbers were still very, very strong right up until he retired at age 41.

    As to what’s wrong with Votto this season, it is odd that he has maintained his exit velocity while not hitting as many homeruns. But from using the ol’ eye test, this is what I’ve noticed: Votto’s bat has slowed down to the point where he can’t handle elite fastballs that he used to murder. He instead fouls them off, when it the past he’d square them up and drive them out of the park.

    And you know what? I’m ok with Joey Votto being a 15 HR guy going forward if he keeps getting on base at a .400+ clip. That seems like the perfect #2 hitter, which is actually where Votto should have been hitting anyway for at least the last 5 years.

  2. cfd3000

    First of all, there’s nothing wrong with Joey Votto. Whoever leads the league in OBP is a really valuable hitter. And his OPS, WRC+ and all other measures except, essentially, home runs, are very good. Maybe not Hall of Fame good, but very good. But I do think he’s lost a tiny bit of response time. Whether that’s an inevitable consequence of age, or a result of his unusual quest to be able to barrel up the inside pitches, or some of both I don’t know. Maybe it’s just a statistical fluke, maybe not. Only time will tell. But I’m going to offer a prediction. If I’m wrong no one will remember this, and if I’m right we can all look back and say, dang, CFD was onto something.

    I think Joey Votto is going to find new power by starting to pull the ball more. I predict more fly balls, line drives, and home runs to the pull side. And if he makes that change, I think he returns to elite for September, for 2019, and probably a couple of years after that. You read it here first.

  3. msanmoore

    Great article, even for somebody who isn’t hardcore into stats. I’m generally with you … this is a bit of a fluke year for a dozen reasons, half of which we can’t begin to imagine.

    I like the thought that he could replicate Thome. That will take some strong legs and we know JV will work toward that end.

  4. Sliotar

    No offense to Chad, but I feel like I have given Cincinnati Magazine enough clicks over the last year or two, and this just isn’t that compelling of a mystery..

    He turns 35 in a week. Most baseball aging curves show accelerating decline starting around age 35.

    And, he has been hurt.

    The HRs and speed (what there ever was) may not stage any comebacks…I would not build either into 2019 projection models, if I was in the Reds analytics department.

    But, K%, BB%, etc. are still in his career range, .420 OBP and wRC+ 130.

    That reads like the perfect No. 2 hitter, who can adapt to any situational need based on what the leadoff hitter does.

  5. jreis

    I am a huge Joey Votto fan off the field. he is a great ambassador for the reds and baseball in general.

    On the field, another story. he drives me crazy because he makes his living getting on base but is absolutely abysmal running the bases. I am the first to admit that I don’t understand metrics and advanced stats at all but I just don’t see how all the walks he accumulates are so valuable to the team when he scores run at such a low rate?

    Anyway , I hope he can improve his power numbers next year. if not, I think we need to start transitioning away from him with the infiled and lineup. Suarez is the best candidate for first base. that would open up 3rd base for India or Senzel. Winker is also a guy that could probably play first as well.

    • Rut

      Well over 100 million reasons why the Reds won’t be “transitioning away” from Votto for quite some time….

    • BIll

      Walks are valuable because getting out is not valuable. HRs, triples, doubles, and sometimes singles are more valuable. Getting out is not valuable. Benching the league leader in OBP, who in a bad year has already accumulated 3 WAR, because he is slow is an extrememly bad idea. A Votto BB followed by a HR by either Suarez or Gennett equals two runs. A solo HR by either of those is equal to 1 run.

      Winker has produced 0 WAR and is also bad at defense and baserunning. I am not sure why you would want him at 1B over Votto. The goal should be to get the best bats in the lineup, not get the best baserunner in the lineup.

  6. WVRedlegs

    One thing about Votto this year at the plate is, it seems like he is swinging at the first pitch an inordinate amount this season. And making outs much more often than not. Just an eye test observation, don’t have any numbers to back it up. But I would imagine that Votto is down a good number of pitches seen this season because of this. Of course it would have to be adjusted for time on the DL this year.
    Maybe the analytics play into this as well, as the scouting reports might reflect numbers for some pitchers which suggests to attack them early on in the AB or count. And that first pitch most likely will be the best one they get against those certain pitchers via the scouting report.
    Nothing really wrong with Votto, just have seen him swing more often on first pitches this year. It seems that way though.
    He does seem to attack the defensive shift more this year by swatting the ball to the left of the 3B playing near the SS position and the 2B bag. The other way to help Votto beat the shift (and the other LHers as well) is to have more guys on base in front of him where the opponent won’t/can’t employ a shift.

    • Bill

      Pitches per plate appearance 2017: 3.87
      Pitches per plate appearance 20187: 4.01
      Pitches per plate appearance career: 4.08

      • WVRedlegs

        Thank you Bill. A few more than last year actually. I would not have thunk that.

    • Kettering Reds Fan

      A hypothesis. Probably not a valid one since I -presume- these guys are tested every spring.

      Eye check. Eyes change with age. Note that Tiger Woods has had his eyes Lasiked -three- times during his career to establish and preserve 20/10 vision in both eyes. When one is discussing the nuances of how to hit MLB pitching, most of these guys are 20/20 or better – they have to be. But vision changes slowly – very slowly – with age starting at about this point. A very small change in overall vision may be just enough to throw off timing and, critically, depth perception of the incoming pitch.

      The other possibility is that the shifts are evolving as his adaptations and things will stabilize/maybe improve a bit once the next adaptation fits in…….at which point, about halfway through the next season, a new shift pattern develops…….

  7. Ethan L

    His wRC+ is 130. As I type, that’s 26th in the Bigs putting him between Harper and Rizzo. Yes, it’s off his normal clip around 160 ish, but it isn’t bad at all. His WAR is down below 3. Anyway, I don’t think it’s that bad of a year. He’s just getting old and playing like a mortal now.

  8. Jim Walker

    A lot of balls Votto hits this year look really good off the bat but die somewhere around the edge of the warning track. That’s often typical of a heavy top spin effect. Wondering if there is a site which has spin types and rates as well as speed and launch angle and comparative data from the past?

    Maybe he is just a tad later on some of these drives and has a different spin profile which is the difference in carry?

    • Still a Red

      Yes, I’ve noticed that too. But I believe the stats show that the exit velocities are about the same. Spin could hold them up. But I’ve also noticed, with just an eye-test, that a lot of his homers in the past were fly balls that managed to go deep enough to clear the fence…and I’m not seeing that this year. That would be an angle issue.

  9. citizen54

    I’ll go with bad luck wOBA .368, xwOBA .420. Basically, if you go off of exit velocity and launch angle, along with his ability to get on base Votto is still a top 5 player in baseball.

    • Indy Red Man

      Not buying that. I love Joey…he’s a funny & thoughtful guy, but the love gets a little crazy on RLN. He spends most of his atbats fouling off hittable pitches til he walks. 9 HRs is HRs.

      I think some oldtimers like myself got ruined by roid era stats. Frank Thomas was clean as far as I know, but he played during that era and walked like Joey, but he’d also hit 35-40+ HRs and drive in 115.

      • Bill

        I took a look at Thomas’ career numbers which are impressive and one thing stood out. It looks like he was injured in his age 33 season and followed up with a .252/.361/.472 for an OPS of .834 for his age 34 season. His age 35 season .267/.390/.562 for an OPS of .952 . He maintained on OPS over .900 through the age of 38 with some injury shortened seasons before the decline really started.

        This year is Votto’s age 34: .282/.419/.413 OPS .832. I don’t think Votto should be counted out yet

  10. Old-school

    It’s a combination of things. He has 9 currently.

    HR per game across the league are down. There’s also a massive outage on the Reds x for Geno. It’s just not Votto. Scooter is off 4-6 and Schebler is down even accounting for injury.

    Lose 2-3 HR to whatever the same league wide effect in 2018 is- juiced ball in 2017?

    Lose a couple home runs during his 3 week leg injury.

    Lose 3 more because he’s a year older.

    Lose 1-2 more for random reasons that’s ~ 10 lost HR. If he were at 19-20, no big deal.

    But the trend is the new normal He’s a 15-18 HR guy assuming health going forward. And that assumes more with each passing year.

    • Indy Red Man

      I think he’ll bounce back….high 800 or low 900 ops. The Reds have no shot if he doesn’t? They need a top 5 type offense to overcome this pitching.

      • Old-school

        I looked at fangraphs WAR rankings for first baseman.

        Carpenter is #1- not sure a first baseman- Freeman and Goldschmidt have passed him at 2/3.

        But he’s sitting at #7 in all of MLB… A hot streak away from top 5 and I can see 4 WAR and 15 home runs next season. OBP of .415 is the foundation for run creation and he knows that . Just put him in the #2 hole.

      • greenmtred

        I think he’ll bounce back, too. But they need better pitching. If it’s as bad next year, it will be a long, bad year.

  11. Indy Red Man

    I used to argue against BABIP using Cozart as an example. His swing 2-3 years ago was flawed and he kept popping up. That’s not bad luck. Maybe exit velocity factors in some of the same ways? Joey kills the ball to the 2nd baseball in RF pretty often. Schebler used to kill the ball to short RF in the same way, but he started spraying it around more and now his average is a lot higher. He was probably hitting the ball just as hard before?

  12. Pborbon

    Ignoring stats and just using the eye test from watching games it looks like two or three things are different than last season –

    1) He’s struggling vs left handers. Fall off appears greater vs LHs than RHs.
    2) He’s fighting off fastballs on the inside vs driving them. Very defensive swing on the inner half.
    3) He looks like he is crowding the plate more than last year but I could be wrong.

    • big5ed

      Yes on all three counts. His OPS against RH is .901, but only .687 v LH.

      The league is learning how to pitch to him, too, because when I checked about 6 weeks ago, he was clearly worse against NL Central teams.

      Finally, there may be something to the aging-eyesight issue. His splits are worse at home, and worse in the first inning, so (without using the Fangraphs split tool) he could be having trouble seeing in the cruddy GAPB batter’s eye when it is sunlit.

  13. citizen54

    I’m simply stating facts based upon the historical outcome of similarly hit balls based upon velocity and launch angle that hitters have put into play since 2015. I’m sure a part of his decline can be attributed to aging but most of it is due to bad luck on his balls in play, eg hitting a 390 ft fly ball to dead center field.

    It has nothing to do with viewing Votto with rose colored glasses. It’s certainly a lot better than using “fouling off hitable pitches” to support an argument. And basing your view of Votto on the fact that he only has 9 home runs without looking at the underlying data seems to be results oriented thinking. It’s like saying pocket aces is a bad hand because you lost with it three times in a row.

    • greenmtred

      I’m certain that the issues Joey is dealing with are complicated, and the “hittable” pitches he’s fouling off are pitches he knows he wouldn’t hit well, as always. That said, it’s baseball. Baseball isn’t life, but like much of life, it’s results oriented and should be. Style points have weight in figure skating.

      • citizen54

        Sure you can make your decisions solely based upon actual results which include a factor of luck or you can make decisions based upon expected outcomes which attempt to strip away the luck factor (in this case ball park and defense). Hint: Any successful baseball executive or poker player will always choose the latter.

  14. DavidTurner49

    FWIW (small sample size, it was only bp, etc)- I saw Joey’s bp the last game in Chicago. He was ripping liners all over the field. I wondered about his power until he hit the last 3-4 pitches into the left-center bleachers.

    • greenmtred

      That may confirm the narrative that he’s having trouble with real pitching, though.

  15. RedsInROC

    His spray charts have been interesting all year. Last year he pulled more line drives. This year, they’re going to the opposite field at less distance. His fly ball percentage is also down, and I think I have heard him say he’s not a big fan of the launch angle school…

    Maybe there’s some validity to the “fighting off everything on the inner half” argument and he’s taking what he can. Or he hasn’t punished mistakes as reliably. But if I am wildly speculating, I would put my chips on the “he got slightly hurt and at 34 couldn’t get back” square, sometime after that April home run binge. Didn’t half his home runs come in one week? I don’t think he declined suddenly the week after. More playing time in spring to get the Ferrari tuned when the games count, then more off days for sure next year. Either way, Joey knows best and I know I am not going to find something on Fan Graphs that he hasn’t!

    Long live the Prime Minister!

    • Still a Red

      I’ve thought too that maybe he’s got a bit of leg issue…not serious but enough to take a little off his hit distance…might explain his loping into home to score from third to the point where the other night I thought Gennett was going to pass him in the baseline before Joey scored. And on that line, I’m afraid one of these times the opposing team will throw someone out for the third out before Joey actually crosses home plate.

  16. VaRedsFan

    I don’t think he’s hurt. He is just refusing to pull the ball in the air. He occasionally does this and still crushes the baseball. He does not extend his arms, like he did before, when going opposite field. There are so many emergency hacks/check swings, called strike 3’s now. It’s his approach, not an injury. It could be his eyes, as suggested above.

    • Kettering Reds Fan

      Well, at least -someone- reads my posts (grin).

      Just so everyone is clear on what I’m suggesting:

      Most major league capable hitters have better than 20/20 eyesight. I think I read somewhere that it is probably around 20/15 or so. What I’m suggesting is that, what to us would be an inconsequential change, say 20/15 to 20/17 or 18.. or even 20/16, has major impact on a hitter’s ability to recognize pitch location given the speed of MLB pitching and the requisite time to register and respond..
      Especially if its myopia. One of the subtle changes involves depth perception. (I know this from personal experience…..of course, I’m around 20/300 uncorrected and have been for almost all my life— thus, I will -never- be able to hit the curveball…..)

      One wonders what Joey’s baseline eyesight values are/were. Wouldn’t surprise me at all if he’s in the Tiger Woods class…..i.e. 20/10.

  17. Red Fan since 1962

    I remember Joey Votto saying that he decided to take it easy this past off season– as opposed to the tremendous effort he made preparing for the 2017 season. Obviously, he can do whatever he wants to do to prepare, but I was concerned given his age entering 2018. I think this season will be a wake-up call and that he will go gangbusters preparing for 2019. He won’t ever get back to what he was from 2015-2017 or the MVP season but he will be much better than 2018. He remains the most interesting hitter I have ever seen, and it is a joy to watch him go about his business.