Early in his Cincinnati Reds career, we all had the pleasure of being awed by the baseball miracle that is Joey Votto. And then The Injury happened. You remember it. I remember it. It sucked. In 2012, Joey Votto was on his way to one of the very best seasons in Reds history when he injured his knee. This was a year when he had a very real chance to break the doubles record and to have a 9+ WAR season.
I’ve already digressed, but it was necessary because after that we started to learn something about Votto. We already knew he was great and cerebral and all that, but we didn’t know the extent of it until he was faced with this first real physical challenge. How to come back from that injury. Then we saw how his brain really worked.
Since then, it seems, Votto comes to spring training every year and has a chat with Eno Sarris and/or Trent Rosecrans and we find out what he’s decided to improve on this year. I decided to take a look at what he’s said in past years and how much he’s actually improved.
This one predates the injury, but was first referenced (as far as I can tell) in 2013. Votto already controlled the strike zone, but his desire to swing as infrequently as Joe Mauer took it to another level. Votto went from swinging at pitches outside the zone about 25% of the time to swinging at pitches outside the zone about 21% of the time. That’s a substantial improvement and something he’s improved on as the years have gone by (17.2% last year). This is also the moment when he became historic in terms of OBP.
2014 was the lost year for Joey Votto. Did his swings in the zone decrease? Yeah, a little. And a little for the next couple of years, too. But given the injuries, it’s hard to learn anything from this one.
2015 (End of Season): “I care about improving all facets of my game that can be repeatable and that can age well.”
2015 is when we start to get choking-up Joey Votto. It’s what really feels like the birth of the player we all know now. It was also the year when we learned that the rumors of his demise were greatly exaggerated. 2015, according to FanGraphs, is the best season of his career, so far. It is safe to say he improved all facets of his game.
I can’t find the quote for this one and it’s killing me. But sometime in 2017, Votto told someone that he wanted to hit .340 or .350 and so he did the math and realized he’d have to stop striking out. And then he did. It happened in the middle of 2016 and it was absurdly impressive. In 2017, Votto had the 9th lowest K% in the league and the highest BB%. Unreal.
Because of the way it’s presented, people misunderstand defensive value. The metrics most people look at factor in a positional adjustment. The work on how to correctly weight defense at different positions is sketchy, and there’s research available that indicates the current adjustments might very well be wrong. But, at the moment, if you are looking at a first baseman’s defensive metrics, you have to understand that he is being docked 10-13 runs/season. What that means is that a player who, like Votto, generated -5 runs defensive value (FanGraphs) in 2018 was actually 5-8 runs BETTER than the average first baseman. Joey Votto is not a shortstop, but he has typically been a very solid fielder. This was not the case in 2016 and it was remarked upon. And you know what? He fixed it. We’ve got two seasons of data now showing him as above average at first. He’s not shortstop, but he’s not an embarrassment either.
2018 was weird. All the peripheral numbers say Votto should have had better results than he did. Randomness is real in baseball and most everyone gets hit with it eventually. But Votto isn’t chalking anything up to randomness. Instead, he’s been hitting all winter for the first time ever. He’s making mechanical adjustments. All with the idea that he wants to get back to 2017, when he nearly tied Stanton for the MVP and finished one homer short of his career high. And he thinks he can do it.
What everything above tells you is that when Votto decides to get better at something, he does. There isn’t a single instance I can find of him failing to improve on whatever area he’d targeted. Age will get him eventually, but not yet, I don’t think. In fact, we may still have another MVP year coming our way from the greatest hitter in Reds history.