A lot of the talk among fans this season has centered around Joey Votto’s slow start. Some wonder if this is the start of the decline; while others tell everyone to stay patient. He’ll get back to being Joey Votto soon enough. While he hasn’t yet looked like the Votto we all know and love, he has steadily improved through the first two months.
Votto is hitting .247/.342/.369 with 30 runs, 10 doubles, four home runs, 26 walks and a .711 OPS. The statistic that stands out, however, is the total strikeouts. In 53 games, he has struck out 52 times, already more than halfway to the 101 strikeouts he had in 2018. In 2017, he finished with only 83 strikeouts.
Votto’s plate discipline has always been far above league average. It’s what defines him as a player. In March, MLB.com published a story about Votto’s plate discipline. The writer shows that despite Votto’s lack of power in recent years, his ability to avoid swinging at pitches out of the strike zone remained. (Note: Votto’s season wasn’t terrible in 2018; his 131 wRC+proves that. Compared to his standards, it was).
However, this season has been different. The very thing that made him excellent at his craft the last two seasons might be a reason for his struggles in 2019. Votto’s swing% is up to 42.0%, from 39.7% a year ago. That’s not a huge increase, but it shows he’s swinging more this season. His O-swing% is up to 20.5%. It was 16.4% and 15.8% in 2018 and 2019, respectively. The largest gap in Votto’s stats comes from O-contact%. On pitches he swings at out of the zone, he makes contact 65.7%, a dramatic decrease from the 78.4% a year ago. The good news is that on pitches he swings at inside the strike zone, his numbers are fairly steady in the 80th percentile.
Trouble with the Changeup
Most of Votto’s strikeouts this season have come on off-speed pitches, with a 32.4 K%. In 2018, it was only 15.4% on off-speed pitches. He’s striking out more because he’s swinging and missing on off-speed pitches more.
As shown above, both Votto’s total swing and miss% and his in zone swing and miss% on off speed pitches are the highest of his career. While it has fluctuated throughout the last ten seasons, there was a huge jump from 2018 to 2019. He has 12 strikeouts on 123 off-speed pitches this season, where as in 2018, he had only nine strikeouts on 266 off-speed pitches. In 2017, he had just nine strikeouts on 362 off-speed pitches.
So, why is Votto struggling to make contact with the off-speed pitch? It could be that he’s simply struggling to see it as it approaches the plate. It could also be that pitchers are pitching to him differently than in previous years. He’s seen a change up from opposing pitchers 12.2% of the time, up from 9.9% last season. He’s also seeing more split finger pitches, as that’s jumped from 0.7% in 2018 to 1.9% in 2019.
Breaking the swing and miss% charts down even further into individual pitches, it’s very noticeable that the reason for Votto’s jump in his swing and misses on off-speed pitches is the change-up. Aside from the 2012 season, it’s always given him a little bit of trouble. This season, that has been his trouble pitch, more so than the slider and curve.
It’s frustrating to watch the strikeouts, but I guarantee Votto is the most frustrated of anyone. He will likely get it figured out, and at the end of the season, his stats will look similar to his career stats. In fact, that’s already happening. In Votto’s last 50 plate appearances, he’s below the league average for strikeouts. He’s hitting .429/.447/.514 with a .962 OPS and only six strikeouts in the last 14 days. The on-base streak keeps climbing. And he has less strikeouts on change ups. In April, he struck out eight times on change ups. In May, he struck out only four times. There’s a reason Votto is considered one of the best players in baseball. He knows how to prepare and adjust to whatever pitches that pitchers are throwing to him. It just might take him longer than a week or two.
All statistics current as of June 3, 2019. Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference, Fangraphs, and Statcast.
The big problem I see is that if the Reds are out of it by June, as has been the case the last few years, figuring it out and adjusting by July isn’t much good. I wonder why he doesn’t hit more in spring training and figure it out there so that he is closer to being Joey Votto by April 1 rather than June 1.
It could well be that Turner Ward’s hitting philosophy (aggressive early in count, high launch angles, sacrifice contact for power) doesn’t mesh well with some types of hitters.
For guys like Dietrich it does wonders, but a high contact % was never his game. For guys like Votto and Winker, though, working counts and OB% are their bread and butter. Asking them to abandon their approach is counterproductive to say the least. One wonders if Ward has the humility to adjust his philosophy to the talent he has on hand.
I highly doubt that Turner Ward is trying to get Votto to change his approach at this point of his very solid hitting career. Maybe I’m wrong but that just seems unlikely.
I agree. I think with established veterans like Joey Votto, a hitting coach won’t try to change the entire hitting philosophy. Giving tips and tweaking things maybe, but I’d bet that Turner Ward knows when to give advice or who to give it to and when to let the player figure it out for themselves.
Also, for what it’s worth, Turner Ward’s track record with the Dodgers shows that under his tenure the Dodgers were one of the most, if not the most, patient hitting teams in baseball. They were in the lowest five teams in swinging early, and top 5 in 3-ball counts and walks.
I agree with Ghetto. I do not see a scenario where a hitting coach is messing with the swing of one of the best hitters of a generation. Father time is undefeated but the last few weeks lead me to believe Votto has a few tricks up his sleeve.
The most generous small sample for Votto is 5/24 onward with 5.3% BB, 13.2% K, 0.432 wOBA, and 168 wRC+, which all look outstanding. However, over that same small sample: 0.086 ISO, 0.516 BABIP, 0.336 xwOBA. None of those three are inspiring. At all. Hopefully he can turn it around.
Votto might just have to realize that he is probably not a power hitter anymore at this stage of his career, and then focus all of his time working on getting more singles and doubles.
My take is his swing speed is slower, which means he can’t wait as long before pulling the trigger. Therefore, the off speed pitches full him more and he hits for less power.
I would say this is a very valid take and probably correct.
Agree with the other folks in that this seems like a very likely possibility. I love Votto but Father Time catches up to everyone. I have been surprised that Votto’s decline has been so sharp however. I think he’ll end up around last year’s numbers and I’ll take that. If he can be 2018 Votto through 2020 -2021 and just have the last year or 2 be really upside-down, the Reds will be fine. He’s provided enough surplus value already that the contract itself won’t be garbage overall.
On another note, I really wish that the Reds would have kept “going for it” in 2015-2017 before Votto’s decline. Yes, it would have meant money but the Reds look to be solid in 2019 with competitive baseball right around the corner. It’s a shame that they didn’t leverage Votto while he still could have helped instead of a as a vet hanging on to the last few years of his career.
Because he’s almost 36 now. That’s the most important stat I need.
Unfortunately, this has very little to do with it. You’re only as good as your legs that supports your body. Check out Mark Maguire as an example. No one was in better shape than he was but his leg issues took them out of the game and rather quickly. I believe Joey has found a way to adapt the best he can and agree with Ashley, he is going to be a single hitter from now on.
I’m not sure the explanation is in his swinging strikes. If you look at his overall swing and contact rates, while they’re not as good as his last couple of brilliant years, they aren’t out of line with his career norms. meaning they don’t explain his currently career-high strikeout rates. Rather, I suspect it’s the strikeouts he’s had looking.
Also, worth noting is that if he had 7 fewer strikeouts, he’d be under 20% and probably no one is worried, so sample size is relevant to the discussion.
Seems to me he’s been called out looking on pitches out of the zone quite a few times this year.
Also to address an earlier point. I’m not sure Ward was the reason but it seemed to me that Votto was looking to drive the ball early in the season, maybe because of the lack of home runs last year. More recently he’s back to being more contact driven.
Maybe I don’t know where to look, but I tried to find how many strikeouts he’s had swinging vs. how many he’s had looking (which I know is quite a few). You’d think that it’d be easier to find. But like I said, maybe I wasn’t looking in the right places.
Just search for “looking” and count em up! Great article here, btw.
I agree that his swing speed likely has slowed. In addition, I would think his eye sight worsens as he ages, like the rest of us.
You can’t compare your job to that of an athlete. If it were that easy you would see professional athletes playing well into their 50s. Just a step slower in foot speed or a microsecond slower in bat speed can make a huge difference. Votto can still be productive but his best days are behind him.
Agree with greenmtred here. Look, I’m 48 and can still hit a baseball. In an over-30 league at the plate I’d slaughter some of the 30something pitchers I’d face. Professional sports is different though. A hitter generally isn’t going to age as well as a soft-tossing pitcher either. Moyer never relied on his athleticism to be effective. He was a crafty-lefty even as a young guy. I’m not saying Votto is “done” but I am saying that Father Time IS beating him, like it beats us all. He may still be effective but the age argument is not invalid.