Today will kick off a series we’ll be doing during the offseason, looking back at the 2019 campaign for the major players on the Cincinnati Reds.
The Preseason Projection
Joey Votto entered the year as a 35-year-old, and thus should be in his decline phase. He even poked fun at that early in the year, donning a “Decline Phase” t-shirt.
Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS projections for 2019 had the Reds first baseman in line for this:
The 2019 Season
When compared to the ZiPS projection, Joey Votto had a down season. Near the end of the season he told Bobby Nightengale of The Cincinnati Enquirer that 2019 was “the worst year of his career”. He wasn’t exactly wrong, either.
His .261 batting average was the worst of his career in which he played something resembling a full season. His .357 on-base percentage was easily the worst of his career. It was also 79 points lower than his mark over the previous three seasons – all of which led the National League. His slugging percentage of .411 was the lowest of his career in a full season. And that came in a year in which the entire league saw a boost in power thanks to the juiced baseball of 2019. All together that obviously left his .768 OPS as the worst of his career – nearly 200 points below his career mark entering the year (.957).
The ZiPS projections had the power output about right. Sort of. It projected a .176 isolated power mark (SLG-AVG) and he went out and had a .150 mark. That’s close-ish. But ZiPS didn’t project a juiced baseball, either. Where Joey Votto really fell short, though, was in the average and walk departments. Both were down. His walk rate of 12.5% was the lowest it’s been since his rookie season of 2008 when it was only 10%. His strikeout rate was also the highest of his career, and significantly higher than it’s been since 2015.
Joey Votto said his season wasn’t good. You’ve probably said it. And if you haven’t said it, you’ve probably thought it. And the reality of the matter is that if you squint hard enough maybe you can say that he was a league average hitter (98 OPS+, 101 wRC+) who overall was a slightly below-average player overall. His WAR according to Fangraphs was just 0.7. According to Baseball Reference it was 1.6. The average starting caliber player in Major League Baseball is roughly 2.0. Slice it how you want to, but you’re going to have a hard time making the argument that his season was good.
There are probably more than a few reasons for what happened with Joey Votto in 2019 at the plate. As he’s done for a long time, he was tinkering with his swing during the year. For most of the season he took more of a crouched approach at the plate and it just felt like it wasn’t quite working for him. Just a week after the All-Star break Joey Votto made that change, and in the 55 games from that point through the end of the year there was a big difference in his production. Let’s look at the splits:
The numbers were better across the board after the change. The sample size was smaller, but it wasn’t exactly small, either. He walked a decent amount more, struck out less, and he hit for more power and average.
That adjustment certainly helped bring up the numbers in the second half of the season. But even so, the year as a whole was down, and it was down quite a bit. And that’s before you try to adjust for the baseball making everyone a better hitter, too.
What’s to come?
This is the big question, isn’t it? Joey Votto is one of the best Cincinnati Reds of all time. He’s been an All-Star caliber player every year of his career except in 2014 when he was injured, and in 2019. That’s it. He’s been an MVP caliber player several different years in his career, including the year he took home the award in 2010. But as the t-shirt right before the season showed – everyone eventually hits the decline phase. For Canada’s finest, that took hold in each of the last two seasons.
Joey Votto certainly wouldn’t be the first player to have a bounce back kind of season after he turned 36. It’s usually the better players that are the types who can have those turn arounds, even if they don’t keep happening year after year. What we know is that Votto’s going to do all that he can to try and figure it out. He’s got a great hitting mind – he always has. And he clearly has had the talent, too. He’s worked through many different swing changes over the course of his career. It even happened last season, and we saw some improvements. But at some point father time just slows us all down. For athletes that can come rather quickly. The Reds and Votto are going to be hoping that hasn’t happened just yet. Time will tell.