Cincinnati Reds first baseman Joey Votto may not be having the season he would like. He’s hitting .207/.337/.354 with four home runs, 11 runs scored and an OPS of .690 thus far in 2020. But that doesn’t mean everything has gone badly for the six-time All-Star and former MVP.

One statistical area in which Votto has improved considerably over the last year or two is strikeouts, or lack thereof in his case. In fact, his K% currently sits at the lowest of his career and the lowest it’s been since his should-have-been MVP season in 2017. That’s good for the top two percent in all of MLB. The only other time Votto’s been close to the top of the league is that same 2017 season when he was in the top four percent of the league.

This season, Votto has struck out just 10 times in 98 plate appearances. That’s downright impressive, no matter who you are.

None of Votto’s strikeouts come in the middle of the zone. This isn’t surprising, as he’s too good of a hitter to miss pitches over the heart of the plate. His strikeouts are all either outside of the zone or on the edges of the zone. Of Votto’s ten strikeouts, six are swinging and four are looking. He’s also not going to strikeout more from a lefty or a right-hander, as he has struck out five times off each type of pitcher. He’s been very consistent in his plate discipline.

Striking out less is not a new concept for Votto, but it’s been awhile since he has. In 2017, Votto’s K% ended up at 11.7%, the lowest of his career. His K% sits at 10.2% right now with 30+ games to play.  In 2019, his K% was the highest of his career at 20.2%. Votto has always been the type of player to really dig deep for the ‘why’ in order to correct something he thinks he was exceptionally bad at in the prior year. In 2020, he appears to be set on fixing his strikeout problem. The graph below shows he’s back to pre-2019 strikeout rates, when he was above the MLB average. It even drops almost as low as the end of his 2016 season and his 2017 season.

So why is Votto striking out less?

Swinging the Bat Less

A large reason for the low strikeout rate could be that his swing % is down to 36.7% from 41.5% in 2019. In fact, 36.7% is the lowest swing % since 2015 and currently the lowest of Votto’s career. Since his overall swing % is down, his O-swing% (pitches swung at outside the zone) is also about three percent lower than 2019 at 18.6% and his Z-swing% (pitches swung at inside the zone) is seven percent lower than in 2019.

The chart on the left shows Votto’s swing % by zone for 2019, while the chart of the right shows this year’s percentages. Obviously, 2019 is a full season and 2020 is just shy of 100 plate appearances, but it’s still a good visual comparison to show the difference in his swings from last year to this year. One noticeable difference has been the high and inside pitch. Votto has stopped swinging at those pitches, which might have contributed to a higher strikeout rate last season.

What is interesting is that while his swing rates are down, Votto’s contact rates are very close to the same as last season. His overall contact % is currently one percentage point higher than 2019 at 83.0% and his Z-contact% is only two percentage points higher than last season. While he’s swinging at less pitches, he’s not increasing his contact as much.

Just Plain Bad Luck

If Votto is striking out less, but still making contact at the same rate, one might wonder why he’s struggling at times. Terrible luck has played into that, as evidenced by a .203 BABIP. That’s not just the worst of his career; it’s the worst of his career by a wide margin. The only other time Votto’s BABIP has been under .300 was in 2014, at .299, just barely under .300.

There are two factors Votto’s BABIP is so low. His pull rate is significantly higher than in previous years. Votto has always been able to go opposite field really well, but this season he’s pulling the ball 54.2% of the time. Never in his 13-year career has it been higher than 40 percent. Combine that with a slightly higher-than-normal ground ball rate and the fact that in 98 plate appearances, teams have employed a shift on him 77 times and it gives you a rough first third of the season (almost half now).

And of course, even Votto acknowledged to Bobby Nightengale and John Fay of the Cincinnati Enquirer that this season has been hard for him to find a rhythm, with the long layoff and four days off after the positive COVID test. He didn’t go so far as to make that an excuse, but maybe this season is affecting him more than we know.

It can turn in a hurry for Votto though. If he continues to keep the strike outs to a minimum and gets a little bit of better luck in the field when putting the ball in play, this is a completely different conversation next week. We can also take solace in the fact that Votto will still get on base. His BB% currently stands at 16.3%, good for the top 7 percent in the league. Some things remain the same, and Votto being in the top ten in walks will always be one of them.


Stats courtesy of Statcast and Fangraphs. Stats current through Sunday, August 23).


37 Responses

  1. Broseph

    How about his exit velo or hard rate contact %? The shift doesn’t matter if you’re hitting a 100mph rope between fielders. A lot of Votto’s hits are soft liners grounder or 300ft fly outs.

    He’s not swinging as much and making contact when he does but anyone can stick a bat out over the plate to touch the ball. Hitting the ball with authority is where the skill comes in (and no that doesn’t mean HR or nothing)

    • Jack

      The shift matters no matter how hard you hit it.

      • Broseph

        Overlooking the “if” statement. IF a player hits the ball hard enough BETWEEN fielders, they can’t grab it. 80 mph grounder has less hit expectancy than a 105mph grounder.

        The shift coupled with softer contact is a recipe for more outs. Take away the shift and Votto’s exit velo this year is less likely to be a hit compared to his exit velo in 2017.

        I’ll give you several outs to the shift this year, but it’s not like Votto is suddenly a .300+ hitter right now without it.

      • Broseph

        Xba for Joey V is .268 which counts the shift. Not bad and definitely plays a big part in his struggle, but over the past 5 seasons his xba:

        So the shift is hurting him but there is a .30 point difference to account for over two seasons and that comes down to his hard hit contact.

  2. Broseph

    Found it. Since 2015 with Statcast. So “career” is 5 years

    Hard hit – 2020 25%. Career 37% MLB 34%
    Exit velo – 2020 85.6. Career 88.7 MLB 88.2
    Barrel – 2020 3.2%. Career 8.5% MLB 6.3%

    All three rank poorly against MLB . 12th, 16th, 29th percentile respectively.

    So you’re seeing the result of a good eye, but some poor luck and lots of easy outs from soft hit balls.

    • Broseph

      Votto’s barrel % is 4.2, not 3.2 but still ranks poorly against both MLB and especially his career numbers.

  3. Rut

    Not that difficult to avoid strikeouts when you swing the bat like you are trying to block in cricket.

    For all the talk about how Joey has forgotten more about hitting than most of us will ever know, it is pretty obvious to even the average fan that his swing is absolute junk.

    Makes me sad, but I do not think Joey will have a resurgent year again, and if he plays out his contract he will slip below 300 avg and 500 slugging for his career. And with that will go his HOF chances…

    • Broseph

      I just had this conversation with my father who thinks Votto is this teams anchor. And he is, but it was a backloaded contract.

      I knew this would happen eventually, but I don’t think anyone though it would be this sudden; that his skills would age better than power hitters, but alas it’s happened and it’s so hard to watch and not get frustrated although we knew this would happen.

      It’s a shame really, 2012 he was on pace to crush the 2Bs record and have career highs in Avg OBP. and OPS. Between 2012 and 2014 he had some prime years cut short from injury that would’ve had put another MVP in his pocket (2012) and some more stats to pad his HOF chances. Sadly it just won’t happen at this rate

      • mudpuppie

        I think the anchor you father was speaking of was the one he drags behind him while running. It is sad to watch an elite athlete get old right before your eyes. I can remember Mantle and Mays holding on and being just a shell of themselves. The real sad thing is that this final few years of Votto will be all that some remember. Father time is truly kriptonite.

      • Kenneth

        What do you do with a legend who has lost his skills? He’s been the rock of the franchise for year but he is now an offensive liability as wellas an unreliable defender. Make him the manager thereby solving two problems.

    • TR

      It makes me sad also because Joey’s current swing can be described by an old saying that young people would not know , so it’s not necessary to name it now. If Votto makes the HOF, it will be by the Veterans committee.

  4. Jimbo44cn

    At the beginning of the year he had a more upright stance and was crushing the ball. Same as last year, he is now in that crouch which does make contact, but nothing but soft line drives, grounders and pop outs. All you have to do is compare his stance in the first few games as compared to now to see the differenc.

  5. RedNat

    Joey has never mastered the technique of hitting the ball on the ground to the opposite field. In his defense not many lefties have. Hal Morris comes to mind as a player that was great at doing it but he was willing to swing at pitches outside the strike zone to do it. Joey is not willing to do that. Therefore the shifts really work well against Joey. By far his 2 most common outcomes are ground balls to the right side of rge infield and fly balls to left field

  6. Jack

    Joey is a victim of the defensive shift in part.
    Great article from Steve Mancuso about what the shift has done to LHH this year (not just the Reds but all of baseball)

    Nothing will be done about it by baseball, certainly not before the end of the year. It is detrimental to the game of baseball. They could require infielders to keep their feet on the dirt until the pitch is thrown? So what do the Reds do? Stack the lineup with RHH regardless of the pitcher? Definitely an argument for bringing up Aquino and Stevenson

    • mudpuppie

      Banning the shift is about the only thing that will bring baseball back to any resemblance to the game it was and the way the game was intended. Left handed hitters are going to become a thing of the past. I say ban the shift….. No better time to do it than now in the messed up year….

      • JB

        I’ve been saying for years if you want to get rid of the shift start bunting down the 3rd base line. Rizzo does it and Wong did it it the other night against Suarez. People on this site said they dont get paid to bunt for hits. Well how is it working out? The naysayers were saying their job is to hit it over the wall. Well they got their wish. The game that is being played now is what they asked for. Now everybody is screaming to get on base. I was calling for that 2 years ago and got ridiculed. They are giving the batter first base. Take it. Everybody wants to ban the shift. What’s next , pitcher can only throw a breaking ball on 3rd pitch in the at bat? Teams are beating the Reds with small ball. You watch in a couple of years every team will be stealing bases , driving ball into opposite field and sacrificing runners again. The good teams and organizations change on the fly. Teams like the Reds drag their feet and are constantly late to the party.

    • Charlie Waffles

      Isn’t this the dude who proclaimed to everyone and anyone that David Bell is a GREAT manager and was the best and exact person the Reds needed to hire as manager?? And didn’t he severely lash out at those who simply disagreed with him and rightfully called him out on his egregious claims and behavior?
      Even today as the Reds flail and flounder, he still claims David Bell is a great manager.

      • JB

        He sure is. All you have to do is go down to the bottom to categories and find David Bell and go to him getting hired and you can see all the couch managers proclaiming him to be a great analytics manager and hire.

      • Kennerh

        He is even worse than Ray Knight. He minimizes his strength, starting pitching , and makes needless early changes like pinch runners and pitch hitters even. With the lead so in the late. Innings our impact players are on the bench.

  7. Jack

    Given his hitting tendencies and the shift, just not striking out isn’t enough. He has to sell out for power and accept the strikeouts and hit it over the wall or outfielders heads. The shift has ruined a great player.

  8. Still a Red

    Low strike outs…but medium exit velocity and defensive shifts are making for easy outs. Pitchers still trying keep the ball down and away from him…he’s laying off. Maybe he needs to go out after some of those. He is rarely hitting the ball up the middle. I can appreciate faster pitchers and age are forcing Joey to choke up, but he should still have his good bat control to be able to drive the ball to all fields, ala Pete Rose. Maybe he’s out-thinking himself, or the league has figured him out.

  9. Charlie Waffles

    Defensive shifts leave most of the left side of the infield open. If you want to beat the shift, learn to hit the ball to the spot vacated by the 3rd baseman. Or better yet, learn how to bunt the ball down the 3rd base line. If the defense is willing to give you a base hit, then why not take it?? Why swing away pulling the ball and hitting it right into the teeth of the shift?
    Quit bellyaching and whining about defensive shifts. Beat the shift.
    If Joey Votto is as intellectual about hitting as we all have been led to believe, then he should have no trouble hitting the ball down towards third base and into left field. It’s a free hit the defense is willing to give up. Take it. Do that a few times and the shift won’t be deployed much anymore. Simple tactics. Simple solution.
    There isn’t enough cheese in Wisconsin to go with all that whine coming from that RC+ article and its alleged author. Boo-hoo-hoo, the shift isn’t fair. I believe that same alleged author was the same one that was telling us how great a manager David Bell is and was going to be and how David Bell was going to deliver the Reds to the Promise Land. And then unmercifully berated commenters who disagreed with his “assessments” of Bell.

    • Chris

      Anyone who is advocating for beating the shift has never played the game at the higher levels, such as MLB. Bunting for a hit, for the average player is 10 times more hard than swinging a bat, even with the shift. Your bunt has to be virtually perfect. Also, hitting a ball against the shift is equally as hard. Trying hitting a ground ball the opposite way on a pitch that is on the middle or inside part of the strike zone. You are asking players to be like Tony Gwynn, who is one of the best hitters the game has ever seen. The reason players are changing their swing to hit fly balls, is because it is easier than bunting and swinging ground balls against the shift. Talk to a Major league player about this; they will all be in agreement.

      • VaRedsFan

        Teams that the Reds are playing are having no trouble doing it. Take an hour and watch Quickpitch on MLB network one morning, where you can see the highlights of every game. You can see how real hitters it the ball the other way.

  10. Chris

    Much talk about the shift, and it hurting Votto. Very true, but it’s hurting everyone, and most of all, the game. The shift is going to destroy the game baseball. It’s already doing that. Everyone is trying to hit HR’s, because ground balls are worthless anymore, with the shift; even hard liners are turning into outs. MLB is so worried about shortening the length of the game, when the real problem is that the game has become nothing more than K’s, BB’s, and HR’s.

  11. Melvin

    I wouldn’t be so quick to throw in the towel on Votto guys. Just a short time ago, at the beginning of the year (we have short memories), he was smashing the ball. He should have had at least a couple more walk off hits but they were hit hard right at people. IMO, as I’ve said before, I truly believe he’s worn out mentally even though he would never say it. The losing is killing him. He had enthusiasm at the beginning of the year like he’s not had for a long time. The depression that’s in the clubhouse since is effecting everyone not just Votto. We cannot know how any player will truly be until that changes. We all know what has to change don’t we? As far as Votto batting leadoff I have no problem with it IF he becomes the .400+ OBP guy of the past. Speed is important but not a necessity and not the most important thing at the top. Just remember Billy Hamilton. The most important thing is getting on base and IMO the hardest thing to do consistently in baseball. Also IMO a leadoff hitter needs to be a HITTER not just OBP guy. Think of all the times in baseball you’re in a close game and trying hard to get the bottom of the order on base to get to the top. Well that doesn’t do any good if you’re leadoff guy can’t hit. Again, remember Billy Hamilton. Some have said they would like Winker in leadoff. Well remember he’s not much if any faster than Votto. There might be some who are better leadoff hitters on the team but if Votto gets on base like “Votto” he’s not a bad choice. As it stands right now there is no good leadoff hitter, 2nd hitter, 3rd hitter etc. The atmosphere in the dugout is like going to a funeral. Like it or not, fair or not, that starts with the manager and that HAS to change. For everyone’s sake I hope the Reds have the guts to do it very soon.

  12. Melvin

    As far as the shift It drives me crazy. Not for the reasons you think though. It’s true I’ve never hit off of a MLB pitcher or coached anyone who has. However the principles of hitting are still the same. What drives me crazy the most is that major league players don’t beat it. I’m not talking necessarily about bunting either. If a hitter wants to go the other way no matter what he closes his stance and then waits to hit the ball deep in the strike zone on an inside pitch. It’s already easy enough if a pitcher is foolish enough to throw outside strikes. if the shift favors the hitter going the other way you open up your stance wide and hit the ball out in front to pull it. When I say hit I don’t necessarily mean a hard it. It may just be a little soft ground ball. That little soft ground ball where there are no fielders is what will get rid of the shift. That done consistently is ALL it will take. Some might say well the fielders will see he’s closing or opening his stance and then adjust back. Well a hitter can adjust back and forth a lot quicker than the fielders can. LOL Hitters are just not willing to do it. You have to have a heart to do something like that and it seems virtually no one including Votto has that heart. That’s what drives me crazy. I promise you if we would look back at the history as well as talk to the guys on the Big Red Machine they would say the same thing. That was one of, and arguably the best team ever. They cared about one thing…WINNING. Unfortunately that attitude about winning is not there anymore. Until that attitude comes back the shift will remain. Guys say they want to win bad. I say PROVE IT. Swallow your pride, work hard, and prove it. It’s just plain stupid that batters let the defense get away with it.

  13. TR

    Frazier was the toast of the town at the 2015 All Star game and the Reds have still not recovered from that spectacle.

  14. VaRedsFan

    You can write up all of the numbers you want, but Votto has failed time and time again, with this choked up, deep crouch , check swing approach. He abandoned it late last year with some decent success. Just plain too stubborn to change.

  15. That that had had

    If bunting was easy Billy Hamilton could have been a decent player. I have always questioned the Reds advance scouting and lack of ability to exploit the opposition’s weakness.

    • VaRedsFan

      Bunting is easy….Billy could bunt…that’s why defenses played him in so tight. You think the 3Bman would play him at deep SS.

      It’s not a matter of bunting perfectly, it’s just a simple matter of getting the bunt down.

  16. Rut

    Welp, a 4 k evening for Votto tonight, nothing like an article like this to be the kiss of death! 😉

  17. That that had had

    Votto had more whiffs tonight than he has had hits on the road this season.

    It is embarrassing to watch him play. Poor guy.

  18. Jim Delaney

    Reds ownership has a lot of items to deal with in off season to try and fix all of the problems with the franchise.
    First they need to replace Dick Williqms, Nick Krall and David Bell.
    Second, they need to hire a manager who will inspire the team but also someone not tied to analytics that have caused them to become an offensive mess. Forcing hitters to go with launch angle swings and hit for power and give up hitting for aver as ge with a flatter line drive swing has been a catastrophe for the Reds.
    Third, they need to go to Votto and see if they can push him into retirement or if not eat his contract. Stick the fork in him he is done. He has aged tremendously since 2017, his D is now really costing them, he cant run and he is a double play machine. Hitting him lead off is an absolute joke and shows the current manager has no idea what he is doing.
    Fourth, decide who are the core guys to build team around. Reds threw money around in off season that unfortunately for them didnt work. Meanwhile a team like the Marlins spent far less money but were aggressive in free agency (Villar, Dickerson, Joyce, Kintzler, Boxberger, Cervelli, Aguilar, etc) and has had great results and will give them great shot at playoffs. Marlins had a direction. Dick William’s threw money around and shies he has no plan, no idea how to build a team. He has to go. I dont care if he is related to ownership. William’s, Krall, Bell, allinvolved in Reds hitting philosophy and Votto. Cleanse the franchise on 9-28!!!!!