Joey Votto tinkers with his swing more than anyone in Major League Baseball. That may or may not be true, but it certainly feels like it is. Arguably the best hitter in Cincinnati Reds history, who are we to argue with his process? With that said, there was an adjustment made in 2020 after a slow start – one that seemed to plague nearly every hitter on the team except Nick Castellanos.
“Joey, last year, made an unbelievable adjustment. He got off to a slow start, kind of the way we did as a team,” said manager David Bell earlier this week. “I believe we had the 3rd or 4th best record in the game from somewhere around August 25th through the end of the year. Right around that same time, Joey worked hard – like he always does – and really made a solid adjustment where he became more aggressive, a little more on the attack, maybe a little more upright. I don’t know exactly all the adjustments he made, but it certainly was a different look. Joey finished really strong, and he was a big part of our team success while we were playing well for several weeks there. I really believe he can take that into next season.”
In the truncated season, Joey Votto hit just .226/.354/.446 overall. That was better than the league average, coming out to a 110 OPS+, but for a first baseman that’s about average and for what we think of from a good version of Joey Votto, it’s below-average. In 2019 his walk rate declined to the lowest level it had been at since 2008 when he was a rookie. For a typical player, a 12.5% walk rate would be quite strong – but for Votto that represented a steep decline. In 2020 his walk rate jumped up to 16.6%, in line with his career rate. His power, which had been down significantly over the past two seasons, also jumped back up to his career norms. What didn’t was his BABIP, which was just .235 – 110 points below his career average and only the second time it’s ever been below the .300 mark. In 2014, the year in which he played through an injury before cutting the season short, it was .299.
David Bell mentioned that August 25th date with regards to Joey Votto. When that day ended, Votto was hitting .191/.321/.326 in 106 plate appearances with 17 walks and 14 strikeouts. The next day is when the Reds sat Votto for the next few days. When he returned on August 29th he turned things around and went on a bit of a tear the rest of the season, hitting .258/.385/.557 with 20 walks and 29 strikeouts in 117 plate appearances.
There is clearly a difference in the production between the two time periods. There’s nearly a .300 point difference in OPS (.941 vs. .647). The big differences come in the power output (.135 vs. .299) the BABIP (.283 vs. .194), and the strikeout rate (just 13.2% when he wasn’t hitting vs. 24.8% when he was crushing the ball).
Some of that seems like it could be repeatable. Some of it doesn’t. Having a .283 BABIP not only seems repeatable, it seems almost likely that he’ll top that. Only once in his career has Joey Votto been lower than that, and only one other time has he even been remotely close to that low of a mark. The walk rate bouncing back was a good sign, and it was similar in each part of the splits – giving us plenty of reason to think that it too is repeatable. Having a high strikeout rate isn’t exactly what you want, and a 24.8% rate would easily be the worst of his career – only once, in 2019 when it was 20.2%, has it ever been over 20%. That, however, does seem like something that is repeatable, though that’s not a good sign, either.
Where things don’t quite seem as repeatable come in the power output. His isolated power in that second “half” split was .299 (slugging – average). The best he’s ever had in his career was .276 and that came a decade ago when he won the Most Valuable Player Award in 2010. That said, his .258 mark in 2017 was his second best mark of his career that that wasn’t THAT long ago. Still, it would be some kind of crazy for a 37-year-old to have the best power output of his career.
If Joey Votto can come back to somewhere near his career norm when it comes to BABIP, though, and bring back most of the rates he produced at in the “second half” of 2020, then things could get interesting even if he doesn’t come close to having that same kind of power. You’re probably not going to see the 2017 version of Votto again. But there’s also reason to think that there’s a chance we could see a more productive version than what we’ve seen over the last three seasons, too.