Joey Votto is the biggest lightning rod over the last decade when it comes to the Cincinnati Reds discussion among the fan base. Everyone has an opinion, and a lot of those opinions are very strong. Wherever you sit on the wide range of opinions, it’s pretty clear that you don’t believe that Votto is nearly the hitter that he once was. That’s not a knock, exactly, given that for a good time there he was in the conversation for best hitter in baseball.
The decline has been real, though. After leading the National League in OPS in 2017 with a 1.032 mark, and posting a 167 OPS+, Joey Votto has hit just .265/.382/.420. That’s an .802 OPS and a 111 OPS+. Overall, that’s a good slash line and it’s better than the league average. But it’s also a far cry from the hitter that he had been in the first 11 years of his career, too. Father time eventually gets to all of us. The old man is undefeated after all.
In the 2020 season everything about the year was off. For Joey Votto his season was a tale of two halves. And when the entire season wasn’t even as long as a typical half, we’re basically talking about one bad month and one good month.
In the first 30 team games of the season the Reds saw their first baseman hit just .191/.321/.326. That actually led to Joey Votto being benched for several consecutive games. When he returned on August 29th he turned things around and hit .258/.385/.557 in the final 29 games of the season. He showed an ability to drive the ball, homering eight times and adding in five doubles in that stretch.
But Joey Votto’s had good months over the last few years when he’s been on the decline. But there’s just been too much inconsistency. If you’ve followed the team in that time you’ve certainly noticed how many times he’s changed his swing as he’s tried to do something different to improve his output. Sometimes that has worked. Other times it hasn’t.
If you ask 10 people what to expect from Joey Votto in 2021 you are probably going to get eight different answers. Those are just opinions, though. But what’s interesting is just how far apart the two most popular projection systems in the baseball world are when it comes to just how valuable Votto is projected to be in 2021.
ZiPS, from Dan Szymborski, run over at Fangraphs and has for quite a while now. The ZiPS system projects Joey Votto to hit .240/.346/.384 on the year and provide 0.6 WAR. It projects him as a negative fielder and a below-average hitter (92 OPS+). His 0.6 WAR projection would make him somewhere around the 350th most valuable position player in Major League Baseball.
PECOTA, which was released this week at Baseball Prospectus has a bit of a different outlook for Joey Votto. PECOTA projects Votto to hit .262/.392/.442 on the year. That is still nowhere near what he has hit in the past when he’s been at his best. But that projection is far better than the one ZiPS forecasts. And it’s a bounce back from where he was during the 2019 and 2020 seasons, and more in line with what kind of hitter he was during the 2018 campaign.
It’s not just the improved line that jumps out, though. Baseball Prospectus uses WARP, not WAR – but the stats are rather similar in what they are trying to measure, which is the overall value. While Joey Votto’s offensive line is good, but not great, he’s projected to have the 12th highest WARP in 2021 according to PECOTA among position players. He gets a big boost for his defensive value, even as a first baseman.
Both systems are projecting a triple slash line that seems like it could happen. They are quite different, but both do seem to represent a realistic possibility based on the things that we do know. The defensive projections and value are also quite a bit different. ZiPS sees a guy with a defensive value that’s below-average, while PECOTA sees a well above-average defender. And when we look at Joey Votto’s history, he’s been both of those guys.
Looking at the Baseball Reference defensive values, in 2017-2019, Joey Votto provided positive defensive value. But in 2020 he was negative and in a big way given the number of games that he played. UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating) is similar in what it has said over the last four seasons for Votto – above-average from 2017-2019, but well below-average in 2020.
The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle for Joey Votto and the 2021 season. He’s probably not going to be the 12th most valuable player in baseball among the position players. While that probably doesn’t represent the best case scenario, it’s probably close to it (in terms of overall value – a better offensive line seems possible, but probably without as much defensive value as PECOTA may be offering here). The flip side is that the ZiPS projection for Votto with a .240/.346/.384 line with the defensive value it’s offering is probably the realistic “bottom”. The range of outcomes is quite large and the two most popular projection systems in the game are showing us just that.