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The Resurgence Of Joey Votto

Cincinnati Reds first baseman Joey Votto is one of the biggest personalities in all of Major League Baseball. When he’s not dressing up like a Canadian Mountie on MLB Network interviews, racing umpires to errant balls, offering highly nuanced takes on launch angle, or creating unforgettable experiences for his fans, Votto makes his living as one of the best hitters in the history of baseball. His 2020-21 resurgence only solidifies his place among the greats.

In the 10-year period from his first full season in 2008 through his MVP runner-up turn in 2017, Votto paced the entire sport in on-base percentage (.429) and weighted on-base average (.413), and his 158 weighted runs created plus and 52.2 FanGraphs wins above replacement trailed only Mike Trout. Going into the 2018 season, Votto was baseball’s active leader in OBP and the 11th-best all-time, sandwiched in between inner-circle Hall of Famers Jimmie Foxx and Tris Speaker.

But 2018 represented the start of what looked like a fast and steep decline for Votto. While he did lead the National League for the seventh time in OBP with a .417 and was named to his sixth All-Star team, his power numbers plummeted. Votto, known for his great slugging as well as his great eye at the plate, swatted only 12 home runs and posted a career-worst .135 isolated power. His 130 wRC+ and 3.5 WAR were plenty good, but a far cry from the MVP runner-up campaign.

Votto’s power took a tumble in 2018 …

Advanced stats for Joey Votto of the Cincinnati Reds in 2017 and 2018

2017 162 36 19.0% 11.7% .454 .258 .428 163 6.5
2018 145 12 17.3 16.2 .417 .135 .370 130 3.5

Source: FanGraphs

Despite the down year, some factors pointed to the possibility of a bounceback. From 2017 to 2018, by metrics including chase percentage, average exit velocity, hard hit rate and expected weighted on-base average, Votto either maintained his levels or even made gains. Further, a large downturn in his home run-to-fly ball percentage and barrel rate suggested that he was getting unlucky on the baseballs he was hitting into the air.

… but his underlying metrics were still strong

Advanced stats for Joey Votto of the Cincinatti Reds in 2017 and 2018

Year Exit Velocity Hard Hit Rate xwOBA HR/FB% Barrel Rate Chase Rate
2017 87.5 32.8% .415 19.7% 9.1% 13.2%
2018 88.3 35.1 .392 9.5 6.9 12.9

Source: Baseball Savant

Unfortunately for Votto, the 2019 bounceback Reds fans were hoping for didn’t materialize. Instead, his strikeout rate ballooned to a career-worst 20.2 percent, and his walk rate fell to just 12.5 percent — the lowest number since his rookie season. To be fair, both of these rates were plenty better than the league average, especially in the record-breaking offensive environment of 2019, but for someone like Votto, who was now 35 and two full seasons removed from his last great season, it appeared that time had finally caught up. Overall, Votto’s 2019 netted a 101 wRC+ and just 0.7 WAR. 

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Going into the 2020 season, Votto was very aware of his performance, and he showed up early to camp for the first time in his career to get to work. In an interview with Brian Kenny of MLB Network, Votto said he knew he had been unlucky in 2018 but still viewed the season as a failure. According to him, the problem was “truly mechanical,” and he was “bent out of shape” by the decrease in home runs from 36 in 2017 to 12 in 2018.

Votto did bounce back somewhat in 2020, but the overall results were a mixed bag. In a 54-game sample, Votto swatted 11 home runs, he made gains in his strikeout and walk rates, and his ISO rose from .150 in 2019 to a much more familiar .220. Though Votto was much improved under the hood, the improvement on the surface was a little more modest, as this time, he was getting unlucky in a different way.

In 2020, luck was not on Joey’s side

Advanced stats for Joey Votto of the Cincinatti Reds in 2019 and 2020

Year G HR HR/FB% Barrel Rate OBP ISO wRC+ xwOBA BABIP
2019 142 15 9.8% 6.4% .357 .150 101 .341 .313
2020 54 11 19.6 9.1 .354 .220 114 .369 .235

Source: FanGraphs

Votto’s 2020 batting average on balls in play spiraled down to a .235 mark — well below the typical league average around .300. Votto’s career BABIP before the 2020 season was .349. Even during his two previous down years, he still averaged a healthy .323 mark.

Now in 2021, Votto has successfully reversed his struggles, citing his conscious effort to hit for more power as well as a midseason benching in 2020 that helped him turn his season around. It was actually at that point that Votto began to take the reins back on this career. After being out of the lineup for three straight games, he caught fire upon his return, producing at a level that looks a lot like what he has done this season.

After he was benched, Votto’s numbers roared back ...

Advanced stats for Joey Votto of the Cincinnati Reds before and after he was benched in 2020 and for the 2021 season, through Sept. 1

2020 (before benching) 25 3 17% 13.2% .321 .135 .194 77
2020 (after benching) 29 8 17.1 24.8 .385 .299 .283 148
2021 105 28 13.2 24.9 .372 .280 .305 141

Source: FanGraphs

What’s been most interesting about Votto’s power surge is his increased strikeouts. Votto has sacrificed contact to regain his power, but the quality of the contact he’s making is better than it has been since the start of the Statcast era in 2015 — which was still during his offensive peak. His average exit velocity, hard-hit rate and barrel rate in 2021 are all well above the 90th percentile of the league. Votto has especially feasted on four-seam fastballs: By a metric called run value per 100 pitches, he is the ninth-best hitter in baseball against four-seam heaters.

... and his contact has been better

Advanced stats for Joey Votto of the Cincinnati Reds before and after he was benched in 2020 and for the 2021 season, through Sept. 1

Year G Exit Velocity Hard Hit Rate xwOBA HR/FB% Barrel Rate
2020 (before benching) 25 85.3 24.0% .328 10.3% 4.0%
2020 (after benching) 29 89.9 48.5 .407 29.6 14.7
2021 105 92.9 51.7 .401 27.2 17.6

Source: Baseball Savant

From Votto’s 2020 benching through Sept. 1, his 142 wRC+ is 11th-best in baseball. On July 30, he became the eighth player in baseball history to homer in seven consecutive games, coming up just one game shy of the all-time record. Coinciding with Votto’s surge has been the rise of the Reds as a team, whose playoff odds in FiveThirtyEight’s prediction model have risen from 7 percent in early June, before Votto’s return from the injured list with a broken thumb, to 62 percent after splitting a doubleheader against the Cardinals on Wednesday. Currently, they hold a half-game lead over the struggling San Diego Padres for the second National League wild-card spot.

It may have taken Votto several years of tinkering to get his game back on track, but he has done it and then some. Even before his initial decline, Votto had a strong Hall of Fame case, but any doubts should be put to rest by his revival, as well his passing of the 300-homer, 1,000-RBI and 2,000-hit milestones this very year. And the Reds, who go as Votto goes, find themselves in a late-season playoff run for the second consecutive year.

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Brian Menéndez is a baseball writer, a cat dad and a resident of Seattle, Washington. His work can also be found at Baseball Prospectus, Beyond The Box Score, DRaysBay and The Hardball Times.