Joey Votto had a 2016 season for the ages, really. He led the NL in both OBP and OPS+, swatted 29 dingers, hit an absurd .408 in 314 second half PA, and for the fifth time in his career took home a Top 10 finish in NL MVP voting. Votto, ever the perfectionist, wasn’t merely satisfied with knowing he’d logged another season full of Hall of Fame caliber production. In fact, he identified a pair of aspects of his game where he thought there was significant room for improvement, and also noticed a developing league-wide trend that he thought he could further exploit, too.
Then, because he’s Votto, he went out and mastered all three.
His defense was the most visible area that needed improving, as his -2.4 dWAR sunk what would’ve otherwise been a monumental season into merely 4.0 bWAR territory. Votto spoke at length to reporters in spring training about the extra work he’d been putting in to be an elite defender at 1B, something you might not expect to hear from a guy with a Gold Glove already in his trophy case and a 33 year old body. Improve defensively he did, though, logging his first career positive full-season dWAR and leading all MLB 1Bs in defensive runs saved.
Votto also has rounded into one of the few hitters of the last few decades who hits for power, takes walks, and has completely stopped striking out. That’s a trend that actually began in 2016, as the monster second half mentioned earlier only came after he struggled out of the gate, as through 27 games in 2016 he’d hit just .226/.333/.333 with 14 walks against a decidedly non-Votto 28 strikeouts. 2017 saw Votto put that aside for a full 162 game slate, and as early as May FanGraphs’ Jeff Sullivan noticed that the hitting mensch had just completely stopped striking out. By season’s end, he’d walked 134 times against just 83 Ks, an absurd 51 more walks than strikeouts. (Manny Machado, for instance, only walked 50 times at all in 2017.)
The third aspect of his game he altered? Buying into the idea that hitting more fly balls is a good thing, as he told FanGraphs’ Travis Sawchik at the end of May. The fact is, left-handed hitters (and Votto specifically) have been getting pitched inside more and more as defensive shifts to the left side have increased, with pitchers trying to coax pulled grounders and liners to convert them into outs. Rather than trying foolishly to hit pitches the other way that can’t really be hit like that, a lot of lefties have turned to elevating those pitches in attempt to pull them for homers. Votto saw it, bought into it, and posted a career high pull % and a fly-ball rate a full 8.3% higher than he had in 2016. The result: 36 dingers, the most he’d hit since 2010.
It’s one thing to see changes in a player’s statistics and merely chalk it up to good workouts, good coaching, and maturation as a player. It’s on another level when said player admits he’s got specific things that need improving, and those things are light years better the next time they’re on display. That has me wondering what particular parts of Votto’s most recent performances might actually be irking him to this day, since they might be what the future Hall of Famer is hellbent on correcting this particular winter.
Striking out after being up 3-0 in a count
Clearly, this is a spot where Votto could improve significantly. On 68 different occasions in 2017, Votto found himself ahead of a pitcher 3-0, and I’m pretty certain intentional walks aren’t included there. While he managed to hit a rather rosy .444/.824/.667 (1.490) with 47 walks in those PA, he actually did strike out once under those conditions. Once might not seem like much to you, but this is Joey Votto we’re talking about here. I bet if you got him on the phone right now he’d tell you the pitcher, ballpark, date, time, and pitch sequence from that strikeout, as it probably keeps him up at night. I suspect great improvement in this arena.
Hitting with runners in scoring position (RISP)
Joey Votto finally reached the 100 RBI plateau again in 2017, and I feel as if I needed to include “again” in that clause because so damn many people out there act as if he’d never done such a thing before in his career. Being clutch, though, is still something many fans try to hold against Votto, and his RISP numbers do somewhat back that up.
The 201 wRC+ he posted with RISP in 2017 was not the best in all of baseball, merely checking in at 4th among the 381 players who had at least 40 PA in such circumstances. If fancy new stats aren’t your thing, his .378 batting average in such scenarios was only 5th best among that group. Even worse, he only chalked up 62 RBI in those situations, merely 44th on that particular list -though it’s important that you withhold rationality and ignore that he only had the 58th most PA in those situations among the sample group. Again, clear room for improvement.
Batting Average on balls hit in foul territory
Admittedly, this might be Votto’s biggest failing yet.
Scroll down to row 6 and you’ll see that Votto had 8 chances to get a hit on a playable ball hit into foul territory, and was a woeful 0 for 8 in those performances. Awful, really. But if there’s anyone in the game today that can find a way to get a hit on a foul ball, it’s Joey Votto, and I expect him to work tirelessly until he can do just that.
Beating up on bad opponents
One of Votto’s largest troubles in 2017 was producing against bad teams. Despite hitting an OK .347/.468/.632 with 23 of his dingers against teams with a winning percentage over .500, he hit just .284/.435/.504 with 13 blasts against sub-.500 clubs last year.
Perhaps he’ll work on this by squeezing a single drop of blood into his swimming pool, jumping in, and seeing if his extra-sensory perception can detect it all shark-like. Or maybe he just needs to focus his winter working on his mean face. Whatever it is, though, it’s time Votto stops just beating up on the best in all of baseball and starts Hall of Famering on the bottom of the barrel, too.