Joey Votto didn’t exactly get off to a rockin’ start to his 2018 campaign. Fresh off a 2017 season that saw him lead the National League in OPS and OPS+ and all of baseball in walks and on-base percentage, Votto scuffled to just a .611 OPS through the first 21 games of the season, sporting a .290 slugging percentage and not a single home run.
Of course, small samples are easily manipulated, and while his first 21 games saw negligible power production, it took all of four games in four days to up his full-season line to .280/.393/.430, thanks to a dingerrific series against the Atlanta Braves and a fourth dinger in that time a day later against the Minnesota Twins. He homered again eight days later against the Miami Marlins, and again exactly a week after that against the Los Angeles Dodgers, and had 6 total dingers through 40 games - a pace that was 100% on-par with his career, especially given how he’s traditionally heated up as the season wore on.
That dinger against the Dodgers came on May 13th, which seems like an entire mesozoic era ago. For reference, that same week saw the Reds trade Devin Mesoraco for Matt Harvey, Phil Gosselin had just recently been lost on waivers, and neither Anthony DeSclafani nor Michael Lorenzen had even headed out to begin their rehab assignments. Joey Votto has played in 30 games since May 13th, and he hasn’t hit a homer in any of them, which is both remarkable and the single longest dinger drought of his illustrious career.
What’s funny, though, is the initial reaction to reading something like that is naturally to assume that he’s been slumping. That absolutely couldn’t be further from the case with Votto, though, rare bird that he is. In those 30 games, he’s hit a robust .321 with a .442 on-base percentage, with 22 walks against just 17 strikeouts - and even a pair of triples for good measure. In many ways - and in many stats - what we’ve seen from Votto over the last 30 games is exactly what we always hope and expect to see from him, his mastery of the strike zone putting him in hitter’s counts and his excellent contact ability there to punish the pitches that are then inevitably thrown for strikes; or a casual stroll to 1B if the pitcher chooses to avoid him altogether.
The only thing missing, of course, are the dingers.
It’s certainly worth emphasizing here that while Votto has clubbed 263 homers in his career - the 5th most by any Red in club history - he’s never exactly been categorized as a ‘power hitter.’ Only twice has he hit more than 29 dingers in a single season, and even the 36 he hit last year tied him for the 15th most in the game, a full 23 behind league-leader Giancarlo Stanton’s massive outburst. Still, he’s averaged 28 per 162 games played throughout his career, and to be stuck on only 6 through 71 games played suggests there’s something larger amiss, either with his luck or with his swing itself.
In an article for FanGraphs just last week, Jeff Zimmerman looked closer at several hitters whose projected ISO numbers were far off-kilter given their actual ISO numbers, and Votto was one featured on the list. In his analysis, Zimmerman made note of the back issue that had plagued Votto back in May, and that’s certainly a pertinent point that might well be partially behind the lack of power we’ve seen from the Cincinnati 1B in that time. If his back is still balky, though, it’s certainly hard to get a true feel for that in his contact numbers, since to date he’s sporting a hard-hit rate of 40.0% that’s both up nearly 4% from just last year and matches his career-best mark from his 2010 MVP season. On top of that, he’s making soft contact just 8.1% of the time, which is the lowest of his career by over a full percentage point.
Even his exit velocity suggests he’s not exactly incapable of hitting dingers #allofasudden, as his 89.1 mph average this year is up nearly a mile and a half per hour over 2017’s number.
The only numbers that truly stand out on Votto’s batted ball numbers come not in how hard he’s hit the ball, but in where the ball has gone after contact. Zimmerman mentioned also that his barrel rate had dropped some 2% year over year, and while that doesn’t seem like a ton on paper, it just might be enough to keep a few extra balls from leaving the yard. With that in mind, seeing that his HR/FB% has dropped year over year from 19.7% to just 10.2% might suggest that while he’s consistently hitting the ball hard, he’s catching balls perfectly much less than he has in years prior, and that’s kept things in the yard.
Also contributing to that, I should add, is that his fly-ball percentage has also dropped precipitously, down to 28.1% in 2018 after sitting at 39.0% last year (and an even higher 43.0% in 2016). He seems to have traded that almost entirely for an increase in his line-drive percentage, which is up to 34.3% in 2018 from just 23.0% in 2017.
The question, as it always is with Joey, is whether this is simply a byproduct of him swinging at different pitches than he has before, whether he’s actually being pitched in different ways than he has in previous seasons, or whether this is actually something he’s deliberately doing himself. And before you think that last statement is too out of the question, keep in mind the statements he made after the 2016 season about wanting to improve his defense and cut down on strikeouts and cross-reference them with his 2017 defensive numbers and K/BB ratio. Rest assured, Votto’s fully capable of tweaking things in effective fashion to stay one-step ahead of how he’s pitched, and perhaps this is some elaborate set-up for a mammoth power display later this season. You only need to go back as far as 2016 to find Votto sporting just an .805 OPS and .432 slugging percentage through June 19th of that year, a season that eventually saw him slug .550 with 29 dingers on his ledger.
On the other hand, this could just be a glimpse into the age-induced evolution of Cincinnati’s future Hall of Fame 1B. He’s going to turn 35 years old this September, after all, and as someone who’s in that same boat, I’ll vouch that sometimes your back just hurts from time to time even if you’ve never actually injured it doing anything in particular. Power declines inevitably hit every player, and it’s going to impact Votto sooner or later. What’s positive about that in Votto’s potential case, however, is that if hitting .321 with a .443 on-base percentage and gap to gap doubles power is how he’s going to hit as an old guy, the Reds will once again find they’ve got a gem of a player still under contract - and that, right now, is the worst-case scenario when looking at his dinger-futility streak.