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Teams are pitching Joey Votto differently this year, and that might be why he’s struggling

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The Cincinnati 1B is mired in a season-long slump. Is a new pitch mix to blame?

Cincinnati Reds v San Francisco Giants Photo by Daniel Shirey/Getty Images

Of the some 2,500 things I’ve posted on Red Reporter over the years, this here might well be my least favorite. That’s the first and only line I’ve managed to muster so far, and I already hate doing it.

Red Reporter’s history almost perfectly spans the entirety of the professional baseball career of one Joey Votto to date, for the record. Minted in the mid-2000s, we’ve had the chance to watch, to follow, and to gawk at the eye-popping numbers the 1B has posted over his dozen years in the big leagues. We’re even proud to report that we, too, have received criticism from the likes of Marty Brennaman and Paul Daugherty in that time, though on a much more minuscule scale. In many ways, some of that critique has been due to our ardent support of Votto’s not exactly traditional approach at the plate, for appreciating his value of not making outs and doing every last thing possible to swing only at strikes and get on base at all costs.

So, to see him struggle brings us a good deal of pain. Existential pain. The kind of pain that only comes when there’s enough history on which you can reflect, since it’s the chasm between the great times and pending doom that makes the entire tale begin to hurt.

Rest assured, Joey Votto is struggling at the plate at the moment. The Cincinnati Reds have played 41 games already in 2019, or more than a quarter of a full season. Votto has appeared in just 38 of those, the emphasis on just a partial indication of how poorly he’s performed, since we’re all quite used to seeing Votto both the dominant force in the Reds lineup and playing absolutely every single day when healthy. And, we’re still assuming he’s healthy this year despite his struggles, since there has been no word to the contrary as of yet.

Over a quarter of the season in, and Votto is an 0 for 5 streak away from a .198 batting average. Is batting average anywhere close to the best statistic to use to evaluate a hitter’s performance? Of course not, but when a player who owned a .313 career mark through the first 11 brilliant years of his career is flirting with the Mendoza line this late in the season, it’s one that serves an eye-catching point.

It’s much deeper than that, too, even when you include his 2018 season. In 783 PA dating back to the start of last year, Votto has ‘slugged’ just .402, a mark that is both by no means horrendous but is also hardly indicative of a player expected to be penciled into the heart of a lineup day after day after day. For reference, 119 MLB players have logged at least 650 PA since the start of the 2018 season, and Votto’s slugging percentage in that time ranks 95th in that time, conveniently just one spot ahead of teammate Jose Peraza and one spot behind former 1B teammate Yonder Alonso, of all players. Not to mention that if you ignore PA thresholds and focus solely on the Reds, Votto’s .402 mark sits quite conveniently close to current and former offensive whipping boys Scott Schebler (.401 in 525 PA) and the since-traded Adam Duvall (.399 in 370 PA with the Reds).

That, in large part, has coincided with the precipitous drop in his home run production, as he’s hit just 3 homers this season and just 15 since the start of last year. If that feels like ‘middle infielder’ power, well, you’re not wrong - just 12 players with at least 650 PA have hit fewer than Votto’s 15 dingers in that time, while middle infielders Brandon Crawford and Starlin Castro have equaled that total. Peraza, of course, has 16 in that time.

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When you begin to look a bit deeper into what teams have opted to do against him while on the mound, a few interesting tidbits begin to emerge.

From 2009 to 2015, Votto saw four-seam fastballs thrown his way between 33.0% and 34.9% of the time, which largely echoed MLB trends as a whole - from 2009 to 2015, league-average four-seam usage sat between 34.9% and 37.9%, the latter mark coming back in 2009 itself. Against Votto of late, though, the four-seam fastball has become the pitch of choice in increasing fashion, as he faced them in 41.1% of all pitches last year, with that number spiking to 44.6% of all pitches he’s seen so far in 2019. League average this year, for the record, is just 38.8%, and of the 174 qualified hitters so far during the 2019 season, that four-seam proclivity against Votto is the 10th highest.

Coinciding with the spike in four-seam fastballs used against Votto is a career high percentage of change-ups he now sees. They’ve been thrown to him as 13.9% of all pitches, whereas from 2010 to 2017 he never saw them more often than 11.7% of the time. In other words, teams have moved towards trying to retire Votto with a heavy dose of four-seam fastball and change-ups, which he’s now getting in nearly 60% of all pitches he sees - and so far, setting him up and pulling the string appears to be working at this point of his career.

wCH, FanGraphs’ metric for evaluating how hitters perform against change-ups in specific, shows Votto at a net -3.5 against that pitch so far in 2019. That’s the 5th worst mark in all MLB among the 174 qualified hitters. In other words, the strategy of challenging him with four-seam fastballs - pitches that historically would move up and in to left-handed hitters when thrown by a RHP - and mixing in a change-up to drop off the table is now the out-pitch du jour, and it’s come at the expense of throwing sinkers against him profusely. For the record, sinker usage against him sat around ~25% from 2012 to 2016, peaking at 26.7% of all pitches against him during the 2015 season - that has sunk to just 11.6% in 2019.

Joey Votto will turn 36 years old later this season, and it’s hard not to look at these numbers in that context. I suppose it’s certainly a chicken/egg scenario - did Votto’s power begin to evaporate when teams began to pitch him differently than he’d been pitched during his peak, or have teams begun to challenge him more aggressively now that they’ve seen that his power isn’t nearly the threat it once was?

His batted ball profile shows that, on the surface at least, he’s still plenty capable of making ‘hard’ contact - his 39.2% rate this year sits above his 37.3% career mark, and above the 36.3% number from his 2017 season that saw him hit 36 dingers. That said, what happens when he actually makes hard contact has certainly changed, as he’s sporting a career-worst 19.6% line-drive rate alongside a 44.3% fly-ball rate that’s the highest of his career outside his 24 game cameo back in 2007. Pair that with a career-worst HR/FB rate of just 7.0%, and a theory certainly begins to emerge:

Votto is being challenged with fastballs more than ever, is trying to elevate them now more than ever, but that might be exactly what teams want him to do at this point of his career because the ability to hit them over the fence simply isn’t what it used to be. And if there’s any tip that he’s guessing, the single best antidote is to pull the string on him with a well-disguised change-up, which sure appears to be getting the best of Votto at this point.

None of this is to say that Votto, ever the tactician, is neither aware of this nor that he is unable to fix that problem. A notoriously slow starter, the .663 OPS he carries to date isn’t too, too different than the .689 OPS he carried as late as May 25th of the 2016 season, a season in which he finished with a whopping .326/.434/.550 overall line. That’s the same season where his -2.4 dWAR was the worst graded defense of his career, and he made a very public commitment to fixing that over the winter of 2016-2017, and did. Part of what has made Votto such the consummate maestro throughout his career is his ability to adjust and outsmart, and despite his advanced baseball age, there’s still ample hope that he’ll figure out how best to combat what he’s up against so far this year.

Are the odds a bit longer this time around? Undoubtedly, especially given the context of how his 2018 power outage materialized, too. That said, it sure seems that the teams Votto has faced so far this season think there’s a pretty concrete way to retire the Reds slugger at this point in his career, and how quickly he figures it out might well dictate the path that this team follows for the rest of the 2019 season.

All stats, leaderboards, and percentages courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference.