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The evaporating power of Joey Votto

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I hated having to write this, for the record.

MLB: Cincinnati Reds at San Francisco Giants Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

800 plate appearances is a decently large chunk of plate appearances. That’s almost 300 more than, for instance, the inimitable Skip Schumaker ever got in a Cincinnati Reds uniform. The mighty bat of one Kevin Mitchell only stepped to the plate 874 times in a Reds uni, while the entirety of David Ross’ career with Cincinnati lasted exactly 817 PA.

It’s more than a full season’s worth of work. In fact, in the particular instance I’m getting to, it accounts for roughly one full season and, say, 44 games played of a second season.

Joey Votto, perennial All Star and former NL MVP, has logged 809 PA since the start of the 2018 season, and in that time has rarely looked like his former self. To be sure, that 809 PA included a league-leading .417 OBP for the duration of the 2018 season - a very Votto-like accomplishment, though one that has hardly been replicated so far in 2019. In those 809 PA, however, we’ve seen something both troubling and greatly precipitous: a complete evaporation of his power numbers.

I dove into a few potential reasons why that might be happening just last week, reasons aside from simply “he’s 35, about to be 36 years old.” We’ll skip the why for today, though, and focus simply on the what.

In those 809 PA dating back to the start of the 2018 season, Votto’s slugging percentage now sits at an even .400, meaning he’ll step into the batter’s box in the 1st inning tonight in Milwaukee an out away from that number starting with a 3 in a sample that’s large enough to no longer just blindly hope he flips the power switch again. And it’s a mandate to note that, for the longest time, that power switch caused systems everywhere to overload when it was flipped.

Power has never been the only aspect of Votto’s game worth highlighting, obviously. His career .424 OBP is the best in the history of the Cincinnati Reds, for instance, and even through those 809 PA that mark still sits at an incredibly impressive .396 (though that’s obviously front-loaded by his 2018 marks). Still, we’re talking about a player who once led the entire NL in slugging percentage and whose .524 career mark ranks behind only Hall of Famer Frank Robinson in the entire history of the Reds. While never only a ‘slugger,’ Joey Votto has long slugged at a very elite level, and that’s an aspect of his game that has not only dried up quickly, but dried up immediately in the wake of his brilliant 2017 campaign - the one that featured a .578 slugging percentage that ranked as the second best of his career.

Votto has, in recent years specifically, tended to get off to slow starts prior to finding his swing and turning things around, and I do expect that to happen in some form or fashion during the 2019 season. At least, I think he’ll figure out the seemingly new strike zone he’s been forced to adapt to, and might even be able to adjust his eyes to the four-seam fastball and change-up attack that has been increasingly thrown his way. With that will come squaring up balls more on the barrel of the bat, in theory, and those certainly tend to produce more extra-base hits than the routine fly-outs we’ve seen from him hit casually into the LF skies. Still, it’s just a rather shocking, clean-cut sample of powerless production from a player who we’ve watched maul mistake pitches for over a decade.

Hell, over his own previous 949 PA, notorious non-slugger Daniel DesCalso has slugged .404, which is a sentence I should probably drag to the trash can before it makes me throw up.

It will be both cringe-inducing and fascinating to see how the Reds, these particular Reds, choose to manage Votto as he works his way through this phase. These Reds, of course, have a bit of a one-year mandate to do some winning, as defined by the moves made this past winter to bring in so, so many players in their final year of team control. Votto’s still going to play almost every damn day, even while struggling, as both the roster construction and his well-earned reputation both dictate, but whether he continues to get reps in the #2 and #3 spots in a lineup with other, more potent bats at this juncture will be a very interesting subplot for rookie manager David Bell.

I’ve hated plenty of articles I’ve written over the years, mostly due to my inability to relay the words in an astute enough manner. This one, though, I hate because of the topic, mainly because it’s just such a massive bummer.