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How the Cincinnati Reds can optimize Joey Votto

Looking forward for the pair on the slugger’s 36th birthday.

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Arizona Diamondbacks v Cincinnati Reds Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

Joseph Daniel Votto officially graced the world with is presence on September 10th, 1983, exactly 36 years ago to the date.

Happy Birthday, Joey. Thanks for letting us get to watch you mash, maul, confuse, frustrate, and otherwise completely dominate your opposition for much of the time since then. It’s been a glorious ride, one that still doesn’t look anywhere close to being finished.

Speaking of which, the Votto we’ve seen most recently has been just about the closest thing to the Votto of old we could expect, really. Over the last 20 games in which he’s played, he’s the owner of a tidy .314/.410/.514 batting line, which is much more emblematic of the Votto we watched win an MVP in his prime and get summarily screwed out of a second, not of the one whose power seemed to dry up immediately following the conclusion of the 2017 season.

Of course, that most recent 20 game stretch featured a layup on the sidelines, too, as some lower back stiffness prompted a 10-day IL stretch to let it loosen back up. In the 13 games since his return, he’s the owner of a .946 OPS and has reached base some 23 times, including an 8/8 K/BB ratio that’s much more indicative of his overall production career-wise.

Small samples, to be sure, but ones that do appear to be far more in-line with the greater sample that is Joey Votto’s career to date. To run with that theory, imagine this: player turning 36 years old gets a little rest as the season grinds on, and looks better for it. Imagine!

Being a human being in the same age-range as Votto, it’s easy to endorse the idea that doing things the same way with the same physical effectiveness at this age versus a decade ago is a pretty foreign concept. Things just hurt sometimes, or don’t feel right, or are sore, stiff, or off. That, folks, is just life. And when you consider that from 2015-2017 there wasn’t a single player in all of Major League Baseball that played in more games than Joey Votto, the idea that the dude really is Superman should be believable to at least a few.

That said, it’s probably time that Votto started to get a few more breaks on purpose as the seasons grind on to keep him fresh and spry, specifically so he doesn’t end on the IL for stints to catch-up on them. And believe it or not, there’s actually a trend that suggests exactly which games he should catch a quick breather.

For the record, the way that manager David Bell has shuffled his lineup not just daily, but hourly, means that even when a player doesn’t get a start, odds are great that he’s going to either get a pinch-hit appearance or enter on a double-switch at some point later in the game. That’s simply how the forward-thinking guy has tried to play his players in their best possible matchups at all times, something I wholeheartedly endorse. With Votto, though, there’s becoming a bit of a trend that’s both hard to ignore and somewhat odd given his early career, but one that might be worth letting David Bell actively manage around.

From 2010-2017, there were 146 MLB hitters with enough qualified plate appearances vs. left-handed pitching, and Joey Votto’s 149 wRC+ against them ranked 12th. You’ll recall that Joey Votto, of course, hits left-handed, and each of the 11 batters ahead of him and 17 ranked behind him all hit right-handed. If you focus solely on lefties hitting lefties, Votto’s 149 wRC+ was lightyears better than any other lefty hitter in the game with at least 300 PA against LHP in that time, with only Corey Seager (123) and Brandon Belt (121) posting better than 120. So, for a long, long while, the idea that you should actively get Votto a rest on days when there’s a lefty starter on the mound opposite him was not only idiotic, it was likely costing the Reds the chance at having their single best offense on the field that day.

The last two years, however, have been quite different for Joey. Of the 54 big leaguers who have faced at least 200 PA of LHP the since the start of 2018, Votto’s .352 slugging percentage ranks 41st among that group. He’s done his typical Votto thing of finding ways to take walks (as his .368 OBP in that span suggests), but that’s sunk his wRC+ against lefties in that time to just 98, or 21st among that group. 2019 in particular has been behind those dips, as he owns just a 79 wRC+ against LHP, his .321 SLG against them the 6th worst among the 64 MLB lefty-swingers with at least 90 PA against LHP.

To connect the dots, we’ve got a 36 year old player who looks more and more like he’ll be at his best if he doesn’t play every single inning of every single game, and that same player has increasingly shown that there are certain matchups that he’s not entirely best suited to own anymore. So maybe, just maybe, it’s time to begin planning on getting Votto some rest on days when there are lefty starters penciled in against the Reds lineup.

As I alluded to above, that’s not to say that Votto will get benched entirely. In fact, having him as a late-game option in big spots or as a player who can double-switch in for the final few innings once said lefty starter has been replaced by the bullpen is a luxury, really. The lone real question becomes which righty-swinging masher the Reds would turn to at 1B on those particular days, and that’s the question that may not yet be solved.

The current righty options the Reds feature don’t exactly profile as ‘mashers,’ per se. Kyle Farmer is likely the one who’d get the primary benefit of playing time, and he has sported a rock-solid .877 OPS against LHP so far this season. Still, that comes with a .341 BABIP, and while he’s been better against LHP than RHP in his most recent MiLB seasons, he doesn’t exactly profile as a thumper. The same can similarly be said for Curt Casali, really, while the rest of the righties on the roster have basically zero experience at 1B. Heck, even Michael Lorenzen has a significant reverse platoon split, as he’s mauled RHP but really struggled in his career against LHP in an admittedly small sample.

As the Reds look towards this winter to further bolster their roster for a 2020 season that appears to be a primary focus (see: the Trevor Bauer trade), perhaps that’s an angle they can use when trying to add pieces. Finding a player who both a) crushes LHP and b) has the ability to step-in at 1B from time to time might well help Joey Votto be at his best for the 6 month season grind and optimize the overall production the Reds get from their 1B corps.

Coincidentally, there’s a former Cincinnati Reds draftee that’s slated to be a free agent at season’s end, a switch-hitter with ample 1B experience, power, a track record of crushing LHP, and the ability to contribute elsewhere when not playing 1B against LHP. On top of that, he’s an All Star and an upgrade at a position where the Reds tried and failed to upgrade just last winter. As The Athletic’s C. Trent Rosecrans noted at the end of August in his look towards a potential 2020 Reds lineup, it’s impossible to ignore how perfect a fit Yasmani Grandal would be for a Reds team looking to be legitimate contenders in 2020, and the idea that he could catch ~110 games a season and pick up starts at 1B against LHP - against whom he owns a .912 OPS this season in 179 PA - might well be the kind of significant boost to make us, them, and everyone feel warm and fuzzy about the prospects of the 2020 Reds lineup.

Giving Joey the kind of schedule that has him playing fresh more often than not is not only prudent at his age with the money remaining on his contract, it’s probably paramount. He’s far from the only 30-something who’s needed that at this stage of his career. What better time to gift that idea than on his birthday?