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The evolution of “Joey Votto - Power Hitter”

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Second verse, not same as the first.

Milwaukee Brewers v Cincinnati Reds Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Toronto’s own Joseph Daniel Votto turned 37 years of age on September 10th of this year, and was relegated to a muted, socially distant mid-pandemic celebration that featured a gloomy 8-5 loss to the Chicago Cubs. It was the same day that saw ace Sonny Gray take a thumping and land on the injured list, the same day the Cincinnati Reds sunk to a dismal 19-25 overall record.

It was also just two weeks removed from his team-imposed ‘benching,’ a three-game window where he sat parked on the pine, at the time the owner of a meager .191/.321/.326 batting line. His swing looked to be in shambles. His legendary command of the strike zone appeared to be slipping, whether due to his diminished ability to recognize its bounds or due to umpires changing the way they call fringe pitches. Regardless, the Joey Votto we’d come to know in his decade-long run of excellence in a Cincinnati uniform looked a shell of his former self, and it was clear David Bell had run out of options for how to pencil that form of Votto into the lineup on an everyday basis.

Post-benching now-37-year-old Joey Votto has not been pre-benching shell-Votto, however. Not by any means. He neither looks the same, nor do the numbers. He’s clearly adopted a more upright stance - something he toyed with similarly last year before abandoning it - but with it has seemingly come a much, much different approach this time, as well.

(Before)

(Current)

In the 27 games in which he’s played since healthily riding the pine, he’s hit a robust .253/.364/.560, the .925 OPS fueled by 8 homers and 4 doubles in 107 PA. But even though those numbers are mostly excellent by any standard - eerily similar to Eugenio Suarez’s 2019 line of .271/.358/.572 - they aren’t necessarily indicative that Votto has returned to his previous level of brilliance.

It’s not just that some of them are lower, or different, it’s why and how they’re lower, or different, and there’s a good shot that the stance and approach have conspired to make them that way on purpose.

Whereas the crouched, choked-up Votto became the norm we watched for multiple years - many still excellent, like his 2017 campaign - that stance became as much a reflection of his approach than something merely comfortable. He became a bastion of fighting off out pitches when in 2-strike counts. He fought tooth and nail to strike out less than anyone else in a game increasingly defined by striking out, using the strike zone as a chess board in a game of outwitting the pitcher/catcher battery trying to put him away. In the process, we not only saw defensive swings, but also a higher number of questionable called third strikes, pitches that while borderline simply didn’t happen nearly as often to other players because they never worked their way that deep into counts in the first place.

When Joey hit the bench after that August 25th game against Milwaukee, he did so with 17 walks against just 14 strikeouts on his ledger, and 4 of those punch-outs came in that very day’s game. It was as if he had lost the ability to beat the opposing pitchers at their own game, something that had made him head and shoulders better at the plate over the course of his career than his peers.

While the technical aspects of his mid-season change are clearly visible in his stance, there’s a subplot to it that I’ve been trying repeatedly to define. I’m still not sold on my ability to describe it with 100% accuracy just yet, but it sure seems to fall along the lines of this:

Before, he could mash in favorable counts and still beat pitchers when behind in the count. But once he realized he lacked the ability to dig himself out of pitcher’s counts the way he used to, he decided to simply be more aggressive in favorable counts and worry less about how to fight off 2-strike out pitches.

The results, of course, have been telling.

Since said benching, he’s no longer a stalwart of walking more than striking out, as he’s posted a respectable (but non Joey-like) 16/26 BB/K in that time. The peripheral contact stats have changed wildly, too. Prior to the benching, his average exit velocity was a meager 85.3 mph, his hard-hit rate was just 24.0%, and the maximum velocity with which a ball he hit had traveled was just 105.3 mph. Since the benching and swing/approach change, he’s raised said average exit velocity up to 89.4 mph, his hard-hit rate in the most recent 26 games is up to 47.5%, and his maximum exit velocity checked in at 113.2 mph (which came on that laser of a dinger against the Brewers this past series).

While his general plate discipline stats haven’t altered hardly at all - his o-swing% and z-swing% in both samples are roughly the same - he has dropped his groundball rate some 10% (from 42.7% to 32.8%) while using the entire field much more (from a 52.0% pull-rate to just 36.1%), in the process rewarding us fans with vintage high homers out to left-center field. In fact, he’s hit 8 dingers in 26 games since the benching, which is roughly 50 over a 162 game schedule.

To summarize, what we’ve seen lately has been very good Votto, though a largely different Votto than we saw be good before. He’s doing it in different ways, ways that likely will never completely replicate all aspects of the Hall of Fame approach he used for the bulk of his career. And while he might have acknowledged that he no longer has the precision and timing to master the fringes of the strike zone in 2-strike counts, he does certainly appear to recognize that he still possesses the power to sock dingers at a still precocious rate, something that will still hold ample value now, next year, and into his final years as a big leaguer.

Between age, shifting, and a new approach that doesn’t include swinging for soft singles, we will never see Joey Votto hit .320 again barring luck or a miracle. We probably won’t see him walk more than he strikes out again in a sample of any size, either. Rest assured, he’ll still walk plenty, though, and that’ll become what augments his offensive performance, not what defines it, as it seems more and more evident that he’s doing what he can to let the power he still holds be what drives his overall offensive performance going forward.

That’s what he still has at 37, and he has enough of it to make leaning into that a worthwhile effort, even if it looks much different than the Joey of old. And what it looks like to me is something that’ll make him still very, very viable for at least a little bit longer than our fears anticipated just a few weeks ago.