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Checking in on the ‘Decline Phase’ of Joey Votto’s career

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And wondering what his age-38 season will include...

Pittsburgh Pirates v Cincinnati Reds Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

Those of us who have followed Joey Votto’s career a bit closer than the average folks (or a thoroughly unhealthy amount) know that simply lopping off a chunk of his career for analysis won’t tell the entire story. The years following his brilliant 2017 campaign haven’t exactly looked the same as the National League MVP’s earlier years, and there are plenty of yappers out there who began to write him off as over the hill and in his decline phase.

Joey noticed. Joey always notices.

Admittedly, his power evaporated beginning in 2018, and while he was still the single most stubborn out in the game for a time afterwards, pitchers soon began to attack him differently once they realized he wasn’t punishing their mistakes the way he used to. That lasted until late August of 2020, as we all now know, when a new and improved Votto retook the batter’s box both literally and figuratively after a three-day benching and began to pound opposing pitchers into dust once again.

It’s funny, really. We think of pre-2018 Votto as a linear miracle of a baseball player, one who shot straight to the tops of the game and just stayed there brilliantly. He did, for the most part, but it’s easy to forget just how hampered he was by the knee and distal quad strain after his June 29th, 2012 collision with Pablo Sandoval. He woke up the next day the owner of a ridiculous .350/.471/.632 (1.103 OPS) line, but also with injured cartilage in his left knee that would eventually require surgery and, unfortunately, haunt him into the 2014 season, one that was cut very short after pain and underperformance.

He gutted it out with his typical eagle-eye at the plate, obviously, but the guy who led all of baseball in slugging percentage as recently as 2010 (with an even .600 mark) slugged just .459 in his next 259 games until shutting it down in 2014 - still awesome, yes, but just the 45th best out of the 220 hitters who logged at least 900 PA in that time, lower than both Jonathan Lucroy and Yan Gomes, among many others.

He picked up the pieces then and returned, eventually. If the 2021 season (and the tail end of 2020) is any indication, he’s found a way to do that again. Still, for those who’ve only casually followed Votto’s evolution over the years - many of whom will still have BBWAA votes down the line - it’s worth pointing out that much like the last time he faced a multi-year stretch of adversity, he was still really, really damn good while not being Votto-good.

With the full 2021 numbers now in the books, here’s a few glimpses into how Votto has stacked up against the rest of baseball during his full 2018-2021 Decline Phase.

He’s hit a combined .265/.380/.458 (.838 OPS) across a total of 1987 PA in that time. His 121 wRC+ has him tied for 51st among the 247 MLB players who logged at least 1000 PA in that span, and is tied with the likes of Carlos Correa, Kyle Schwarber (who is from Middletown), Nolan Arenado, and Matt Chapman. Nice company, that.

His .361 wOBA is viewed even more favorably, checking in at a tie for 37th best among that group of players. That’s just ahead of the likes of Bo Bichette, Kris Bryant, and Anthony Rizzo, and not a far cry from the .365 mark posted by the guy ranking 30th on that overall list - Nick Castellanos, who I believe many Reds fans really, really want the club to throw gazillions of dollars at this offseason.

Predictably, his .380 OBP ranks incredibly well, checking in at 11th overall. It’s just a hair behind Jesse Winker’s .386th for 10th, while ranking just ahead of both Justin Turner (.379) and Aaron Judge (.378).

His .458 slugging percentage is certainly where he faced the most decline from his earlier days, at least until he mashed his way back with the 6th highest mark in the entire 2021 season. Overall, though, that .458 ranks just 96th among the 247 player sample since 2018, though there are admittedly a few prominent names that sit behind him on that list, guys like Gleyber Torres (.456), Khris Davis (.456), Michael Conforto (.455), and DJ LeMahieu (.452).

For you standard OPSsers out there, the .839 mark he compiled ranked 49th out of 247, just behind Anthony Rizzo (.841), Eugenio Suarez (.842), Kris Bryant (.843), and Jose Abreu (.843), and just ahead of Michael Brantley (.838), Cody Bellinger (.835), and Jose Altuve (.834).

As far as declining goes, that’s pretty cool company with whom to decline.

Stats and Leaderboards via FanGraphs.com.