What Went Wrong: Joey Votto

2018 was undoubtedly a disappointing season for Joey Votto. After pairing his high average, high OBP production with the second highest home run total of his career (36) in 2017, Votto saw his full-season home run total drop below 20 for the first time. And it wasn’t just the home runs that disappeared. Votto posted the lowest slugging percentage (.419) and ISO (.135) of his career.

Even with his power disappearing, Votto still lead the National League in OBP (.417) and finished 19th in in OPS (.837). He produced 3.5 Wins Above Replacement in 145 games played. If there is one player capable of orchestrating a season-long troll job to intentionally not hit home runs and do everything else they can to be productive, that player is Joey Votto.

The perplexing thing about Votto’s lack of power is that almost nothing has changed in his underlying numbers. His batted ball, K/BB rates, contact and exit velocity numbers were in line with his career norms. He saw his fly ball percentage drop from 38% in 2017 down to 31% in 2018, the latter number however, is not far off his career rate of 33.3%. For reference, Votto popped 29 home runs in 2016 with a 29.7% fly ball percentage. The only number where he saw a decline was Statcast’s barrels per plate appearance – which dropped to 4.3 after sitting at 6.2 and 6.4 in 2016/17.

It’s possible that part of the explanation lies with injuries. After being hit on the right knee by a Ryan Madson fastball in what was likely an injudicious (stop me if you’ve heard this before) retaliatory beaning on August 4th, Votto slashed .274/.392/.393 with only 3 home runs. Votto’s manager Jim Riggleman also hinted that the first baseman was playing trough nagging back injuries, something Votto himself denies, suggesting he identified a mechanical flaw in his swing that sapped his power.

Votto’s 2018 power struggles look to be partially the result of bad luck on the balls he did hit in the air. Votto posted a career-low HR/FB rate of 9.5% after posting a 19.7% mark in 2017 and a career average of 18.3%. Only fourteen players had a larger negative difference between their expected slugging percentage and their actual slugging percentage in 2018. His wOBA-xwOBA differential was also in the top-50.

Joey Votto Expected vs. Actual Differentials
Actual Expected Differential League Avg Differential Negative Differential Rank
SLG 0.419 0.484 -0.065 0.009 15th
wOBA 0.370 0.396 -0.026 0.004 38th
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

While Votto was getting somewhat unlucky on fly balls, he has shown a three-year decline in his average fly ball distance. Something you might expect from a player who turned 35 this season. Even accounting for his decline, Votto’s exit velocity, batted ball distance and launch angle are all still above the MLB average.

Batted Ball Data: Joey Votto Fly Balls
Avg. Exit Velo: Fly Balls Avg. Fly Ball Distance Avg. Pulled Fly Ball Distance Launch Angle
2016 93.6 335 369 37.8
2017 93 331 357 36
2018 92.3 323 349 36.7
MLB AVG 2018 91.6 319 344 36.4
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

Votto’s 2018 power outage looks to be a combination of bad fly ball luck and the gradual affects of age-related decline. But there’s nothing gradual about a 159 point drop in slugging percentage. While he’s unlikely to return to the 35 home run level he reached in 2017, he should rebound from the 12 he hit in 2018. A return to 20 plus home runs and a slugging percentage around .450 should be a reasonable expectation for Votto next season.

Votto, who is often unfairly criticized for not driving in enough runs, could benefit from his place in the middle of a talented Cincinnati lineup. The Reds scored the eighth most runs in baseball last season and could improve with a full season from Jesse Winker, the arrival of top prospect Nick Senzel and not batting Billy Hamilton lead off.

Votto’s average draft position in 2018 drafts was seventeenth overall. In Rotographs’ 2 Early Mock Drafts, Votto’s 2019 ADP is 45.9 – 27 picks after Freddie Freeman and behind Anthony Rizzo (36.7) Cody Bellinger (41.6) and Rhys Hoskins (42.3). Votto likely has enough batting average, power and counting numbers left in the tank to provide similar value in most formats that don’t weigh stolen bases heavily. Given potential question marks in these other first basemen’s games, it’s not impossible that he out produces them, either. His down season means that he could return strong value if he is able to be selected in in the third of fourth round.

Even as a 35-year-old, Votto’s time as one of baseball’s elite hitters might not be done just yet.

Nick thinks running a Major League or fantasy baseball team is incredibly easy. Until he is handed one of those coveted GM positions, his writing at RotoGraphs will illustrate how to do it properly. Fantasy baseball trade consultations and anything else can be sent to nick.dika@gmail.com or tweeted to @nickdika.

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I agree about the lineup being stronger, but Hamilton only lead off 31 games vs batting 9th 111. Not a HUGE change their per se