Joey Votto is a sabermetric hero. He's an incredibly talented player, ranking fifth in fWAR from 2010–15, and has manifested that talent in the classic undervalued skill of the walk. He's smart, funny, and disliked by a certain type of fan for those very walks, which all conspire to make him generally beloved among more analytical fans. He's also been very, very bad in 2016.
Not just by his own high standards, either; through Monday, Votto was sitting at 0.1 fWAR and 0.4 WARP, just barely above replacement level by both measures. His decline has been colossal: through 208 PAs, at last year's pace, he'd be over 2 WAR. The Reds weren't truly planning on competing in 2016, so I suppose that this could have been worse; the Reds have the capability to keep giving Votto plate appearances and hope he figures things out. Votto's sitting on a contract that has eight years and $197 million remaining on it after 2016, and the Reds presumably plan on winning some games at some point. It'll be a lot easier for them to do so with a productive Votto, either contributing directly or bringing back a younger, less expensive return via trade.
The first step in determining whether Votto will reverse his decline is getting a better sense for exactly why that decline exists. As mentioned, he's famous for his walks, but they've declined precipitously, with his BB rate at 13.5 percent. While that's not that far from his career rate of 15.8 percent, it's way below the 19.3 percent he ran from 2012 to 2015. His strikeout rate is also up to 26.9 percent, from an 18.9 percent career rate, and his ISO is at .178, compared to .221 for his career.
Votto may be known for his walks, but his power is in part what makes those walks possible. When he's succeeding, he's combining his ability to drive the ball with an incredibly discerning eye and to control the strike zone, thus drastically limiting his chases of any pitches outside the strike zone and generating solid contact with the pitches inside it. What's somewhat confusing is that neither of those abilities appears to have changed. Per the new Statcast data, available at Baseball Savant, his 2016 average exit velocity of 90.1 MPH is nearly identical to his 2015 average of 90.2 MPH. Similarly, via Brooks Baseball, his patience and control of the strike zone in 2016 hasn't meaningfully changed from 2012–15.
The 2016 chart is a little less smooth, due to the smaller sample size, but it's not as if Votto has a new vulnerability to, say, pitches low and away. In fact, his 2016 out-of-zone swing rate of 18.8 percent is lower than his 2012–15 rate of 20.0 percent.
The first clear difference comes in Votto's batted ball profile. From 2012–15, he ran a 41.5 percent ground ball rate and paired that with a 27.1 percent line drive rate. In 2016, that ground ball rate has spiked to 50.0 percent, and his line drive rate has fallen to 20.8 percent. It makes intuitive sense that a ground ball hit at the same velocity as a line drive is less likely to fall for a hit, but it's also supported by data, as reflected in this wonderful chart from Professor Alan Nathan.
Here is a nifty looking plot I made from 4/09 HFX data. Hole is clearly visible 20-30 deg, 75-90 mph. pic.twitter.com/tGVUBE6Jfe— Alan Nathan (@pobguy) July 24, 2015
Indeed, Votto's BABIP has fallen substantially from his peak years, at .259 in 2016 versus .365 from 2012–15. That's an incredibly high number, but over four years and more than 2,100 PAs, it almost certainly represents something Votto was doing right instead of luck. There is something he seemingly isn't doing anymore.
It's possible something is different in Votto's swing, but I am incredibly far from qualified to analyze video like that, so I'll leave that to someone with a bit more experience. Instead, I want to focus on how pitchers have approached him. So far in 2016, he's seen many more pitches on the inside half of the plate.
That's been coupled with a drastic increase in the rate of hard pitches he's seen, from about 65 percent in 2012–15 to 73 percent in 2016.
As Ray Searage could happily tell you, hard pitches in on the hands is a great recipe for ground balls. Unsurprisingly, this has also resulted in Votto pulling a much higher rate of balls, 41.8 percent in 2016 compared to 32.8 percent from 2012–15. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but for Votto it almost definitely is. For one, his success has always been predicated on spraying the ball to all fields; note the density of doubles to LF in the spray chart below from 2012–15, and note their dearth in 2016.
Second, it's important to recall that this isn't just an increase in pulled balls in play, but pulled ground balls. Per FanGraphs's shift data, 47.3 percent of his balls in play have been hit into a shift in 2016, a huge increase over the 18.8 percent hit into a shift in 2012–15. That might be explained somewhat by an overall increase in the rate of shifts, but it's also likely a reflection of Votto's increased vulnerability to the shift as a result of this new approach pitchers are taking against him. It's impossible to comprehensively determine how the shift is impacting a player without knowing what they're doing in plate appearances where they face the shift without putting the ball in play, which FanGraphs's data unfortunately doesn't cover. However, on balls in play, Votto is currently running an 85 wRC+ when he's not faced with the shift and a 5 wRC+ when he is. That's not a typo; I didn't forget a digit. Five. I feel pretty comfortable saying the shift is doing some damage to his overall production.
So Votto's struggles appear not to be the result of any changes to his underlying abilities, but a new approach from opposing pitchers that he's been unable to counter. That said, there are several reasons to be optimistic about his chances of rebounding, if not quite to the level of his glory days. First, and most mundanely, the projections don't think he's meaningfully changed from the beginning of the season. Preseason, PECOTA projected him for a 17.9 percent walk rate, a 19.4 percent strikeout rate, and a .322 TAv; those numbers now are 17.7, 19.8, and .319. Similarly, ZiPS pegged him at a 19.5 percent walk rate, a 20.4 percent strikeout rate, and a .392 wOBA; it's rest-of-season estimate is an 18.3 percent walk rate, a 21.8 percent strikeout rate, and a .375 wOBA. Finally, Steamer preseason had him at 18.3 percent walk rate/19.4 strikeout rate/.387 wOBA, and it now has him at 18.2/21.4/.379.
Their starting points varied, but all three systems agree that Votto is slightly worse but still fundamentally the same player he was. Projection systems are slow to react to changes by design, but given how terrible he's been, these are only slight variations from their preseason estimates. That suggests that his deficiencies thus far have not been the sort that usually indicate the end of a career, but instead just a bump in the road.
Secondly, while this feels unprecedented, it's not entirely. FanGraphs just introduced a very cool tool that allows you to make graphs displaying the rolling average of a given stat across a player's career, which is great at showing the peaks and valleys nearly every player goes through. It clearly demonstrates that Votto has never undergone struggles quite to this degree, or at least not since the very early days of his career.
Still, it's not that far off from some previous hiccups in 2012–15, when he was at the peak of his powers, and while his current strikeout rate is almost entirely unprecedented, there's lots of precedent for his walk rate slump, not just in his early career but at numerous points since 2012:
Votto, like all baseball players, didn't get to where he currently is on talent alone. He's had numerous scouting reports prepared against him in the past detailing his every flaw, and as pitchers have moved to capitalize on those flaws, he's had to adjust to their adjustments. The fact that he's had a career this successful is proof that his counter-adjustments have been successful. Votto's continued presence in the majors after almost 5,000 PAs is proof of his ability to change his approach when necessary. He seemingly hasn't been able to neutralize this most recent attack, and until he does, his numbers are probably going to stay ugly. I wouldn't bet against him staying that way, however. He's always adjusted before, and there's no reason to think he won't do it again.
Plus, he's still incredibly likable and fun, and baseball's better when he's good. One can only hope he makes his way back to greatness soon enough.
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Henry Druschel is a Contributing Editor at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @henrydruschel.