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Joey Votto’s decline might have already begun

He is aging, no doubt, but he may yet age gracefully.

MLB: Kansas City Royals at Cincinnati Reds Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

A few days ago, Joey Votto hit a popup in a Reds minor league Spring Training game. He is the only player in baseball for whom this would be a news event because Joey Votto does not hit popups. As per his FanGraphs page, for the last three seasons his infield fly ball percentages were 0.0, 0.5, and 0.0.

Baseball is built around failure, and every batter fails more often than he succeeds. Infield flies are type of failure to which Votto has been almost completely immune, yet here is failing like a normal ballplayer:

It’s more than likely this is an isolated event in a Spring Training game even more meaningless than most Spring Training games. Votto’s infield fly ball rate isn’t going to suddenly spike to 20 percent.

However, Votto did start to fail a little more often last season. As a 34-year-old, his power declined precipitously, leading to full season career lows in home runs (12), doubles (28), slugging percentage (.419), and wRC+ (131).

Votto was still an exceptional hitter. He led the NL with a .417 on-base percentage for the third consecutive season and the the seventh time since 2010. His 17.3 percent walk rate was topped only by Mike Trout and Bryce Harper. With 3.5 fWAR, a down season for him would have been a career year for nearly anyone else.

All the same, it’s concerning that he isn’t hitting the ball as hard. Some of his Statcast metrics back this up:

Joey Votto’s Statcast Decline

Year Avg. Exit Velo Avg. Exit Velo Rank Barrel % Barrel % Rank
Year Avg. Exit Velo Avg. Exit Velo Rank Barrel % Barrel % Rank
2015 89.6 66 10.9 28
2016 89.6 85 9.7 64
2017 87.5 140 9.1 85
2018 88.1 149 6.7 159

Whereas he used to be among the game’s best at hitting the ball hard, he’s now roughly middle-of-the-pack. For reference, league average barrel percentage was 6.1 percent and the average exit velocity was 87.4 miles per hour. He’s still above those averages, but not by a lot.

Votto still makes plenty of good contact, just not as much great contact. While his barrel rate declined 2.4 percent from 2017 to 2018, his sold contact rate increased by 3.3 percent from 7.3 to 10.6. This is how several of his home runs and doubles turned into singles, line outs, and fly outs. Correspondingly, his rate of singles increased from 15.3 percent to 16.2, while his batting average dropped from .320 to .284.

His pitch tracking might metrics explain the cause of his declining numbers. Here are his x-stats on each pitch type:

There hasn’t been much drop on fastballs; he still hits the hard stuff pretty well. Breaking and offspeed pitches gave him huge problems though. This is especially problematic because the league doesn’t appear to have caught on yet. 67.5 percent of all pitches he faced were classified as fastballs in 2018, tying his career most. He faced a career low 10.6 percent offspeed stuff. If opposing pitchers lower the amount of fastballs to maybe 60 percent, Votto could be in heaps of trouble if he doesn’t adjust.

It’s bizarre to suggest there’s a good way for pitchers to attack Votto. As recently as 2017, there was no good way to approach him at all, considering his success against the entire league. He’s 35 now, and a decline was inevitable sooner or later.

It’s hard to discern what kind of pitch Votto popped up in the video above. As @jeffbajenaru pointed out, he reached second base anyway. This is a metaphor for what Votto’s decline might look like. Even if he doesn’t hit the ball as hard as he used to, his walk rate is still elite. He should remain a fantastic hitter overall, as long as he can still get the ball out of the infield.

Daniel R. Epstein is an elementary special education teacher and president of the Somerset County Education Association. In addition to BtBS, he writes at Tweets @depstein1983