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Joey Votto ain’t done yet

The veteran Reds first baseman is amidst a bounce back campaign

Cleveland Indians v Cincinnati Reds Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

Joey Votto is a slam dunk Hall of Famer.

Tied with Mike Trout as the active leader in On-Base Percentage and owner of a career 149 wRC+, Votto has made a career out of doing what hitters are meant to do—not just get hits, but get on base, leading the National League in OBP seven(!) times, and winning the league’s Most Valuable Player award in 2010. His last great year was in 2017, when he slashed .320/.454/.578, which was good for a 163 wRC+ and a 6.5 fWAR.

But since that year, the now 37-year-old Votto has been much closer to a league average hitter. He did produce a 130 wRC+ in 2018, but his power was all but gone, hitting only 12 home runs in 145 games. From ‘17-’18, Votto’s watched as his ISO shrunk from .258 to .135. In 2019, however, things took a rough turn. Votto’s power increased slightly, hitting 15 homers, but only netted a 101 wRC+. To make matters worse, his K% ballooned to a career worst 20.2%—still better than average, but not Votto-esque. If anyone wasn’t worried about his decline after ‘18, they definitely were after ‘19.

But there was still some reason to be hopeful. In his forgettable ‘19, he still rated above average in xwOBA, and stayed elite in BB%, Whiff% and Chase Rate. Though 2020 was not a full on bounce back, it was better than the previous year in a lot of ways. Thanks to his rediscovered power, Votto hit 11 home runs in 54 games, and his ISO rose to a more familiar .220. Additionally, his walk and strikeout rates returned to looked more Votto like as well. Most encouragingly, his 9.1 Barrel% was in line with ‘17, which was his last elite year at the plate. This time, it was a .235 BABIP that was holding Votto back.

So far in 2021, it’s a similar story. There are some encouraging metrics, such as his .442 xwOBA (93rd percentile), 92.0 Exit Velocity (85th percentile), 49.0 HardHit% (77th percentile) and 13.7 Barrel% (79th percentile) — all career bests in the Statcast era. But there are also some red flags, Such as his relative refusal to walk. Votto’s 7.4% walk rate is the lowest since the 5.6% walk rate he had in his 24 game sample as a 23-year-old in 2007.

For some context, from 2008 to ‘18, Votto walked at an average of 16.1% of his plate appearances!

This year, Votto is going with a much more aggressive approach. He is swinging a lot more, walking a lot less, but as of yet, hasn’t sacrificed strikeouts at all, and only a little bit on swings and misses more generally. Although the .254/.309/.444 slash line is still unimpressive, since Votto is blistering the ball when he makes contact — and since he is making much more of it — it’s possible that a turnaround is likely. His current .260 BABIP helps tell the story here too.

It’s hard to know what to make of this new version of Joey Votto. It is strange that he is only walking at about half the rate of his career average, and its even stranger that he is increased the quality of contact while swinging a lot more. Either way, Votto has made an adjustment and it looks like it’s paying dividends even if the surface level results do not align just yet. At the very least, this new chapter of Votto’s career will be interesting to keep an eye on as the season progresses.

Brian Menéndez is a contributing writer for Beyond the Box Score, as well as a senior writer for DRaysBay. Additionally, he has been featured in The Hardball Times. You can find Brian on Twitter at @briantalksbsb.