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Joey Votto’s Gotten His Groove Back

While the rest of the baseball industry was focused on the flurry of rumors and trades leading up to Friday afternoon’s deadline, Joey Votto was mashing like never before. From Saturday, July 24 through Friday, July 30th, the Reds’ first baseman not only homered in seven consecutive games, he doubled up on back-to-back contests on July 27-28 against the Cubs. With a chance at tying the major league record for consecutive games with a home run on Saturday against the Mets at Citi Field, Votto managed just a groundout and a pair of routine fly balls against starter Rich Hill. He had another shot in the eighth inning against Seth Lugo, and whacked a center-cut changeup 109.4 mph off the bat, a drive with an expected batting average of .970, and an expected slugging percentage of 3.649…

…but it came just inches from going over the wall in right-center. Votto had to settle for a loud single. D’oh! Because the Mets tied the game in the ninth inning, he actually got one more shot in the 10th, but struck out against Edwin Díaz. Thus Votto fell short of becoming the fourth player to homer in eight straight games, and the first since Ken Griffey Jr. in 1993:

Consecutive Games with a Home Run

SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

Here’s the supercut of his other homers during the streak:

As ever, Votto was philosophical afterwards:

While he fell short of the record, the 37-year-old first baseman is in the midst of his best season since 2017, batting .276/.371/.556 with 21 homers, a 143 wRC+, and 2.2 WAR. He’s compiled those stats despite a dreadful start to his season (.171/.209/.244 through 10 games, albeit with strong Statcast numbers) and a five-week absence in May and June due to a broken thumb. It’s been quite a rebound.

Votto’s success this year is a manifestation of his decision to trade plate discipline for power, one that came about after he was benched in late August of last season, when he was in the midst of an 0-for-18 skid and hitting just .191/.321/.326. He spoke of his changed approach to The Athletic’s C. Trent Rosecrans and Eno Sarris back in February, how he felt he had sacrificed too much power in his quest to control the strike zone. I covered that ground in April, when his early-season results weren’t aligning with the robust Statcast numbers. I had already planned to circle back on his season once he reached 2,000 hits, but coming within inches of tying a longstanding record is a good enough reason to accelerate that timetable.

The first thing to note is that Votto is hitting the ball harder than at any time during the Statcast era:

Joey Votto Batted Ball Profile

Year GB/FB GB% FB% EV Barrel% HdHit% AVG xBA SLG xSLG wOBA xwOBA
2017 1.03 39.0% 38.0% 87.5 8.7% 32.8% .320 .298 .578 .553 .428 .415
2018 1.21 37.5% 31.1% 88.1 6.7% 34.8% .284 .286 .419 .476 .370 .392
2019 0.98 37.0% 37.8% 88.9 6.4% 37.3% .261 .254 .411 .437 .332 .341
2020 0.98 38.5% 39.2% 87.4 9.1% 35.7% .226 .253 .446 .478 .347 .369
Thru 4/12/21 1.89 47.2% 25.0% 92.9 8.3% 44.4% .171 .318 .244 .577 .204 .384
Thru 8/1/21 1.04 38.3% 36.8% 92.6 16.4% 50.2% .276 .279 .556 .582 .392 .404

Votto’s exit velocity, barrel rate, and hard-hit rate are Statcast-era highs; prior to this season, only in 2015 had his average exit velo been above 90 mph, or his barrel rate in double digits, or his hard-hit rate above 40%. Where he was hitting the ball hard at the outset of the season (the blue row), he wasn’t barreling it any more than he had in the past, and he wasn’t getting the payoff; a good number of those balls were on the ground. It’s not always true that a small-sample batting line will converge towards a hitter’s expected batting average and slugging percentage in such a neat fashion as the sample fills out, but that’s what has happened here.

What’s more, as was the case in his heyday, Votto is back to hitting for a higher slugging percentage while going to the opposite field than when pulling it, something he did every year from 2009-16, but only once from ’17-20:

Interestingly enough, Votto’s doing this despite a 45.3% pull rate, the second-highest of his career (after last year’s 46.2%), and despite the fact that the majority of his homers (12 of 21) have been to right field or right-center. Likewise, for his recent binge, six out of nine homers were to his pull side.

Votto’s decision to focus on power at the expense of plate discipline has meant a rise in his chase rate, from 19.5% last year to 24.1% this year, his highest since 2011, but still good for the 90th percentile among hitters with at least 300 PA. Looking at his Statcast swing/take numbers, Votto’s 2019-20 decline owed a lot to his bad decisions and bad outcomes on pitches in the shadow zone, the borderline on either side of the strike zone. Go back to 2017, when Votto was a net four runs above average (-9 on swings, +13 on takes) in the shadow zone, as well as +48 runs on chase and waste pitches:

By 2019, he was still +32 on chase and waste pitches, but 17 runs below average on those in the shadow zone (-16 on swings, -1 on takes):

And here he is this year, +20 on chase and waste pitches, and back in black, 2 runs above average in the shadow zone (+1 on swings, +1 on takes once you account for some rounding):

Here’s a look at Votto’s performance on pitches in the shadow zone during the past five seasons:

Joey Votto in the Shadow Zone

Season EV Barrel AB AVG SLG wOBA
2017 84.0 3.4% 232 .284 .388 .349
2018 83.8 4.4% 226 .252 .332 .322
2019 87.4 4.4% 273 .234 .359 .291
2020 84.2 3.2% 94 .170 .330 .280
2021 90.2 7.3% 124 .290 .516 .376

SOURCE: Baseball Savant

Votto’s performance on those pitches used to be outstanding; I haven’t shown it here but from 2009-15, he hit .290 and slugged .463 in the shadow zone en route to a .361 wOBA on those pitches, topping a .500 SLG three times plus a .484 season. Only three players (Miguel Cabrera, Mike Trout, and Troy Tulowitzki) topped that wOBA during that span, albeit by just 2-3 points, and only 14 (out of 349) topped his SLG. He stopped hitting for power on those pitches by 2017, and lost an incremental bit of productivity in each of three straight seasons, but this year, he’s turned back the clock. It’s been fascinating to behold, as one of the game’s greats has not only mused publicly about the evolution of his philosophy but gone out and done it in impressive fashion.

In doing so, Votto has improved the outlook on the remainder of his career, and probably pushed himself across the finish line in terms of a Hall of Fame berth. I asked Dan Szymborski for an updated three-year ZiPS projection, which takes Votto through the remainder of not only the guaranteed portion of his 10-year, $225-million contract but also its option year:

ZiPS Projections – Joey Votto

2022 .244 .348 .447 385 53 94 16 1 20 65 59 2 107 0 1.3
2023 .241 .336 .429 345 44 83 15 1 16 53 47 1 99 -1 0.6
2024 .232 .319 .389 280 32 65 11 0 11 38 34 1 85 -2 -0.1

That doesn’t look great at first glance, but Votto’s 1.9-WAR projection for 2022-23 represents a 3.7-WAR swing, as ZiPS previously forecast him for -0.6 WAR in 2022 and -1.2 WAR in ’23. Throw in this year, when ZiPS forecast him for 0 WAR but now projects him to add another 0.5 to his current 2.2, and the three-year outlook for 2021-23 has swung from -1.8 to 4.6, nearly six and a half wins.

As I mentioned, as recently as a week or two ago, when Votto was merely cruising along with an 800-ish OPS, I had planned to circle back on my early-season coverage to celebrate his collecting his 2,000th hit, an all-important milestone when it comes to Hall of Fame voting, as no player from the post-1960 expansion era with fewer than 2,000 has been elected by any voting body. Votto is at 1,984, perhaps a couple of weeks away from that knock. Meanwhile, with 62.6 career bWAR, and a seven-year peak of 46.9, his 54.7 JAWS is just 0.1 below — and probably less than that, due to rounding — the Hall standard for first basemen. He’s in a virtual tie for 13th with Willie McCovey.

That impending combination — 2,000 hits and meeting the JAWS standard at his position — is pretty much no-doubter territory. The only players outside the Hall who meet both criteria and are currently eligible for election (five years retired, in other words, and not on the ineligible list) are Barry Bonds, Bill Dahlen, Rafael Palmeiro, Manny Ramirez, and Scott Rolen. Three of those guys are linked to PEDs, and the other two are a long-lost candidate for the Early Baseball Era Committee (Dahlen) and a player who has shot from 10.2% in his first year on the ballot to 52.9% in his fourth (Rolen). Every other pet candidate that you or I have is somebody who’s just a little shy in one or both of those departments, from Minnie Miñoso and Dick Allen to Lou Whitaker and Bobby Grich to Carlos Beltrán and Kenny Lofton.

In other words, Joey Votto is about to enter the Lock for Cooperstown phase of his career. Taking his remaining ZiPS projections (including 2024) as gospel, he projects to finish at 64.8/46.9/55.9, surpassing Palmeiro for 12th all-time, with Albert Pujols (80.6 JAWS) and Cabrera (56.9 JAWS) the only two unelected players above him. If the JAWS/2,000 combo isn’t enough, that certainly is. That’s great, and it’s something to look forward to, but the best part about it is that right now, we just get to enjoy Votto raking again.

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