Defeating Father Time: Inside the Improbable Reinvention of Joey Votto


In front of 15,404 fans gathered at Great American Ballpark on a perfect August evening, Joey Votto lined a curveball into center field and with it his 2,000th hit. Votto tipped his helmet to the crowd and marked yet another defining moment in what has been a season filled with them. Votto finds himself amid an improbable resurgence of the form that made him an MVP, a household name, and a Cincinnati legend.

With the 44th selection in the 2002 First-Year Player Draft, the Reds took a flyer on a Canadian prep school catcher. The transition from amateur ball in Canada to American pro ball proved to be a rocky one for Votto who failed to hit for an average over .300 in three of his first four professsonal campaigns. The career trajectory of Joey Votto was forever altered with his sensational 2006 season where in 136 games with Double-A Chattanooga, he batted .319 with a .408 on-base percentage and blasted 22 round-trippers. From that moment forward, he would cement his status as one of the best hitters in the Reds organization and eventually, all of baseball. Wearing number 19, Votto made his Major League debut in the waning days of the Reds' maligned 2007 season. In a limited sample size of 89 plate appearances, he hit for a .321 average and hit four home runs. This first taste of big-league action would set up the future Reds Hall of Famer for a remarkable rookie season in 2008. In his first full Major League season, Votto batted .297 with a .368 on-base percentage and finished second in National League Rookie of the Year voting to Chicago catcher Geovany Soto.


While he was an above-average player, it was Votto's 2010 season that launched him from Cincinnati notoriety to national stardom. In a season that saw the Reds clinch their first playoff berth in 15 years, Votto was named to the All-Star team for the first time in his career and was named the National League’s Most Valuable Player. In this springboard season, the new slugger batted .324, belted 37 home runs, and led the league in on-base percentage, slugging, and OPS. For the next seven years, Votto would maintain high levels of production, save an injury-marred 2014, culminating in a 2017 season that saw him finish second to Giancarlo Stanton in the tightest MVP race since 1979 (lost by two ballot points). Votto put forward a solid 2018 campaign, however, it appeared to mark the beginning of the end of a legendary career. He managed to hit .284 and lead the National League in on-base percentage, however, he saw a precipitous decline in power, hitting only 12 home runs after blasting 36 round-trippers only a year prior. The declining form of Joey Votto became clear for all to see in 2019. In 142 games, the veteran could only muster a .261 batting average, .357 on-base percentage, and 15 home runs.


Votto came into Spring Training in 2020 with the hope of returning to his former levels, however, those plans were put on hold by the COVID-19 Pandemic. The Major League Baseball season began in late July, however, Votto’s start could kindly be described as sluggish. After a 0-for-4 with four strikeouts performance in Milwaukee on August 25th, Votto’s batting average had dipped to .191. At that moment he was hitting just .266 and slugging a measly .409 over more than 1,000 of his recent at-bats. To the baseball world, it was increasingly evident that the illustrious career of Joey Votto was largely over. When describing his troubles to the Cincinnati Enquirer, he reasoned, “I’m the type of player, maybe person, but certainly the type of player, I like to be in control, I like to know that I’m going to be successful. I’ve always tried to create a style that allows me to feel like I have that sort of control. Over the last little bit, some changes to the defense, with some changes to the pitching style, I found that I lost that control.” Following the disastrous game in Milwaukee, Votto did not play in the next three games. Over this short but necessary break, he completely overhauled his entire offensive approach to compete with the high-powered arms filling every Major League roster.


He began by watching copious amounts of film from the young stars of the game who had spent their lives in this high velocity and high spin rate world. Votto decided that he had to begin standing taller in the box to adequately cover the high fastball. Furthermore, he began to allow the palm of his left hand to go upwards through the ball at impact to generate a backspin and lift. For the first time, Votto had fully subscribed to what many in baseball refer to as the launch angle movement. While launch angle is simply a measure of how a ball exits the bat, players seek to perfect their launch angle to battle high-powered modern pitching. This is accomplished by keeping the swing short and quick to the ball followed by elongated extension through and up along the plane of the pitch to generate backspin. This approach is the modern solution to the modern problem of high spin rate pitchers. Watching Votto, it is clear that he has adopted these modern practices as he now employs a more violent and more powerful swing. Additionally, his hands now finish much higher in his swing due to his focus on extending through the ball along the plane of the pitch.


The alterations to his swing proved to be instantly successful as he belted a home run in his first at-bat following his benching. Since that pivotal moment, Votto has hit more home runs than every Major Leaguer not named Fernando Tatis Jr., Shohei Ohtani, Ronald Acuna Jr., and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. At present, Votto is tied for third in the National League home run race despite missing roughly a month to injury. Describing his new swing to the Enquirer, Votto said: “More or less, after the benching, I went to a hybrid version of the way I hit when I first came up. It paid off. I couldn’t believe how quickly I started performing well. I was scared that I had lost my power, power- the ability to hit the ball hard and far, hit the ball through defenses, be difficult to defend, and then all of a sudden it started showing up when I started taking more aggressive swings, choking down on the bat, more of a leg kick, taller stance, copying some of the guys in the game.”


Votto has developed into a completely modern hitter. He is hitting the ball in the air more frequently and is hitting for power as opposed to contact. He is no longer the contact hitter that he was for much of his career, however, he remains a successful one. Votto is experiencing career highs in his Home Run Rate (6.7%), Flyball Rate (35.4%), and Pull Rate (35%). In exchange for this renaissance, he is also experiencing a career-high strikeout rate (24%) and a career-low contact rate (72.1%). At almost 38 years old, Joey Votto is the profile of a modern slugger and holds a +2.7 Win Probability. He has admitted that his new approach leads him to swing and miss at a higher rate, which is the cost of doing business in the modern game. Votto said, “It just seemed like everybody was standing up taller, taking more aggressive swings, more willing to get fooled, swing at a ball in the dirt.”


His resurgence has been crucial for a Cincinnati Reds team attempting to crack the playoffs for the second year in a row after a long and arduous rebuild. With Votto’s clubhouse leadership and offensive explosion, the Reds find themselves 1 game behind San Diego for the second National League Wild Card.


Joey Votto’s historic and improbable return and reinvention are owed solely to his ability to identify that his former approach was no longer effective and that an evolved game required an evolved Joey Votto.


Sources:


Baseball-Reference.com

Cincinnati.com

LastWordOnSports.com

SI.com



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