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Who is this new Joey Votto?

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

Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss - just different.

Just over a week ago, there was much consternation about the modifications made by Joey Votto and the production that it had (not) produced in early action for the Cincinnati Reds in 2021. Through 9 games, he was hitting just .162/.205/.162, with nary an extra base hit to his name. At 37 years old, and with a trio of seasons in his rear-view mirror that looked nothing like the player he once was, it was enough to begin wonder if the Reds master of reinvention had finally run out of ideas.

Yet here we are this morning, and a quick glance at his Baseball Savant page shows us Joey is exactly the guy we’ve always known once again relative to his peers:

That’s our Joey, alright. So damn glad he’s back.

Jokes aside, towards the end of his age-36 season in 2020, he did not modify his foot speed. There’s a reason he’s been a catcher-turned-1B in his career, after all. What he did do was make a firm commitment to try to tap back into a swing that produced the most possible power upon contact, and lean into that 100% - even if it cost him some of the strikezone prowess that had defined much of his career. A more upright stance, a more violent swing, and a lack of the choking-up that became synonymous with his plate approach of letting no strike get past him.

A more thorough glance at his Baseball Savant page shows that yeah, he’s got that back so far this year, too:

While the walk rate is decidedly lower than a typical Votto season, that’s the one byproduct he spoke openly about sacrificing in this quest to bang again. What’s remarkable, I think, is that while the walk rate has declined, it hasn’t come with a huge spike in his strikeout rate, which still ranks in the 88th percentile to date - meaning it’s not that he’s going up there just swinging blindly at everything as hard as he possibly can.

Rather, what he’s doing is trying to actively punish more pitches than he used to, and he’s already mashed at least one harder than 95% of his peers. He is actively mashing them harder than 83% of his peers. He is doing all of this with a new stance, and he’s doing it on purpose.

Here’s a bad golf analogy that might resonate with some of you.

The old Joey was a guy who valued hitting from the short grass and taking very little risk, in part because he could find fairways better than anyone on the planet. He didn’t care if he laid back on par 4s and needed a 5-iron to find the green, as he had the most perfect 5-iron swing on the planet, too. Why risk bombing driver off the tee just to try to get to 9-iron range to the green if it means putting water, trees, and bunkers in play?

Sure, it might take eagle out of the equation on par-5s, but a layup and sand wedge close kept birdie as a very viable option. However, that plan worked back when courses were 7,000 yards and he was 28 years old, and now they’re pushing 8,000 yards and he’s not. The fairways are skinnier, the greens harder, and taking eagle out of the equation damn near takes birdie out, too. To roll this back into a post about baseball, just take a look at the kind of offerings Joey has been facing of late relative to back in the days of .430 OBPs and the crouched, defensive swings:

He faced a peak of 67.4% fastballs in 2016, a number that at 67.3% as recently as 2018 suggested there was a tangible way pitchers approached him. Even with the spike in fastball velocity that came over that time, he was being attacked in a way that featured perhaps the most predictable pitch in the game coming his way over 2/3rd of the time. That number has dipped to just 54.2% of the time in 2021, however, with a concurrent spike in breaking balls that’s now up to 28% of his offerings.

(And keep in mind, the velocity spike that fastballs have seen is right there in breaking pitches, too, as they’re coming his way harder than ever.)

In other words, if he can’t find fairways with even the old approach anymore, there’s no reason to do anything other than try to sock the hell out the ball on every full swing.

Way back in the early throes of April, I made a series of Dumb Predictions about these Reds, most of which came with the obvious caveat that they’d fail miserably early and often. Hell, some of them already look like they have. But the one I made about Joey both seems to be playing out about how I expected so far, which should’ve been obvious knowing just how ahead-of-the-game Votto has been throughout his career:

He went from punchless to puncher, socking dingers a plenty down the stretch with a devil-may-care attitude to striking out that he’d not had previously.

I think it rolls into 2021, with an early power surge until pitchers begin to adjust to him the way he adjusted to them last year. Only it’s different when Joey forces the change instead of the inverse, because that puts him in the driver’s seat to again command all parts of the strike zone, and I think his early power will lead to a spate of later walks this year.

I say 20 dingers by the All Star break, only a handful after, but enough down-the-stretch walking that he again reaches 100 BB for the year.

We’re certainly still in small-sample range here, and that’s a very important caveat to it all, the the last week of mashing - .435/.480/.957 (1.437 OPS), 3 dingers, 3 doubles - suggests Votto has again found a loophole in how he’s being approached as well as a way to exploit it, and the only question now is just how quickly pitchers can adapt to his adaptation. Can they do so in the middle of the year and start getting him out the way they did for much of 2020 against his new approach? Or will they abandon trying altogether, once again forced to nibble at the nether-regions of the zone where he will not follow, thereby turning him back in the walking, talking, on-base machine where he’s made his Hall of Fame career?

I think there’s certainly still a big part of him that’s willing to take the approach that got him here if it’s what the pitchers on the mound against him so choose. But what we’ve seen from him so far this year is that he now considers that worst case scenario, and he’s found a way to punish them if they approach him any different.

This chapter of Joey Votto’s career is about to be simply fascinating.

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