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What happened to Joey Votto?

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Where did all the home runs go?

USA TODAY Sports/Peter Rogers Illustrations

If you looked just under the surface, nothing would seem amiss. Votto’s 41.0% hard contact rate was the best of his career, and his minuscule 9.1% soft contact rate was also a personal best. His walk and strikeout percentages were still elite. His line drive percentage was insane, at 31.4% (second only to Freddie Freeman). So what happened to all the home runs? Has the 35-year-old Joey Votto fallen off the proverbial cliff? Or did he get unlucky?

Let’s look at a few areas and then come up with a verdict we can all agree on.

Launch Angle isn’t the problem...

Here are Votto’s launch angles since 2015 (in degrees): 10.7, 11.6, 14.0, 13.3. Considering the 10.9 degree MLB average—as well as the fact that Votto slugged 29 home runs in both 2015 and 2016 with lower launch angles—I think this umm, angle, is overrated.

Barrels are still a hair above average...

Let’s discuss barrel percentage with the 6.1% MLB average as our guide. Here are Votto’s marks since 2015: 10.9%, 9.7%, 9.1%, and 6.7%. Yikes! We might be onto something. Given that Votto is now 35 years old—and that Father Time comes for us all—this is a disturbing four-year trend and a noteworthy dropoff from 2017 to 2018. Perhaps Votto is merely average with regard to generating barrels now, and maybe he will continue to fall off next year. I am inclined to think he’ll remain average or a hair above, though. His phenomenal career and hitting acumen have to count for something. Also, since Votto was a hair above average in this regard during 2018, I don’t think this barrel percentage can explain the lack of power Votto showed this year. 6.7% is still above average, after all.

Average Distance

Here is the average distance Votto has managed on his batted ball events by year (in feet). I also included his ranks among his MLB peers:

2015: 188 (66th)

2016: 185 (79th)

2017: 197 (42nd)

2018: 192 (43rd)

Seeing as how Votto ranked ahead of guys like Freddie Freeman, Francisco Lindor, Paul Goldschmidt, and Alex Bregman this year, I don’t think average distance is the issue. I also think it is noteworthy that Votto’s distance has increased over the last two years, despite assertions by some that the MLB ball lost some juice this year.

Expected wOBA (xwOBA)

Expected wOBA is useful because it focuses on quality of contact (launch angle and exit velocity) and not outcomes—i.e. if a hitter laced a rocket directly at a defender, His wOBA would go down, but his xWOBA would tell you more of the story. While no metric is perfect, it’s nice to see that Votto ranked second among first basemen in this regard, and sixth in all of baseball (.396 xwOBA). The list of players who are ahead of Votto is illustrious: Mookie Betts, Mike Trout, J.D. Martinez, Christian Yelich, and Steve Pearce. Sidenote: How about Steve Pearce showing up in this space?!? The Red Sox have three of the top five hitters? Sheesh.

Anyway, on the whole it’s important to note that Votto’s launch angle and exit velocity don’t seem to be a major problem. He is still a quality MLB hitter.

The Verdict

It’s not all gloomy, okay? Votto’s .284 batting average ranked 18th in the National League, and his .417 OBP ranked first. Sure, he only managed 12 home runs this year, but from everything I can gather, that was a fluke. Votto’s 9.5% HR/FB rate was the worst mark of his career, and his career average is 18.3%. Votto’s marks in this regard over the last three years are: 21.6%, 22.0%, and 19.7%. So the 9.5% HR/FB mark seems unlucky.

In a nutshell: Votto ranked sixth in the MLB in xwOBA, and second among all first basemen (behind only ‘platooner’ Steve Pearce). He made more hard contact and less soft contact than ever before, and ranked second in the MLB in line drive rate. There were no drastic changes in his batted ball profile, either. His average distance on batted ball events remained steady. His .417 OBP trailed only Mookie Betts and Mike Trout.

I checked out some #2EarlyMock ADP and saw that Votto’s median pick is pick 46. So in a 12-team league, you are acquiring his services at the end of Round 4. That feels about right, but I also think it’s possible that Votto falls into Round 5 in some leagues. Many drafters will note the 12 home runs from last year and move on quickly, believing that Votto’s decline has begun in earnest. But you, like me, are too smart to make that decision...right?

If my draftmates let Votto fall, I’ll be scooping him up where I can. How about you all?