Joey Votto’s 2022 batting stats resemble what you might expect out of a 51-year-old version of Kevin Youkilis: .122/.278/.135. The longtime Cincinnati Reds first baseman is drawing walks, as he always has, but he is striking out at a rate far higher than his usual percentages. He plays for a baseball team that went 3-18 in April; its ownership seems to be more concerned with antagonizing its own fans than addressing its current Cleveland Spiders-ian trajectory. Also, the Reds placed Votto on the COVID-19 injured list on Tuesday.
It’s impossible to type with my hands up, but let’s start with a disclaimer: This blog does not aim to decide whether Joey Votto is washed. He’s a 38-year-old first baseman, but there are other factors here. Almost everyone in baseball hit poorly last month. Chalk it up to the lockout eating into spring training, or MLB futzing with the baseballs, but something is off—the vibes, the balls, whatever. April was the worst month of Votto’s career, but April is typically the worst month of any Votto season. He tends to start slow, adjust, and get hot as the summer goes on. Aside from all of these factors, I’ve learned from the past: In 2016 I once tried to predict Votto’s regression and learned my lesson very quickly. This time around, someone else has raised the question, and Votto noticed.
This week, Dan Szymborski published “Is This The End For Joey Votto?” on FanGraphs. It presents evidence but includes a responsible helping of caveats, and clearly the author was not wishing for the end of Joey Votto. I liked reading it. The central argument is that Votto might not be able to defer this decline the same way he has in recent years. He’s been fine at hitting the fastball, like he normally is, but he’s lost his patience on breaking balls, Szymborski argues. His plate discipline has worsened. He’s changed back to his preferred bat, but that hasn’t shown any immediate improvements. Votto is someone who’s receptive to adjustments and tweaking, but there are only so many tweaks a player his age can make. And history is not really on his side: Szymborski writes that Votto had the third-worst April OPS of anyone 37 or older (.434), and while the players on the list improved over the rest of the season, only Jim Edmonds in 2008 and George Brett in 1990 bounced back to a respectable level. Around half of the players on that list retired after the season, according to Szymborski. All of these points are valid. That said, if there were a guy who could be the outlier, it’d be the guy we’re discussing.
Votto saw the FanGraphs article and acknowledged it. The tweet in which he did so wasn’t really a dunk on Szymborski, but more of a reminder that it’s a long season, which is true. (This was before the Reds put him on the COVID list.)
Votto’s social-media presence is a relatively new development, and one that’s a little unexpected. If you told me a baseball player in his late 30s suddenly decided to join Twitter, I’d probably conclude that he saw the events of Jan. 6, watched some videos suggested by YouTube, and felt a spark ignite deep within him. Votto took a more normal path: He was already online but was reluctant to actively participate. Chelsea Janes of the Washington Post wrote about why the first baseman picked up Twitter, TikTok, and Instagram, and how particular he is about what he posts:
Votto is painstakingly careful about those P’s and Q’s. He has enlisted everyone from PR staff to reporters to teammates to advise him on the phrasing of tweets or music choices for TikToks.
Pick up a gun click in the beginning of a song? That’s out—kids might hear it. Could a tweet slightly, possibly imply something negative about someone? That tweet dies in the Notes app. When some took issue with a TikTok video of Votto copying a dance from a Doja Cat video while wearing a Ron Weasley costume, he deleted it. What is clear in talking to Votto is that he doesn’t mind if people don’t like him. But he wants to make sure that if they don’t like him, it’s for the right reasons—whatever those are.Washington Post
“I don’t think the average fan knows me very well, and that probably isn’t a huge priority for the average fan, but it feels kind of important to me,” Votto told Janes. Within his very specific rubric, he’s willing to talk about the crummy parts, too. He knows what his slash line is this season:
It’s a cruel coincidence that Votto is opening up and engaging with fans just as he has slumped and the Cincinnati Reds have transformed into the worst major-league team this season. (After that 3-18 month, they’re 3-21 as of Thursday morning.) Yes, Votto is off to a horrid start, but it doesn’t help that Jonathan India has a bum hamstring; that the pitching rotation is a combination of inexperienced, hurt, or atrocious; or that there is no one else to protect him in the lineup because the Castellini family chose to totally bottom out. The current environment in Cincinnati is not conducive for Votto to succeed, let alone any player.
Maybe some time on the IL will let Votto watch his at-bats, find some new tweaks, and get himself right. His strikeout rate will drop, the Reds will string together a few wins to go from abysmal to merely bad, and at some point one of their pitchers might even log the team’s first quality start of the season. That might sound highly unlikely right now, but it’s a lot easier for me to accept than the notion that Joey Votto is toast, right when he’s been more willing to talk about baseball than ever.