CINCINNATI -- First baseman Joey Votto didn’t have Joey Votto-like production as a hitter in 2019 for the Reds, just as he hadn't in ’18. Looking ahead to ’20, Votto is determined to return to the level of success that his team needs, the fans want and, most of all, he demands of himself.
Over 142 games, Votto batted a lackluster (for him) .261/.357/.411 with 15 home runs and 47 RBIs.
Whether it was age catching up to him -- Votto turned 36 last month -- or that his process had developed flaws, Votto simply considered it to be the worst season of his career.
“It was just an awful, underwhelming experience this year,” Votto said. “Of course, the losing adds layers to that. But this was a very dissatisfying year. I anticipated different things. I prepared in the offseason in a different way. Hey, the one thing I’ve noticed is the game adjusts on the fly and I was a step or two behind. In real time this year, I’ve had to make the necessary adjustments. I really do feel like I’m a little bit more caught up.”
What went right?
Shortly after the All-Star break, Votto ditched a hitting approach that had benefited him in the recent past, especially during his near MVP year of 2017. Among the tweaks: He stopped choking up on the bat and he returned to a taller stance in the batter’s box -- both things he had done earlier in his career. Over a 26-game stretch from July 18 until a lower back strain sent him to the injured list on Aug. 15 for nearly two weeks, he had four homers, six doubles and an .823 OPS. Over his final 29 games after returning, he hit three more homers and seven doubles with a .793 OPS. It gave him some level of optimism to take away from a bleak year.
“I don’t believe in getting better in the offseason. I believe in getting better in-season and carrying that into future years,” Votto said. “I have clearly improved, and I do think this is a sustainable adjustment. There are other parts of my game I felt were shaky this year. From an offensive standpoint, I do feel like things have changed in a good way. I think [my adjustments are] repeatable and something I can take into next year and continue to improve with.”
What went wrong?
Considered one of the best hitters of his generation for getting on base, often managing more walks than strikeouts, Votto was unable to affect games and rallies as he had in the past. He saw his strikeout rate soar and his walks decrease. His .768 OPS was the lowest of his career -- as was his .618 walks-to-strikeouts ratio. He hit only 15 home runs, not much of an improvement over the 12 he launched in 2018. Other career lows included his 101 wRC+, 98 OPS+, .252 xBA and 0.7 FanGraphs WAR.
During a 6-3 victory over the Cubs on June 28, Votto enjoyed his lone four-hit game of the season, including an RBI single. Five days earlier at Miller Park -- where he often thrives -- he slugged a three-run home run during a 7-5 loss to the Brewers. Cincinnati was trailing 7-0 when Votto cleared the center field fence to spark a comeback attempt.
With four guaranteed years left on a contract worth $107 million, Votto will remain a centerpiece presence in Cincinnati’s lineup. After the team’s struggle to score runs -- the Reds plated 701 runs in 2019, just five more than in 2018 despite setting a club record for home runs in a season (227) -- Votto’s revival is critical as the team aims to finally become a contender again after six consecutive losing seasons.
“He’s a perfectionist. His expectations for himself is to be the best, to be great,” Reds manager David Bell said. “If you’re a great player in the game, you’re up, you dip, you go back up. It’s part of the process because he’s human. I think if he feels [bad about his performance in 2019], to me, that means good things for next year.
“To be great, he’s had to learn and make adjustments. He’s turned so-called failures into opportunities his whole life. That’s what made him great. What I see from a skill standpoint, it’s still there. There’s no question he can continue to be a very productive player, if not great.”