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Votto plans to win battle with Father Time

Reds first baseman isn't ready for age to impact his offense
@castrovince
March 12, 2019

GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Joey Votto can live with having a bad year, as long as it’s a single bad year. “You can’t have two,” the 35-year-old Reds first baseman said Tuesday, “or else that’s who you are.”

GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Joey Votto can live with having a bad year, as long as it’s a single bad year.

“You can’t have two,” the 35-year-old Reds first baseman said Tuesday, “or else that’s who you are.”

Did Votto have a bad year in 2018?

By the standards of your typical 34-year-old first baseman? No, not really.

By Votto’s unusually high standards? Yes.

Coming off an MVP-worthy 2017, Votto experienced the following statistical regression:

2017: .320 AVG, .454 OBP, .578 SLG, 167 OPS+, 164 wRC+
2018: .284 AVG, .417 OBP, .419 SLG, 125 OPS+, 131 wRC+

What separated 2018 from some Votto seasons of old was the lack of a second-half resurgence. He’s started slowly before, but his second-half numbers have typically been an improvement. In Votto’s career, he has a .932 OPS in the first half of seasons and a .992 mark in the second half.

Asked about his frustration with the “trajectory” of his 2018, Votto, once again living up to his reputation as one of the better interviews in the game, took the phrase and ran with it.

“I didn’t like the takeoff, the cruising altitude or the landing, if we’re using physics terms,” he said. “I just didn’t perform well enough. I think the No. 1 thing that stood out to me is I didn’t hit for enough power. Not enough homers, not enough doubles. There’s no reason physically why I would have such a substantial drop-off from 2017. So I didn’t like that.”

Votto went from ranking sixth among National League qualifiers in slugging in 2017 to 42nd in ’18. That’s a steep drop, and it leads to the natural question of whether Father Time had caught up to Votto. Such a thing has been known to happen to players as they reach their mid-30s.

That doesn’t really appear to be the case with Votto, though. For what it’s worth, his average exit velocity (88.1 mph) was actually an improvement on his 2017 mark (87.5).

As he relayed in a typically insightful interview with Eno Sarris of The Athletic (subscription required), Votto feels his issue was truly technical, not physical. He claims he was releasing the barrel of the bat slightly early, affecting his contact point and causing him to hook the ball instead of hitting for power up the middle.

If we can step away from the lofty offensive expectations held for this particular player, we can still appreciate Votto’s 2018 for what it was -- a productive season for a mid-30s player. We don’t see that as often as we used to. In the last three seasons, only seven times has a qualified player aged 34 or older produced at least a 125 OPS+:

2016: Adrian Beltre (128), Nelson Cruz (147), David Ortiz (164)
2017: Cruz (149), Edwin Encarnacion (128)
2018: Cruz (135), Votto (125)

Considering Votto and Beltre are the only ones on the list to regularly man a position, that’s a solid showing.

But the above is no solace to a player who expects so much of himself. Votto, now 1,575 games played into his potentially Cooperstown-worthy career, wants to age gracefully, not rapidly, and, for him, 2018 ain’t cutting it.

“The players I look up to stayed the same or got better as they got older,” he said. “They may have played a little bit less, but if you look at Ted Williams or Tony Gwynn or Edgar Martinez … there’s too many examples to name of players that played well as they got older. They didn’t have the same workload, but they certainly offered a lot of bang for their buck when it came to performance. They did great things over 2,000 or 2,500 games played. If you can get over that threshold and overcome a decline phase, that’s important.”

And that’s why it’s so important to Votto that he shake off his “bad year” with a good one.

Anthony Castrovince has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2004. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince.