Vigilant Votto

Ever since 2008, Joey Votto has been the starting first baseman for the Cincinnati Reds. Ever since 2008, the National League has been a playground for the 27-year-old from Toronto. Proof is right here…

But Joey Votto hasn’t had the 2011 that some might have envisioned for him. I mean, he is the defending NL MVP, right? He did win the Hank Aaron Award, didn’t he? He was the last player voted onto the NL All-Star team last season, correct?

No question that Votto has become the cornerstone of the Reds franchise. The fact that he has started all but one game this season at the position tells you all you need to know about Votto the person and player. But in grading Votto’s 2011 thus far, you do need to tread a little lightly…

I say that only because with that MVP season of a year ago brings with it the chances of expectations being set to high. Most “projections” that I saw in reference to Votto and what he might achieve this season had his power numbers slightly lower than those he amassed in 2010. The averages (BA, OBP, SLG) reflected the change. When comparing 2010 to 2011, you will notice that.

Those projections were practically spot on as Votto has not seen the type of pitches he did last season. And that has held a slightly negative impact on the position (and Votto to an extent) as a whole. Some are thinking the power stroke isn’t there, but it is. Hard to hit the long ball when you’re not getting the pitches to hit.

Offensively, sure, the power numbers (HR and SLG) are lower. As I have pointed out, that was to be expected, and to one’s surprise, his walk rate has increased from 14.0% last season to 17.1% this year. And with that, Votto’s RBI number has fallen off a bit as well.

So how has he compensated?

Votto has increased his plate discipline. He has swung at less pitches outside the strike zone in 2011 (25.7%) than he did in 2010 (29.9%). While he has also swung at less pitches within the zone (72.9% in ’10, 65.8% in ’11), he has been able to make better contact on those this season (82.4% for ’10, 85.8% for ’11). This is also reflected in that the Reds first baseman has a higher overall contact rate (77.7% in ’10 compared to 78.6% this season) and a lower rate of swinging strikes (10.4% last season with 8.6% this season). Considering he sees less first pitch strikes (58.0% in 2010, 51.8% in 2011), Votto know he has to be more selective.

But if you think Votto just brings a bat with him, you are sadly mistaken. He brings a glove that is pretty darn solid, also. Last season, a few whispers emerged of Votto one day maybe grabbing a Gold Glove. This season, he has shown that he can handle the position. A slight bump here and there, but still, Votto has displayed a high-caliber defense, too.

Case in point. For 2010, Votto had an RF/9 of 8.84 and an RF/G of 8.51, well off the league averages of 9.23 and 9.13, respectively. While he is still a bit off these averages this season (9.39 and 9.36), he still posts an RF/9 of 9.37 and an RF/G of 9.34. I know defensive “stats” are not always a “tell all” about a players defensive ability, but Votto does own a UZR this season of 3.5. For 2010, that was a 1.6. Yes, he has improved with these numbers in mind.

So how do you assign a grade to the reigning NL MVP? I’ve defended his lack of power numbers partially due to his increased walk rate. I’ve pointed to his statistical improvement in the field, too.

As you might expect, Votto will receive my highest grade of A-, slightly less than the A grade I gave him after last season. Even though I did offer defense, there’s still another half of the season on which to improve.

And I believe Votto feels the same.