Cincinnati Reds: A look into Joey Votto’s early struggles

Apr 14, 2016; Chicago, IL, USA; Cincinnati Reds first baseman Joey Votto (19) looks on after the Chicago Cubs had a hit at Wrigley Field. Mandatory Credit: Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports
Apr 14, 2016; Chicago, IL, USA; Cincinnati Reds first baseman Joey Votto (19) looks on after the Chicago Cubs had a hit at Wrigley Field. Mandatory Credit: Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports /

A look at some reasons why the Cincinnati Reds’ best player is struggling early on.

Thursday’s no-hitter aside, the Reds have actually had a respectable offense so far, ranking 13th in baseball in runs scored with 63.

The production has come from across the board, too. Zack Cozart is hitting .390 out of the leadoff spot. Jay Bruce and Eugenio Suarez have cooled off in recent games, but got off to sizzling starts at the plate and are tied for the team lead in home runs (4). Brandon Phillips, Adam Duvall and Tucker Barnhart have also made solid contributions.

But one of the most notable things about the Reds’ offense so far is the lack of impact Joey Votto has had.

In the opening 16 games of the season, the first baseman is hitting just .172/.258/.241 with two extra-base hits and is hitless over his last 19 at-bats. He has struck out 14 times (21.2 K%) against just seven walks (10.6 BB%), both quite a bit worse than his career rates.

When healthy, it’s been rare to see him in a slump anywhere close to this.

Before getting too far into the analysis, let’s acknowledge that Votto will be fine. Sure, he isn’t hitting right now, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that he’s been one of the best hitters in the game for years and he’s coming off of a third place finish in the National League MVP voting last season.

That said, there are a few interesting things to note about Votto’s struggles to this point. One of the observations many fans, broadcasters and writers have made is that it seems like pitchers are throwing inside to him a lot. You can see is clearly the case from these zone maps (via Brooks Baseball):

votto pitch comparison
votto pitch comparison /

The left picture illustrates how pitchers were throwing to Votto from his rookie season in 2007 to last year. As you can see, most of the pitches were on the outside part of the plate, which is his sweet spot where he can drive the ball up the middle and to the opposite field. On the right, you can see the stark contrast in the way he’s being thrown to this year as compared to seasons past. He’s getting pitched in on his hands more often and he hasn’t had much success when that has happened so far.

Several of the Canadian’s 14 strikeouts have been on inside pitches and he’s also pulling the ball far more than he ever has. In his career, 35.0 percent of his batted balls have been pulled, 34.3 percent have gone up the middle and 30.8 percent have gone to the opposite field — a pretty even distribution. This year, he’s pulling the ball a whopping 48.9 percent of the time, far above his career rate. With many teams employing a shift to the right side of the infield against him, this has meant a whole lot of ground outs to the first and second basemen (chart via

Some other interesting notes can be found in Votto’s plate discipline stats. He’s swinging at 42.0 percent of pitches, and while that is still below his career average, it’s his highest rate since 2011. Additionally, pitchers are going right at him on the inside part of the plate early in counts, as he is seeing first-pitch strikes 65.2 percent of the time, way above his career rate of 55.5 percent.

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While Votto is swinging more often, he’s actually making contact at a higher rate than ever before. He has swung and missed at only 6.6 percent of the pitches he’s seen, which is the lowest rate of his career. Granted, this is only in 16 games, but that’s still mighty impressive. Not only is he putting the bat on the ball more often, he’s also hitting the ball just as hard as he ever has, with his hard-contact percentage (44.7 percent) well above his career rate (36.8 percent).

Although he’s making hard contact, he’s hitting fewer line drives than usual (24.4 LD% vs. 25.3% for his career) and his ground balls are way up (48.9 GB% vs. 41.5%). Couple that with the fact that he’s pulling the ball into the shift often, and that can go a long way in explaining his .205 batting average on balls in play. A BABIP that low is not sustainable, so over time that number will rise, but keeping the ball off the ground on the right side of the infield will be a huge key.

As the underlying numbers suggest, Votto will certainly bounce back; he’s simply too good not to. It’s a matter of adapting to the new way pitchers are attacking him. Teams are having success getting in on the slugger’s hands and word seems to have gotten around about the effectiveness of pitching that way against him. But if there’s anything Votto has proved in his major-league career, it’s that he is great at tweaking his game when necessary, like all great hitters do.