The phrase “game on the line” might be a tad melodramatic for the circumstance. But Joey Votto did represent the tying run as he walked up to bat. Two Reds runners were on with two out in the bottom of the 8th on Sunday. The Reds veteran first baseman was facing the Detroit Tigers best reliever, Gregory Soto. Soto sports a 98-mph fastball and a Rob Dibble power slider. Much like the former Nasty Boy, Soto doesn’t always know where his pitches are headed, which makes it even trickier to stand in the batter’s box against him with confidence.
And, Gregory Soto is left-handed.
As it turns out, that last bit of information — Soto being left-handed — defined the situation more than the rest. That’s because lately Joey Votto hasn’t hit lefties anywhere near as well as he did before.
Votto lasted six pitches against Soto. To the former MVP’s credit, that was one pitch more than Nick Castellanos when the Reds right fielder struck out ahead of Votto. Soto threw Votto a 99-mph 4-seam fastball, then topped it with one that registered in three integers, and also four of those nasty sliders. There’s no shame in the outcome as Votto swung and missed strike three.
What stood out was that the future Hall of Famer looked as overmatched as you’d expect for a player who turns 38 later this week.
Most batters hit better against opposite-handed pitching than against same-handed pitching. It has to do with the ease in which batters see pitches and adjust to balls breaking toward them compared to those breaking away. It’s referred to the batter’s “platoon split.” For example, a right-handed batter with a .280 batting average against left-handed pitcher and a .250 average against right-handed pitchers has a .030 platoon split for batting average. You can measure platoon splits for power hitting (ISO or SLG) and composite batting (wOBA or wRC+) as well.
[For reference, I’ll be using wRC+, which measures run production on a scale with 100 being league average. Every point of deviation from 100 is a percentage better or worse than average. Stats complete through Monday morning.]
Some batters have large platoon splits, others have small ones. The average split for a right-handed batter is 14% (107 vs. 93) while the average split for lefties is 20% (80 vs. 100). Here are 2021 handedness splits for the Reds right-handed batters:
The first three — Jonathan India, Kyle Farmer and Aristides Aquino — have had normal platoon splits for RHB in varying degrees. Nick Castellanos and Tyler Stephenson haven’t shown much production difference based on the pitcher’s hand. After a career where he exhibited a large normal platoon split, Eugenio Suarez is now in the second season of a significant reverse split.
Here are the Reds regular lefties in 2021:
The word “enormous” doesn’t begin to describe the size of the platoon splits for Jesse Winker, Tyler Naquin and Mike Moustakas. Each is several times the league average. Their steep fall off against LHP is a big part of the reason the Reds have struggled vs. lefties. Tucker Barnhart, in his second season giving up switch hitting, has evened out his split. I didn’t include lefties Shogo Akiyama or Max Schrock because of small sample sizes.
Looking at those two tables, you can see why David Bell takes advantage of that information, platoons his outfielders and pinch hits when he can. Why ever let Mike Moustakas face a LHP if you can avoid it?
An important caveat here is that single-season platoon splits may not be super predictive because of sample size. In many cases, it makes more sense to base playing time and pinch hitting decisions on career numbers. Naquin (111/70), Winker (152/67) and Moustakas (104/89) show normal platoon splits over their careers. To show how single-season numbers can mislead, in 2020 Jesse Winker eliminated his platoon split (148/140) and it looked safe to let him bat against left-handed pitchers. But in 2021 he’s returned to his career pattern and it’s looking like those 2020 numbers — based on just 41 plate appearances — were an anomaly.
Votto’s Platoon Splits
Conspicuous in absence from the above table is the player we’re here to analyze: Joey Votto. The next chart is all about him. The top row shows his career platoon split, the bottom row his 2021 split:
Each of those numbers is noteworthy in its own right. Votto’s career hitting against both RHP and LHP has been phenomenal. That 156 for a 15-year career against RHP is MVP-level production. The 132 career vs. LHP has to be one of the highest same-hand splits for a LHH of all time.
The 2021 numbers are telling as well. Votto continues to mash right-handed pitching. In his age-37 season, he’s hit better than his super-high career average against righties. 165 is a jaw-dropping number and an astonishing accomplishment.
But sadly, we’ve gathered here to heed the 78. Joey Votto’s 2021 platoon split vs. left-handed pitchers is 22% below league average. That’s based on 141 plate appearances — not a huge sample, but not tiny either.
If you prefer colorful graphics to boring tables, try these:
The left spray chart is Votto’s batted balls in play against right-handed pitchers. The right chart is vs. lefties. The gray dots are outs. Note how many fuchsia-color dots (home runs) are on the left graph compared to the right.
Anomaly or Trend?
Any normal 37-year-old player? You’d attribute that 78 to aging and think to yourself, “hmm, not bad for the old guy.”
But we’re talking Joseph Daniel Votto. The person who in 2021 still obliterates right-handed pitching. The person who’s worn t-shirts to mock the notion of being in a decline phase. By the way, those shirts are still available for purchase in a variety of colors, sizes and sleeve lengths.
Just maybe Votto’s 2021 is an unusual sample. We can check his recent seasons to see if it’s an outlier or another data point for a downward trend.
I didn’t say this looks like the graph on Votto’s t-shirt. You said it.
The thin red line running through the heart of the graph at 100 represents league average wRC+ against left-handed pitchers. The data shows Votto spent a decade towering over the league, lefty-on-lefty. But come 2018, his performance against lefties starts to decline. It moved below the league-average equator in 2019 and has stayed there through that at bat against Gregory Soto on Sunday.
To be sure, Votto’s destruction of right-handed pitchers in 2021 is real, spectacular and the biggest reason to pause before consigning his split against lefties to remaining sub-par.
But 2021 appears to be no anomaly. That’s the bony, crooked finger of Father Time pointing at the last four seasons on that graph.
What Votto’s Left-Handed Split Means
There’s an obvious and persuasive point to make that the Reds ownership and front office should have done much more to make the 2021 team better given Votto’s age and likelihood Nick Castellanos will opt out of his Reds contract. Aspects of the Reds future are promising. But Votto and Castellanos are unlikely to be part of it the way they could have been this year. But that’s water under the Brent Spence.
Now that we’ve come to grips with Joey Votto’s baseball mortality, at least against left-handed pitchers (we have, haven’t we?), what does that mean for the day-to-day management of the Reds?
First, it makes obvious sense for David Bell to choose off days for Votto when the Reds face a left-handed starter, as Bell did yesterday in Chicago.
What about pinch hitting? Has the day arrived when the Reds manager should consider subbing for Joey Votto at the plate in a big spot against a tough left-handed pitcher?
Bell is anything but shy about using platoon splits to inform his pinch hitting decisions. He subs on a routine basis for other lefties like Tyler Naquin, Tucker Barnhart and Mike Moustakas. Bell even put a right-handed batter in for Jesse Winker a few times.
Yet Joey Votto, along with Nick Castellanos and Jonathan India, has remained sacrosanct. But for Castellanos and India, both halves of their platoon splits are well north of 100. There’s no point in replacing them. With Votto that’s not the case.
Of course, any specific situation where subbing for Joey Votto might make sense is complicated by the same myriad of strategic factors as with any pinch hit decision. Should Bell save his right-handed batters to pinch hit for other lefties later in the game? Would the pinch hitter be able to play first base? What are the odds that Votto’s spot might come up later in the game. And if it did, what are the chances he’d face a right-handed pitcher?
More profound: Would the dugout walls crumble when another batter is announced as worthy to replace Joey Votto in the batters’s box? Could the first player called upon to pinch hit for Votto (cough … Tyler … cough, cough … Stephenson) wrap his head around it and function?
Seriously, think about that. Being asked to pinch hit for Joey Votto. It’s mind boggling. But an actual possibility.
Sure, the Reds have a thousand problems. Joey Votto’s fading performance against left-handed pitchers isn’t at the top of the list, but it’s percolating. That it comes in the context of his spectacular, age-defying season hitting right-handed pitchers is glorious irony.
Joey Votto still ranks in the league’s top echelon in average exit velocity, hard-hit balls and barrels. His xwOBA ranks in the top 4%. To find this new, higher level of production, Votto sacrificed a bit of his famous plate discipline. But he still ranks in the 92nd percentile in walk-rates.
And let’s be clear on one thing. The information superhighway is littered with discredited takes announcing the arrival of Joey Votto’s decline phase. Whatever validity you assign to conclusions drawn here may be wiped away by another bounce back chapter in Votto’s remarkable and resilient story.
Yet hello, we’re all getting older. Tasks we could easily do before we struggle in degrees to do now. Nothing remotely as hard as hitting a 91-mph slider. We may deny it or do our best to stave it off. But advancing weakness of flesh and mind is intrinsic to what it means to be alive and human. If the leading edge of Votto’s decline as a baseball player is showing up in his left-handed splits, so be it. The way I see it, understanding that makes witnessing Joey Votto’s future accomplishments even sweeter.
Photo credit: Steve Mancuso