RED MONDAY | A perfect week, Joey Votto’s last ride, some unwelcome warning signs and more

Welcome to Red Monday, where Reds fans can start their week with clear-eyed analysis of how the team is doing and where it’s headed.

The Week That Was 

The Reds went 6-0 this week, sweeping the Kansas City Royals and the defending World Series champs Houston Astros, both series on the road. David Bell’s club is 37-35 overall and remain a half-game out behind Milwaukee for first place in the NL Central.

  • Monday The Reds squeaked out a 5-4 win over the Royals in extra innings. Luke Weaver gave up three runs in 4.2 innings. Stuart Fairchild hit his third home run. Kevin Newman’s pinch hit sacrifice fly gave the Reds a 4-3 lead that Buck Farmer surrendered in the bottom of the inning. The Reds scored a run in the 10th and survived a harrowing appearance by Ricky Karcher for the win.
  • Tuesday The Reds won 5-4 again, this time jumping on Royals starter Jordan Lyles for all five runs in the second inning. Three walks, a wild pitch, a couple stolen bases and a few hits scored the runs. Brandon Williamson gave up three earned runs in five innings. The Reds bullpen shut out Kansas City the final four innings. Alexis Diaz earned his 16th save.
  • Wednesday The Reds played long ball in the series finale, with four homers: Spencer Steer (9), Stuart Fairchild (4), Matt McLain (3) and Jonathan India (8). Ben Lively gave up 10 hits but only two runs. The bullpen was spotty and Alexis Diaz had to come in to record the final two outs in a 7-4 Reds win.

The Reds left Missouri, the home state of two last-place teams, and headed to Texas to take on Dusty Baker’s Houston Astros:

  • Friday Andrew Abbott worked around a lot of hard contact and two walks to shut out the Astros for six innings. Farmer and Lucas Sims continued the shutout. Diaz gave up a run but also earned his 18th save in the Reds 2-1 win. Tyler Stephenson broke the scoreless tie in the 7th on his fifth home run. Newman doubled in the Reds second run which proved to be the game winner.
  • Saturday Hunter Greene struck out only three Astros while walking four and allowing five hits in his six innings. But he left the game with a 5-2 lead. India homered in the first inning with McLain on base giving the Reds an early lead. Will Benson had three hits, including a triple, plus two walks in his five plate appearances. Stephenson had two hits and a walk. Newman had a two-run pinch hit single as the Reds built a 10-3 lead.
  • Sunday The Reds came out on top of a back-and-forth extra-inning game. Weaver had another poor start, giving up five runs in five innings. The Reds fought back to tie the game with homers from Jake Fraley (8) in his first game back from the IL and Steer (10). India’s 10th homer broke the 5-5 tie in the 8th. With Diaz unavailable to close, Ian Gibaut couldn’t hold the lead. Elly De La Cruz had a single to drive in one of the Reds three runs in the 10th. Final: 9-7. 

The Reds have won eight games in a row and were 8-1 on a three-city road trip. 

The Week to Come

The Reds have six home games this week:

  • Three with the Colorado Rockies (7:10, 7:10, 12:35)
  • An off day on Thursday
  • Three with first-place Atlanta (6:40, 4:10, 1:40)
Joey Votto is Back to Ball  

Photo: Steve Mancuso

Has the Reds front office finally, unwittingly, assembled a team around Joey Votto that can help him get to the postseason?

A few weeks ago, such a suggestion would have seemed ridiculous. The Reds organization had openly discussed their plans to contend beginning in 2024. Payroll spending and executive slideshows were aimed at Bally bankruptcy and the impossibility of competing. But now, Bally has paid up. The rest of the NL Central is heaped in a smoldering pile. The Reds rebuild is ahead of schedule. So, who knows? 

In recent days, it has become apparent the 39-year-old Votto will join the Reds’ active roster soon, if not today. Over the past two-and-a-half months, the future Hall of Famer has played more than 20 games with the Louisville Bats. He’s been rehabbing from August 2022 surgery needed to repair a torn rotator cuff and bicep.

Witness his scars. 

In recent months, Votto has seemed to enjoy dabbling in social media. We learned about his passion for chess and art museums, as well as his arduous journey back to Big League playing time. In fact, a clever self-produced video that involved his driving a bus was the first clear signal Votto’s homecoming was imminent.

Yet, what matters most to his team and Reds fans is whether Votto can still drive the ball.  

Origin Story The Reds’ reward for losing 96 games in 2001 was the third pick in the 2002 draft. GM Jim “Ralph” Bowden used it on pitcher Chris Gruler out of Liberty High School in Brentwood, California. Gruler signed for $2.5 million. Johnny Bench, who had watched Gruler at a workout that summer, declared the 18-year-old had “a better breaking ball and better change-up than Tom Seaver.” (Not that surprising since Seaver was 58 years old at the time.) 

Five frustrating years and three shoulder surgeries later, the Reds released Gruler. He had never pitched above Single-A. 

In that draft, the Reds also had a supplemental pick at the end of the first round due to their failure to sign their first-round pick from the year before. With the 40th pick in 2002, the Reds selected 3B Mark Schramek out of UT San Antonio. Over four seasons, Schramek played in nearly 400 minor league games, but never higher than Double-A. 

In the second round, the Reds selected another third baseman, Joseph Daniel Votto out of the Richview Collegiate Institute in Toronto. The 18-year-old Votto signed for $600,000. That first summer on the Reds rookie team, he played catcher (7 games), third base (19 games) and the outfield (3 games). Over six minor league seasons, Votto would suit up more than 700 times in Reds’ affiliate uniforms.  

Votto’s Reds Debut In 2007, Votto posted a 136 wRC+ at Triple-A over 133 games, earning him a September call-up. He debuted against the New York Mets on September 4. Votto’s first Major League at bat was to pinch hit for pitcher Matt Belisle. Mets reliever Guillermo Mota struck out Votto swinging on a 1-2 count.

Interim manager Pete Mackanin, who had replaced Jerry Narron, gave Votto his first start the next night and it went better. Votto, hitting 8th in a lineup that included Josh Hamilton, Adam Dunn, Edwin Encarnacion, Ken Griffey Jr. and Brandon Phillips, homered in his first at bat that night. Votto followed that up with a walk and two singles. Other than first base, Mackanin played Votto in left field six games and moved him up to third in the batting order in the season’s final week. 

The Reds hired Dusty Baker to manage in 2008. Baker played Scott Hatteberg ahead of Votto for about ten days before giving the job to the 24-year-old rookie. Votto got in 151 games in 2008, batted .297 with 24 homers and a 10% walk rate, for a wRC+ of 124. Votto finished second in the NL Rookie of the Year vote to Cubs catcher Geovany Soto. Soto went on to play for five teams over 13 seasons and accumulate 16.4 fWAR/12.0 bWAR. Votto has amassed 58 fWAR/64.5 bWAR. 

Votto’s Great Decade Contrary to silly chatter you may have heard about, Joey Votto has had more than a few good seasons. In fact, for a decade Votto was a devastating offensive force, posting these wRC+ numbers:  

  • 2009 (155)
  • 2010 (172) 
  • 2011 (157) 
  • 2012 (178)
  • 2013 (155) 
  • 2014 (128) – left quad strain = no power
  • 2015 (174)
  • 2016 (158)
  • 2017 (163) 
  • 2018 (130)

That averages to a wRC+ of 156, which is 56% better than the average Major League player. He was named NL MVP in 2010 and finished second in MVP voting by one point in 2017. Four other times he finished in the top 10. Over those ten seasons, Votto batted .312 and posted an on-base percentage of .434. Seven times he led the NL in OBP.

Votto’s 2021 Rebound In 2021, after posting two sub-par seasons for him in 2019 (wRC+ 98) and 2020 (wRC+ 110), Votto bounced back with a terrific year. He missed a month early due to a broken thumb, but still played in 129 games. Votto mashed 36 home runs, walked 14.4% of his plate appearances and put up a 139 wRC+. Votto had begun his bounce back after David Bell benched him for four games in July 2020. 

Last year, Votto was hobbled by injury but still produced a respectable 92 wRC+. 

Votto’s All-Time Reds Rankings You can make a case (as Chad Dotson has) that Joey Votto is the best hitter in Cincinnati Reds history. Whether or not you’re willing to go that far, there is no denying Votto belongs in the pantheon of Reds Greatest with names like Bench, Robinson, Morgan and others. A few of Votto’s all-time ranks with the Reds:

  • 2nd in home runs (342). Johnny Bench has 389 in 600 more plate appearances.
  • 2nd in on-base percentage (.412). Joe Morgan is at .415.
  • 5th in hits
  • 1st in walks
  • 2nd in doubles
  • 2nd in extra-base hits

And Joey Votto isn’t finished.

Clutch hitting? Please. Baseball-Reference collects career “high-leverage” stats. Johnny Bench’s OPS in high leverage spots was .837. Tony Perez, known for clutchiness, .834. Joey Votto checks in at 1.041. Votto has been the best clutch run producer in team history. 

The Challenges What Joey Votto can provide for the 2023 Reds remains to be seen. He turns 40 in September. He’s recovering from not one, but two major shoulder procedures. That would be a challenge for any player.  

After a long career known for handling left-handed pitching — he posted a wRC+ of 145 vs. LHP in that glorious decade — Votto became mortal against lefties. He did bounce back with a 102 wRC+ vs. LHP last season after three years (2019-21) of averaging 81. 

Votto was a defensive liability in 2022, although that might have been in part due to his shoulder troubles. In the previous five seasons, back through 2017, some defensive metrics (DRS, UZR/150) rated Votto in positive territory and others (OAA, RAA) had him him about neutral. 

What to Look For The simplest, most direct way to judge how Joey Votto is doing will be his average exit velocity (EV). MLB average EV has been around 89 mph for several years. After four seasons with a below-average EV, Votto crushed the ball in 2021. His EV of 92.9 mph ranked 13th in the majors. In 2022 before his surgery, Votto was a bit above league-average at 89.7 mph.

Other then EV, watch the balance of his walks and strikeouts. As Votto has aged, he’s begun to strike out more and walk less. Even though it was the lowest in his career since 2008, Votto’s 2022 walk-rate of 12% was still better than average. His career walk-rate is about 16%. Votto swings earlier and at more pitches now, so he strikes out more. At 26%, his strikeout rate last year was above the league rate of 22%.

Another stand-alone stat to keep an eye on is Votto’s xwOBA, which you can find here. xwOBA measures contact quality along with walks — .315 is average. Votto was down to .322 last year after posting .406 in 2021, 9th best in baseball.

As a guess, I’d expect David Bell to use Votto every game against right-handed starters but sit him against tough lefties. Votto will play a lot of first base but also get a few days a week at DH.

Enjoy It 2023 is the final season of the $225 million, 10-year extension the Reds and Joey Votto signed in April 2012. While the Reds do have a $20 million option for Votto in 2024, it’s hard to imagine a world where they pick that up. Although a 3.7 WAR season like Votto produced in 2021 might get it done.

I understand skepticism about Votto’s return. Father Time records the final out for every player. With the steep challenges Joey Votto faces, the wheels could fall off … the bus. But as any long-time observer of his career will assure you, Votto can surprise. The last thing I’d ever do, before he even swings the bat once for the Reds this year, is, well … throw him under the bus. 

My advice? Treat the next 3+ months of the 2023 season as a long, warm farewell.

He may never be JoeyMVP again, but maybe Joey Votto can give us and his young teammates one final glorious ride on his Party Bus.

Andrew Abbott Warning Signs

I don’t enjoy being a messenger for bad news. But a promise to deliver “clear-eyed analysis” here is at the top of this page every week. 

Andrew Abbott has terrific starts against the Milwaukee Brewers, St. Louis Cardinals and Houston Astros. He’s pitched 17.2 innings and given up zero runs. You don’t need to be a math whiz to calculate that immaculate ERA of 0.00. Best of all, the Reds have won all three games Abbott has started. 

But look under the hood and there’s ample reason for concern. Let’s start with basics — strikeout and walks. 

  • Abbott’s strikeout rate is 16.9% (bottom 13% in the league)
  • Abbott’s walk rate is 12.7% (bottom 11% in the league)
  • Abbott’s K%-BB% of 4.2% would be by far the lowest among qualified pitchers
  • Abbott’s swinging-strike rate of 6.5% would be the lowest among qualified pitchers

The optimists out there might be thinking of pitchers like Wade Miley who get by with few strikeouts. Miley’s formula was to keep walks down, induce a lot of ground balls and minimize hard contact. Is Abbott following that recipe for success? Not so much. 

Ground balls:

  • Abbott has been an extreme fly ball pitcher at 30.6% (league is 42.5%)
  • About 12% of fly balls go for home runs. Pitchers regress to that number. None of Abbott’s fly balls have gone out yet. In his start against Houston, Abbott gave up two fly balls over 400 feet in distance. 

Hard contact:

  • Abbott has given up an average exit velocity of 92.3 mph (bottom 4th percentile)
  • Abbott has given up a 46% hard-hit rate (bottom 14th percentile)

Abbott has been blessed with a .200 BABIP. League average is .295 and pitchers regress strongly to that mean. As a result, you get these ERA estimators for Abbott:

  • 4.19 xERA
  • 5.59 xFIP
  • 5.77 SIERA

The good news is also the bad news. Tiny sample size. Andrew Abbott’s lousy underlying numbers are based on only three starts. So is that glittering ERA. As fans, we hope Abbott continues to defy gravity. Abbott’s next scheduled start is against the punchless Colorado Rockies at sea level. So maybe he stays aloft another week or so. But the numbers say we should brace for a thud. A month from now don’t say you weren’t warned.

In Case You Missed It

Right-handed pitcher Connor Phillips struck out 12 for the Double-A Chattanooga Lookouts. Phillips was the Player To Be Named Later in last year’s Jesse Winker/Eugenio Suarez trade with the Mariners. 

[Featured image: Joey Votto Instagram]

Steve Mancuso

Steve Mancuso is a lifelong Reds fan who grew up during the Big Red Machine era. He’s been writing about the Reds for more than ten years. Steve’s fondest memories about the Reds include attending a couple 1975 World Series games, being at Homer Bailey’s second no-hitter and going nuts for Jay Bruce at Clinchmas. Steve was also at all three games of the 2012 NLDS, but it’s too soon to talk about that.