The Return of Joey Votto

Cincinnati Reds LogoComing into 2015, fantasy managers had to be worried about Joey Votto as a top first baseman. In the previous three seasons, he had missed large chunks of time twice (2012, 2014), and his healthy year was a slight letdown compared to his breakout seasons of 2010-11. Entering 2015, we wanted to know: Could he stay healthy, and could he return to the top-5 first baseman tier? I’ll admit I was skeptical, but he proved me wrong, ranking as the #5 1B and the #25 overall player. Now the question is, can he do it again? Let’s take a look at his year and what the future has in store for him.

2012-2014: Causes for Concern

A knee injury cost Votto 50 games in 2012. Aside from that, his season looks like a success. He posted his highest BABIP and LD% of his career so a batting average drop was likely, but given that he’s a career .300 hitter, it wouldn’t fall far. His hard hit rate was still strong, and he reached his career best K/BB as well. At this time, I wrote off the shortened year as a bit of bad luck for the injury. The only red flag was a decent drop in HR/FB, from his breakout 25% in 2010 to 18% in 2011, to 15% in 2012. Even so, 15% was a strong enough number, and his ability to offer a high BA plus walks offset the disappointment that he wouldn’t hit 30+ home runs again.

Enter 2013, his healthy year sandwiched between the injury bugs. As predicted, his BA fell to “just” .305. His hard hit rate was a bit lower than his previous peak years, but he posted a strong HR/FB, rebounding to 18%. Unfortunately, he had his career worst FB%, so he hit only 24 HR, whereas he could have been closer to 30 with his career FB%. No red flags this year, only a few tiny worries as he neared the age of 30.

Injuries struck again in 2014, with quad and knee injuries twice sending him to the DL. After he corrected my worry about the dropping HR/FB, he added new concerns by missing significant at bats for the second time in three years. When looking at this season, I really wanted to give him a mulligan for the injuries, because they can certainly affect his swing and batting numbers. Despite that, he officially had a four-year downward trend in his hard hit rate. The career low HR/FB was a cause for concern, and even if I gave him back some percentage points for the injury, it seemed repeating 18% could be tough moving forward. His running speed scores dropped, which likely affected his BABIP; a career low but the MLB average. That partly explained the drop in BA. But again, now we’re facing three leg injuries over two of the last three seasons. Is this a recurring issue that will continue to reduce his at bats over time, or can he get healthy and bounce back? What about the chinks in the armor for his metrics? A Joey Votto with league average BABIP and HR/FB wasn’t very special. If he’d lost the ability to stay well above those averages, as he’d done for his career so far, it would be time to heavily discount his value.

2015: Bounce Back, but a Word of Caution

Votto can still hit when he’s healthy, there’s no doubt about it. He proved doubters wrong by matching his second-best HR mark. He also posted the second-best HR/FB of his career. He had his second-best BA in the last five years, and he posted a career best walk rate. His hard hit rate returned, as did his BABIP. He reached a 1.000 OPS for the third time in his career. And as if to prove he was fully healthy, he had 11 stolen bases, another second-best of his career. So that’s it, right? End of story, he’s awesome, everyone can go home without worries?

Yes, and no. Some owners say that because you can’t predict injuries in any given year, you shouldn’t discount players because of them. If you throw out the injury track record from his value calculation, he’s near the top-5 for first base, and he’s a top-3 in leagues that count OBP. However, I have to be realistic — perhaps even a little pessimistic? — when looking to the future. The concept of peak years has changed over the years, but however you look at it, at age 32 in 2016, Votto’s reaching the point when most players are at risk of starting a decline. His FB% has never been all that high, which is why he hasn’t had more than one season with 30+ home runs. Given that 2015’s HR/FB was his best in the last five years, I have to assume it’ll drop back down to 16-18%, meaning 25 HR is his cap. Also, just because he cracked 10 SB in 2015 doesn’t mean he’ll do it again. In fact, as a manager (fantasy or MLB), I’d want to keep him from running so that he doesn’t risk aggravating those leg issues again. All those walks mean a relatively low RBI total for a slugging 1B, but he does put up high run totals, and he has a great BA. He’s very solid with a high floor, and that has value, but in standard 5×5 you have to temper your expectations for a repeat of 2015.

And when it comes to injury issues, I’m not someone who ignores them in calculating value and making projections. One random injury in a year is fine. Two random injuries to various, different parts of the body, over a few years, is fine. However, he’s had three DL stints due to leg/knee problems. That’s a recurring issue, and that means he’s more likely than the average player to have a DL stint in the future. Someone like Anthony Rizzo is younger, has been healthy, and has more power potential. Jose Abreu has two solid years of production and is healthy. I sandwiched Votto between them in my 2016 rankings, but in all honesty in 5×5 I’d probably take Abreu over Votto because of the injury history.

Votto is coming off a healthy year, and he’s going to produce value, but the risk to his legs, and the many high/lucky metrics from 2015, should be a word of caution to readers who hope he can put up a monster season.

 

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Kevin Jebens

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Fantasy baseball player since 2000; winning leagues ranging from 12-team H2H to 18-team experts 5x5. Has written for various baseball blogs, including the 2013 Bleed Cubbie Blue Annual.