PLAYER REVIEW: AUSTIN VOTH
Age on opening day 2021: 28
How acquired: Fifth-round pick, 2013 draft
MLB service time: 1 year, 127 days
2020 salary: $568,900 (prorated $210,704)
Contract status: Under team control, could be arbitration-eligible in 2022, free agent in 2026
2020 stats: 2-5, 6.34 ERA, 11 GS, 1 CG, 49 2/3 IP, 57 H, 36 R, 35 ER, 14 HR, 18 BB, 44 SO, 4 HBP, 1.510 WHIP, 73 ERA+, 6.41 FIP, -0.2 fWAR, 0.3 bWAR
Quotable: “When things were down, there was a whole lot of conversations with him. One-on-one conversations with him. At one point, he thought we were going to put him in the bullpen, and I told him: ‘I’m not going to do that to you. You’re our fifth starter. I appointed you the fifth starter. So you’re going to go out there, and you’re going to start and you’re going to pitch.’ Those last two outings are what I knew he can do.” - Davey Martinez after Voth’s Sept. 22 complete game against the Phillies
2020 analysis: As spring training came to an abrupt halt in March, the hierarchy of the back of the Nationals rotation appeared set in stone: Joe Ross was the No. 5 starter, Voth was going to pitch out of the bullpen and Erick Fedde would open the season at Triple-A. But as summer training opened 3 1/2 months later with Ross having elected to opt out of the season, Voth suddenly became a lock for the rotation. And when Stephen Strasburg’s season ended almost immediately due to carpal tunnel surgery, Voth was assured a spot in the rotation the entire 2020 campaign, no matter how he performed.
Under different circumstances, the Nats would’ve replaced Voth somewhere along the way. One month into the season, it was clear the right-hander didn’t deserve the spot. Through seven starts, he was 0-5 with an 8.26 ERA and 1.800 WHIP while averaging just a tick more than four innings per outing.
Break down those starts, though, and it became crystal clear what the problem was: Voth was incapable of sustaining success more than once through an opposing lineup. In their first plate appearance against him, opponents hit .232 with a .262 on-base percentage and .747 OPS. In their second plate appearance, those numbers skyrocketed to .351, .462 and 1.151. Voth’s velocity also noticeably diminished by the fourth or fifth inning, further evidence he wasn’t suited to a starter’s role.
But with no other viable alternatives at their disposal, the Nationals stuck with Voth. He never missed a start. And at long last, there were glimpses of improvement in late September. With more of an emphasis on using his legs to generate more power, he managed to maintain his velocity (and his success) deeper in a pair of starts. It all culminated with the first complete game of his career (albeit only seven innings because it was during a doubleheader) and some renewed optimism about the future.
2021 outlook: Were those two end-of-season effective starts enough to convince the Nationals to stick with Voth next year? You wouldn’t think it was enough to guarantee him a spot in the 2021 rotation. His fate, though, will probably be tied in large part to Ross’ anticipated return, the health of Strasburg and others and the club’s offseason attempt to add a new No. 4 starter to replace Aníbal Sánchez.
The complicating factor, once again, will be Voth’s lack of options. He can’t be sent to the minors without first clearing waivers. It’s entirely possible the Nats will attempt to sneak him through, hoping other clubs see his gaudy 2020 stats and don’t think he’s worth the risk. If not, he’ll head to West Palm Beach next spring in an awfully familiar situation: competing for a roster spot for an organization that will continue to give him an opportunity to earn one.
Many have wondered if Voth does have a future in the bullpen. Certainly his success in early innings with low pitch counts suggests there could be something there. But given the organization’s lack of quality starting depth, the Nationals probably aren’t going to make that move until they have no other choice.