When the news first leaked that Reds’ MVP 1st Baseman, Joey Votto was not traveling with the team so that he could get an MRI on his knee, it sent a shock wave through Major League Baseball. Votto was experiencing pain in his left knee, which had been surgically repaired twice in 2012 to fix a torn meniscus. Since knee pain is one of the most serious varieties of pain athletes have, Votto and the Reds waited with bated breath for the MRI results.

The MRI found only a Grade I strain of the distal quadriceps. That is not to say, however, that it isn’t a serious injury. This was evidenced by Votto hitting the disabled list, rather than returning to action over the Memorial Day weekend, as some, including his Manager Bryan Price, had hoped.

Distal Quadriceps Image

The quadriceps muscle is connected to the knee by several tendons. When the muscle is strained, it contracts, pulling on the tendons and causing pain in or near the knee. When the muscle is forcefully activated, as baseball players tend to do over and over again each day, the stretching of the tendons increases. Furthermore, if the tendons that connect the muscle to the knee become inflamed, the player is likely to experience discomfort every time the leg bends or twists. Votto is known for playing through pain and should consider himself lucky that it’s only a Grade I strain. 

That said, a few important issues remain unclear:

It’s unclear what caused the strain. It could have been caused by a muscle imbalance or an abnormal, or atypical movement pattern. Between swinging a bat and throwing a ball, baseball players perform many high-intensity, one-directional movements. Muscle imbalances are a prevalent issue that all baseball players have to deal with. It’s also possible that, since his knee surgery, Votto has altered his movements to put less stress on his knee.

It’s unclear how much the injury has affected Votto’s offensive production. Votto’s batting average is well below his historical average. Votto has only posted a yearly batting average below .300 once, and it was just .297 in his rookie season. This year, he’s hitting just .257, though that number may be skewed, due to his limited at bats. His batting average on balls in play (BABIP) is only .290. This would be fine for a normal player, but .290 is 67 points below Votto’s career BABIP. This could mean that Votto’s simply having a bout of tough luck, hitting the ball to the wrong place. However, it could also mean that something is wrong with his swing, and he’s making weak contact, resulting in more outs. His home run numbers are down significantly since his MVP campaign in 2010, when he hit 37 home runs. This isn’t directly due to the knee surgery in 2012, as Votto has admittedly changed his approach from a focus on hitting for power to a focus on getting on base. Essentially, this means that he’s swinging the bat less often, and when he does, he’s not swinging it as hard. Normally, this would be a recipe for avoiding injury, but it’s possible that this new approach has resulted in atypical movement patterns that are just now becoming apparent. At the same time, it’s possible that his knees are simply not equipped to handle his swing, meaning the same problems that led to his torn meniscus have led to his strained quadriceps. Unfortunately, we will likely never know for sure.

It’s unclear how long he’s been playing through this pain. Every player of any sport realizes the severity of knee pain, especially a player that has had knee surgery in the past. Likely, Votto would talk to the trainers the moment he experienced knee pain, and they likely would have performed an MRI immediately. Since the result of the MRI was less severe than the initial fear, and we assume that Votto told the trainers about his pain immediately, it would seem that this has not been a lingering issue. Unfortunately, these are merely assumptions.

What is crystal clear is that the Reds want to be very careful with this injury. Price has stated that Votto is likely to experience some pain for the remainder of the season. Votto has stayed unusually silent. It would be a bit surprising to see Votto come off of the disabled list when he’s first eligible on May 31, but the Reds are hoping that the MRI results were the first piece of a series of good news. At 6.5 games back in the NL Central, they can’t afford to miss Joey Votto for any extended period of time.