He reached the summit at 10:07pm on August 13, 2016. It was — and remains — a remarkable achievement, given that on May 31st, a full two months into the season, he was still bivouacked at his own personal base camp, disoriented by muscles and memory rendered insufficient by opposing forces on the hill some sixty feet away. A .213 batting average, a .330 on-base percentage, not to mention a month of April that was the worst of his career weren’t just base camp for Joey Votto — this was the low point of a career that had seen him among the very best hitters in Major League Baseball.
And yet, despite the horrid start, there he was on this torrid summer night, back over .300, that sentimental number that confers hitting excellence to 8 year-old boys and ink-stained sportswriters alike. By the next morning, his official slash line stood at .303 /.429 /.514 . His wRC+ (weighted runs created plus)—a stat meant to convey the totality of a player’s offensive output—would now stand at 149, meaning he was a very fine 49% better than the average major league hitter.
Ahem. That’s saber-shorthand for “elite,” Mr. Brennaman.
Votto had a similar, if less dramatic year in 2015. Pairing middling numbers in the first half with a fast and furious second half, he earned himself a third-place finish in the NL MVP voting.
With the exception of a 2012 meniscus tear that interrupted another season’s record-setting pace (he was picking up doubles like Gaga picks up Twitter followers) and a debilitating quadriceps injury in 2014 that ended his year prematurely, he’s been a workhorse who plays nearly every day, averaging 157 games in seven other seasons since 2009.
In 2017, had two baseball writers the good sense to join their colleagues and place the face of the Reds higher than 5th in their MVP voting, Votto would have bookended his 2010 MVP award, further adding to his Hall of Fame bonafides. Votto’s slash line came in at .320/.454/.578, in a year he cut his strikeouts dramatically, while failing to reach base in a game a meager 12 times. He was also a finalist for the Gold Glove at first base. He hit 36 home runs. As Tyler Kepner of the New York Times so aptly put it:
“In such a crowded field, then, the essential question is simple: Who has been the best hitter? As long as he has also played capably on defense, he should get the award. Votto it is.”
But, you know, 59 …
Votto’s career numbers—a full decade’s worth—track a clear path up the New York Thruway, heading straight toward the doorstep of 25 Main Street, Cooperstown, New York. A former league MVP, his lifetime batting average is a Hall-worthy .311. If power is your raison d’être, his .530 slugging percentage ranks higher than Mike Schmidt, Chipper Jones, and yes, Willie Stargell. Now, one would hardly go so far as to say that Votto is the power hitter Stargell was. After all, Pops amassed that number across 21 seasons. But for a player who hits for average and gets on base at a career rate that puts him in the company of names like Williams, Ruth, Cobb, Speaker, Gehrig, Bonds and Hornsby—that’s powerful stuff.
. . .
What talk there is of Votto this spring will naturally center around the aging curve, the sub-Joey year he just posted, and the inevitable decline lurking somewhere on the back fields of his career. For every hitter, Father Time’s fastball only increases in velocity, the mound inching closer to home plate with every spring thaw. None of this deters Votto, who treats each season as just another analytic mystery to unravel, another mountain to climb. His relentless process and patience hold the grains in the hourglass suspended, even as the unappreciative look on.
Standing on a subway platform, I watch two New York City Metropolitan Transit Authority workers as they run electrical pipe across the ceiling and down to a kiosk mounted on the floor below. A young worker stands on a ladder, adjusting the pipe running to the kiosk, making sure the pipe is exactly perpendicular to the ceiling. Another older, veteran worker supervises from the floor a few feet away, eyeballing the younger man’s work. The latter taps the conduit with a hammer, keeping his eyes on the level magnetically attached to the pipe. The young man stops tapping, satisfied with the information provided by his tool.
“More, more, more,” orders the older man. The young man looks at the level, then at his co-worker, wondering aloud what he could possibly be seeing. The older man shakes his head, his displeasure in grim solidarity with the sardonic smile creeping across his face.
And there it is, a perfect real-world analogy for the line of demarcation between the analytic observer and the old school “eye test” devotee—between those who appreciate the genius that is Joseph Daniel Votto—and those who do not.
At $22.5M, Votto’s 2019 AAV doesn’t land him close to the top ten all-time in contracts. It did extend his existing contract to 12 years, eclipsing the 11-year deal given to Todd Helton in 2001. Contracts gone awry, like the ones handed out to Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder and Ryan Howard, prompted side-eye from various sporting outlets, who saw the combination of small-market team and a deal that would extend into the decline years and thought, “what are the Reds thinking!?”
“… the albatross that is his contract is looming largely over the organization. They will be the worse for wear eventually, especially when the on-base machine starts to hit his mid-30s. Of course, the production will likely never live up to the contract. That’s just how it works.”
Nevertheless, the Reds’ brass knew Votto, knew he was a unicorn, that rare combination of athleticism, intellect, self-awareness and work ethic that places him in that most rarefied of spaces:
“I always try to do my best,” he said. “I can’t promise you anything going forward. I can’t promise you health or promise you production. I can promise you I’ll do my best.”
You see it in the way Votto relentlessly deconstructs a strike zone drawn and redrawn like an etch-a-sketch each night as a different umpire stands behind the dish.
More important than the bet that Votto and his plate discipline would age well was the recognition that allowing the Reds’ first baseman to pack his bags for Toronto—or worse—Chicago, to watch him build his Hall of Fame case in a uniform of foreign pigment might forever brand the Reds as minor players on the major league landscape.
Once Votto was made a Red forever, the narrative would shift, each injury, each decision to take a pitch with the bases loaded become itself a loaded topic. Marty’s repeated criticism of the best Reds’ hitter to come along in a generation further stoked the larger audience’s discontent with the size of the contract. Add to that the ongoing Geeks versus Gatekeepers saga, all while dragging Joey’s iconoclastic persona into the debate as well.
His quirky and sometimes wicked sense of humor were on display in an interview in which he wore a Canadian Mountie uniform, and later, when he had 51 boxes of pizzas Uber-delivered from a Louisville restaurant to the Great American Ball Park locker of Ichiro Suzuki. It’s also provoked a bit of fun on the road as he playfully interacted with inebriated adults heckling from behind first base—offering baseballs, only to renege—resulting in a soulless villain caricature, the kind who steals ice cream from small children.
For Votto, hitting the delete key on the naysayers seems to have been part of his professional journey from the very beginning. The Ringer just obtained over 73,000 declassified Reds’ scouting reports from between 1991 and 2003 detailing their unvarnished thoughts on an untold number of prospects:
One Reds scout wasn’t impressed with the player his club had selected with the 44th pick in the 2002 amateur draft, a high-school catcher named Joey Votto. “To date has been way out of his element,” his 2002 Votto report read. “Not ready for pro ball.” The scout lamented the lefty’s “long slow uppercut swing”; noted, “Different attitude probably the result of Canadian background”; and concluded, “Not a ML prospect. Expressed love for the game in predraft conversation. He’ll need it.”
The same scout:
“Have no idea where he can play defensively. … No feel for how to play this game. A loooong project.” By the end of the year, the scout’s tone had softened somewhat. He praised Votto for being “a sponge for information,” but he also warned, “Approach is basically all or nothing” and allowed only that Votto “Has a chance to be a Brad Fullmer type player … Possible Greg Colbrunn type from the left side.”
. . .
No one is quite sure where the 2018 season took its sudden left-turn, although Ryan Madson’s 96 mph delivery to the right knee on August 4th surely did not help. He got off to a slow start, but that was almost de rigueur for the relentless first baseman. There was talk of a bad back diminishing his swing, which Votto denies. Curiously, the analytics suggest he was hitting the ball as hard as ever, if not as far.
From here, things can get complicated. The great thing about being a great hitter is that you can take advantage of pitchers as the season plows on, as the odometer continues to turn on their arms in August and September; as the binder detailing their tendencies gets thicker. Thing is, pitchers are also smart. They, too, have data as close as a rosin bag. And as documented, fastball usage is down. Fastball counts aren’t necessarily fastball counts as reliably as they once were. If you’re Votto and you’re struggling to make that adjustment and then you get hurt …
This spring, Puig may be the flavor of the month and Senzel the new kid in town. The trio of Sonny Gray, Alex Wood and Tanner Roark will hold the key to a dramatic increase in wins, but it’s Votto I will watch with the keenest interest, the greatest anticipation. Car fanatic that he is, it wouldn’t surprise me one bit if he has a beat-up old DeLorean stashed away in his garage to take him back in time for one more magnificent season.
Patience is his soulmate. His work ethic is largely unknown to a fan base passing through the turnstiles moments before the players take the field. He is—nod to Don McLean here—very much the marching band that refuses to yield. When other players are in the clubhouse, he remains, taking ground balls in solitary repetition; bonding with his hitting coach, identifying any remaining weaknesses in an otherwise remarkable swing. When a rare slump does arrive, he searches for inspiration in the long history of the game, from Ted Williams to the website Baseball-Reference. No zone is left unturned, from the O-Swing zone to the Z-Contact zone.
The Prince of Process goes about his business at the plate with an air of unhurried confidence, his at-bat routine practiced and precise. His stare between pitches is not a vacant thousand-yard stare, but rather the look of a man locked in to his calculation, the non-believers relegated to that undiscovered country where mere mortals fret and fust, out of sight and out of mind. A good man, he wants your appreciation, yearns for it even, truth be told. But nothing interrupts the work, the step-by-step mechanics of perfecting the always imperfect, and in doing so, rediscovering himself once more. He waits on his adversary. Stares into the approaching storm. He uncoils and commits to the pitch.
Then, the process starts all over again.