This story appears in the March 27 issue of Sports Illustrated. To subscribe, click here.
A rudimentary but effective way to assess the quality of a hitter is through evaluation of his slash line. One of the slashiest: Reds first baseman Joey Votto has a career batting average of .313, a career on-base percentage of .425 and a career slugging percentage of .536. Only five players in baseball history have done as well or better in all three categories. Their names are Ruth, Williams, Gehrig, Foxx and Hornsby.
There are measures even more rudimentary. A hitter’s most basic goal is to not make outs, and only 11 men in baseball history have been better than the 33-year-old Votto at not making outs, i.e. getting on base. One is Barry Bonds; one played in the 1890s; the other nine are in the Hall of Fame.
Votto reaches the plate knowing exactly what he wants to hit, and he waits for it. Since 2014, according to Fangraphs, no hitter has swung at a lower share of pitches out of the strike zone. He hits the ball all over the field, too, and his career batting average on balls he puts in play (.359) is fifth in modern baseball history, one tick behind Mike Trout’s (the others ahead of him are Ty Cobb, Shoeless Joe Jackson and Hornsby). Last year he did not hit a single infield fly ball; only two other qualified regulars could say the same.
Following a slow start in 2016—Votto says “confusion, frustration, and determination” filled his head—he hit .408 after the All-Star break, becoming only the fourth player in the last 30 years to hit above .400 in any half of any season. (What exactly went wrong early on? “There was some stuff,” is all Votto will say.) Over the last two seasons, slow start and all, Votto has posted the best OPS in baseball. Though he has not since matched the power of his 2010 MVP season, every other part of his offensive game has gotten better.
There are few hitters whose at bats are so captivating—and few teams whose games are less competitive. The Reds have had the game’s worst record over those two years, finishing a combined 71 1⁄2 games out of first place in the NL Central.
Says Reds manager Bryan Price, “He’s someone, for me, that any baseball fan would pay to see hit, would pay to see play. I hate to think he’s a well-kept secret. I just don’t think that we’ve earned the right to get the attention that would shine a brighter light on Joey.”
Baseball’s most evolved hitter toils in relative anonymity, underappreciated by his own fans and the broader baseball world. And he doesn’t mind it. “I think if I let the team’s performance dictate how I behave,” says Votto, “or how I perceive my performance, or whether or not there’s value, or whether or not anyone even cares, it’s a dangerous and slippery slope.”
But surely some part of Votto must find it harder to do what he does on a team like this, a team whose radio broadcaster said in January that the owner should trade Votto and tell him, “Hell, I can lose 94 games without you just as easily as I could lose 94 games with you”?
“No, not at all,” Votto says. “No matter what, I’m being paid to perform. I, personally, have standards that I have set for myself. I’d like to achieve those and look back without regret.” (He measures himself, he says, against the best players in the game—he mentions Miguel Cabrera, Andrew McCutchen, Bryce Harper, and Mike Trout. But he doesn’t compare his stats to theirs directly, he says—“it’s far too stressful.”)
Though the Reds made three playoff appearances from 2010 through ’13, the team has entered each of the last two off-seasons as definite sellers. It would have made some sense to deal Votto, who is signed to a long but, by today’s standards, not obscene contract. He is owed $22 million this year, and $25 million for each of the six years after that. Since last July the team has traded veterans Jay Bruce and Brandon Phillips, committing belatedly but in earnest to a full-scale rebuild.
But Votto, who has a no-trade clause, doesn’t want to go anywhere. “As I get older I’m connected more to the city, and to people in the city,” he says. “I own a home there. I’m out and about in the community all the time.” So that’s that.
Votto will be the Reds’ oldest starting position player, and its longest-tenured. And a young lineup like this one (average age excluding Votto: 26) could learn from him. Centerfielder Billy Hamilton already has.
Hamilton says, “I like him way more now than I used to—not in a bad way.” He says he was once afraid to talk to the notoriously intense Votto or even look his way; since then Votto has helped him get out of his own head when he hits. In the process the first baseman has become Hamilton’s best friend on the team.
“It’s hard, though,” says Hamilton, “for him to tell somebody how to hit, when he’s that good. He knows what he wants to hit and exactly where he wants to hit the ball. . . . He’s so good at knowing what he wants and sticking to it.”
In an era when superstars routinely abandon their first teams for contenders or bigger markets, Votto could indeed be said to be sticking to what he knows he wants. The Reds’ big machine keeps quietly humming away.