Votto's Cove shot puts him back on track

April 13th, 2021

Prior to Monday’s series opener in San Francisco, a struggling talked to reporters about his need to hit “gap balls, balls off the wall, balls over the fence.”

Votto didn’t mention “balls into McCovey Cove,” but he hit one of those in the sixth inning of the Reds’ 3-0 win over the Giants at Oracle Park.

Between Votto’s first big swat of the season and Jesse Winker’s triumphant return from a calf issue with a two-run homer in the third, a Reds lineup that has been rolling in the early going looks deeper than the San Francisco Bay. And getting Wade Miley’s second scoreless showing in as many starts, 3 2/3 scoreless innings of relief from Tejay Antone and Lucas Sims’ first save sure doesn’t hurt, either.

Votto, though, is always a point of fixation for this Reds offense. And in the season’s first week and a half, that point of fixation was a point of frustration. Votto entered this series with one of the lowest slugging percentages (.162) and OPS marks (.367) of any regular in the big leagues, despite his best Statcast-tracked hard-hit rate (39.4%) since 2016.

“I’m not where I want to be,” Votto said prior to Monday’s game. “The ball has to go over the fence, and I haven’t done that yet.”

Votto made an adjustment in his stance last year to hit the ball with more authority and sacrifice some of his elite discipline for power. But last season, pitchers threw him fastballs 61.1% of the time.

This year, it has been just 49%.

“Not only that, of those fastballs, most have been higher in the zone,” Votto said. “I have to burn the other options pitchers have, and I have to burn higher fastballs. And then at some point I’ll get quality pitches to hit. … I just need to make that adjustment. That’ll come. If it doesn’t come, then I’m in the wrong league.”

Votto certainly appeared to be in the right league when he connected with a Jarlin García fastball that was low in the zone. The scorched 104 mph wallop into the water made him the first Reds player to ever hit one into the Cove.

So that’s one for the books. But more importantly, the solo shot was good for the soul. Votto has hit 10 balls this season 100 mph or more, but only three of them have gone for hits. Two of the outs came Monday night, on a third-inning groundout and an eighth-inning lineout.

The poor batted-ball luck made Votto the lone Reds regular with a below-average OPS+ entering Monday’s game. The Reds have the most runs scored (69) in the Majors by at least 11, and they have the highest OPS (.857) by 10 points. They’ve done it with very little contribution from a potential future Hall of Famer in Votto and with Winker, who was their best hitter in 2020, limited to just 16 at-bats so far.

So while Monday’s win did not present -- or require -- an offensive explosion, the sources of the only offense were very much welcomed. Winker is off the bench, and Votto is off the schnide. That bodes well for a dangerous Reds offense.

“It’s really important [for Votto] to just stay with it and not try to change anything and just continue to hit the ball hard like he is,” manager David Bell said.

Votto has taken little solace from his hard-hit rate.

“As far as how hard it’s coming off my bat, I’m supposed to do that,” he said. “I made that change last year. That change is already spoken for. I want to do that. But the ball needs to go over the fence, the ball needs to go in the gap.”

In the Cove works, too.