Votto's key to '21 success? Not being perfect

Back to 'natural approach,' Reds slugger hopes to be productive at plate

February 21st, 2021

Reds first baseman wants to be a dangerous hitter again.

During his three-game benching by manager David Bell at the nadir of his 2020 hitting struggles, Votto took a hard look at his own process and approach for hitting. For several years, he had become intently focused on cutting down on strikeouts and being a difficult out, and few had a better understanding of the strike zone. Over the past three seasons, his production has plummeted.

“I lost some of the things, some of my strengths, that I first came to the league with. … It sapped my power,” Votto said on Sunday. “In ’17, I played really, really well because I had that nice combination of low strikeouts, tons of power, lots of walks -- it was like the dream season, of course, for me. I stuck to that the last couple of years.”

Votto nearly won his second National League MVP Award in 2017, as he batted .320 with an NL-leading 1.032 OPS, 36 home runs and 100 RBIs in 162 games. From 2018-20, he batted .265 with an .802 OPS, 38 homers and 136 RBIs in 341 games.

“In ’19 a little bit, and especially last year, I had to let that [discipline] go and get back to what got me to the league,” Votto said. “The adjustments I made last year after the benching were very, very natural. I’ve always hit the ball like that, stood up taller. I’m back to kind of a more comfortable place in terms of hitting. It’s going to come with some more swings and misses and more strikeouts, but as long as I’m productive and as long as I’m dangerous at the plate, it will pay itself off.”

When Votto, 37, first reached the Majors, he said he idolized hitters like Todd Helton and Barry Bonds. He’s always had an affinity for the game’s greats, like Ted Williams, Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron and more.

But Votto also enjoys what the game’s current great hitters are doing.

“I spent a lot of time on that Baseball Savant page,” Votto said. “There’s a couple of statistics that all the good hitters are a part of. It’s usually barrels and exit velocity, hard-hit percentage … but especially barrels. The most important hitters are usually in that barrels category, barrels percentage, barrels per plate appearance category. Those are the hitters that you see on MLB Network or ESPN’s commercials, or you see doing some really cool bat flip on Twitter that you forward to your buddies or forward to fans in that particular city. Those are the players that are the most fun. I kind of miss being in that group.

“I've led the league in slugging percentage, and I was top two, three, four, five almost every year of my career in batting average also. I just got so dead set on commanding the strike zone and assuming that I was going to help the team that way … I tried to make myself into the perfect [hitter], and I've had some success with that, certainly not perfect, but copied my idols and I'm probably best suited to include more error and get back to my natural approach. And I did last year.”

Related

Bell believed that Votto’s midseason adjustments from last season can carry over into 2021.

“Knowing the inside of how he was thinking, just communicating with him, listening to him talk about the adjustments that were made, make me excited for Joey that he’s going to be able to keep that going,” Bell said. “Not only for the results and the success and the performance for himself and the team, but also just his overall enjoyment of being able to do that. That’s what I’m most excited to see for Joey.”

The 2010 NL MVP winner and a six-time All-Star, Votto is a career .304/.419/.517 hitter in 14 seasons with 295 homers. He could eventually receive consideration for the Hall of Fame, but that hasn’t been driving him.

Votto has reached the postseason four times -- including Cincinnati's NL Wild Card Series loss in 2020 -- but he has never played in the World Series. He has three seasons and $75 million remaining on his contract, with a $20 million club option for '24.

“Every year that we don't have a championship, it's disappointing,” Votto said. “When I'm done, selfishly, I really don't want to come back and celebrate my career. I want to come back and celebrate a championship. I'm really uncomfortable with any sort of personal adulation. I want it, of course, because I want to do well, but I feel much more comfortable sharing things, and I desperately want to come back and be able to celebrate a championship with the city, with a team, a shared moment.”