MLB's past, future displayed in Votto's game

August 17th, 2017

CHICAGO -- Rest easy, Ted Williams. Joey Votto didn't catch you. Not this time, anyway.

The Cubs held Votto to a first-inning single on Wednesday night, ending his streak of reaching base at least twice in a game at 20, one short of the record Williams set in 1948. But at age 33, with his status as one of the best (and smartest) hitters of his generation secure, time remains on Votto's side.

Votto isn't going anywhere any time soon, and if anything, the Reds' ongoing rebuild has re-energized him and his career.

"He has really embraced this particular bunch of players,'' Cincinnati manager Bryan Price said. "I think he's taken the responsibility for setting a good example and being one of the guys. This guy is our superstar. There's nobody who is even remotely close to being a superstar on this team other than Joey. We don't have anybody who holds a candle to him, and he's embraced just being one of the guys.''

There was a business-as-usual feeling in the Reds' clubhouse before the game against the Cubs, just the way Votto likes it.

"If he's chasing things, chasing records or accomplishments, he's keeping it a good secret,'' Price said in his pregame media briefing.

With late-afternoon rain in the area, there was no batting practice on the field Wednesday. But Votto was ready to go.

Votto looped the first pitch he saw from over second baseman 's head for a single. He hit the ball hard his next two plate appearances too, with a long fly that pushed back near the wall in right field and a line drive (94-mph exit velocity) that Lackey somehow speared. Votto grounded out to off lefty reliever before being left on deck when worked a 1-2-3 ninth inning.

During his streak, Votto posted a .435/.611/.742 slash line. He walked 26 times and only struck out 14, reaching base 55 times.

Coming off an injury-dimensioned 2014 season at a time when the contract extension he signed early that year could have weighed on him, Votto said his own expectations were higher than any placed on him by fans or his team.

In the spring of 2015, Votto said he was driven to outproduce the best hitters in the game, specifically mentioning , and .

Since then, Votto has been fourth in Major League Baseball in offensive WAR (17.4), behind only Trout (24.2), (18.6) and Josh Donaldson (17.7). He's on pace for 7.6 WAR this season, which would match his career best, at the levels that allowed him to win the National League MVP Award in 2010.

Votto has been unusually consistent this season, with an OPS of at least .878 in every month.

"I think the thing he chases is that type of consistency,'' Price said. "I think his work ethic, his pregame routine and what he does to take care of his body [is designed to maintain consistency]. … The pregame is so relentless on a daily basis. He's chasing the consistency. I think that's what led to it. Also the openness toward learning and continuing to grow as a baseball player.''

Votto is constantly adjusting. He has said that left-handed hitters are being pitched inside more often this season because umpires are calling that corner more often than they did in previous seasons.

Data backs up that conclusion, although the margins are thin. Those are the margins that the best hitters -- the ones like Votto -- use to their advantage.

Over the past two seasons, it has been commonplace to see Votto and the Cubs' choke up on the bat, especially with two strikes. But it was at Wrigley Field in early 2015 when Reds broadcaster Jeff Brantley first made a point about how Votto had started to work his hands up the handle for better bat control.

"It's almost that Barry Bonds effect, if you will,'' Brantley said after Votto pulled a 1-2 curveball from off the right-field wall for a 10th-inning double. "I saw Bonds choke up so may times, but when you barrel up a ball with the quickness …''

Bonds would often set his hands a few inches higher than the knob of the bat, but he never choked up the way that Votto has at times.

"There are times you look at it and think [his hands] might be at the midpoint of the bat,'' Price said. "They're not, but at times it looks like it. Then he'll drive a ball out to left-center field. It could exceed anything Barry Bonds ever did and still he's got great bat control and power, not necessarily decreasing the power portion of his game.''

Votto offered a rare glimpse into his thinking after that double off Rondon.

"It's been an evolving process,'' he said. "I have to put the ball in play. I'm not great at it; I'm OK at it. But I feel an obligation to put the ball in play. Whether that happens early in the count or late in the count, so be it. But with two strikes, it's something I certainly focus on.''

Cubs manager Joe Maddon is among Votto's many fans.

"If you want to have somebody break a shift or not be a shift candidate, then teach him to hit like [Votto] does,'' Maddon said. "Rizzo does a nice job, too. There're not as many guys who -- I call it a 'B' hack -- they'll go up there and make adjustments during the course of the at-bat. Some guys have one swing, one plane, one size fits all. Other guys have this ability to manipulate the head of the bat with their hands, and that's what [Votto] does. Swinging versus hitting the baseball. I think too many guys swing at a baseball, not enough try to hit a baseball. Semantics, but I think there's a truth in that.''

Going 1-for-4 in a 7-6 loss to the Cubs, Votto's on-base percentage dropped from .448 to .447. He's trying to lead the NL in on-base average for the sixth time in eight years. Votto's .427 career on-base percentage is 12th all-time, sandwiched between Tris Speaker, who last played in 1928, and Eddie Collins, who retired after 1930.

Watching Votto is like watching baseball's past and future. Either way, it's guaranteed to be a treat.