CINCINNATI — There are players – some very good players – who would toss it in, give it up, write it off as “Paradise Lost” if they started a season the way Joey Votto did 2016. In some quarters, he was pronounced D.O.A. and the dirt was being tossed on his torso.
Two months into the season, Votto was a “Lost Soul”. When June began he was hitting .213 and struck out 57 times. The slide began Opening Day when he struck out three times against the Philadelphia Phillies. He had three three-strikeout games in April and May.
What to do, what to do?
Votto isn’t the sort to go into a woe-is-me funk in despair. He knew he needed something – some comfort to go along with a lot of hard work.
SO VOTTO SAT DOWN AND DID some research. He wanted to see if there were other superstars who had starts like his, but came out of it with a vengeance. He searched Baseball-Reference.com and came up with not one, not two, but three startling revelations.
He discovered that one point in the careers of two Hall of Famers and one Hall of Famer to be, they started seasons the way he did and fully recovered to have great and productive years — Willie Mays, Stan Musial and Derek Jeter, all when they were in their early 30s, the same age as Votto.
“I looked back at Willie Mays in the early 1960s and Stan Musial in the 1950s and Derek Jeter in his early 30s. All of them had really poor starts,” he said. “And they all exceeded their career numbers that year when it was all said and done.”
ASKED WHAT GAVE HIM THAT idea, he smiled and said “When you start off as poorly as I did you look for as much hope as you can. I looked at Mays and he had a great season, Musial had a phenomenal season and Jeter had a fantastic year also. I look at those guys as inspirations, the guys I want to compete against while they are available to me.”
As for his Mays-like and Musial-like and Jeter-like recovery, Votto said, “I’m certainly more comfortable and confident than I was. I was confident early and I did have faith in myself, but I was incredibly frustrated and there were times I was in disbelief over what was going on. I am currently reminded of how long the season is. It took two separate stretches for me to realize, ‘Man, you have a lot of time.’
“I have had a lot of stretches in my career where I’ve had success, over and over and over, for months on end,” he said. “But I haven’t had a lot of stretches where I just failed pretty consistently. I just didn’t understand it and it just wouldn’t stop.”
AND THAT, OF COURSE, fueled the detractors who questioned the sensibility of the Reds for giving him a 10-year $225 million contract. Votto, of course, could have soothed himself with the comfort of a long-term deal that will keep him well-fed for life.
That, though, is not The Votto Way.
“I felt my problems were a combination of poor decision-making and some bad luck,” he said. “More than anything, it was me. It was something I felt I could truly control. People say, ‘Oh, it has been a bad stretch of luck and he’ll eventually get out of this.’ But looking back, I felt I was really making some bad decisions at the plate. I feel as if I’ve righted those and I will continue with this going forward.”
THE LOW AVERAGE AND non-productivity perplexed Votto, but what bothered him most were the 57 strikeouts in the first two months.
“I was striking out a tremendous amount,” he said. “I was striking out far too much and to me that was not going to stand the test of time. Again, I looked at Willie, I looked at Stan and I looked at Derek. Willie and Derek stood out to me the most. Both of them struck out during the first two months almost the same amount they struck out the last four months. That means they struck out so much that they said, ‘OK, I’m not doing that any more’ and their seasons ended up being pretty standard for them. They didn’t speak to me directly, but they spoke to me through their Baseball-Reference page, through their game logs and their game experience. And I’m grateful for that and hope that in the future I get to do that for a younger player.”
AFTER STRIKING OUT 57 times in the first two months, Votto has trimmed his ‘K’s to 50 over the last three months and raised his batting average from .213 to .309. Since June 1, Votto’s on-base average is .505 (best in the majors), raising it from .330 to .433. He is hittring .381 in that span, second only to Houston’s Jose Altuve (.391.)
When I mentioned that in my 43 years covering baseball, I’ve never seen a streak like he is in, a recovery like he has made, Votto smiled and said, “I don’t think you’ve seen a lot of guys start off as poorly as I did. And it still has a long way to go.”
I’ve seen tons and scads of players start off as poorly as Votto, but I’ve never seen a “Recovery Act” that rivals his.