When Joey Votto spoke to reporters at the end of the 2019 season, the worst offensive season of his career, he called it an eye-opening experience.
He didn’t think he’d enjoy being a player who was playing out the end of his contract as a part-time player in favorable matchups. It was a frustrating experience, and he still demanded excellence from himself.
Votto, now 37 years old, has played a big part in the Reds’ offensive success over the past month. His overall numbers still haven’t rebounded from a slow start, entering Sunday with a .258 batting average and .338 on-base percentage, but he’s reached base in 19 of his last 22 games. That stretch includes nine multi-hit games.
“I spend most of my time thinking about – whether I am making the minimum or a big number, salary-wise – how can I be competitive as long as I have an opportunity to play,” Votto said. “I have been very fortunate to see some clearly excellent players play well to the very end of their career where they opted not to play anymore.”
Votto named several veteran players Adrian Beltre, Torii Hunter, David Ortiz, Chipper Jones and Derek Jeter who were starters at the end of their career. Ortiz led the league in several offensive categories in his final season. Jones was an All-Star in his final year.
“Those are the players I admire most,” Votto said. “I know that one day I won’t be good enough to play baseball anymore. But as long as I have an opportunity to, I want to keep fighting. I look up to those players, among others, and try to emulate that. That’s what gives me the greatest joy and that is my current challenge.”
Votto’s goal is to remain an everyday starter, bat in the middle of the lineup and play solid defense at first base. Since returning from the injured list on June 8, Votto is slashing .298/.379/.548 with six homers, 20 RBI and 15 runs in 24 games, entering Sunday’s series finale against the Chicago Cubs.
He’s homered in three of the team’s last six games. He delivered a go-ahead, two-run double in the Reds’ 2-1 victory against the Cubs on Friday, which notably was against left-handed reliever Adam Morgan.
Votto has mentioned about how he needs to hit well against lefties, so what did it mean to contribute a game-winning hit against a lefty?
“I don’t feel too much about it because I have to perform well against them,” Votto said. “It’s an expectation I have. It’s part of my job. That they’ve brought in more left-handers actually bothers me, because it’s a reflection of how mediocre I’ve been against them. I need to be better.”
Votto was benched for three games last August. It was the first time he was benched for performance-related reasons in the past decade. He went back to an offensive approach that he had for most of his career, standing tall at the plate.
Following the three-game benching, Votto has 19 homers and 14 doubles in 287 at-bats. He hasn’t hit more than 15 homers in a season since 2017, when he nearly won the National League Most Valuable Player award, so it’s been an impactful adjustment.
“I’ve felt good all year,” Votto said. “I’ve had a couple of interruptions that I felt like interrupted the momentum of my work, COVID and the thumb thing. I mentioned this last year, I mentioned it in the offseason, I mentioned it before coming back, I’m confident I’m going to play well. The adjustment, I think, is real.”
The advanced metrics paint Votto as a guy on the verge of breaking out offensively. He ranks in the 93rd percentile in exit velocity and 89th percentile in barreling pitches. He’s striking out more and not drawing as many walks, but he’s hitting the ball harder than ever.
“What really stands out to me now, obviously he's hitting the ball hard and having success, but just the way he's moving, the way he's running, the physical part, the athletic part, I think there's been new life there,” Reds manager David Bell said. “I think he really enjoys what we have going on here too. That energizes him.”