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The Brainiest Hitter

Can Joey Votto outsmart age?

illustration of Joey Votto
Lauren Tamaki

Last April, on a gorgeously sunny, relatively cool afternoon at Dodger Stadium, in Los Angeles, the Cincinnati Reds’ Joey Votto popped out to first base. Ahead in the count, he’d lunged at the ball, sending it high into foul territory, before it landed in the mitt of the first baseman. Infield flies are the lamest thing a batter can do apart from striking out, but the crowd went wild—or rather, the baseball commentators and Twitter masses did. (“This has to be a sign of the zombie apocalypse.” “The world is ending.”) Because, over the course of his 13-year Major League career, in 6,827 trips to the plate, Votto had never popped out to first. Think of a veteran opera singer who never hit a wrong note onstage, or an actor who never flubbed a line. Equally astounding, Votto had flied out to the infield—right, left, or center—only seven times since 2010, while any other Major Leaguer with the same number of trips to the plate would have done so 137 times.

Votto is considered one of the smartest hitters in baseball history, mentioned in the same breath as Ted Williams and Tony Gwynn. But Votto is now 36, and last year was his annus horribilis—his batting average was undistinguished and he had little power. Now, at an age when many athletes grudgingly accept diminishing skills, he is seeking not only to recover from his worst season ever but to answer a larger question: Can one of the great thinkers of the game out-think time? “It’s weird not playing well,” Votto told me when I visited him in February at the team’s player-development complex in Goodyear, Arizona. “It bothers me.”

It must bother him, too, that he now doesn’t know when he’ll get a chance to improve on last year’s performance, though when we caught up in mid-March, he told me this wasn’t the main thing on his mind. “I’m not thinking about baseball right now, if I’m honest,” he told me a few days after MLB suspended its season indefinitely because of the coronavirus pandemic. He’d gone home to his native Toronto. “I’m just trying to take it moment by moment and look after the people closest to me.”

What does it mean to be considered the most intelligent hitter in baseball during an era when sabermetrics—popularized by Moneyball, the book and the Brad Pitt movie—dominates? With team analytics departments constantly feeding players data, today’s hitter, even one who’s not aided by stolen signs and banging trash cans, knows more about what to expect from a pitcher than ever before. “Joey reads the research himself, which is why it feels like he anticipates your questions,” offers the baseball-analytics writer Eno Sarris, who’s had a number of intricate conversations with Votto about the game they both love—and love to study. “He’s not willing to talk out of his butt.”

Since high school in Toronto, where he grew up the son of a sommelier mother and chef father, Votto has been a student of Ted Williams. He still takes Williams’s treatise, The Science of Hitting, on the road with him, and in an American Masters documentary about the man, Votto was the lone active player featured, shown holding the book lovingly and extolling its greatness.

When Votto tries to capture his own genius, though he’d never use that word, he speaks of having a “plan.” “Coming up with a simple answer to a complicated event—that’s my goal at every at-bat,” he said. “To have simple ideas and repeat them over and over. I’ve got my swing built, I’ve got the plan laid out, and now let’s be natural.”

That description may sound as boilerplate as the advice in a CEO’s memoir, or like the makings of a Buddhist koan (my favorite Joey-ism in the latter category: “The swing should be built around you, not you built around the swing”). But in practice, it means figuring out what kind of pitch—fastball, curveball, slider—is coming next, based on what pitches came before, and who’s throwing. It means avoiding balls out of the strike zone and also avoiding balls in the strike zone that he really can’t connect with. It means a million other small things. Teams these days will move three players to the right side of the infield to handicap left-handed hitters like Votto. In 2017, the Chicago Cubs not only shifted the infield but used a four-man outfield to try to stop him. Votto recalculated, not by going to the left, but with a hard shot so tightly tracing the right-field line that it eluded the extra manpower stacked on that side of the field. “Joey Votto right now is ungodly,” Joe Maddon, then the Cubs’ manager, marveled after the game.

Notwithstanding last season’s dismal performance, what Votto’s meticulous approach has yielded is, simply, very few outs. For seven of the 10 seasons from 2010 to 2019, he led the National League in on-base percentage. In 2017, he nearly won his second National League MVP. That year, he walked almost twice as many times as he struck out, remarkable in an era when strikeouts are blooming like kudzu, and hit 36 home runs.

Votto’s wily reputation has led to farcical moments. In 2018, the Cleveland Indians’ Trevor Bauer—now on the Reds himself—shook off his catcher eight times before throwing a single pitch to Votto. Knowing how obsessively his adversary prepared for each and every pitch, Bauer thought, I’ve got to do something brand-new, something I’ve never done in an MLB game. His answer was a “backdoor” slider. It missed the strike zone, but when Votto flied out a few pitches later, Bauer was ecstatic: It was a mental battle, and I beat you, Votto. By the ninth inning, however, Bauer had been replaced by a reliever, and Votto smashed a three-run double to put the trailing Reds ahead, 6–4.

Before I spoke with Votto, who’s carried the Reds for nearly a decade, I rewatched the moment I remembered best from his early days with the team. It was a 10-pitch at-bat in 2010. He’d become a full-time player two years earlier, after six seasons in the minors. With the clubhouse then full of aging stars, Ken Griffey Jr. chief among them, Votto had been easy to overlook during his premier season, but nonetheless finished second in the National League Rookie of the Year balloting. He’d managed this feat despite the fact that his father, a massive baseball fan in a country of hockey freaks, had suddenly died in August, at age 52. In 2009, the loss caught up to Votto. He suffered panic attacks that several times forced him from the field, and he went on the disabled list for a while to get treatment for anxiety and depression, a fact he didn’t hide. “The stuff I was dealing with off the field finally seeped its way into the game,” Votto said at the time. “I just had to put an end to it, because I physically couldn’t do my job.”

Then came 2010, and the at-bat I remember, against the Dodgers pitcher Jonathan Broxton. It’s natural to hold a long-ago sporting event in one’s mind, only to come back to it and find it wholly different. But this was of another order altogether. Looking at the clip, I thought, Is this Joey Votto?

Expectedly, Votto is thinner, with his baggy pants falling off him, and clean-shaven. But he is also standing up straight in the box, in the traditional pose, his stroke long and fluid, giving little indication of the radical change he’d soon make. Granted, he said, he was “really feeling myself, confident, cocky, strutting.” At one point in the sequence, Votto told me, he muttered to the catcher, A. J. Ellis, “[Broxton] throws that again, and you’re not getting it back.” Votto proceeded to nail a two-run single. Ellis ripped off his mask, stared at Votto on first base, and mouthed, Fuck you.

Votto was named the National League’s MVP that year, the Reds won their first division title in 15 seasons, and it became clear that whatever future the team had would be built around him. The very next season, however, at the tender age of 27, the franchise player sensed that he was beginning to, well, lose it. He noticed that his bat speed wasn’t quite as fast, or as powerful. “It’s hard to explain. It’s a really, really subtle feel. In 2011, I was stuck on trying to do things like I did in 2010. Eventually acceptance kicked in.” He began to remake his swing, and his whole approach to batting—essentially anticipating the twilight of his career at its height. Or in his words, he was endeavoring to avoid his “least favorite feeling,” which is being out of control.

Today he crouches down in his stance and chokes up on the bat, which he says reduces his raw power but emphasizes quickness and efficiency. People often speak of the natural beauty of a swing. No one would ever say that of Votto’s.

“You want to look sexy up there,” Votto acknowledged. “You see the very best guys in the game have this swagger, hitting taller, with flashy, finishing moments. My style comes across like, ‘Oh, he’s really working hard.’ ” But Votto is willing to trade optics for success. His reconstructed swing, “direct, short, compact,” allows him to decide how to hit the ball even as it’s whizzing toward him. “That’s what really helped me, and that’s what I try to repeat,” he said.

Speaking with Votto about hitting, one is reminded of the lonely place the batter occupies in all of sports. Despite the presence of teammates on the bases and in the dugouts, of thousands of people wearing your name on jerseys and T-shirts, it is you and you alone left to face a man throwing a tiny ball at incredible speeds. To do well in this moment is to isolate yourself from the rest of the world.

There are those who attempt to leave this chamber, to lead what people call a normal life. Votto cannot. The activities that he enjoys during the off-season—like spending time with family and friends—he will not allow himself during the spring and summer. He is still single, living with his dog, Maris, whom he’s called his best friend, and everything is set from the moment he wakes up. First off, he goes straight outside, doing yoga in the grass to connect with nature. He will not drink caffeine. He will not go for a walk in the middle of the day or to a local store where he’d be required to interact with people. Though he gets The New York Times, he cannot handle the stimuli of the news before a game, putting the front sections aside for an off day. He takes solace in the Science section and in the crossword. “It’s ridiculously sheltered,” Votto admitted. “It’s so ridiculous.”

Which isn’t to say he lacks a sense of humor, or stands aloof from his teammates. He has trolled fans in Philadelphia and Chicago, and impersonated Borat on TV. When the Reds signed the Japanese outfielder Shogo Akiyama this winter, Votto hired a Japanese tutor to help him communicate with him, just as he’d once learned Spanish. He told his former teammate, the shortstop Zack Cozart, that if Cozart ever made the All-Star team, he’d buy him a donkey. Both of those things came true.

Votto has expressed a desire to drive a school bus after he retires. “I’d really like to have a job that gives back, keeps me out of the spotlight, allows me to do something on a daily basis that connects me with kids and families,” he told me. “That’s all I was trying to say. I was just trying to have fun with it.”

But Votto’s focus and sustained solitude can make reporters who approach him—myself included—uneasy. During the season, he rarely talks to the press after games. When The Athletic’s C. Trent Rosecrans, one of the few journalists Votto communicates with regularly, speaks with players on other teams, they often quiz him about Votto. “I can’t tell you why Joey talks to me,” Rosecrans says. “I don’t know. Trying to get me to explain anything about Votto is going to be very difficult, because I don’t have any fucking clue.”

Last year, in the season’s first days, Votto knew. He knew. He dropped a pop fly on April 1 against the Milwaukee Brewers and felt things slipping away from him. He had turf toe early and suffered back issues as the year progressed, and his slide continued. “It’s just not fun, by the way, when you’re used to a certain high and all of a sudden you have to play amongst the peasants.” He paused. “I’m kidding.”

Of course, Votto tried to right things. But he wasn’t true to himself. The terrible start crushed his spirit, and by his own measure, he just made things worse. He set aside nearly every adjustment he’d made over the years. He changed his stance. At one point late in the year, he spoke about the need to hit like a “dumb-dumb” or a “Neanderthal.” The game’s most cerebral player was at his wits’ end. “I felt mentally burned out,” Votto said. “I didn’t feel as motivated to work on the littlest of things. That’s a lot to share right there, but I just felt genuinely burned out.”

At the end of the season, Votto didn’t rule out leaving his 10-year, $225 million contract before it expires in 2023, if his slump persisted. “It would be scary going out into the world and restarting again with a new career,” he told me. “This is all I’ve known. But I cannot imagine doing that again: performing the way I did last year.”

But Votto knows what’s still missing. Unlike other single-franchise superstars like Derek Jeter, he has yet to hold a championship trophy, to have the “shared moment” with the fans. Such a happy ending isn’t an impossibility. The Reds have excellent starting pitching and over the winter spent $164 million on free agents, mostly to bolster the offense. Once again, presuming the season is played in some abbreviated form, Votto will be surrounded by other established hitters, and if Joey could be Joey, who knows? “I’m in a position where I have to play well or I won’t get to play,” he said. “You take it for granted. I’ve taken it for granted almost my entire career, and all of a sudden I had a rough year. I have to show again. I have to perform.”

The day before we met in person, Votto decided to have a coffee at Starbucks, his last one, he figured at the time, for months. Then, while at Whole Foods in the afternoon, he went even further. He stopped at the bar set amid overpriced produce and organic beauty supplies to have a beer. A single beer at a grocery store to revel in the task in front of him: the comeback season. “Let’s celebrate,” he recalled thinking. “Let’s get ready for a great year. Let’s go to Whole Foods and get a beer at 3 o’clock!”

Almost two weeks later, I returned to Goodyear to see him in a spring-training game against the Dodgers, not as a journalist but as a fan. Votto was already tied for the most walks in the Cactus League but had yet to get his first hit. As I sat there, I heard people around me express doubt about his ability to come back; someone grumbled that he was taking too many pitches. A Los Angeles fan laughed at Votto’s home-run total from last year.

His first two appearances did little to inspire confidence. He struck out badly the first time, and lined out the second. Then came his third chance. For this at-bat, Votto had chosen Lizzo’s “Truth Hurts” as his walk-up music. After taking the first pitch to evaluate the pitcher’s release point, Votto smacked the ball to center field for a single. For the moment, at least, Joey Votto was in control.