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.”