This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's April 1 MLB Preview. By Buster Olney
IN THE MIDDLE of a game last summer, Joey Votto walked over to teammate Todd Frazier in the Reds' dugout and apologized. It had nothing to do with anything that had happened on the field. In fact, Votto was on the DL with a left knee injury, and Frazier, an infielder, wasn't in the lineup that day. Votto took advantage of the opportunity to simply tell Frazier he was sorry for not investing the time to get to know his teammate. "I take the blame for this," Votto said. "I don't know you that well, and I want to get to know you better."
The apology surprised Frazier but not nearly as much as the fact that Votto had approached him at all. Votto doesn't talk much in the clubhouse and always seems preoccupied. So Frazier saw an opening and took it. "Joe, since we're speaking the truth here," he said, "you're a little different. But I respect you 10 times more for coming up and talking with me."
Votto's teammates understand the 29-year-old first baseman in the way most of us comprehend the universe: He's reliable and omnipresent, but at the same time he's so remote and deep that they aren't entirely sure what makes him work. They are in awe of him, his prowess and erudition as a hitter, and how much emotional and physical effort he puts into each pitch of each at-bat of each game.
The vast majority of major league hitters prefer to simplify the endless information streams available to them -- the video of opposing pitchers, the scouting reports, the statistical data -- and reduce all of it to the lowest common denominator: See the ball, hit the ball. Anything more and most players would crash due to mental overload. But much like another great student of hitting, Ted Williams, Votto has an insatiable appetite for intel about his swing and pitchers, and because of it he's arguably the best pure hitter of the iPad generation. He thinks about hitting uniquely and articulates each insight in a steady voice so deliberate it sounds as if it's coming from a GPS unit.
"It's all about reframing the challenge," he said last summer when we talked hitting at Great American Ball Park's indoor batting cage. "I've stopped caring about runs and RBIs. I care more about how high a percentage of productive at-bats I can have, how consistently tough and competitive I can be for the opposing pitcher. That's my goal every single time I go up there. If I drive in 90 runs, I don't care. I know a lot of old-school people wouldn't believe I'd say something like that."
He paused for a moment and continued: "If you can find a way to frame the fight to be patient as a challenge in and of itself, that can be more satisfying than catching a ball the right way and shooting it through the gap or out of the ballpark. As hitters grow and get older, those are the battles that are so gratifying."
There are many ways to define how great a hitter Votto is. The easy way is to say that he's a three-time All-Star and won the National League Most Valuable Player Award in 2010. For the SABR set, there's this: Using the advanced metric Adjusted OPS-plus, which takes a player's OPS and adjusts for the ballpark and the league in which he plays, Votto rates as the offensive equal of Hank Aaron and Joe DiMaggio and is just a tick better than Frank Robinson. But maybe the best way to describe Votto is that he's baseball's most cerebral hitter, the Einstein of the batter's box.
Almost all hitters reduce the game to its simplest parts -- not Votto.
WHEN I ARRIVED at Reds camp this spring, I mentioned to second baseman Brandon Phillips that I came to talk to Votto about hitting. Phillips laughed. "I hope you have a lot of time," he said.
Votto's teammates know his passion for every at-bat, but not much else. The outline of his mouth is often as flat as a pancake, and even if his eyes are open, those around him often can't tell whether he's looking at anything in particular. This is the Votto Stare. His teammates don't know whether he's musing about something he read or the workout ahead. But they are certain that he's thinking -- a lot -- because Votto doesn't really do light and breezy.
"He's a pretty quiet guy, pretty to himself," rightfielder Jay Bruce says. "He doesn't let a lot of people in, but I would consider him a friend." Bruce adds that Votto can be funny once he gets to know you. And his social distance has never been a clubhouse hindrance. Before the 2012 season, the Reds negotiated a 12-year, $251.5 million deal with Votto's agent, Danny Lozano -- the longest contract in baseball history. "There was never any doubt about his personality and whether he would live up to his end," Cincinnati general manager Walt Jocketty says.
Jocketty knew because of moments like this: When Cuban defector Aroldis Chapman joined the Reds for his first full season in 2011, it seemed wrong to Votto that he was unable to communicate with a pitcher integral to the team's future. Votto had learned French as a kid and felt there were enough similarities between that language and Spanish that he could grasp it quickly. During the 2011 offseason, he worked with a Spanish tutor four or five times a week. By spring training last year, he spoke his third language well enough to challenge Chapman to a duel: He would speak Spanish better than Chapman could speak English. The pitcher accepted. Votto won't say who won, but don't bet against the guy who still Skypes with his Spanish tutor.
His attention is all-consuming. The first time I met Votto, he stared intently at his phone and asked me politely to wait, and then he looked up and called me over. He had been playing Words With Friends. He is a voracious reader. This spring, poring through metrics guru Nate Silver's book, The Signal and the Noise, Votto noticed Silver making reference to Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Prize winner in economics. Votto read that when he finished Silver's book.
From Kahneman, Votto learned that one's cognitive awareness consists of two modes of thinking: One is fast and instinctive, the other slower and more thoughtful. Both reflect Votto's approach to hitting.
DEREK JETER HAS amassed more than 3,000 career hits by asking for one primary piece of information: How hard is the pitcher's fastball? In the past, he's gotten a signal from a scout in the stands -- two fingers for 92 mph, three fingers for 93 mph and so on -- and this allowed him to gauge the speed. Like most big league hitters, everything for Jeter is predicated on feasting on fastballs.
Votto has come back from an injury-plaqued 2012.
Votto, on the other hand, is an omnivore at the plate. He looks for all types of pitches throughout the count. "I'm a firm believer that I can handle just about every pitch in every part of the zone as long as I can anticipate on them and execute on them," he says.
Barry Bonds hit this way. Manny Ramirez too. Miguel Cabrera anticipates pitches, but this strategy is rare. If a hitter guesses wrong on a breaking ball, he is left flailing at fastballs buried deep in the catcher's mitt.
Votto studies pitchers vigorously, watching videotape and reading scouting reports to diagnose what they are likely to throw in every situation, something that, say, Jeter is loath to do. Just as important, Votto studies the location pitchers favor, which virtually no one else in the game does. His perspective changes as he goes deeper into an at-bat. "I start off at the very beginning of the at-bat with the highest expectation of success with whatever pitch is available to me ... and then I shrink it down as the strikes dwindle," he says, meaning he will do as much damage as the count allows. "I get one strike and I shrink down my expectations and my swing slightly."
As the count deepens, he chokes up on the bat a little; while he was thinking about driving a ball earlier in the count, now he's more focused on putting it in play, hard. He spreads out his stance slightly, like a football lineman digging in. "When I get two strikes," he says, "I open up [the pitch possibilities] to just about everything and try to do less with the ball."
With this approach, he is a lethal two-strike hitter. During a 2012 season that was sabotaged by midseason knee surgery, Votto had a .394 on-base percentage in plate appearances that reached two strikes. Among hitters with at least 200 plate appearances, that was best in the major leagues.
When Votto is on the bench watching other hitters, Reds hitting coach Brook Jacoby has heard him predict pitch sequences, as if he is inside the head of the pitcher -- not only the pitch type but the location. "It's amazing," Jacoby says. "When he's in that zone and able to do that, nobody gets him out. He doesn't miss his pitch."
In effect, Votto stalks pitchers, and opponents know it. Against the Cardinals, he and catcher Yadier Molina -- who's known to have an imaginative approach to pitch calling -- keep a good-natured running banter, like the last two poker players at the table. That pitch surprised me, Votto will say to Molina. Or, He'd better not throw that again. Dodgers catcher A.J. Ellis adds via email: "From my crouch, I can feel his mind grinding and turning and thinking his way through the at-bat. Most every hitter has set patterns, and there are safe places to go to attack their weaknesses. If the pitcher is able to execute, we should be successful and limit the damage. With Votto, well-executed pitches often end up driven into gaps and even over the fence. You can never pitch with a set pattern, and rarely should you repeat pitches in the same location. He is too good."
VOTTO GREW UP in Toronto, the son of a chef and a sommelier and the oldest of four siblings. He focused on baseball over hockey, he says, because baseball was less expensive and fit his parents' schedule; they couldn't drive him to 4:30 a.m. hockey practices. As a teenager, he was given Ted Williams' book The Science of Hitting and was fascinated by the single-minded challenge of solving a pitcher's intent. It fit an introvert like him.
I care more how consistently tough and competitive I can be for the opposing pitcher," Votto says.
He hit well enough in high school to be drafted in the second round by the Reds in 2002, but he wasn't necessarily regarded as a can't-miss prospect. He wasn't a prolific home run hitter, and there were questions about his defense. In fact, after Votto had spent six seasons in the minors, Cincinnati penciled in Scott Hatteberg to start at first base going into the 2008 season. Dusty Baker, the new Reds manager that spring, knew Votto's reputation for being very quiet and rather odd -- but Baker loved his swing, and soon he was starting.
Before long he was doing damage at the plate and being touted as a Rookie of the Year candidate. And then, that summer, his father, Joseph Votto, died unexpectedly at age 52. Joey was devastated. In fact, in the summer of 2009, he left baseball for about a month, saying upon his return that he'd been treated for anxiety and depression. I had been told he didn't talk about his father, so his answer to a question about when he became such a passionate hitter surprised me.
"A lot of it had to do with when my dad died," he said. "I genuinely feel like I went through hell when my dad died, and I'm more grateful for simple things, and my job, and the fans. The core of me has changed since my dad died."
Votto believes that he learned a lot and that devoting himself to his craft seemed simple in comparison. He speaks slowly about this, choosing his words carefully. "I feel like getting prepared is the least I can do. I don't want to say I'm super mentally tough or anything like that. But when I listen to Kobe Bryant speak about no excuses, he's so intense, so consistent, and he doesn't stop. I can relate to that. Because what I've experienced in the past, this" -- meaning baseball -- "is nothing compared to that. It's easy.
"So I ask a high level of myself. I ask it right at the beginning of the offseason, I ask it in spring training; I don't go through the motions, because I try to be a great player. I want to be the best player in the game, and I feel like I have the potential to do that. It takes a special effort to be at the top."
In that period of introspection, Votto thought about the quality of his at-bats and how intense he was for crucial ones in the later innings but didn't carry that same approach throughout the game. "That feeling that I have in those adrenaline-filled moments, or in those big situations when the game is on the line, that's how I prepare to feel, from the very first pitch of the game," Votto says. "In the past & I would feel great by my fifth at-bat in a game. I asked myself, Why? Why is that? How could you give up roughly 20 percent of your appearances if you're not feeling great or it's cold outside?"
So Votto devised a regimen before the first pitch of each game to ramp up emotionally. And that explains his pregame demeanor. "I don't interact a lot," Votto says, "because I'm saving emotional energy." In addition to the two usual sets of batting practice that most players take -- one in the cage and one on the field -- Votto also does a flip drill, with the ball being tossed to him. He'll swing for three to six minutes, anticipating specific pitches in specific spots from specific pitchers, working at game pace to lock down his swing. This way he ensures that he is physically and psychologically working at ninth-inning speed at the start of the game.
Votto likes to try to think along with the pitcher, to guess exactly what pitch is being thrown next and where.
"He just takes it to another level, basically," Frazier says. "When he's done, he's exhausted. He's so tired that you don't think he can play in the game. But then he does what he does in the game, with the focus level that he has. That's why he's the hitter he is. I wish I could take that approach. But for me, I'm just trying to relax as much as I can. Joey's trying to speed it up."
Says Votto: "I gave away too many first at-bats because I wasn't completely prepared, and I was just kind of working myself into the game. I found I lost a batting title because of that. I missed out on opportunities to drive in teammates. Maybe we lost a game 2-1, and we had second and third, and I missed an opportunity because I wasn't completely prepared."
So now, before a game or even during it, he jots down memos on pitchers. He hands them to a video attendant, and they're logged into a computer. He'll go through a smorgasbord of notes, the videotape and scouting reports, in addition to the daily refinement of his swing. Once in the box, if there is any doubt or clutter between pitches, he will take time to fix it.
"If he's not focusing on the right things or something's popped into his head during an at-bat, he'll get out of the box and try to clear his head, refocus," says Jacoby, the Reds hitting coach. "Most guys will stay in [the batter's box] and end up having a poor at-bat."
Votto explains, "If I'm ever feeling ambiguous about that pitch, I try to reset myself and think about what the next pitch is going to be." If he can't develop a clear vision, he'll "pull the parachute." By that, he means going to his two-strike approach of a lowered expectation and a cut-down swing.
Votto could be a great hitting resource for his teammates, but it's almost as if his language is a personalized Latin, something that others can't understand. Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond says he once asked Votto a question about his approach at the plate with two strikes. Desmond doesn't remember the answer, only that it was heavy on the details -- almost too many to be absorbed. He nearly had to walk away. Sometimes teammates ask Votto questions about a pitcher, about a sequence to come. But he almost never quizzes them.
Instead, he talks about other things -- "real-life things," Bruce says. In the half-hour conversation that Votto and Frazier had in the dugout last summer, they covered a lot of ground, even veering into nature vs. nurture and an assessment of their own personalities.
Frazier has a quick wit; he's the type of guy who could be launched into the middle of a North Korea cabinet meeting and have everybody laughing within five minutes. "Todd," Votto asked that day in the dugout, "how do you do that all the time?"
"How do you stay reserved all the time?" Frazier countered.
"I can't have that personality like you," Votto said. "I think you're born with that personality."
Maybe. But if anyone is a meld of nature and nurture, intense and intensely curious, it is Joey Votto.