Rust to trust: Reds' Votto picks his pace
Toronto-born 1st baseman turns 'rough' spring training into stellar season
Last Updated: Wednesday, November 12, 2008 | 2:38 PM ET
By Doug Harrison CBC Sports
Joey Votto continues to sport his game face, six weeks after teammate Javier Valentin hit a fly ball to St. Louis centre-fielder Skip Schumaker to end the Cincinnati Reds' 2008 season.
The Toronto-born first baseman was in no mood earlier this week to reflect on his strong rookie season in the major leagues, in particular his three-homer game against the visiting Chicago Cubs on May 7 — the first time a Reds player achieved the feat since Aaron Boone in 2003.
"Really, not that much," Votto told CBCSports.ca by phone from Florida when asked how often he replays that day in his head. "A few people have mentioned it, but I don't really think about that type of stuff [because] the season's over.
"It really bothered me that we weren't an above-.500 team [74-88 record] and it really got under my skin that we weren't part of the playoffs. Not that I expected us to make the playoffs because I thought [the National League Central Division champion] Chicago Cubs were a difficult team to beat and well put together.
"The competitive side of me wants to be part of a winning club," continued Votto, "and I spent the first half of the year taking in being part of the major leagues. After that, I felt a little more part of the team and I had a responsibility to help the team become a playoff contender."
Fired-up Votto on fire
Votto, 25, did his part, taking over at first base full-time from veteran Scott Hatteberg in mid-April and improving at the plate as the season wore on.
On Nov. 10, he received one first-place vote for NL rookie of the year honours and finished second in points to Cubs catcher Geovany Soto.
The six-foot-three, 220-pound Votto posted a .297 batting average, 84 runs batted in and seven stolen bases in 151 games. His 24 home runs were the most by a Reds rookie since Frank Robinson set the NL record with 38 in 1956.
Votto also led NL freshmen in hits (156), total bases (266), multi-hit games (42), on-base percentage (.356) and slugging percentage (.506).
Determined to better those numbers, the left-hitting Votto has already started training by attending the International Performance Institute in Bradenton, Fla., for a second straight off-season.
In a one-on-one interview with CBCSports.ca, he discussed his introduction to the major leagues, his adjustment to big-league pitching and his expectations for the Reds in 2009.
CBCSports.ca: Statistically, you were more productive in the second half of the season with a .321 average compared to .279 in the first half. Have you always been a better second-half performer at all levels of your baseball career?
Votto: It's something I've taken pride in. I like to pace myself during the year. I don't want to burn out too early. That doesn't mean I'm not giving 100 per cent every game, but as it gets closer to the end of the season, I like to do my very best to finish off strong.
I don't know if that's something that'll last throughout my career, but hopefully it will. Baseball's one of those games that you don't know why you go through hot streaks. Sometimes they're at the end of the year and sometimes they're in the middle. You just always hope they're at the right time for the club.
CBCSports.ca: Your major-league career began as a backup to 12-year veteran Scott Hatteberg, who was released on May 27. How would you describe those first few weeks sitting on the bench?
Votto: Looking back at my April numbers [.308, 13 RBIs] and my May numbers [.281, six homers], I thought I did fine statistically speaking, but it was difficult getting into the lineup on a daily basis. [Reds manager] Dusty [Baker] wanted to work me in slowly. I think every young player has to earn his playing time and Scott [Hatteberg] obviously was more of a trustworthy player. I ended up getting the job, thank goodness [in mid-April].
To be honest with you, it was really frustrating because I believed from quite a while ago in my minor-league career that I was ready to play in the major leagues. I had a lot of anxious feelings inside of me. It was tough sitting on the bench because it was something I had never dealt with before, but I was very, very confident that I would get the opportunity to play and even more confident I would play well and keep the [job].
CBCSports.ca: Reds manager Dusty Baker has developed a reputation for not playing rookies on a regular basis. How did you look beyond that in attempting to play yourself into an everyday role?
Votto: Once [Baker] gave me the opportunity, I did my very best to play well and earn the respect of my teammates.
His response to [not playing first-year players] is that he's never had rookies he could throw into the fire and could trust. I don't know the players he's had on past teams but if that's the case then it is tough for any manager, especially one that's expected to win immediately, to just throw young players out there.
CBCSports.ca: After hitting .206 at spring training in 63 at-bats, did you feel you deserved the starting job over Hatteberg?
Votto: No. I thought Dusty did everything right. Scott obviously was under contract and I felt, without a doubt, he was the most consistent player [in spring training]. You knew what you were going to get from him whereas with me there was a little more risk involved.
Joey Votto, right, is determined to improve his defensive play after committing 11 errors in 151 games this past season.Joey Votto, right, is determined to improve his defensive play after committing 11 errors in 151 games this past season. (Al Behrman/Associated Press)
CBCSports.ca: To what do you attribute your funk at spring training?
Votto: It was just getting the rust off. I did my very best to play well and sometimes in spring training that doesn't happen. I was just going through a rough phase that I'm very glad I went through. I know it was difficult for management and a lot of the coaches to handle, but I was completely confident I would turn it around and never once did I doubt myself.
CBCSports.ca: You hit .292 against left-handed pitchers this season and .299 against righties. Of all your accomplishments with the bat, are you most proud of this statistic?
Votto: Yes, that really meant a lot to me. It also meant a lot that my road and home splits were similar [.290 average at home, .303 on road] because I didn't want to be that player that fed off Cincinnati's [hitter-friendly] ballpark. I want to be the same player, both at home and on the road. That's what my teammates would hope for. You want to look to a guy that is the same player on a daily basis.
I'm always learning, always trying to improve. I really wanted to make a point that I don't want to be the guy that needs to platoon [at his position] or might have to take some days off against the tougher left-handed pitchers. You can't take a day off against the very best, and that's something I strive to be. I want to be part of the middle of the [batting] order for the Reds and help them on a daily basis. A lot of those left-handers are real tough, but you have to deal with it. I really wanted to work as hard as I could to overcome that challenge.
CBCSports.ca: Many rookies will break camp with a team and quickly fade away because they have trouble adjusting to pitchers across the league. Is the time needed by a first-year player to get a feel for the different pitchers something that is overrated or underrated?
Votto: I think it's underrated. Getting to know the pitchers and their stuff and how they try to get you out is one of, if not the most important, facet of competing on an everyday basis. A perfect example was facing [Milwaukee Brewers left-hander] CC Sabathia consistently. He was one of those guys where at the beginning I felt he was as tough as it gets to hit against. Not that I was giving in to him, but he was a real, real grind to put good at-bats together.
After a while, you feel like you know the pitcher a little better and you know how he tries to get you out. That can work in the hitter's favour and sometimes can work in the pitcher's favour because, obviously, if they're willing to adjust and adapt, they can use that against you. It's always a cat-and-mouse game.
CBCSports.ca: For several years, you have been maligned for your defensive play. You committed 11 errors this past season in 151 games. What worked particularly well for you in the field as the season progressed?
Votto: "I listened to the guys on my team that had a better reputation on the defensive end and I worked as hard as I could. I had some troubles [in the field] when I was younger and I earned that reputation, which sometimes stick with you, but I believed that I was consistently getting better and not as bad as people said. Defence is something you can work hard at and make improvements on, and I want to continue to improve. I really believe I will.
CBCSports.ca: With former Reds outfielder Adam Dunn likely not to return as a free agent in the off-season, what direction does this team have to go to become that winning club that you want it to be?
Votto: I thought the pitchers did a great job, especially the bullpen. But once again it's improving on pitching and most importantly we have to improve on defence. I made 11 errors, so that's something I definitely have to improve. I looked at the very best defensive first basemen [Justin Morneau, Carlos Pena], and all of them had five and six errors and below, so obviously I can make a difference there.
As a whole, we have to improve on defence and improve on base running and do all the little things because those really did add up. Offensively, I think we're going to grow up and improve. We've got a few good, young hitters on our ball club that are going to become some of the better hitters in baseball [like outfielder Jay Bruce]. I think Eddie [third baseman Edwin Encarnacion] had a down year when it came to his average [.251]. He hit  home runs and I feel he's going to be a far better hitter than he showed. And [second baseman] Brandon Phillips, even though he had 21 home runs, I think he's going to do a lot better.
I think we've got a real good core of young pitchers and there's a lot of potential there. I like that [22-year-old right-hander] Johnny [Cueto] is very confident and very competitive, and I think that'll bode well for his career and that's something you can't take away from a player.