AUGUST 19: Joey Votto #19 of the Cincinnati Reds celebrates after hitting a three-run home run during the fourth inning against the Miami Marlins at Great American Ball Park on August 19, 2021 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)

By Jayson Stark Aug 24, 2021 51
He has only spent a week in the rarified 2,000 Hit Club. But Joey Votto has learned there’s no membership card, no T-shirts, no bumper stickers, no free 2,000 Hit Club cookies. Only the affectionate abuse of your teammates.

“It’s like a new inferiority complex gets kind of put on your shoulders,” Votto told me and Doug Glanville, in that entertaining way of his, on the latest Starkville edition of The Athletic Baseball Show. “All of a sudden, you start seeing guys with 3,000 hits. And your teammates are telling you, `Well, why don’t you have 3,000 hits?’ And I start asking myself that same question: `Why don’t I have 3,000 hits?’”

But this was no time to answer that question. This was a time for the Reds’ sweet-swinging, deep-thinking first baseman to reflect on the meaning of these big round numbers in general. And you should know what’s coming there.

If you’re familiar with his work, you won’t be astonished to learn Votto thinks we shouldn’t be defining any players based on their old-fashioned magic counting numbers. And yes, he even means him!

“Let me give an example,” he said. “I played against Chase Utley, who’s short of 2,000 hits if I’m not mistaken. And he’s probably one of the best three players I’ve ever played against in my entire career. Between hitting – a player with smaller stature, hitting home runs, dominating offensively, getting on base, playing fearlessly, running the bases as tough and as aggressively as I’ve ever seen – and then defensively, a very unheralded player. But he doesn’t have 2,000 hits.

“But I would never go out of my way to say that I’m a better player than Chase Utley. Simply because I have a few more hits and I’ve reached a certain number doesn’t mean that I’ve had a better career or I’m a better player than him.”

So wait. The guy with the most hits isn’t always the best player? Now it may be true that you’ve heard that line of thought before someplace. But have you ever heard it from a fellow who had just spent a week basking in a baseball lovefest inspired singlehandedly by one of those special “certain numbers?” Of course you haven’t.

“From my take,” Votto went on, “oftentimes the round numbers are a little bit tricky, and I think that at times, they don’t really tell the entire story of a player. I’m a big believer in a player’s impact in the game. I’ve played against tons of guys with very, very deceptive numbers. And then I’ve played against guys – and with guys – that impact the game in so many different facets. And I’d take those (impact) guys on my team more often than not.”

You spend 25 minutes talking to Joey Votto, and you’re going to get many, many thoughts like these. Enlightening. Amusing. Thought-provoking. And totally unique unto one fascinating human playing baseball in Cincinnati.

So here are just some of the highlights from one of our favorite Starkvilles ever. You’ll want to take this ride if, for no other reason, than to see how he worked in the phrase, pièce de résistance, in a perfect French accent.

ON THE VOTTO-IS-A-HALL-OF-FAMER LOVE: Votto admitted he’d read the column that C. Trent Rosecrans and I wrote about his Hall of Fame case last week, even though “I really don’t like reading about myself.” But we lured him in with our argument that he’s the poster boy for what a 21st-century Hall of Famer looks like, as opposed to what your grandpa’s and grandma’s kind of Hall of Famer looked like.

“I ended up checking the article out,” he said, “just because the first couple of paragraphs caught me, just as a baseball fan, just as someone that’s interested about that conversation in particular.”

So he reflected on the idea that these days, even players themselves get that the definition of what constitutes a great player has changed.

“I do sense, playing against this, this next generation, guys take a lot of pride in getting on base,” he said. “Guys take a lot of pride in getting deep into counts. You know, to be fair to generations before, you were more likely paid based on your home runs, your reputation, your runs batted in, your wins, your ERA. And those painted a crude picture of who you are as a player, but they didn’t tell you how impactful you were, relative to the next option.

“Whereas now,” he said, “I feel like we’re a bit more accurate. And I think that players are informed, not only because they’re compensated, but also because they want to be the best … They want a reputation of being skilled. They want a reputation of being a winning player. And yeah, I definitely see it from the new crowd.”

ON FOLLOWING NICK CASTELLANOS’ LAST 4 HBPS WITH A HOMER: This is wild, but somehow it’s happened. Four times since the all-star break, Votto’s teammate, Nick Castellanos, has gotten hit with a pitch. And all four times, Joey Votto has come up next and hit a home run. How even?

So I asked him on the podcast: If Nick would just get hit by more pitches, would you break Barry Bonds’ home run record?

“Ha. I will never break his record, with or without the hit-by-pitches,” Votto said, with a soft chuckle. “No. Just total randomness. I mean, I think a few of them may have been breaking balls. Totally accidental. So … he’s thanked me each time. So yeah. I thank him.”

ON HOW HIS 2021 HOMER/FLY BALL/MORE K’S SEASON IS BY DESIGN: Four years ago in 2017, Votto had a season in which he had a spectacular .454 on-base percentage, and had 51 more walks (134) than strikeouts (83). But this year, he admits, a big reason he has cranked 17 home runs in his last 31 games is that he has sacrificed some of that plate discipline in the name of trying to hit the ball hard in the air more often.

“No question about that,” Votto said. “You know, this is my natural skill set … I’ve always been able to hit the ball hard. I’ve always been able to drive the ball all over the field. It’s something I’ve always enjoyed doing. But in the middle of my career, I thought, `I want to be the best. I want to be the very best hitter in baseball.’

“And I looked back on the all-time greats, and many of them walked a ton. Hit home runs. Hit for power. Hit for a high average. And I wanted to do that. And now, as I’ve gotten older and that style hasn’t really been as easy as it used to be, I just went back to the original version of my game. Just try to hit the ball as hard as possible.”

Well, he’s doing that, all right. His hard-hit percentage (52.8 percent) is the highest of his career. And as he rides that wave, Joey Votto is savoring every moment of that ride.

“I’m having the most fun I’ve ever had in my career,” he said, “simply because this is the original version of me. Because it feels like home again.

“You know, the middle of my career was genuinely tough. I don’t want to say mentally, because I don’t want to get so dramatic here. But it was challenging. It was very stressful for me. Physically, it took a toll on me. My back and my knee were not to be able to make the move that I had to make in the middle of my career. It was very painful on a daily basis.

“And now, just so you know, that (former approach) was the way I allowed the ball to travel. I could read and decide on the pitch, while also being able to power the ball, hit the ball hard. Whereas now, I just relax and I enjoy it…. (But) 2017 was my most satisfying year. Strikeouts (in the sport) went up. My strikeouts went down. My walks continued to go up. And usually, strikeouts and walks go hand in hand. Mine didn’t.

“I can’t tell you how proud I was of that season because it was everything that I wanted to do. My power stayed steady. I played every single game all year. It was my pièce de résistance. I was very, very proud of that one.

“But now,” he said, “I can’t do everything. And that’s OK, because I can do something that’s helpful for the club.”

ON WHY HE LOVES STATCAST: I’ve never heard any player talk as much about his favorite stat sites as Joey Votto. So naturally, I’ve never heard any player talk about how Statcast can make hitting more fun quite the way Votto did in this conversation.

“Now it’s just kind of a fun video game to play,” he said, “to chase Shohei Ohtani for highest barrel percentage or, you know, I’ve got (Aristedes) Aquino on my team. And he gives me a hard time that I can’t hit the ball 118.3 (mph) like he did a few years ago. And then I told him, `Oh, that’s nice. You had seven home runs in 15 games, I had seven home runs in five games.’

“You know, I actually have a lot of fun with the Statcast stuff,” he said, “just because it’s been good to me in terms of having goals, and then objectively being able to monitor them.”

Fun with Statcast! Definitely the most Joey Votto thing ever.

But there’s lots more where these pearls came from. To hear Votto reflect on…

  • The great hitters he has tried to copy
  • Whether his teammate, Tucker Barnhart, was right when he claimed that Votto can just will himself to do whatever he wants
  • And – especially – on the true meaning of ice cream and baseball…

Check out this week’s episode of Starkville, available free wherever you find your podcasts.

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