Joey Votto is Cincinnati’s first baseman of the future, and with the non-waiver trading deadline looming, that future may come sooner than later. While rumors swirl that the Reds will deal one of their aging first sackers to make room for him, Votto is proving his readiness to handle big league pitching. Currently with the Triple-A Louisville Bats, where he is hitting .306/.403/.474 with 14 home runs, the 2002 second-round draft pick led the Southern League in several offensive categories last season, including total bases and OPS. A left-handed hitter from Toronto, the 23-year-old Votto was selected to play for the World Team in this year’s Futures Game.
David talked to Votto about swinging for McCovey’s Cove, what he hopes to accomplish as a Red, and his favorite era in baseball history.
Joey Votto: I hit his second pitch, which was a fastball, but I treated all of my at-bats the same way that day. When I played in the Futures Game last year, everyone was trying to throw 98 (mph), which is why I don’t like All-Star games that much. There’s not as much thinking or strategy–it’s more of guys playing for themselves and trying to show off what they can do. Basically, my approach was to try to hit it into McCovey’s Cove. That’s obviously not my normal approach, but in All-Star games you can do that. As for what I knew about Buchholz, I had asked a few of my teammates, and knew that he had a good fastball. I didn’t know a lot more than that.
DL: When you make your big league debut, possibly in the near future, how will you prepare for the game?
JV: I’ve been told that there’s a lot more research stuff available, like charts and video, and I’ll be the type of guy who’ll utilize it rather than going up there not knowing what I can about the pitcher. Down here we don’t have that kind of information, at least not to the extent that you do in the big leagues.
DL: How much do you think your at-bats will be affected with that extra knowledge?
JV: In some ways I think they’ll be affected greatly, although on the other hand I generally stick to the same approach. Like most hitters, I work off of fastballs. For instance, when I had the at-bat against Curt Schilling the other day in his rehab start, I knew he’d want to establish his fastball against me. I thought he’d move it around to change my eye-level, and come inside with it. That’s what he did, and I got the pitch I was looking for; I just missed it.
DL: You got off to a slow start this year due to vision problems. What was the story with that?
JV: I was diagnosed with astigmatism and ended up having to get contacts. I don’t know how I developed it, but I started to notice my right eye blurring when I was playing winter ball. I didn’t think too much of it at the time, and then I just let it be because I was hitting well in spring training. It wasn’t until the season started and we began playing night games that I realized there was a problem–I simply wasn’t seeing the ball very well at night. Before that I thought it was probably just dirt in my eye, and kind of brushed it off.
DL: So far this season you’re hitting .344 when ahead in the count, and .180 when behind in the count. What do those numbers mean to you?
JV: I’m like every other hitter in that you have to get ahead in the count. I don’t know if there’s a lot more to it than that. My approach is always the same, which is to look for a pitch I can do some damage with. I’m actually not that happy with the way I’m swinging the bat right now, despite my numbers, because I’m not driving in runs or hitting for as much power as I’d like to. I’ve been hitting for a solid average and getting on base, but I like to be “the hitter.” I don’t like to draw walks when I’m at the plate. I want to power the ball.
DL: Which of your numbers do you pay the most attention to?
JV: I’m not a huge stathead, but doubles and home runs are good. I know that I just mentioned driving in runs, but RBIs are something you can’t control as much because there aren’t always going to be guys on base in front of you. I do care about my strikeout rate, because if I’m putting the ball in play good things will happen. I guess the biggest ones are my power numbers.
DL: As a first baseman, do feel you’re obligated to hit home runs?
JV: Absolutely. I’m playing a less demanding position defensively, so I need to produce with the bat. That’s the prototype for a first baseman, much as it is for a left fielder. Your job is to put up power numbers and drive in runs.
DL: Going into last season, your Baseball Prospectus write-up said that you have ball-crushing power but it’s of the classic long swing/slow bat variety. Was there any truth to that comment?
JV: No, I don’t think I’ve ever had a slow bat. To me, that was probably a judgment made by looking at my stats and not at my individual at-bats or by comparing me to other players in a similar environment. I was coming off a somewhat down year, but so were most of the guys on the team. That season we were all put into a hole by having it dictated to us that we had to take a strike. As a hitter, you’re going to fail if you’re always behind in the count, and opposing pitchers knew we wouldn’t swing at the first pitch, so we were always down 0-1. In that situation, you go up there and it feels like you’re not controlling the whole at-bat. Fortunately, that’s in the past and not an issue any more.
DL: While the Cincinnati organization has since scrapped that philosophy, do you feel that you gained anything from it?
JV: I did in that I learned how to struggle and how to overcome obstacles that seemed overwhelming at times. Not being allowed to swing at the first pitch was frustrating. An analogy would be a writer whose pencil keeps breaking–he can’t write efficiently because he has to keep sharpening it. Or maybe it’s like being a cook who doesn’t have any seasoning–you don’t have all of the ingredients you need.
DL: When you think about the best conversations you’ve had about hitting, who have they been with?
JV: Leon Roberts, who used to be the roving hitting instructor here, was someone I loved to talk hitting with. Another is a guy named Bob Smyth, who was my mentor when I was growing up. He’s the one who raised me as a hitter. Bob is a scout, but he also ran some local teams in Toronto, and I was with him every day during the winter from age 15 through 18. He used to yell at me all the time, telling me to use my hands and make sure I did everything the right way.
DL: Left-handed hitters typically have far less success against left-handed pitchers than they do against righties. How much of that do you feel is a mental obstacle as opposed to a physical one?
JV: That’s a good question. I think we do kind of give in and miss pitches more than we should, so there probably is a mental barrier to some extent. But I think success can overcome that. If you look at guys like Travis Hafner, Adam Dunn, and Ryan Howard, who hang in there well against lefties, you know it can be done. It’s a matter of being confident and not giving in to a psychological wall. If you’re locked in, it really shouldn’t matter who you’re facing.
DL: What feels different when you’re locked in and swinging the bat well? Is it mostly just a case of seeing the ball better?
JV: I don’t really know how to explain it. When I’m going well it seems like the days and the at-bats just seem to run together, but I don’t think I’d say that it’s because I see the ball better. It’s more like the ball is where I want it and I’m not missing the opportunities when I get my pitches.
DL: Soon after he was drafted, Jay Bruce alluded to the organization’s young talent and said, “Maybe we can bring back the Big Red Machine.” If so, which member of those championship teams would you be?
JV: I don’t know that I’d want to say it myself, but I guess a lot of people would say Tony Perez. We’re both first basemen, and our job is to drive in runs, but I don’t strive to be him. I have my own idols.
DL: Who have been your favorite players growing up?
JV: I love watching Manny Ramirez hit. Todd Helton, too. And despite the controversy, you can’t deny how great Barry Bonds has been. He’s an absolute freak. As futile as it can sometimes seem up at the plate, as a hitter you can smile watching him do damage to pitchers. It’s like seeing someone win that battle for you. I’m into baseball history, and he’s one of the best ever.
DL: If you could have played in any other era, which would it be?
JV: It would definitely be the Golden Era. That’s when baseball was great, with stars like Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, and Stan Musial. I read books about it, and am in love with how the game was played and the magnitude of those kinds of players. Just playing and competing against guys like that would be amazing. I can imagine watching Musial’s stance and seeing him uncoil to rip an extra-base hit. And the game was a lot more finesse back then, too. Look at how skinny Ted Williams was, and how far he could drive a ball.
DL: With the trade deadline approaching, there are rumors afloat that could impact your ascent to the big leagues if they come to fruition. Are you thinking about that?
JV: I obviously want to get to the big leagues, but I also try not to worry about things I can’t control. Regardless, I don’t want to get there because of a trade–I want it to happen because of what I’m doing on the field and deserve to get called up. And once I’m there, I want to be a career Red. That’s another big reason I like the Golden Era–when you think Ted Williams, you think Red Sox. When you think Joe DiMaggio, you think Yankees. I want to be part of a tradition, not a player who jumps from team to team.
DL: When you someday look back at the career you had in baseball, what do you hope you can be most proud of?
JV: There are a couple of things. One is that I played the game hard, and that I played it the right way. Another is that I became as good of a hitter as I was capable. I hope to be the kind of hitter that teams plan around. And I’d like to win championships. I’d like to be part of a Reds team that celebrates World Series titles.