By Zach Buchanan
Cincinnati Reds manager Bryan Price has been with the Reds since 2010, the year Joey Votto was voted Most Valuable Player for the National League. Looking back on those seven years, Price can’t remember Votto ever shirking his commitment to defense.
But Votto can. In the offseason following the 2015 campaign, he needed a break. He didn’t work as hard as he normally does.
It cost him in the field in 2016.
“I didn’t prepare properly,” Votto said. “I had to do a lot of catching up during the season. The unfortunate thing of hitting versus defense is I’m probably a more natural hitter than I am a defensive player. When I don’t prepare to the utmost in one aspect of my game that’s not a strength, I’m way behind everybody else.”
The numbers certainly bear that out. From 2011-12, Votto rated as one of the better defensive first basemen in the league according to metrics like Ultimate Zone Rating and Defensive Runs Saved. Over the next three seasons, he was about average.
But last year, he was terrible. He had the second-worst UZR among regular first baseman, and the worst DRS by a margin of eight runs. Those stats don’t tell the whole picture — in general, it’s best to take defensive stats in chunks of at least three seasons — but Votto knows he wasn’t as good as he should have been.
When asked how long when he finally caught up on his defensive work last year, he contemplatively exhaled and said, “Today.”
“I wasn’t at my best,” Votto said. “It wasn’t like I shorted myself and I wasn’t completely prepared. But I wasn’t as consistent and steady with my work and detail-oriented as I have been during my past years.”
Votto wouldn’t share any specifics of his defensive work in the offseason or this spring, but Price thinks he’s noticed a difference so far. He sees Votto being more comfortable leaving his feet to make a tough play, especially on balls to his glove hand, in the 3-4 gap.
That would certainly help his range, which advanced metrics show was the biggest factor in his defensive decline last season.
“There are times you get caught in between on if you should try to stay on your feet and make the play so you can make an easier throw, or when you can leave your feet because that’s the only way you can make the throw,” Price said. “He’s worked really diligently on it.”
Votto hasn’t limited his focus to just defense. He’s also changed up his slide mechanics in an effort to be a better player on the bases.
Unlike with his defense, Votto has never rated particularly positively on the bases. The last two years have been his worst, and he traces some of that to sliding with his left leg forward instead of his right, a switch he made after injuring tearing the meniscus in his left knee in 2012.
Sliding that way was never very comfortable, and it put his back to the infield. He couldn’t reach the bag or pop up as quickly, or react as well to a passed ball. This spring, he finally felt comfortable switching back to his old slide, and it felt natural immediately.
“’I just wasn’t doing that in the past,” he said. “I wasn’t doing part of the game that everyone needs to go all in on.”
Votto has lofty expectations for himself. He considers his peers to be the best first baseman in the league, including Chicago Cubs star Antony Rizzo and Arizona Diamondbacks cornerstone Paul Goldschmidt. He’s arguably a better hitter than both of them.
But he’s not a more complete player, and that’s what he’s aiming for.
“I do use the best players in the league as markers, as barometers,” he said. “Those are who I compete against.”