GOODYEAR, Ariz. - One of the chief concerns for the Reds in 2013 is returning Joey Votto back to his normal self at the plate. It's been a spring of restoration for him, both physical and mental. Restoring confidence for Joey and restoring confidence in Joey.
Votto's knee injury in June 2012 took all of the power out of his swing, and despite a mid .300 average in the games following his injury/surgery/recovery, he didn't hit a single home run and his doubles production was cut in half.
"He came back last year and he didn't know how to be," Reds manager Dusty Baker said. "[He was] real ginger, doing everything with a calculated move versus being natural."
After his injury, Votto still hit fastballs well, but where he faltered was when breaking/offspeed stuff was mixed in. Because he could only drive with his hands, his swing motion was thrown off, and he was often way out in front of curveballs and changeups, or buckling on sliders and splitters. His range in the field also suffered.
The weakened knee kept Votto from being himself. It robbed him of his reach, but not of his resourcefulness.
"If you can't make adjustments and be able to step back and look at yourself with some perspective, then I think you're going to be in trouble," Votto said of reacting to his injury.
He was innovative and effective after the setback in 2012, and can continue to be in 2013 even without his full power restored. Votto became a contact hitter upon his return from surgery, posting an average of .343 in September. Any team would take that kind of production, even if it was without the rest of Votto's normal MVP slugging numbers.
"The more effective baseball players find a way to be innovative and figure out ways to solve the problem," Votto said. "It's a new experience for me, I've learned so much along the way."
The question as to whether he's returning to full strength has been answered in Goodyear, Arizona. On one of the very first days of camp, Votto raced to track down a meaningless fly ball in a meaningless drill, putting on the brakes just inches from the fence.
Votto also hit four home runs this spring, one of which physically left the ball park over the back fence off of a hanging curveball from Texas Rangers ace Yu Darvish. As for the rest of his game during Spring Training, check out these numbers: 14 RBI, 11 walks, .346 average, .460 on-base percentage and .673 slugging percentage.
"I feel much better," Votto said at Spring Training. "I think the real test will be playing in games and playing on a consistent basis."
And he looks much better, with his smooth stroke back to where it was in 2012, getting air under his hits and power through his swings.
"I see him Joey-er," Jay Bruce said of Votto. "I see him being one of, if not the best hitters in the game. He has a knack for not getting out, and he's going to continue to not get out, I can almost guarantee you that."