CINCINNATI — I’ve said all along that I found the fact that Joey Votto was hitting .212 at the end of May much more unbelievable that the fact that he’s hitting .450 since the All-Star break.
Votto’s splits are stark.
He hit .252 with a .386 on-base percentage and a .446 slugging percentage before the All-Star break. Going into Tuesday, he’s hitting .450 with a .546 on-base and a .708 slugging since the break.
Votto has been one of baseball premier hitters almost since the moment he arrived in the big leagues. But even for him, a streak of such sustained success is astonishing — even more so because it followed the worst back-to-back months of his career.
So which is more unbelievable? The bad start? The tremendous surge?
“Boy, I guess I would say (the struggles) early on,” hitting coach Don Long said. “He’s always one that no matter the results to stay focused on the process and focus on what he’s after and kind of let that be the result to drive everything.
“At the beginning, you could see the signs of what he was after. But I think he shifted priorities a little bit. I think once he did and was consistent with how he worked and having consistent thoughts that's when he took off again.”
Reds manager Bryan Price thinks what Votto is doing now is more unbelievable than the rough start.
“I think things that Joey’s accomplished offensively from a batting average and on-base percentage are phenomenal,” Price said. “Anyone can struggle in this game for a couple of months. You see great players struggle through a season. It’s not as surprising to see an outstanding player struggle for a couple of months.
“I don’t think that’s unique. I think what is unique is being able to hit at that pace and get on base at that pace for three and four months at time, which he did last year and is doing this year.”
Consider this: Only one Red since 1900 has hit .400 in two months of the season. Vada Pinson did it in 1961. Votto is closing in on doing it in back-to-back months. He hit .413 in July and went into Tuesday hitting .429 in August. No Red has ever hit .400 in consecutive months. No big leaguer has done it since Josh Hamilton in June and July of 2010.
Votto clearly thinks his start was more of the aberration than his hot streak. “There were times when I was just in disbelief at what was going on,” he said.
As Price said, every player struggles, but Votto had not struggled like that. He has streaked like he is doing now. He hit .362/.535/.617 in the second half last year, in fact.
“I’ve had stretches where I’ve had success over and over and over for months on end,” he said. “But I haven’t had a lot of stretches where I just fail pretty consistently. I didn’t understand it, and it wouldn’t stop.”
Votto says the struggles were mostly on him.
“I felt like it was a combination of poor decision-making and bad luck,” he said. “But more than anything, it was me. It was something I felt like I could truly control.
"A lot people say, ‘It’s been a bad stretch of luck,' or 'He’ll eventually get out of this.’ But looking back, I felt like I was really making bad decisions at the plate. I feel like I righted those and I’ll continue with this going forward.”
Votto found solace in baseball-reference.com. He punched up the pages of two Hall of Famers and one future Hall of Famer to see what they did in the season they played as 32 years olds: Stan Musial, Willie Mays and Derek Jeter.
In 1953, Musial hit .304/.405/.516 in the first half and .375/.473/.715 in the second half. In 1963, Mays hit .271/.352/.468 in the first half and .362/.412/.709 in the second half. Jeter’s splits were much more even, although his slugging went from .462 to .507.
“When you start off as poorly as I did, you look for as much hope as you can,” Votto said. “. . . I look at those guys as inspiration. I look at those as guys I want to compete against.”
Votto blames his struggles on strikeouts. He struck out 57 times and walked 28 in April and May. Since then, he struck out 50 times and walked 62.
He found that Jeter and Mays were on similar strikeout paths until they righted themselves.
“They didn’t speak to me directly,” Votto said. “But they spoke to me through their baseball-reference page, through their game logs, through their own experience. I’m grateful for that.
“I hope in the future I get to do the same for a younger player.”
John Fay is freelance sports columnist. This column represents his opinion.