It might be surprising, but there’s one thing Joey Votto isn’t good at. Well, to be more precise, there’s one thing that Joey Votto doesn’t think he’s good at. He’s done a lot of work, and it looks like he’s good at it. When it comes to defense, though, he credits the work and not any natural ability. And then last year happened, so maybe he’s not so good at it, after all.
That’s Votto’s rolling UZR per 150 games since 2008. UZR requires a large sample to become reliable, so any single year of data needs to be regressed heavily. But there appears to be a trend here. In any case, I’m apparently not the first to notice a downturn in Votto’s defensive ability last year, nor to mention it to him. “It’s hard to ignore when people ask you on a consistent basis about it,” he grimaced when I asked.
That’s alright, he knows it’s a problem. “I’ve always tried to be as good a defender as I can be,” he pointed out, before admitting that last year was a down year. “I felt like last year I was just not as prepared, not as disciplined — as immersed — as I should have been with something that, in my opinion, I view as probably one of the weaker aspects of my game.”
Maybe it’s surprising to hear Votto express discontent about an aspect of his game at which he’d mostly excelled before last year. Between 2008 and 2015, he was the sixth-best first baseman by UZR/150 (and third-best by total UZR). Watch him, looking athletic in his high socks and tight pants, and he passes the eye test most years.
Not last year. Even the fans downgraded Votto on his first step and his arm, and the eyes match the numbers. It seems improbable that his body failed him this quickly in one year, so I asked Votto how he was good in the past despite his self-perceived failings with the glove.
“Byproduct of diligent, consistent, boring work,” said Votto of his earlier good numbers. “With the mentality that you are not good at this, you have to work at it. Hitting, on the other hand, I can do a lot of cool things offensively with a medium amount of effort, but to be in the same conversation for leader, best, I have to take the same kind of approach: obsessive, consistent, detail-oriented work.”
If you want to know what that boring work looks like, look no further than a recent spring Tuesday, at noon, after all the hitters had left the field. Votto was left alone with two coaches. First, he worked on going forward on bunts and throwing home.
Imagine that same thing, over and over and over. Pretty powerfully boring. It spiced up a little afterwards, Votto et al. worked some drills with a coach at second base. Finally, he added some practice diving to both sides. That’s when his coaches offered the most advice. What was he saying? “The crossover move into a dive, I feel uncomfortable,” answered Votto. “He said my move is better, more natural, to my left than to my right,” .
So that’s part of the answer, and so are all the scouting reports in the clubhouse, and so is every person that will talk to Votto about defense. “Everything, every variable that we have inside our clubhouse, that we have access to, try to take advantage of that and use it appropriately,” said Votto with regard to making the most of his defensive ability.
There is a problem that rears its head, though, when you ask him to sum up what he’s working on with the glove. “Be natural and be athletic,” he says. Well, maybe practice can get you the first, but the second seems pretty innate, and also tied to your age. He’s 33 and not getting younger.
That’s a fact not lost on the player. “The thing that stands out about doing this work now is that people say it’s a youth movement, but really it’s a byproduct of these guys being faster and being more naturally athletic and being able to recover on a quicker basis,” Votto said. “Quicker than the older fella.”
So what can the older fella do? Sleep a lot? “Try to.” Eat right? “Try to.” Stay flexible? “Try to.”
“You try to control what you can control, and then stress comes in, life comes in, and hopefully you’re good enough to overcome those things,” is how Votto sums up his life philosophy and also how he’s attacking last year’s defensive downturn. That sounds a lot better than all the boring work he’s doing behind the scenes.
With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.