MLB

Joey Votto's making certain he'll be in top shape for entire season

GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- When Joey Votto announced in late December that he would not play for Team Canada in the World Baseball Classic, he issued a somewhat puzzling statement.

"There were some aspects of my performance in 2016 that I have decided were lacking," the Reds' first baseman said. "I would like to use 2017 Spring Training for preparation."

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What the heck was Votto talking about after rebounding from a slow offensive start to tie the Nationals' Daniel Murphy for the National League lead with a .985 OPS?

Uh, would you believe defense and base-running?

Votto's remarks to two reporters at the Reds' training complex on Thursday served as a reminder that the great ones are never satisfied.

"I was upset with some of the components of my game," Votto said. "I felt like they were related to conditioning effort and that they were related to preparation. That's part of the reason I passed on the WBC (Votto played in the previous two).

"I came here early, I started training very early in the offseason. I'm not sure there is a correlation between training and performance on the field. But at the very least, I'm not going to take that chance."

Last season, in Votto's estimation, there was a correlation between training and performance.

"I was shaky defensively," he said. "Base-running, I wasn't aggressive. I'd see old video of my running. It didn't look as . . . I just didn't look athletic. I didn't look like I was being aggressive and athletic.

"That's certainly not the way collectively we want to play here. And if I'm going to be on the field on a consistent basis, then I have a responsibility to my teammates to get the most out of myself. I watch everybody else on their team bust their behinds to be the best they can at every component. I should be the same."

Votto, 33, doesn't like to discuss his training -- "Everybody talks about it. Then you see the exact same or a worse performance," he said. But he acknowledged that he worked more on his movement during the offseason.

Offensively, Votto entered June batting only .213 with nine homers and a .735 OPS. But he was the best hitter in baseball over the final four months, hitting .378 with 20 homers and a 1.101 OPS.

"Swing-wise, I started slowly last year," Votto said. "Some people would say that's how numbers work. There is going to be positive and negative regression. But there was definitely a cause-and-effect between spring-training preparation, my early-season preparation and my slow start. I'm going to try to mitigate that. The changes I made during the season, I'm going to try and apply them earlier in the year this year."

What went wrong?

"I was striking out a bunch and I wasn't hitting well against left-handers," Votto said. "Those go hand-in-hand with my swing. There is a connection between the way I hit against left-handers and my two-strike approach and my success in the batter's box.

"I prioritized those two components in my game, and ended up seeing a flip. It was not a positive regression. It wasn't just a numbers thing. It was a definite cause-and-effect between my effort, my work and in-game play. It wasn't just one of those things. It was a genuine change I was in control of."

This spring, as he enters the fourth year of a 10-year, $225 million contract, Votto is trying not only to maintain that control, but also improve other parts of his game.

Turns out his reasons for declining the WBC aren't so puzzling at all.