How Joey Votto became one of the game’s best

Joey Votto. (John Minchillo/AP)

Bob Smyth could see it from the start: The kid had something special. The founder of the Etobicoke Baseball Centre and the Etobicoke Rangers baseball club had seen plenty of talent in his day. The 16-year-old lefty was just one of several players who showed up after school every day to run through hours of hitting drills. He was big and strong—a pure athlete. He could pound the ball. He could crank homers over the right-field fence, no problem. But lots of decent players could do that. This lefty hit to the opposite side with as much power as when he pulled it. And he was calculated at the plate. He was more than just another slugger. Smyth saw that Joey Votto was obsessed with the art of hitting, and he knew the kid was going places.

Today, Votto is known for his $251-million contract, which makes him the highest-paid Canadian athlete in professional sports. The Cincinnati Reds first baseman earned his payday by establishing himself as one of the best hitters in baseball. And no, that’s not just baseball today. That’s baseball, period. On the all-time leaderboard for Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+)—a stat that shows a batter’s offensive value, adjusted for different eras, leagues and ballparks—Votto sits 15th. Ahead of him are names like Stan Musial, Ty Cobb and, No. 1 overall, Babe Ruth. Behind him is a group that includes Albert Pujols, Willie Mays and Hank Aaron. Among active players, only Mike Trout sits higher than Votto, at No. 7.

It’s easiest to understand Votto’s prowess at the plate as a combination of vision, patience and power. He hits the ball well off both righties and lefties and he almost never pops out. What’s more, in the five seasons since he was named National League MVP in 2010, Votto has earned more walks than anyone else in the game. And because he can hit the ball with so much power in any direction, it’s useless for opponents to play the shift against him.

All of this is intentional. Votto is obsessed with analytics and the mechanics of his swing. He’s said several times that he doesn’t care about hitting home runs. He focuses on perfecting his approach at the plate in a way that is repeatable and ages well. Votto’s 12-year deal with the Reds was the longest in MLB history when he signed it in 2012, and he intends to be worth the money through all of it.

That’s been his approach since he played under Smyth, long before he joined the ranks of the game’s greatest hitters. Votto still credits his early development under Smyth as an essential catalyst to his major-league career. The two remain close and chat regularly. “The bottom line is he adapts because he’s intelligent. He does his homework,” says Smyth, who now works as a baseball scout in B.C. and still watches every at-bat his former player takes.

And while Votto may be a long way from the days of perfecting his swing under the tutelage of his old mentor in a Toronto suburb, he remains as diligent and earnest a student as he was all those years ago. He’s still known for his regimented hitting routines and relentless pursuit of new ways to gain any advantage at the plate. “He doesn’t go out there and say, ‘Oh I did that last year, I’ve got to do it again this year,’” says Smyth. “Because times change, and he has to change, too.”