Votto, Trout among talented sluggers on struggling MLB teams
GOODYEAR — Joey Votto fielded grounders over and over again until most of the Cincinnati Reds were long gone, off to a spring game, weights, or just the rest of the day. He threw home. He threw to second. He practiced underhand tosses to first, backhands, everything.
A group of coaches hollered in appreciation after one diving stop and crisp throw, and Votto responded with a simple "Same thing," looking for another grounder in the same spot. Right back to work for one of baseball's best players on a rebuilding team.
"As long as I'm on the field I feel like I'm one of the guys that going to change the direction and be a part of a winning atmosphere here," Votto said back at his locker after the fielding session. "So I feel like, although I do have an individual set of goals and responsibilities I hold myself to, inevitably the No. 1 priority is winning and coming out here every day and looking forward to competing, looking forward to big and better things in October. That's No. 1 priority in my job."
October has been mostly empty for Cincinnati for the last couple seasons, even with Votto regarded as one of the game's great hitters, an on-base machine in an era that appreciates his talents more than ever. The first baseman is one of several sluggers putting up big numbers for losing teams in recent years.
Votto, Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado and Braves slugger Freddie Freeman placed in the top seven in NL MVP voting last season, and their teams finished a combined 63 games under .500. Los Angeles Angels star Mike Trout became the first AL MVP from a losing team since Alex Rodriguez for Texas in 2003 and just the fifth player ever to accomplish the feat, joining Hall of Famers Ernie Banks (1958 and 1959), Andre Dawson (1987) and Cal Ripken (1991).
"I absolutely hate it. Losing takes a toll," said Arenado, who had 41 homers and 133 RBIs last season. "It's not fun. It's hard. I've been fortunate to win Gold Gloves, Silver Sluggers. I've won those things before, and it never gets old, but something I've never won before is a division title or a World Series. I'm interested in that."
Votto and Trout are the only active members of one of baseball's most exclusive clubs, a list of 23 players with at least a .300 batting average, .400 on-base percentage and .500 slugging percentage with a minimum of 400 career plate appearances, according to data at baseball-reference.com that dates to 1871.
It just hasn't amounted to much in the standings.
The 25-year-old Trout batted .315 with 29 homers, 100 RBIs and 30 steals, but Los Angeles finished fourth in the AL West. He scored 17 percent of the Angels' runs, the highest percentage for an AL player since Rickey Henderson with the 1985 New York Yankees.
The center fielder also won the AL MVP award in 2014 and finished second in the voting three times in his first five years in the majors. But he has played in just one playoff series, with the Royals sweeping the Angels out of the postseason three years ago.
"It's frustrating, for sure," Trout said. "You want to get to the playoffs. It's fun. You've seen the World Series last year. You want to be in that atmosphere."
Votto and the Reds got to the playoffs three times in four years from 2010 to 2013, but they had a short stay each time. They won the first two games in their 2012 division series against San Francisco, but the Giants rallied on the way to the World Series title.
It has been mostly tough sledding since that success. Cincinnati lost 98 games in 2015 and 94 last year.
"It can be difficult playing games from May on that you know you're fighting an uphill battle," said Votto, who turns 34 in September. "But every single organization goes through this and I've been with this team for a good bit of time and it's inevitable that this sort of thing happens."
While the team has floundered, Votto has continued his high level of play. The 2010 NL MVP, who has a $225 million, 10-year contract that runs through the 2023 season, hit .326 with 29 homers, 97 RBIs and a .434 on-base percentage last year. It was his highest batting average since he hit .337 in 2012, and he led the NL in on-base percentage for the fifth time.
He batted .378 over the final 106 games, continuing his torrid surge long after the Reds had fallen off the pace in the NL Central.
"His bar for himself is so high I don't know if there is an environment you could create where he would stop caring about his contribution," manager Bryan Price said. "I think from the win-loss, looking at the standings, seeing where we are, that challenge is there every day, but I don't think — this is just my perspective — that that ate away or eroded his drive to be outstanding."
When Brandon Phillips was traded to Atlanta on Feb. 12, Votto became the long-tenured Red. He was selected by Cincinnati in the second round of the 2012 draft and has spent his entire career with the team, beginning with his major league debut in 2007.
He is surrounded by a ton of youth these days, and it inspires him.
"It's exciting, and the guys, they care about getting better in all facets of the game," he said, "and they're looking forward to playing together, so that's a really exciting thing."