GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- As the Reds aren't expected to contend for the playoffs this season, first baseman Joey Votto could be doing a large part of his work in relative anonymity. That was the case in 2015, when the Reds won 64 games, but Votto's performance still earned him a third-place finish in National League Most Valuable Player voting.
So here's the fearless prediction for 2016: regardless of what Cincinnati does as a team and who surrounds him in the batting order, Votto's production will again warrant a Top 3 MVP finish.
To briefly recap what earned Votto MVP consideration last season, he batted .314/.459/.541 with 29 home runs and 80 RBIs in 158 games. His 1.000 OPS was third in the Majors. His 172 weighted-runs-created-plus (wRC+) was tied for second in the Majors and his 7.4 WAR was ranked fifth.
But following a more pedestrian first half, it was what Votto did in the second half that had baseball begin to take notice. He led the Majors in hitting (.362), on-base percentage (.535), and also had a .617 slugging percentage.
"I think the thing that makes him as good as he is, is that he doesn't ever give away an at-bat," Reds catcher Devin Mesoraco said. "I catch myself at times where I try to have a good two-strike approach and really grind through an at-bat, and then I just do something really stupid and get out swinging at a dumb pitch or was too aggressive.
"For him, he's always grinding out every single at-bat. It doesn't matter if we're down 10 runs. It doesn't matter if the game is on the line. And that's just a very hard thing to do from a mental standpoint, to be that invested in every single at-bat. Man, that's hard to do and he does it better than anybody."
Mesoraco's observations are continually proven statistically. A lightning rod, partially because of the 10-year, $225 million contract extension he signed in 2012, Votto is often criticized for being too selective. But his is an approach that works.
When swinging inside the strike zone, Votto batted .352 last season, compared to .199 out of the zone. For his career, he's a .362 hitter in the zone and .176 out of it. That strongly indicates chasing bad pitches isn't in his, or the team's, best interests.
Now 32, it will be more difficult for Votto to match the power that yielded his career-high 37 homers in the 2010 season where he was the NL MVP. But he will continually find ways to adjust and beat pitchers, whether it's choking up on the bat with two strikes or stepping closer to the mound in the batter's box. This spring, he has experimented more with bunting to the left side to beat the infield shift. He's even demonstrated a unique between-pitch move inside the batter's box late in spring to set himself.
Votto is batting 440/.516/.640, with a 1.156 OPS and three homers this spring. In past years, he's had bad springs and great seasons. He never sets statistical goals. But after what's been a strong camp, can he tell when a good season is in the cards?
"Every year, I've felt like I can come out and have a better year than the past," Votto said. "I say that, realistically. What I'm saying is I felt there were things I could improve that would make me a better ballplayer and hopefully help the team perform better. But I haven't felt like there was a cap yet."
The key, of course, is good health. After Votto recovered from two 2012 left knee surgeries, his power numbers dipped. In 2014, a left quad strain and more knee issues gave him the worst numbers of his career and limited him to 62 games.
"In 2013, it was probably the one year I felt was limited because I felt like I was still rehabbing," Votto said. "It just didn't feel right and I couldn't do some of the things that I could do in the past, so I had to make some adjustments that were a bit short of what I expected. As long as I go into the season healthy, I think that's a good starting point for me personally."