Joey Votto was 27 years old, a reigning National League Most Valuable Player and ostensibly at the height of his powers when he first felt the symptoms of decline.
In 2010, he dominated the NL, smashing 37 home runs for the division champion Cincinnati Reds and leading the circuit in on-base percentage and OPS. And as he prepared to bedevil pitchers that season, he’d take massive swings in the on-deck circle, cuts so powerful his bat spoke to him.
“The bat would whistle,” he recalls. “I could hear the whoosh as it came through the strike zone. That would give me confidence.
“It would let me know that, not only am I strong, but I’m also quick. I can be accurate with the barrel. I can read and react and still attempt to hit the ball as far as I can.
“I’d walk up to the plate with that confidence.”
A year later, his production remained elite - while his home runs dipped to 27, he led the NL in doubles and on-base percentage - but his body did not reflect it. That sound in the on-deck circle was gone. His energy waned.
He was getting older, and feeling the first signs of vulnerability.
“The average reader may not be able to understand this,” he says, “but it was a genuine struggle for me for almost the entire year.
“It wasn’t until the following year I pretty much accepted it and just took slow swings, because I didn’t want it zapping my confidence. Ever since then, I haven’t taken any swings on deck.
“Because I don’t want to feel that feeling.”
Votto is 34 now, playing in an era when Major League Baseball is skewing younger, both in star power and the aversion to pay veterans top dollar, or employ them at all.
Yet Votto nearly won his second MVP award in 2017, a season of offensive artistry during which he hit 36 home runs and led the NL in walks, OPS (1.032) and OPS-plus (168).
Now, he and other Hall of Fame-caliber stars like Robinson Cano provide a fascinating case study of skills vs. slippage. As they ease into their late 30s with nine-figure contracts to live up to, they confront a daunting question:
How long can they defy Father Time, baseball’s only undefeated franchise?
“The aging curves for athletes in general makes perfect sense,” says Votto. “There’s definitely a diminishing of physical skills and I think experience, at this point of my career, is mitigating that. It’s figuring out what puts you in the best position to feel good on a consistent basis, and maximizing the things you can fully, fully control. Put your strengths to the forefront.
“Things that you struggle with? Try to do your best not to show your hand.”
At 35, Cano finds himself battling a similar sliding scale: A baseball mind that’s always expanding, attached to a body more likely to betray him.
For now, Cano can reconcile the two.
“This game is not about how strong you are. It’s about how smart you are,” Cano said last week at the Mariners’ spring training complex. “I’m getting older. You have to focus on things that are really going to help you out down the road, to stay healthy and also give you power.”
Like Votto, who signed a 10-year, $225 million deal at 28, Cano has handled the pressure of a decade-long, nearly quarter-billion dollar commitment with aplomb. Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto inherited that contract from former GM Jack Zduriencik but is hardly grousing about it, noting that “right now, Robinson Cano, as a Mariner, has been an absolute success.”
After 13 seasons – eight All-Star campaigns - he owns a sublime slash line of .305/.354/.494 and 301 home runs, an AL-record 289 as a second baseman.
But Cano was 31 when he signed his 10-year, $240 million deal with the Mariners. Recent years have not been kind to sure-fire Hall of Famers Albert Pujols and Miguel Cabrera, who will be 41 and 42, respectively, when their $240 million and $248 million deals expire.
Pujols and Cabrera produced negative Wins Above Replacement in 2017 and enter their age 38 and 35 seasons this year.
Cano counts Pujols among members of his own council on aging, along with Mariners hitting coach Edgar Martinez, Fernando Tatis and other training partners. Cano’s philosophy is now heavy on strength and agility – lifting more, running less.
In 2017, his home runs and OPS dipped from 39 and .882 to 23 and .791. Yet, Cano struck out just 85 times in 648 plate appearances, a startling 13% strikeout rate in a year the average major leaguer struck out 22% of the time.
That bat-on-ball skill keeps Dipoto from losing much sleep over Cano’s six remaining years on his contract.
“It’s hand-eye coordination and number of hours in his lifetime that he has spent putting a barrel on a baseball,” says Dipoto. “I don’t want to say it’s easy for him, because it’s a complicated skill. He does it better than most people that have ever been born.
“We’re going to have Robbie Cano out there in his early 40s and my guess is, while he may not be playing second base at 41, he’s probably going to be able to hit.”
Dipoto and Reds GM Dick Williams are similarly bullish on Votto, who features “old-guy skills,” as Dipoto calls Votto’s lifetime .428 on-base percentage, which ranks 11th all-time. “He controls the strike zone better than most people who have ever played Major League Baseball,” says Dipoto. “I think that gives him a really good shot of sustaining what he does.”
Votto begs to differ. Perhaps the game’s most self-aware slugger, Votto says his MVP calculus will collapse if he loses his ability to menace pitchers with the specter of extra-base hits.
“I’m only as valuable as the power side of my game,” says Votto, who has finished in the NL’s top 10 in extra base hits in four of his 11 seasons. “I have to be an extra-base hit or a home run threat the second I step up to the plate, or else my entire hitting style kind of slips.”
Votto regards his younger self as “sloppy” in approach, and says last year he was “probably at my very best in my career at not giving away any pitches, not trying to do something I can’t do.”
The result was a Mona Lisa that would seem difficult to top, or even replicate, yet Votto insists there’s more “sharpening” to be done.
“Da Vinci put out a lot of beautiful pieces of art,” he muses. “You can do more than just one. You can do more than just the Mona Lisa.”
Cano and Votto both profess to think little about their Hall of Fame prospects, though both are tracking toward Cooperstown; Cano’s a virtual lock to finish in the top 10 among second basemen in all major offensive categories, with everyone ahead of him already enshrined.
For now, both will aim not only to live up to their handsome contracts, but also to sustain their generational production even as middle age dawns.
“I really have enjoyed the journey,” says Votto, whose deal runs through at least 2023, when he turns 40. “I like growing and trying to figure out the puzzle. I never want to get to the point where I’m like, patting myself on the back because I’ve done well through a good bit of it.
“I’d like to run through the finish line.”