Baseball has a funny way of suspending time. The 2016 Major League Baseball season, for instance, has elements that both feel like just yesterday and that have long faded from memory.
The Chicago Cubs won their World Series that year, for instance, and it’s still hard to go a day without running into a reference to that daily. On the other hand, Mark Trumbo led the game with 47 homers that season, and that’s a name that floats somewhere between Wally Joyner and Corey Koskie in the archives of my brain.
For Cincinnati Reds fans, 2016 bridges both ends of that spectrum. It was a miserable season overall, one where the club was mired in a rebuild and progressively losing game after game after game. They lost 94 of them eventually, finished last in their division, gave Jordan Pacheco the final 51 big league PA of his career, and started the clock on the prospect sizzle-fizzle of Robert Stephenson. Ross Ohlendorf had multiple saves, Homer Bailey returned from one of his injuries to log a mighty 65 ERA+ in 23.0 IP, and Tyler Holt - Tyler Holt! - pitched.
There was ample worthy of forgetting. Joey Votto, thank god, was not.
As the franchise sputtered and crumbled around him (for the first time), Votto’s excellence seared itself into all memories. His second-half surge remains one of the single most brilliant stretches of baseball of his generation, and it led to him eventually finishing the season with an NL-best 160 OPS+.
How he got there is the kind of thing deserving of more lore around Cincinnati, honestly.
He did not make the All Star Game, you’ll recall. He was merely hitting .252/.386/.446 with 14 dingers at the break, the kind of numbers that paled in comparison to the mighty Mark Trumbo. And in his first game back from the five-day layoff, he poked a single, scored a run, and struck out as part of a 1 for 4 day against the Milwaukee Brewers.
The ho-hummity of Votto’s season ended right there, however. Said single kicked-off a 17 game hitting streak in which he’d bonk 29 hits in total, one that featured 4 homers and a Vottonian 17/10 BB/K ratio. While that streak was busted in a cozy 7-0 win over the St. Louis Cardinals in early August, Votto’s prowess only escalated, and he wrapped August with a 1.107 OPS for the month.
September was even better somehow, as he posted an absurd 1.108 OPS on that page of the calendar. When the dust settled, the 72 games of his second ‘half’ of 2016 saw him lead all qualified MLB hitters in average, OBP, SLG, wOBA, and wRC+, all while owning a 15.0% walk rate against a minuscule 10.2% K-rate. He only swatted 15 homers, instead functioning as the peak gap-to-gap doubles hitter that has long been the dream of hitting coaches.
Batting average was long-ago dwarfed by stats that told more of the overall story, but when it starts with a ‘4,’ it tells enough of a story to warrant mention. Votto’s did during that second half, as he hit an absurd .408/.490/.668 in 314 PA. His .478 wOBA dwarfed that of Freddie Freeman (.439, second best), while his 201 wRC+ left Miguel Cabrera (180, second best) well in his rear-view mirror. His 107 hits were the most in all of baseball post-break, besting Trea Turner’s 102.
At 32 years old, he had mastered the art of hitting, doing so in a way that left the knee injury that had previously derailed his career a distant memory.
Thanks for that, Joey. I’m going to try to talk about it more often.