We’ve been through the first seven of ten items on our list of moments that defined the 2010s decade for the Reds. They chronicle huge positive and negative swings for the organization. But if those arcs of Reds history felt gigantic, hold on to your Reds cap for the rest. Here are moments #3 and #2.
3. Johnny Cueto Drops the Ball (October 1, 2013)
The play itself: For the third time in four years, the Reds qualify for the postseason, but this time, it’s for the Wild Card play-in game. Dusty Baker’s team had won 97 games and the division the season before. The Reds closed to within 1.5 games of the first-place Cardinals in September, but finished 8-10 down the stretch and ended up 90-72 in third place. Baker’s club lost its final five regular season games, including a painful 3-game sweep at the hands of Pittsburgh, locking up home field for the Pirates in the play-in game.
Johnny Cueto wasn’t the first choice to pitch that elimination game at PNC Park. Ace Mat Latos was hurt. Baker had used Homer Bailey (who was having a tremendous season) and Bronson Arroyo in the three-game series to end the regular season, so they were unavailable. Cueto had been injured for most of 2013, only pitching two games in the second-half of season. But he gamely took the mound in front of a raucous Pittsburgh crowd that chanted his name. With the Pirates ahead 1-0 in the bottom of the 2nd inning, Cueto dropped the baseball and it rolled off the mound, much to the delight of the home crowd.
The moment: Johnny Cueto’s fumble didn’t cost the Reds the game. Although he did groove a 95-mph fastball on the next pitch that Pirates catcher Russell Martin deposited into the left-center bleachers for a solo homer. The Reds offense struggled, as it had at the end of the season. The scene was unnerving and the Reds barely put up a fight. According to Reds lore, owner Bob Castellini was so upset watching the game from the front row, that it caused him to fire Dusty Baker three days later. While Baker gave fans plenty reason to second-guess his tactics, that wasn’t the fatal flaw that caused him to be fired. Baker, who discouraged the idea of urgency during the regular season, was unable to get his team to turn up the intensity for the postseason. Ownership couldn’t abide it.
So Cueto’s casual dropping the ball at PNC was a big moment because it signified the end of the Baker Era. But that’s not why it ranks #3 on this list. It’s that dropping the ball was a perfect metaphor for the failure of Reds leadership to adapt to changing times and circumstances the next few seasons, prolonging and deepening the rebuilding crater.
Start with how the GM dropped the ball in replacing Ryan Ludwick’s bat, after the Reds left fielder was injured on Opening Day. Add to that the club’s reluctance to reshape the roster in 2014 and 2015. They hung on to core players and missed the chance to turn over the roster a bit. Whether that was because of ownership falling in love with its own players, or the reported reluctance to trade anyone before the Reds hosted the 2015 All Star Game, the Reds got in a situation of trading Jay Bruce, Todd Frazier, Aroldis Chapman, Mike Leake and Johnny Cueto way later than they should have.
Ownership also didn’t recognize the fundamental change taking place in the game. The Reds fell way behind other clubs, particularly in the NL Central, who adapted to new understanding of what it took to win. The effects of this myopia lasted — arguably — until Dick Williams hired David Bell, a little more than a year ago.
Johnny Cueto lost his grip that night. Reds management dropped the ball for five years.
2. Joey Votto Hits a Walk-Off Home Run (September 11, 2010)
The play itself: On a 2-1 count, Joey Votto leads off the bottom of the tenth by hitting a massive home run to left field off Pirates reliever Justin Thomas. It gives the Reds a walk-off win, improving their record to 81-61 and building a 6-game lead in the division.
The moment: There have been so many heroic moments by Joey Votto, it was hard to chose one. This at bat came toward the end of his MVP season. Winning the MVP award was no small feat considering Albert Pujols had won three NL MVP awards, including the previous two, and was still in his prime. Pujols, then-30-years-old, led the league in 2010 in home runs (42) and RBI (118) and hit .312. Votto hit .324/.424/.600, leading the majors in the latter two categories. He also belted 36 homers and knocked in 113 runs.
But this moment isn’t just about 2010, it stands for Votto’s decade-long excellence. From 2010-2019, Joey Votto hit .306/.428/.516 with a wRC+ of 153. That latter number means he was 53% better than the league. That’s the fourth-best batting average and the best on-base percentage. He had the highest wOBA in the NL. For ten years, his walk-rate (17.0%) has been nearly equal to his strikeout-rate (17.7%). That’s the best BB%/K% in the decade. Against left-handed pitchers, Votto hit .288/.409/.473 with a wRC+ of 138. So he was 38% better at run creation even when hitting on the wrong side of a split.
A remarkable aspect of Joey Votto’s record is that he had one of his best seasons in 2017, just two years ago at the age of 33. Votto played in all 162 games. He batted .320 and led MLB in walks with 134. While many players drop off in plate discipline as they get older, Votto swung at fewer pitches outside the strike zone compared to any other year in his career. His swinging-strike rate was also a career low. Votto struck out only 11.7% of the time, the lowest by far in his career. You might suspect he was swinging earlier in the count, but that’s belied by his walk-rate of 19%, well above his career average. Votto also mashed 36 homers, with the second-highest isolated power of his career, behind only his 2010 MVP season. Speaking of MVPs, he came within a point of beating Giancarlo Stanton for NL MVP of 2017.
Votto was durable, playing in 1411 games in 10 years. That’s averaging over 140 per season. Five years in the decade he played in 158+ games. It shouldn’t go without mention that Votto has been exemplary off the field. He’s never been in any trouble, other than a curious affinity for dressing up like a Canadian Mountie. In 2018, he won the Lou Gehrig Memorial Award as the major leaguer who best exemplifies a “giving character.”
If you pay undue attention to a certain broadcasting family around town, you wouldn’t know it. But Reds fans have had the opportunity to watch one of the best players in the game for the past 10+ seasons. Joey Votto as a member of the team has profoundly defined the Cincinnati Reds.