Joey Votto last played on July 15. At the time of his right knee surgery, Votto was hitting .342/.465/.604, leading the National League in the latter two as well as both OPS and OPS+. He had just 14 homers through 370 plate appearances, but had nearly matched last year's NL-leading 40 doubles with 36, and was well on his way to surpassing 2011's NL-leading 110 walks as well.
Losing a player who, according to Baseball-Reference, Fangraphs, and Baseball Prospectus, had already contributed between four and five wins above replacement to his team in half a year should be the kind of massive blow that derails a season. It hasn't, though, as the Reds sans Votto have gone 20-8 since losing him, pushing their NL Central lead from one to six games in the process.
The primary reason for this is the performance of Ryan Ludwick. It's not that Ludwick has managed a few timely hits along the way, cases of right place, right time while the team's -- and likely the National League's -- best player recovers from surgery. Instead, Ludwick has essentially become Joey Votto: in the 26 games and 99 plate appearance he's collected in the month that Votto has been missing, Ludwick has hit .344/.404/.722, with an OPS that trails only Buster Posey among players with at least 99 plate appearances since July 16.
Ludwick used to be a pretty good hitter. Despite coming to the majors for the first time when he was 23 back in 2002, it took him until 2007 to secure a full-time job. That season, the Cardinals gave him a shot after Preston Wilson went on the disabled list, and he responded by hitting .267/.339/.479 over 120 games. This wasn't a case of the Cardinals seeing something that no one else had: Ludwick the prospect had holes in his swing, didn't use his lower half enough to generate power on a consistent basis, struggled when the pitcher was ahead, and dealt with injuries to his hip and knee that derailed his development. Ludwick was a prospect that the Rangers, Indians, and Tigers all hoped would fix his problems under their watch, and it didn't seem to happen until about 2005, when he hit in limited duty for the Indians, then mashed at Triple-A Toledo for Detroit as a 27-year-old. The Cards deserve credit for snagging him, but they were the latest in a long line of Ludwick hopefuls.
The problem with late development is that it leaves you with a short peak. Ludwick spent parts of four seasons with the Cardinals, hitting .280/.349/.507 there, but he was already in his age-31 season in the summer of 2010, just his second season of arbitration eligibility. A three-team deal before the deadline sent Ludwick to San Diego, prospects to Cleveland, and Jake Westbrook to St. Louis, giving the Padres the bat their lineup needed, and the Cardinals another capable starter for their rotation, making the looming 2011 arb payment for a 32-year-old San Diego's problem. At the time, though, Ludwick owned a 123 OPS+ in 2010, and was headed to a park that was statistically kinder to right-handed power hitters than Busch. Petco doesn't get to play that role often for hitters, but for Ludwick, it should have presented an upgrade.
Instead, Ludwick looked like he had aged 10 years on the flight to San Diego, with a slow swing, defense below his norm in the outfield, and a total lack of the pop the Padres needed in order to maintain their NL West lead. The Padres were eliminated from contention on the last day of the season, and Ludwick's .211/.301/.330 line with San Diego was a significant part of that. It didn't help that in his follow-up -- in which he was paid $6.75 million when the Padres tendered him a deal -- Ludwick managed just a .238/.301/.373 showing before he was shipped off to Pittsburgh, where he would essentially repeat the disappointing second-half act.
That's how he ended up in Cincinnati for 2012. Ludwick was signed a week before spring training, for just $2 million with a $5 million team option for 2013. He had been a below-average hitter the last two seasons, and was now 33 years old -- his role was to be another bat off of the bench, just in case some of the old magic was left. If it wasn't, it was just $2 million down the tubes.
For the first two months of the season, it seemed Ludwick was close to done. Through June 6, the outfielder had started 30 games, with a line of .207/.289/.405 to show for it. With his OPS under 700 despite moving to a hitter-friendly park, things didn't look good for Ludwick, or for the chances that his option would be picked up.
The next day, he hit two homers. A week later, he had a three-hit performance. In between, and after, Ludwick did nothing but mash, and after that awful start to the year, has brought his line all the way up to .268/.336/.556, on the strength of his post-June 6 OPS of 1022. As you've seen, his presence has been invaluable in Votto's absence, and he's gone from part-time player to playing nearly every day because of it.
What's strange is that there is no obvious reason for it, outside of maybe he's the healthiest he's been in the last few years. Ludwick's batting average on balls in play is in line with the league's norm, as it was the last two seasons. His strikeout and walk rates are similarly static. He's seeing the same spread of pitches, swinging at roughly the same rates in and out of the zone. Ludwick just seems to have inexplicably found his swing once again, just as inexplicably as he lost it two campaigns ago.
At least a Ryan Ludwick second-half has worked out for someone this decade.