The Unfounded, Unjust Underappreciation of Joey Votto

Joey Votto is really good at baseball. But how many people outside of Reds fans know Joey Votto is good? Or more specifically, just how good Votto is? Maybe it is the small market he is in; maybe it is the media coverage that others get compared to him; or maybe we just do not realize what Votto brings to the table. Suffice to say, we are looking at a future Hall of Famer provided he has no career-altering injuries. In this article, I hope to show tyou just how good Votto is, and why you might have been overlooking him all these years.

Stats, Stats, Stats, Stats. . .

Baseball is a game – possibly more than any other – where stats rule. We comb over the box scores the next day. We compare players from each year or even drastically different decades by their stats. But for some reason, as good as Votto’s stats are, he has taken a back seat to countless others and not been mentioned as frequently as others with the great hitters of his era. Maybe he doesn’t have the jaw-dropping stats others have had, like a pile of home runs year after year. Well, that has changed during the first half this year as he already has 26 at the break.

Look at his first half stats (and where he ranks in the NL): .315 AVG (8th); 99 hits (8th); 26 HR (t-1st); 68 RBI (3rd, two off the lead); 65 runs (4th); 62 BB (2nd, one off the lead); .427 OBP (3rd, four percentage points off the lead); .631 SLG (1st); 1.058 OPS (1st). Now that is a great first half. But the Votto of most years is not leading the league in home runs at the break, meaning most people are not amazed at his stats.

But where Votto excels is getting on base. You cannot tell by the box scores or the stat line, but this guy truly cares about getting on base. Sure, you can see his OBP is high (more on that later), but you cannot see that he chokes up a good two inches on the bat (more on that later, too!) or that he has a defensive swing with two strikes that looks like he is trying to chip onto the green out of the rough. Maybe you have seen highlights of him losing his mind on an umpire when a ball slightly out of the zone is called for a strike, or heard – sigh – someone like Reds radio broadcaster Marty Brennaman talk about how Votto walks too much. The bottom line is the man gets on base and he is historically great at it.

Votto’s career on base percentage (OBP) is .425, which is good for 12th all-time (minimum 3,000 plate appearances). Yes, all-time. Of the 11 players ahead of him, only Barry Bonds and Bill Joyce are not in the Hall of Fame. Joyce only played in eight seasons, and everyone reading this likely knows why Bonds has not been put in the Hall. Votto’s OBP continues to climb, so there is a chance he ends his career in the top ten of that category. Granted, OBP has not been appreciated as much in the past as it is now, but there is no question that the company he keeps in that category is impressive to say the least.

Votto also has a high slugging percentage. Though this year is a career best at .631, he typically has a slugging percentage in the mid-.500s. That is not too shabby considering his homer totals are not tops in the league or that he was placed in the second slot in the lineup because he was thought to not have enough pop. But the insane stat for this year is a slugging percentage that high with only 42 strikeouts. Yes, “Slugging” Joey Votto has decided to stop striking out. He has increased his homer totals and thus his slugging percentage while striking out at a rate most singles hitters would covet. And it still pains him to strike out; you can see it on his face.

So with that high OBP and slugging percentage, naturally his on base plus slugging (OPS) is through the roof. If he keeps the percentage up, this will be his fourth season with an OPS of 1.000 or higher. For comparison’s sake, All-Universe Mike Trout has only one season at 1.000 or better, that being this season which he has missed several weeks with an injury. Votto is 15th all-time in OPS, behind a slew of Hall of Famers; a handful of players tied to steroids that put up mercurial numbers; and Trout himself. Again, we are talking all-time great here.

Misconceptions and Sheer Lunacy

So with those numbers, why doesn’t Votto get more credit? Partly, because people paid to relay details about the game of baseball simply do not understand what he brings to the table or how these numbers are put up game after game. If you haven’t Googled “Joey Votto Marty Brennaman,” do that sometime. The aforementioned Brennaman has long been “The Voice of the Reds,” and that voice has recurringly blasted Votto on air in the media about walking too much, not being worth his contract, or not driving in enough runs. Brennaman thinks that Votto should stop taking balls out of the strike zone and just hit them for home runs or run scoring doubles. Heck, why didn’t everyone else that played the game think of that?

The simple answer is obviously it is not that easy. Votto is possibly the best in the game at recognizing strikes and balls, and he lives by that. He would also potentially sacrifice the best parts of his game with no guarantee that he would hit more homers and definitely not be guaranteed to drive in more runs. And I think that is the major thing Brennaman and other “detractors” are overlooking. You have to have people on base to drive them in, and people have to drive you in to score runs. Except for hitting those home runs of course.

So let’s look at the stats on Votto’s RBI and runs. First, if he is getting on base at a clip much higher than the rest of the league on average, he probably is often the leader in runs, right? Err, no. Before this year, Votto was 8th in 2013 and 9th in 2010, the only years he placed in the top 10 and the only years he has scored 100+ runs in a season. He is the active OBP leader by a wide margin but hasn’t been driven in nearly as often as others as the lineup behind him has struggled at times throughout the years. He can get on base at a .500 clip and that won’t guarantee him scoring if he is stranded. Should the fault lie with him?

On the other side of that coin, Votto has not been an RBI machine because there have not been as many people on base ahead of him. In fact, he has reached the 100 RBI mark only twice in his career. But year after year, the Reds have had lower OBP guys ahead of him in the lineup. For instance, Billy Hamilton is likely one of the best defensive centerfielders in baseball, and probably its fastest player. But his OBP this year is .296 and has only bested the .300 mark in that category once in his career. Zack Cozart had an All-Star first half, but he has been a .250 hitter since the end of May, missed a couple weeks on the disabled list, and put up OBP numbers of .323 and .280 for June and July, respectively. That could be the story for Votto every year, the lower RBI opportunities.

And when you delve a little further into the “should he walk less” or “he does not drive in runs like he should” arguments, they lose even more credibility. For instance, this year Votto has 86 plate appearances with runners in scoring position (RISP). For comparison’s sake, here is a list of plate appearances for the rest of the top five in the NL: Nolan Arenado 103 (70 RBI); Marcell Ozuna 109 (70 RBI); Paul Goldschmidt 118 (67 RBI); and Jake Lamb 104 (67 RBI). And of those 86 plate appearances, Votto has been intentionally walked eight times. For those counting at home, over 9% of the times Joey Votto has come to the plate with runners in scoring position this year, the opposing team has sent him straight to first base without him seeing a pitch. He also owns a slash line of .375/.535/.750 with runners in scoring position, so pitchers rightly try to not give him much to hit. He had similar success last year, and was intentionally walked at a similar rate with RISP.

He takes what he is given and makes the best of his opportunities. Votto has been an amazing player on some bad Reds teams. He has also been on some good Reds teams and has had some good players around him. I am not trying to take anything away from any player. The fact is simply this: Votto is unjustly picked apart for things that are largely out of his control. It has been shown in the past that he has a great average on balls that are in the zone and a worse average for those outside of the zone. That is pretty much the offensive game of baseball. And for people – especially the lead radio announcer for the team – to suggest he start swinging a lot more often at those balls where he will not get on base as much is asinine.

Media Matters

Twenty and thirty years ago, baseball on television was much different. You had Sunday Night Baseball on ESPN and some other games on other channels. Besides the Braves on TBS or the Cubs on WGN, I cannot remember any team that had the majority of their games broadcast. Now with the various options there are for viewing, just about every game can be watched for your favorite team. However, that likely means you may not see stars from opposing teams as much. For example, if you are a Yankees fan and spend your time watching that team on its network, you probably get your Joey Votto exposure from the highlight shows. And I maintain that this is not the way to fully enjoy and appreciate a player, especially one like Votto.

As I said before, every at bat is a battle, a war. Votto chokes up even further with two strikes; he turns his back to the camera to seemingly rearrange the dirt in the batter’s box with his feet as he discusses the strike zone with the umpire so as not to show him up; he tirelessly fouls off pitch after pitch with that defensive swing until he gets the pitch he wants or draws a walk. He has a .377 OBP after an 0-2 count, for crying out loud! This is the game of baseball, not seeing his one swing that went for extra bases or drove in runs.

Don’t get me wrong, we have more access to players now than ever before and that will only continue to grow. And that is a good thing because we can see players and teams that we never would have gotten to see in the past. But we still rely on the numbers in the stat line, viewing human performance by numbers on a screen like something straight out of The Matrix. There are lots of untold stories that way, and I think that hurts a player like Votto. The numbers helpeth, the numbers taketh away. Lots of people hear the narrative that he walks more than he drives people in and compare Votto’s power numbers against other first basemen. Again, he is underappreciated.

Cooperstown Career(?)

I know, I know; it is too early to start etching that plaque. But baseball fans have historically extrapolated stats or quantified a player’s chances “at this point in their career.” So that is what I will do with Votto below. First and foremost, I feel that Votto’s skill set is one that much less susceptible to a decline than say Albert Pujols. Until this year or arguably his MVP season of 2010, home runs were not a major facet of Votto’s offensive game. He typically hits 24 to 29 home runs and has a 162 game average of 30, ticked up slightly due to his first half output this year. That is a good number of home runs, but it is not like he has been clubbing 40 to 50 homers that would be much harder to continue and it is also not his best asset.

Votto’s otherworldly eye for the strike zone should allow him to play out the remainder of his contract (6.5 more years plus a team option year) until he is 40 or 41. There is no major need to worry about a power decline or a speed decline. There can be a spot in the lineup for someone with a .400+ OBP that works the count and changes the way others in the lineup around him are pitched. Maybe he just slides into the second spot in the lineup if the power dips too much.

So if you take Votto’s current numbers and show him having a natural decline in power after another year or two or average production, 400 home runs are not out of the question. He needs to average 20 to 23 home runs to hit that mark over the next six and a half or seven and a half seasons. That is very doable. So is averaging 150 hits each of those years, adding another 975 to 1,125 hits, putting him between 2,500 to 2,600 for his career. So you take an MVP player – possibly a multiple time winner as he has been in the mix his last few years – that has 2,500 hits, 400 home runs, and an OBP in the top 20 in the history of the game, that screams Hall of Fame to me. And this just a hypothetical, but it seems to me a rational one. Heck, we have already cast our votes for Future Mike Trout and Future Bryce Harper.

Appreciate.  Celebrate.

So my encouragement to you is to seek out a Reds game and watch Joey Votto. Watch his at-bats, watch him battle. Watch him as he puts up numbers that everyone would be gushing over if he played in New York, Boston, Los Angeles, or Chicago. Watch him eclipse his MVP season and continue to change and refine his game. Watch him choke up on the bat in an exaggerated manner reminiscent of a Little Leaguer as he battles with two strikes. Watch him become more clutch as the game goes along.

But above all, appreciate Joey Votto, one of the best hitters in the game today.

Written by Rus Livingood

Father. Husband. Son. Friend. Employee. Boss. Sports fan. Cooking enthusiast. Batman enthusiast.

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@ruslivingood