Joey Votto is Perfect

The Greatness of Joey Votto

When arguing about the greatest Red of all-time, these are the names that enter the conversation:

  • Joe Morgan
  • Johnny Bench
  • Pete Rose
  • Frank Robinson
  • Barry Larkin

That is the complete list and, truthfully, Larkin doesn’t belong there. He is here mostly for illustrative purposes. Any further arguments boil down to discussions of time with the Reds, durability, and position.

I spend a lot of time tweeting Joey Votto stats because it’s a nice thing to do while I drink my coffee, that leads to looking at franchise numbers in a fairly deep way. Earlier this season, I got to looking at which Red had the best 10-year stretches in terms of WAR (FanGraphs version). Here’s what you get:

  1. Johnny Bench – 59.9
  2. Frank Robinson – 59.7
  3. Joe Morgan – 57.2*
  4. Pete Rose – 56.8
  5. Joey Votto – 50.6
  6. Barry Larkin – 50.5

*In only eight seasons. Yes eight. Holy crap and all that.

So, first, you’ll probably notice that Joe Morgan was awesome. And then you’ll notice a decent gap between the top 4 and Votto/Larkin. However, We could give Votto an asterisk too, because he is only now halfway through his 10th season AND his two weakest healthy seasons were his first two seasons (this is not normal). If Votto continues his current pace, he’ll finish the 2017 season with 53.8 WAR over his ten-year stretch. If he has another 7.0 WAR season next year, he bumps off his 3.6 WAR rookie year and has a total of 57.2, putting him past Pete Rose and “tied” with Joe Morgan’s 8-year Reds career.

Now, I want to take a minute and talk about aging trends and the mistakes we sometimes make when talking about them. Let’s start with this graph of the six above-mentioned players (note that this includes their full careers, not just time with the Reds).

Source: FanGraphs

There’s a lot of information in this chart. First, you’ll note that Robinson and Bench tracked well above everyone else until Bench fell off in his thirties. Votto, Rose, and Larkin all have very similar tracks. And there’s Joe Morgan who was the true oddball, which a career on the lower track until he entered his late-twenties and proceeded to blow everyone away for about five years.

But what I really want you to see is that not all players age the same way. Some are late bloomers, some stay productive until a later age. It simply isn’t all a peak-at-28-and-then-decline curve. Different players – SHOCKER – are different.

Which brings me to Joey Votto. If you look closely, you’ll see that he was about to slip past Rose and Larkin right when his knee injury hit and he lost more-or-less a full season recovering. As we’ve seen, he’s now slipped back past Larkin and has Pete in his sights. Things that have happened because Votto is continuing to develop as a player and – especially – as a hitter. Much has been made of his decision to stop striking out, but we should make more of it because it is REALLY IMPORTANT (<—Notice how I used the caps to indicate that it’s important in a big and important way). The more adaptable a player is, the more likely he is to have a friendly aging curve. If you look at the graph again, you’ll see the impact different levels of durability have on career WAR totals.

So now, let’s play a game. Let’s assume that Votto is currently a 7.0 WAR player in a true-talent sense. And let’s assume that he begins his decline phase next year. His WAR totals, in that event, might look something like this:

  • 2018 – 6.5 WAR
  • 2019 – 6.0
  • 2020 – 5.5
  • 2021 – 5.0
  • 2022 – 4.0
  • 2023 – 2.0

If he does that, he will finish with more than 80 WAR (this particular theoretical experiment puts him at 82.8), and would have accumulated more WAR as a Red than any other player ever has. He would almost certainly finish his career as the all-time franchise leader in home runs (Bench – 389), walks (Rose – 1210), and RBI (Bench – 1376) while maintaining his current status as the franchise leader in OBP (.425) and OPS (.967). Heck, maybe he’d even take the SLG lead from Robinson (.554). He’d also likely finish second in doubles (Larkin – 441) and third in runs (Larkin – 1329). He would be unquestionably the best offensive player in franchise history and would have a strong argument as the best player ever.

That’s the best case scenario. That’s Frank Robinson refusing to age.

For the worst case scenario, look no farther than the player Votto just squeaked by – Barry Larkin. At age 35, Larkin accumulated 5.1 WAR in 1999. For the last five seasons of his career, he accumulated a total of 5.0 WAR. In this scenario, Votto ends up a notch below Bench, Robinson, Morgan, and Rose. He still gets the all-time lead in walks, but that’s probably all. He’s still – perhaps – the best hitter ever to play for the Reds, but he isn’t in the conversation for the best player ever.

Did I mention that this is the worst case scenario?

This, I suppose, is the point I’m trying to make. Even if he were to spontaneously combust tomorrow, Votto is one of the half-dozen best players in franchise history. With another year and a half at normal Votto levels and he has a stronger than average HOF case. Three or four more productive years and he’s possibly the best player to ever play for the Reds.

Joey Votto has six and a half years left on his contract. Here are his current Reds rankings in a variety of categories:

  • WAR (7th or 6th depending on you Bid McPheelings)
  • Home Runs (6th)
  • Runs (11th or 10th)
  • RBI (13th or 12th)
  • Doubles (7th)
  • Walks (4th or 3rd)
  • OPS (1st)
  • OBP (1st)
  • SLG (2nd)

And those are just his rankings with the Reds. He is currently 10th in OBP… IN MLB HISTORY. He is second among players with careers starting after WWII. Let me type that again: No player except Barry Bonds whose career started in the last 70 years has a higher OBP than Joey Votto. By wRC+ (basically just an offensive catchall that adjusts for era and park), Joey Votto is the 13th best hitter ever. He’s behind only Trout and Bonds since WWII. Votto is the best hitter we’re likely to ever see for the Reds and however much we appreciate him, it’s not enough.

29 thoughts on “The Greatness of Joey Votto

  1. During spring training, Joey Votto was bitten by a cobra, and after five days of excruciating pain… the cobra died.

  2. “Let’s assume that Votto is currently a 7.0 WAR player in a true-talent sense. And let’s assume that he begins his decline phase next year. … That’s the best case scenario. That’s Frank Robinson refusing to age.”

    The Old Cossack must take a slight exception to this one aspect of your analysis of Votto’s greatness. This is NOT a best case scenario.

    During the 2015 & 2016 seasons, Votto inexplicably took virtually the entire 1st half of the seasons off and simply exploded during the 2nd half of those seasons, yet still managed 735 & 5.0 WAR, respectively. Votto’s true value and capability has been grossly masked by his related knee and quad injuries from the later portion of 2012 through 2014. Those would have been his peak performance seasons. The 2012 season would have undoubtedly garnered Votto his 2nd MVP award sans the knee injury. I have no issue with the 7.0 WAR assumption, but I believe that is low. I simply do not see a regression from 7.0 WAR beginning next season. Votto did not take the 1st half of 2017 off as in the previous 2 seasons and he appears to be warming up again for a 2nd half run. This could turn out to be an 8.0+ WAR season for Votto and I believe Votto is good for another 1-2 seasons before beginning any regression and then such a regression will not be a precipitous falloff.

  3. Who can you compare Votto to for any insight into the rest of his career? Almost everyone I can think of is tainted by roids….or they played so long ago that they way they aged isn’t apples to apples compared to the modern age of weight training/nutrition. Will Clark played during the roid era but was always kind of unathletic and would seem to be clean. He put up a 964 ops at age 36 (427 atbats) and then retired. He had a career .881 ops so he was never in Votto’s class but he went out on top. Joey will be 35 next September. If he stays healthy then he can still mash but nobody defeats Father Time at 37 unless you’re cheating. My guess is he would struggle to meet a 900 ops in 2020.

    • It depends on what you mean by tainted. Bagwell is a good comparison and some people throw unsubstantiated rumors at him. Really, it’s all about aging/injuries. There tends to be a big drop off among elite 1Bs at around age 35 or 36. The ones who keep going after that are your all-time greats. The rest are “average” HOFers.

    • This year, because he is hitting for power, he is looking a lot like Frank Thomas. Though Frank did it for his whole career up until ageing and injuries caught up to him.
      He hit 39 HR’s at age 38. (.381 OBP and .545 SLG)
      He hit 26 HR’s at age 39. (.377 OBP and .480 SLG)

  4. If anybody can defy the odds and father time its Joey.As he regresses whenever that is he becomes Hal Morris which isn’t all that bad.In the meantime we get to enjoy the best hitter this organization has ever had.I can believe he would just choke up on the bat a few inches and still hit it hard somewhere at age 40.

  5. I really appreciate the point that not all players age the same way. I think that Joey has a very good chance of being a productive hitter for a number of years yet, and certainly agree that he’s one of the best hitters ever to play for the Reds or anyone else. That said, the comparisons with other great Reds are difficult because Joey plays first base–an easier and less-stressful position than, say, catcher or shortstop. If he gets consideration for his time recovering from injury, then surely Bench and Larkin get consideration for the wear and tear that resulted from the positions they played. A fun question to ponder.

  6. It would be nice if Joey Votto can continue to be productive like someone like Carl Yastrzemski was in his later seasons. Yaz’s one of the few good old players that seems a bit similar to Votto, albeit in much different time periods.

  7. Major applause on the post Jason!! I really enjoyed the analysis and, as an old timer, have come to appreciate and value war as good measurement of value. Regarding JV, he’s the best pure hitter I’ve seen in a Reds uni. I must say I only saw Robinson as a Red for a couple of years.

    • “Pure” hitter is subjective of course but Joey wasn’t a can’t miss prospect coming up so I think he’s more of a self-made superstar imo. I was too young to really analyze the BRM hitters per se but I saw them. To me the best pure hitter or most gifted that I’ve ever seen in a Reds uniform was Josh Hamilton. The guy was as gifted as anyone thats ever played the game. That might make Joey more special though….the guy willed himself into a great player like Larry Bird or someone of that stature!

      • I can’t argue with what you said because you are correct that it is subjective…

        But, to me, a pure hitter means a guy who can transcend his physical gifts. Votto is a big, strong dude… but sort of average or even below average in size/strength for first basemen.

        Votto doesn’t have top notch strength, bat speed, speed, or agility (for a professional athlete) yet he puts up elite batting numbers.

        Look at Mike Trout. Incredibly strong, fast, and agile. He SHOULD put up huge numbers. Guys like Judge, Hamilton at peak, Miguel Cabrera, etc… they all have immense physical strength, which when combined with great batting skills, provide elite numbers.

        Votto’s attention to detail, brain, and eyes cover the gap between his physical tools and his elite numbers.

        To me, that makes him the best “pure” hitter.

        (This was poorly presented, I know… thanks for bearing with me!)

        • Joey Votto and the Spendid Splinter…I’ll take dedication, commitment and hard work over physical specimens anytime and will prevail. The list of players who excelled against the odds is extensive. Those are the players that bring the Old Cossack back to THE game year after year (oh so many years…!) and the Reds have their fair share of such players in their history.

          • I think this is the part that is the most exciting about Votto. His 25th home run of the season shows how smart/strategic he can be in the box.
            It was a 7 pitch at bat, with 2 foul balls, the second was a breaking ball Votto spoiled after by moving 2 strides forward in the box (mid windup)…then the Home run. All focus.

  8. Votto is indeed awesome and we’re so lucky to get to watch him play for our favorite team. To me he is the best hitter I’ve ever seen at three things – a) plate discipline and only swinging at pitches he can drive, b) understanding how a pitcher has, is, and will try to get him out, and c) adapting to change, whether from pitchers or his own ability. I’ve said this before but I think if he stays healthy he’s a lock hall of famer, and he will still be a very good hitter in another five years. When Joey Votto comes to the plate, he makes the opposing manager’s coffee jittery.

  9. Great article. And why does Joey Votto still not have a Captain’s “C” on his #19 jersey??

    • Great point on “The C”……my guess would be he hasn’t been appointed yet for a few reasons:

      1. Appointing him over BP would’ve have created an unnecessary distraction. Appointing him immediately after BP was traded doesn’t look good.
      2. In a rebuild you need to keep all options open and naming him captain, then trading him a week later wouldn’t look very good
      3. A captain is the liaison between management and the players. Given that Price is on his second straight 1 year contract it may make sense to wait until that situation is clarified…one way or the other

  10. I think this juiced ball thing is happening at the right time for Joey. With the previous ball, he’s likely to have ended his career with 310-350 homers. Now, however, he has a legitimate, if somewhat unlikely, shot at 390+.

    • Ah, you gotta luv the counting stats…

      With or without the ‘juiced’ ball, Votto is leading the league in HR this season, but I agree with you Patrick. Anything that helps gets Votto in the HOF is a positive development.

      • You know, I’m not sure he does lead the league without the juiced ball. Votto is hitting more FBs now and it maybe that he figured out that with the juiced ball, he has enough power that it makes sense to trade some LDs for FBs and adjusted his hitting approach accordingly. I certainly wouldn’t put that past him.

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