Joey Votto is 32 years old and is six years removed from winning the National League MVP Award in 2010; back when a core of Cincinnati Reds staples like Johnny Cueto, Aroldis Chapman, Brandon Phillips, Jay Bruce and Votto were annually competing for the NL Central title.
Daily Dominance: How Good is Joey Votto?
Joey Votto was drafted by the Reds in 2002, made his MLB debut in 2007 at the age of 23 and is currently signed through 2023 on a 10yr/$225 million contract that includes an absolute no-trade clause. The point is: Cincinnati has already seen a lot of Joey Votto, and they are going to see a lot more of Joey Votto.
With the Reds occupying the cellar of the NL standings and most of Votto’s former rock solid core group of teammates finding themselves in different cities via franchise rebuilding trades, it is probably easy for many Reds fans to ignore what Joey Votto has done at the plate this year.
It is probably considered old news when you take into account the fact that he has been an offensive juggernaut at first base every season since 2008. So, let’s take a moment to dive in to his performances from 2016 and truly appreciate the quality of play that has unfortunately been squandered on teams that didn’t once advance in the playoffs.
Walks aren’t sexy
Joey Votto has a career slash line of .312/.424/.533; since 2008 has averaged 23.7 homers, 7.3 stolen bases, an 18.6 percent strikeout rate, a 9.9 percent extra-base-hit rate, a WAR of 5.14 and an incredible 16.1 percent walk rate; and finished second in the 2008 ROY voting, won a Gold Glove in 2011, was named an All-Star four straight seasons from 2010-2013, finished in the top-10 for the NL MVP four times and won the MVP award in 2010 when he had a slash line of .324/.424/.600 with 37 home runs and 16 stolen bases.
Out of all of his impressive accolades and accomplishments, the most awe-inspiring thing Votto manages to do every year is get on base, any way he has to. Since 2007 Votto has had eight seasons with 374 at-bats or more and in those seasons his, batting averages have ranged from .297-.337 and his OBP have ranged from .368-.474, while he led MLB in that category four times from 2010-2013 with marks of .424, .416, .474 and .435.
This season Votto had a mediocre slash line of .229/.327/.313 with just two homers and zero stolen bags in April. In May he started slugging better by hitting seven longballs with a solid .484 slugging percentage, but his batting average/OBP still sat at just .200/.333. Then the meteoric onslaught began and the longtime superstar has been absolutely unconscious in the 327 at-bats since.
Since the start of June Votto has a lights-out batting average of .376 and an incredible OBP of .485. After striking out in a far below standard 26.9 percent of his plate appearances while still walking at a solid clip of 13.2 percent through the first two months of the season, he has struck out just 14.5 percent of the time in the four proceeding months while walking 18.1 percent of his plate appearances.
Votto’s current OBP of .432 is the best in the National League and is second-best in baseball behind only Mike Trout who is inches ahead at .436. This type of showing is the exact reason why Joey Votto is the kind of athlete you sign to an unusually long-term deal. The skills that make him a one of a kind player really don’t deteriorate.
A pitcher’s arm will slowly fatigue and take some of their previously held velocity, a home run champion is on a downward path as soon as his body moves out of its muscular peak that it hits in the mid-20s, and a speed demon on the base paths loses a lot of luster when his top sprinting speed starts to fall as his age climbs by the day, and Joey Votto?
He is special because of his eye for the strike zone, his plate discipline and his finely tuned mechanics that make him such an effective contact hitter. That is a skill that remains with baseball players well into old age.
Pete Rose was able to produce a BA/OBP of .286/.359 as a 43 year old in 1984 while fellow MVP member of the Big Red Machine George Foster averaged just 20.3 home runs per season past the age of 32 after averaging 37.8 homers per season from the age of 27-30.
It’s the same principle that allows for knuckleball pitchers to stay in MLB well into their late 40s. The less energy and pressure you have to put on your body, the more often you can repeat that motion.
Joey Votto isn’t making his money from 400-foot homers or from covering the ground from first to second base in the blink of an eye; he is making his historic paycheck by bringing the best fundamental approach in baseball to the plate every year. At 33 not only has this skill not shown signs of regression, he has used it to reach new heights.
Walks may be boring. Continuous contact hitting may not cause the attendance records to be shattered at Great American Ballpark. There will always be those who say, “Why does he go for walks? I’d rather have a hit!” Go ahead and try to get the hit and rack up three strikes. Joey Votto will be boring at the plate while using his league lead in walks and OBP to produce OPS of .900+.
Now, having said that, Joey Votto has looked like an athlete eight years younger in the prime of his physical peak since he turned on the burners after May. After the All-Star Break Votto had 11 homers, 26 extra base hits for an XBH rate of 10.1 percent, and had a slugging percentage of .649 which is the best in the NL in that time split with Freddie Freeman and Trea Turner following at .616 and .590.
With isolated power numbers of .228 and .212 and 54 combined home runs in 2015 and 2016, Votto has reached his highest two-year homer total since 2010 and 2011. Votto’s power looked to be dead and gone from 2012-2014 when he hit just 44 longballs in three seasons while averaging just 392 at-bats per year, as his health and durability also seemed to be on the heavy decline. This two-year recovery in the pop in his bat has made his laser accurate contact hitting especially deadly.
It isn’t just his power either. Before 2015 Votto’s two best years for base stealing were 2010 and 2011 when he stole a combined 24 bases in 35 attempts for a 68.6 percent success rate. He finished those years with power/speed numbers of 22.3 and 12.5.
In the last two years Votto has looked like the bionic man with brand new legs. He stole a combined 19 bases at a much more efficient success rate of 82.6 percent and produced power/speed numbers of 16.0 and 12.1, producing his second highest two-season power/speed average of his career.
Votto has seemingly turned back the clock with what he can physically do on the field and has been a dangerous asset for the Reds since he has combined his recovered athletic ability with his always trusty fundamentals.
His 2016 WAR of 3.1 ranks fifth among NL first basemen and 31st in the NL overall. However, despite being a former Gold Glove winner, Votto’s player value has been dragged down by his dWAR of -2.4. His oWAR of 4.5 ranks seventh best in the NL right ahead of Charlie Blackmon and Anthony Rizzo.
His power and speed that he has somehow rediscovered at the age of 32 and 33 has made him one of baseball’s most elite offensive players. His plate discipline and ability to reach base nearly 50 percent of his plate appearances makes him a very valuable long term asset. If he can maintain this pace that gives him power/speed figures north of 10.0, he will be an All-Star caliber player and offensive juggernaut as he nears the age of 40.
Every Story Needs a Villain
Arguably, the biggest evolution in Joey Votto’s game has been a shift not in his play on the field but in his personality and approach to the game from the standpoint of showmanship and relation to baseball fans and teammates.
He used to be cold, emotionless and robotic in his every approach on the field. His interactions with fans and teammates seemed a bit forced, he didn’t (and still doesn’t) apologize for his frequent walks, and he seemed to discourage showmanship at every opportunity. Joey Votto was the MLB’s own American Psycho.
From incidents like the exaggerated stomping and destruction of a paper airplane thrown on the field during the game at Dodger Stadium to Votto giving a hometown fan a death stare while aggressively tugging on the fan’s jersey to remind him what team he just interfered with on the foul ball attempt, Votto seems to have embraced his reputation and created his own type of villain from it.
The showmanship has come out the blue for Votto, while fans have always known to expect it from Brandon Phillips. At 33, it is an interesting addition to his sustained and improving high quality level of play, and it certainly helps Cincinnati fans enjoy the ride more whether the Reds are winning or not, as they are better able to fully appreciate just what they have been lucky enough to experience and what they get to look forward to at the plate for years to come.