Baseball is a uniquely individualistic and yet intrinsically team sport.
Teams must build a complete roster around multiple star-caliber players to win and contend for championships. The pitcher who starts the game is rarely the same one who finishes it. Lineups centered on just one batter often fail because that hitter does not have to be pitched to.
Baseball is, among other things, a team sport. And the performance of one player isn’t necessarily enough to carry a team to success. As a player, though, you can be superhuman even if your team isn’t.
Such is the case with Cincinnati Reds first baseman Joey Votto.
Votto, who turns 34 next month, is still somehow the best-kept secret in the sport to many casual observers. Part of the problem is that he plays in Cincinnati for a team that, since his first full season in 2008, has averaged just under 80 wins a year. In his career, Votto has played in all of nine postseason games. Even with this lack of organizational success, though, Votto won the 2010 National League MVP with 37 home runs and a hitting line of .324/.424/.600 (AVG/OBP/SLG). Votto has played at or near that level on a consistent basis since then with the exception of his 2014 season, one in which he was limited to 62 games because of a left quadriceps injury.
Since that year, however, he’s truly been one of the best hitters in baseball. Let’s take a look at the top five hitters in OPS (on-base plus slugging) since the 2015 season started. You’ll probably recognize all of these names:
- Mike Trout (1.020)
- Joey Votto (.997)
- Bryce Harper (.984)
- Paul Goldschmidt (.971)
- David Ortiz (.967)
Quick side note: 2015 and 2016 were Ortiz’s age-39 and age-40 seasons. He was a raging machine long after he was supposed to be in decline. I digress.
One of the things Votto has been known for in his career is his ability to get on base. Impressively, he’s first in the league over the past two-and-a-half seasons in on-base percentage, but what’s even more impressive is his ability to draw walks without striking out. Since 2015, there are only three hitters in baseball with more walks than strikeouts (Votto, Ben Zobrist, Buster Posey). But in the category of wRC+ (weighted runs created plus), this is how these three hitters stack up:
- Joey Votto (163)
- Buster Posey (129)
- Ben Zobrist (115)
So Votto walks a lot and is also insanely productive to boot. Votto walks so much, in fact, that he leads baseball in total walks since and including the year 2006. That is notable for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that his big-league career didn’t begin in earnest until 2008.
Let’s look at win probability added, a numerical figure given to a player’s ability to impact the game both positively and negatively. Over the same time span, these are the top five players in baseball:
- Mike Trout (15.94)
- Anthony Rizzo (14.99)
- Bryce Harper (13.73)
- Clayton Kershaw (13.24)
- Joey Votto (13.18)
Wow. You hear about the first four players on that list rather often, and rightfully so. But Votto is right up there with them as one of the very best players in the entire league.
And what makes this story all the more amazing is how bad the Cincinnati Reds have been during this run of Votto’s excellence. Because while Votto has been over 13 wins better than average over the Reds’ past 432 games, the Reds have won under 41% of those contests. If the team holds its current pace for the rest of this season, they’ll win just 66 games. If the team performs as such, the Reds will have averaged 66 wins per season over the past three years. As bad as they’ve been with Votto on their team, it’s horrifying to imagine just how dreadful they would have been had Votto not been on the roster.
Interestingly enough, the Reds have Votto under team control until 2024. The good news about this deal is that to this point, he has been worth every penny and more of his $22.5 million average yearly salary. The bad news is that if he continues playing until the last year of the deal, Votto will end his contract at the age of 41. It’s the type of contract that just about never ends well. While Votto has been insanely productive over the first four years of his contract, what he does over the last six or seven years of his deal will determine its ultimate value. Meanwhile, the Reds front office has married itself to the dreadful contracts of disappointing players such as Homer Bailey (6 years/$105 million) and Devin Mesoraco (4 years/$28 million). For a team that already has the seventh-lowest payroll in baseball, spending foolishly on contracts that don’t match player production could be a backbreaking proposition for a franchise that hasn’t been to the World Series since 1990.
Another part of the problem is that Votto is not getting any younger. While his absurd production has been sustained over the course of his ten-year career, he is about to be a 34-year-old baseball player. Usually, player production, particularly for hitters, falls off a proverbial cliff by the time a player reaches the age of 35. While that hasn’t happened to Votto just yet, the prospect of his decline looms large for the Reds.
Right now, though, he is showing no signs of slowing down. He’s played in every single game for the Reds this season and is on pace to have 120 walks and just 81 strikeouts; those figures would give him a 1.48 walk to strikeout ratio. That would be best BB/K ratio in the majors since Victor Martinez’s 1.67 BB/K rate in 2014 and it would also be the second-best walk-to-strikeout ratio in a single season since 2010.
The sad part about all of this, though, is that Votto plays on a struggling team in the United States’ 34th-largest media market. Cincinnati is the 24th-ranked media market for baseball teams in the U.S. and would be 25th if Toronto was included in the rankings. Therefore, the only ways Votto would get major national attention would be if he reached the playoffs or were traded to a larger market such as Chicago, Los Angeles, or New York.
But neither of those possibilities look like they are going to materialize anytime soon. And until people start to take notice of his excellence, Joey Votto will continue to fly under the radar as one of baseball’s very best players on one of the sport’s very worst teams.