The Most Underrated Player in Baseball

David Kohl/USA Today

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:

  1. Mike Trout (1.020)
  2. Joey Votto (.997)
  3. Bryce Harper (.984)
  4. Paul Goldschmidt (.971)
  5. 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:

  1. Joey Votto (163)
  2. Buster Posey (129)
  3. 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:

  1. Mike Trout (15.94)
  2. Anthony Rizzo (14.99)
  3. Bryce Harper (13.73)
  4. Clayton Kershaw (13.24)
  5. 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.

Winners and Losers: MLB Trade Deadline Edition


Johnny Cueto (pictured above), David Price, Troy Tulowitzki, and Yoenis Cespedes were all big names to change teams at trade deadline, just to name a few.  This year’s deadline saw an interesting trading climate, as teams that were expected to sell, like the Padres, didn’t, while teams that were not expected to sell did, like the Tigers. Interestingly enough, the main teams that were buyers on July 31 are all in the midst of long playoff droughts; the Blue Jays (since 1993), the Astros (since 2005), and the Mets (since 2006).

And while every year’s trade deadline has interesting deals and intrigue, the most fun part of analyzing the deals is figuring out who the winners and losers were.  So here it is, the MLB trade deadline, complete with winners and losers.

3. Winner: Kansas City Royals

The Royals made two separate deals in the week leading up to the deadline, acquiring pitcher Johnny Cueto from the Reds and second baseman Ben Zobrist from the A’s.  Kansas City and GM Dayton Moore are going all in this year, and no better indication exists of this fact than what they gave up to get Zobrist and Cueto.  Mike Axisa of CBS Sports explains:

In trading for Cueto and Zobrist, the Royals have given up two of their top three prospects (according to Baseball America). Kansas City has hung onto shortstop prospect Raul Mondesi Jr. Left-hander Sean Manaea is ranked by as the No. 56 prospect in the majors. He’s had injury issues with his hip and abdomen (nothing with his arm!) and just reached Class AA after being drafted 34th overall in 2013. Standing 6-foot-5, he can reach the upper 90s with his fastball and showed improved command overall in high A-ball. At 23, reaching the majors sometime in 2016 seems possible. Brooks hasn’t shown much in brief stints with the Royals this season and in 2014, but has averaged 6.9 strikeouts and 1.8 walks over 639 minor-league innings. The A’s could pop him into their rotation now for an extended look.

But these acquisitions are about what the Royals get this year.  In Cueto, they get a dominant starting pitcher (they didn’t have one before) and a major innings eater.  Even with the Royals’ lockdown bullpen, getting to the sixth inning had been a challenge for their starters this season; it won’t be with Cueto.  It’s so important to have good to commanding starting pitching, and having a pitcher of Cueto’s ilk should significantly help the Royals’ chances at their first championship since 1985.  But let’s just hope this doesn’t happen again.

What do the Royals get with Ben Zobrist?  A career .264 hitter who they can play just about anywhere except pitcher and catcher. Zobrist hit second in the lineup yesterday and hit two home runs, helping the Royals to a 7-6 win over the Blue Jays (more on them later).  Another good thing to have come playoff time is the ability to score runs, and when the pitching falls short, being able to still win games.  The Royals did that yesterday, and it will be important to their World Series aspirations to continue scoring runs, runs that will help them continue to win games, a division title, and even a pennant or championship.

3. Loser: Colorado Rockies

This one is pretty simple.  The Rox dealt star shortstop Troy Tulowitzki on July 27, which seems fair enough, considering that they are a struggling team unwilling to spend money.  The return for Tulo? Three pitching prospects… and Jose Reyes.

Reyes has been injury prone throughout his career, and this is only the first reason the move made zero sense for Colorado.  The other reason?  Reyes is making more money than Tulowitzki for each of the next three seasons.  The acquisition of the pitching prospects, namely Castro, was good, but taking on Reyes’ contract was not.

And when the Rockies got Reyes, why didn’t they try to trade him for more prospects?  You may laugh at this assertion in light of the Tulo deal, but Colorado needs more pitching, in the worst way; exactly one pitcher (Boone Logan) on the MLB roster has an ERA under four this year.  Instead, the Rox kept Jose, and will be tied to his contract until 2017.

2. Winner: Toronto Blue Jays

You may not have expected to see the Blue Jays this early in the countdown, but here they are.  However, they are assuredly a winner at the deadline.  Grantland’s Michael Baumann even argues that they are the winners:

I’ve said for years that if the Blue Jays ever realized they’re a big-market team, it could irrevocably change the landscape of the game. The Jays play in an extremely cosmopolitan metro area of more than 5.6 million people (comparable to Houston, Philadelphia, or Washington) and considering that they have 30 million more Canadians to themselves, that Toronto-specific number understates their true commercial and economic reach. Plus, the Jays are owned by Canadian media giant Rogers Communications (think Jonathan Pryce’s character in Tomorrow Never Dies). They could conquer and subjugate Red Sox Nation if they wanted to.

And for once, it’s finally starting to show, as the Jays went out and got the two best players on the market: David Price and Troy Tulowitzki. Even before adding Tulo, Toronto’s offense was already the best in the game, by far, and now the Jays are only two games out of a wild-card spot despite underperforming their run differential by nine games. And it’s not like they only upgraded the top of the lineup and rotation: Mark Lowe and LaTroy Hawkins strengthen the bullpen, while Ben Revere, in addition to having a lovely smile, is a solid on-base guy to plug in left field, even if he has trouble identifying local food. This team is starting to remind me a lot of the 1993 Blue Jays.

Left-handed starter Daniel Norris, probably the best prospect to change hands at the deadline, is a lot of freight to pay for Price, particularly compared to what the Royals gave up for Johnny Cueto, but that’s offset by the degree to which the Blue Jays absolutely bamboozled Colorado for Tulowitzki. A lot of teams got better this week, but Toronto is the winner at the deadline.

They did get better.  You know what they did: they got the best hitter and the best pitcher on the market.  Other than that, they got Mariners reliever Mark Lowe and Phillies outfielder Ben Revere in separate deals.  This one is also easy; the Blue Jays are winners, going for it all this year and giving themselves a shot at their first postseason action in 22 years.

2. Loser: Cincinnati Reds

The Reds traded away Johnny Cueto and Mike Leake to contending teams this deadline (the Royals and the Giants, respectively) without getting too much back in return.  They acquired two prospects in the Cueto trade, and, namely, got Brandon Finnegan from Kansas City. Finnegan projects to be the best player the Reds got in the deal, as the other two prospects they acquired do not have great chances of panning out (one, a pitcher, had Tommy John surgery in 2011, is 25, and just getting back into form now, and the other is a 22-year old AA pitcher).

Then, they decided to deal pitcher Mike Leake to the Giants for prospects Adam Duvall and Keury Mella.  Duvall is almost 27 and has limited action in the majors.  He’s a power hitting first baseman who has hit 26 home runs for the Giants’ AAA team, the Sacramento River Cats, this season.  However, as a corner infielder, he is now stuck behind Todd Frazier and Joey Votto.  Mella is a hyped pitching prospect who, at just 21, has a good chance to be a solid big-league pitcher.

But here’s the issue; they could’ve dealt Aroldis Chapman and/or Jay Bruce, and they didn’t.  While they got five prospects from two different teams, there is a good chance only one or two of them pan out.  They could’ve gotten more by trading more major league talent, but they didn’t.  They lost the deadline.

1. Winner: Houston Astros

The Astros did everything right at this year’s deadline.  They got help where they needed it most, starting pitching, by acquiring Scott Kazmir from the A’s.  They weren’t done there, though, as they picked up outfielder Carlos Gomez and pitcher Mike Fiers from the Brewers for multiple prospects.  While Houston gave up quite a bit in the way of these prospects, they are able to allow themselves to part with them because of the depth they have accumulated on the farm.

Let Joon Lee of SB Nation explain:

The Astros lost and lost and lost for so many years to accumulate seemingly endless depth in the farm system. While a lot of that prospect depth is now finally culminating in major league success for players such as Dallas Keuchel and Carlos Correa, the team’s minor league depth gave the organization the personnel flexibility to acquire big assets to prime themselves for a competitive run at the playoffs. Even after the team’s trades for Gomez, Kazmir and Fiers, the Astros still possess 14 prospects graded 50 or better (on a 20-80 prospect scale) according to The Astros’ prospect depth allowed them to not only position themselves to succeed in the short term, but also to continue to build towards the future.

But Houston is not in the position to buy at the deadline without the team’s moves in the offseason: the signings of Luke Gregerson, Pat Neshek and Colby Rasmus, the trades for Evan Gattis and Hank Conger and the waiver claim of Will Harris. The moves allowed Luhnow to balance future financial flexibility while positioning the team to compete in 2015. While many did not recognize it at the time, the Houston Astros had one of the best offseasons in years.

He’s right: the Astros can give up prospects.  They’ll still have plenty more.

1. Loser: San Diego Padres

Duh; the Pods didn’t do anything.  They could have dealt either Justin or Melvin Upton; they didn’t.  They could’ve traded star closer Craig Kimbrel; they didn’t.  They could have moved starters Tyson Ross and/or James Shields and/or Andrew Cashner; they didn’t.  They could have re-stacked their farm system; they didn’t.

However, the most hilarious train of thought that any GM had at this year’s deadline came from theirs, A.J. Preller.  Ken Rosenthal reports:

Yes, he actually thinks that.  San Diego is 7 games back of the second Wild Card spot in the National League as of today, August 2.  They also happen to be 10.5 games ahead of the Phillies.  They aren’t making the playoffs.

Agree?  Disagree?  Let me know in the comments section.

(c) 2015

MLB Season Preview

NL East

Team W L
Washington Nationals 96 66
Miami Marlins 86 76
New York Mets 84 78
Atlanta Braves 78 84
Philadelphia Phillies 64 98


Discussion: The Nats win this division easily due to the ridiculous starting rotation and their above-average line-up.  The Marlins take a leap forward as Jose Fernandez returns from his Tommy John surgery to put forth a solid second-half of the season.  The Mets improve over last year with the solid addition of Michael Cuddyer and improvements to the bullpen as well.  The Braves stay around the same as they finished last year because their key gains match their key losses.  They are very similar to how they were last year.  And the Phillies are just going to be really, really bad and that’s that.  Their rotation, lineup, and bullpen are all terrible.  They will be the worst team in baseball.

NL Central

Team W L
Pittsburgh Pirates 89 73
St. Louis Cardinals 87 75
Chicago Cubs 81 81
Milwaukee Brewers 81 81
Cincinnati Reds 69 93


Discussion: The Pirates bring back many of the same players from last year, but the addition of Francisco Cervelli behind the plate will help its pitching staff take the next step.  Pedro Alvarez rebounds from a poor season in 2014, leading the Bucs to their first division title since 1992.  The Cardinals will be there; they always are.  They haven’t gotten much better, however, and the division around them has.  They will fall slightly.  The Cubs had a very solid offseason, and look for prospects Jorge Soler and Kris Bryant (when he comes up) to have good campaigns.  The Brewers stay where they were last season, and Jonathan Lucroy has an MVP-caliber season.  Finally, the Reds have a poor season, suffering as the division pushes forward around them.

NL West

Team W L
San Diego Padres 88 74
Los Angeles Dodgers 84 78
San Francisco Giants 81 81
Colorado Rockies 72 90
Arizona Diamondbacks 69 93


Discussion:  The Padres take a leap forward this season, as the additions of Matt Kemp, Justin Upton, Wil Myers, James Shields and others catapult the Pods to the division pennant.  The Dodgers take a step back with the losses of Hanley Ramirez and Dan Haren.  The Giants, in an odd-numbered year, take a step back as they lose Pablo Sandoval and, for the beginning of the season, Hunter Pence.  The Rockies and Diamondbacks, two rebuilding teams, round out the division basement, each losing at least 90 games.

AL East

Team W L
Baltimore Orioles 85 77
New York Yankees 82 80
Toronto Blue Jays 81 81
Boston Red Sox 80 82
Tampa Bay Rays 69 93


Discussion: This division only features one sure-fire basement team (the Rays).  The Red Sox improve off of last year, but weaknesses at pitcher and catcher will serve to hold them back.  The Blue Jays, besides the addition of Russell Martin, are not as strong as last year with the losses of Juan Francisco and Melky Cabrera.  The Yankees; who knows?  They could be anywhere from 60 to 90 wins, but on paper, they are an around .500 team.  And the Orioles, this year’s weakest division winner, will have just enough to win the division, along with the comeback of Manny Machado.

AL Central

Team W L
Cleveland Indians 89 73
Detroit Tigers 87 75
Kansas City Royals 83 79
Chicago White Sox 81 81
Minnesota Twins 69 93


Discussion: The Twins carry the bottom of this division, as they are still awaiting the development of Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton, who are starting the season at class AA.  The White Sox improve off of last year’s showing with additions of Melky Cabrera, David Robertson and Jeff Samardzija help improve the team, but they are still weak at second base, right field and in the bullpen.  The Royals lose pieces from last year’s team, namely DH Billy Butler and ace James Shields; they take a small step back.  Finally, the Indians take a leap of faith to the top of the division, needing all-around solid seasons from Michael Brantley and Michael Bourn to do so.  The Tigers finish second, and have to be concerned over the plight of Justin Verlander.

AL West

Team W L
Seattle Mariners 95 67
Oakland A’s 86 76
Los Angeles Angels 84 78
Houston Astros 83 79
Texas Rangers 67 95


Discussion: The Mariners lead this division, as the addition of Nelson Cruz helps alleviate the pressure of Robinson Cano to produce.  Also, Felix Hernandez wins his second Cy Young leading one of baseball’s best pitching staffs.  The A’s are a mystery, but they will most likely be good enough for second in this division.  The Angels are also a mystery, but I have them behind the A’s because it remains to be seen if Josh Hamilton can figure himself out and if Albert Pujols can have another good season.  The Astros will be a surprise; they take a leap forward this year with the additions of Jed Lowrie and Evan Gattis.  Finally, the Rangers will easily finish last in the division after the season-ending injury to Yu Darvish.






Wild Card Game: Cardinals over Marlins





Wild Card Game: Tigers over A’s


(2)Pirates vs (3)Padres: Pirates in 5

(1)Nationals vs (4)Cardinals: Nationals in 4

(1)Nationals) vs (2)Pirates: Pirates in 7

Explanation: The Nationals easily dispose of the Cardinals in the first round, and the Pirates and Padres play a tightly contested series that goes the distance.  In a  7-game series, the pitching of the Pirates catches up to that of the Nats.  Also, their outfield (Marte, Polanco, and McCutchen) will be this year’s version of the Royals’ outfield last year.  The Pirates win the NL.


(1)Mariners vs (4)Tigers: Mariners in 4

(2)Indians vs (3)Orioles: Orioles in 5

(1)Mariners vs (3)Orioles: Mariners in 6

Explanation: The Mariners’ pitching coupled with enough offense gets them past the experienced Tigers.  The experience of the Orioles, along with the return of Manny Machado, leads them past the Indians.  Then, the Mariners defeat the Orioles in a solid championship series.  They take the pennant.

World Series: (2)Pirates vs (1)Mariners: This series will be tight.  However, the Mariners’ pitching, especially in a three or four-man rotation, allows few runs.  Also, Nelson Cruz and Robinson Cano have sold series, and the talent on each side in too much for the Bucs.  Mariners win in 6.

Most importantly, this season will be fun.  Your guess is as good as mine as to who wins.