During the media session at the All-Star Game in Miami this past summer, the players sat behind tables lined across the outfield warning track. The hot-button topic at the time — as it would remain through the World Series — was the baseball. A reporter asked Joey Votto about the speculation that the ball was juiced.
“I’m not going to speculate about speculation,” the Cincinnati Reds first baseman answered.
I can’t think of a better characterization of Votto than that response. He’s a master of precision at the plate, and apparently about the particulars of language and the way he’ll answer a question as well. He wasn’t being a jerk. I phrased the issue in a different manner and he agreeably talked about the increase in home runs across the sport.
Votto is one of the three National League MVP finalists, and that seemed to catch some by surprise. One national TV host was foaming like a rabid dog about Votto finishing that high in the voting, and not just because the Reds finished 68-94. You can debate whether the Reds’ bad record hinders Votto’s consideration for MVP, but you can’t debate his value on the field.
He was the best hitter in the National League, leading the league in OBP, OPS, adjusted OPS, wOBA, wRC+ and walks, while ranking second to Giancarlo Stanton in Baseball-Reference WAR among NL position players and fourth in FanGraphs WAR. He hit .320/.454/.578 with 36 home runs and played every game (although somehow lost out on the Silver Slugger Award to Paul Goldschmidt).
It’s not really accurate to say Votto is underrated. After all, he’s going to finish at least third in this year’s MVP voting. He finished seventh in 2016 while playing for another 94-loss team. He finished third in 2015 while playing for a 98-loss team. These results would not have happened 15 years ago, but the writers who cover the league are obviously respectful of Votto’s brilliance in the batter’s box, of the importance of getting on base and not making outs.
“I wanted this to be my pièce de résistance,” Votto told C. Trent Rosecrans of the Cincinnati Enquirer at the end of the season. “I wanted this to be my work of art. I felt like shrinking strikeouts, keeping the walks, competing on a daily basis, playing every day, improving my defense. I felt this was definitely the best year of my career.”
In many ways, Votto is this generation’s Ted Williams. That sounds like blasphemy, but the similarities are obvious, both in their approach at the plate and the resulting .300 batting averages and high OBPs.
No, Votto isn’t on the same level as Williams when comparing each to his peers, but here’s a little nugget to consider: Williams hit .328 on the road in his career; Votto has hit .321. And Williams wasn’t facing an entire league of pitchers throwing 95 mph.
The Red Sox won the pennant once in Williams’ 19 seasons with the team. They were competitive early in his career, reached his only World Series in 1946 (losing in seven games) and finished one game out of first place in both 1948 and 1949 and just four games out in 1950. But in Williams’ final 10 seasons, the Red Sox finished no closer than 11 games out.
The Reds, likewise, are wasting some of Votto’s best years. They did win division titles in 2010 — Votto won the MVP that season — and 2012 and lost the wild-card game in 2013, but they’ve now had four straight losing seasons. Given that the Reds allowed the most runs in the NL in 2017, a turnaround in the next few seasons doesn’t appear likely.
Votto also isn’t going anywhere. He’s signed through 2023, and while his $25 million annual salary no longer seems so exorbitant, he holds a full no-trade clause and appears happy to stay in Cincinnati. Maybe the good news for the Reds is that given his ability at the plate, he should — like Williams — age well. Maybe by the time the Reds are ready to compete again, Votto will still be one of the elite hitters in the league.
Of course, he’ll probably still receive criticism in some quarters along the way — as Williams did throughout his career — for taking too many walks and not driving in enough runs, as if getting on base were a bad thing.
The response to those critics is pretty simple: Votto understands baseball a lot better than they do.
If anything, the irritating part is this misconception that Votto just stands there and takes his walks instead of being more aggressive. That’s just wrong on so many levels. Some numbers:
Out of 144 qualified regulars, he ranked 76th in average pitches per plate appearance, just ahead of Nolan Arenado, known as one of the more aggressive swingers in the game.
He ranked 20th in lowest swing rate, so in this regard he didn’t swing a lot. Still, teammate Zack Cozart swung less often than Votto. (Hmm, maybe that’s one reason Cozart had the best season of his career.)
On the first pitch of a plate appearance, Votto ranked 122nd in lowest swing rate. He swung at the first pitch 36.6 percent of the time. Compare that to Joe Mauer, who swung just 7.6 percent of the time at the first pitch.
For pitches labeled in the strike zone, Votto ranked 98th in lowest swing rate. If he saw a strike, he swung 69.4 percent of the time.
What Votto doesn’t do is chase pitches out of the zone. This, as it was for Williams, is his brilliance. His chase rate of 14.0 percent was the lowest in the majors, one of just eight players below 20 percent. Why would his critics want him to expand the strike zone and make outs? That’s what pitchers want you to do. Votto hit .152 when he chased.
Oh, and Votto does just fine with runners on base. He hit .371 with runners in scoring position in 2017 and .339 with men on. For his career, he has hit .335 with runners in scoring position and .326 with men on.
Votto said he wanted 2017 to be his work of art. His entire career has been a masterpiece.