In Appreciation of Joey Votto, Hall of Famer
The greatest Cincinnati Reds player of my lifetime
One of the joys of being a Cincinnati Reds fan over the last decade and a half has been the opportunity to watch Joey Votto practice his craft. Just being able to witness one of the best players on the planet wearing a Cincinnati uniform and doing incredible things on the field day after day, year after year…I sense that most fans don’t understand how special that has been.
In my lifetime, there is one other player I’d put in similar rarified air: Billy Hamilton, of course. No wait, it’s probably Barry Larkin, right? Those of you who are of an older vintage have a few more players you could add to the list, from the Big Red Machine stars all the way back to Frank Robinson. Whatever names you have floating around in your head right now, I’m guessing they are players who ended up in the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown (or deserve to be there).
Last week, we discussed Mario Soto, who I declared unlucky and underrated. For most of his career, I would have called Votto underappreciated.
Fortunately, that started to change in 2021, when Votto changed his entire approach and smashed 36 home runs en route to his most productive season since 2017, when he was robbed of his second National League MVP award. Here’s what I wrote about his resurgence at mid-season:
Of course, this doesn’t mean Votto is as productive a hitter as he was at the heights of his power; he’s not walking as much, and the batting average is way down. But he’s come to terms with the fact that he has lost some of his abilities thanks to the age-related decline that no one can hold off forever. He’s made a compromise with Father Time, sacrificing walks and more-perfect control of the strike zone in exchange for hanging onto the power for a little longer. In the process, he has once again become a hitter that pitchers need to fear, for the first time since perhaps 2017.
Votto expressed hope this spring—since realized—that the mechanical changes prompted by the 2020 benching were going to reap even more benefits in 2021. “I’m back to kind of a more comfortable place in terms of hitting,” he said. “Of course it’s going to come with some more swings and misses and of course strikeouts, but as long as I’m productive and as long as I’m dangerous at the plate it’ll pay itself off.”
Midway through the 2020 season, it really appeared as if Votto were on the inevitable age-related decline. But then he did something no one could have expected: he retooled his swing and became a completely different hitter. At age 37! This is something that just doesn’t happen, but I shouldn’t have been surprised. After all, Votto has been tinkering with his swing and succeeding ever since he burst onto the scene.
If you want a quick and dirty measurement of how good Votto’s age-37 season was, note that his OPS+ was 136. Only 22 other players in the entire history of baseball have posted a better OPS+ at age 37. And when you look at the names ahead of Votto on the list, it’s mostly a who’s who of baseball greats: Barry Bonds (268!), Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Willie Mays, George Brett, Stan Musial, Mike Schmidt. Of course, you have to be a pretty good player just to be playing big league baseball at age 37, so the group is a little self-selecting. But still!
As Votto became a different, but still productive player, did you notice the drumbeat getting louder, pronouncing that Votto was a future Hall of Famer. (Typical was this piece ($) from C. Trent Rosecrans and Jayson Stark: Joey Votto is not your grandpa’s Hall of Famer, but he absolutely belongs.) Sure, you and I who had been watching Votto every single day, we already knew Votto was destined for Cooperstown. But now it’s becoming more of a foregone conclusion.
I’m not going to litigate his case here; there will be plenty of time to make the arguments in favor of Votto as a Hall of Famer once he retires. I will, however, repeat my favorite stat about Votto. It sums up the case for Votto as well as anything.
Votto led the the NL in on-base percentage seven times. Here are the list of players who led their league in OBP seven times over the course of their career: Williams, Ruth, Bonds, Rogers Hornsby, Ty Cobb, Votto. That’s it, that’s the list. And if it weren’t for the fact he was edged out for the OBP title by a single point in 2015 (by Bryce Harper), Votto would have had eight seasons in which he led the league. That would have moved him past Cobb on this particular list (and we know that Reds fans like to overtake Cobb).
A sidenote: from 2010 to 2013, Votto led the league in OBP for four consecutive seasons. In the entirety of baseball history, only three other players have done that: Horsby, Williams, and Wade Boggs. What do all these names in the last two paragraphs have in common? They’re all Hall of Famers.
There is certainly more to Votto’s case than just getting on base (though his incredible ability to avoid making outs is kinda what the game is all about). He’s led the league in slugging percentage, doubles, and OPS, and he has hit 24 or more homers in nine different seasons. Votto has even won a Gold Glove. He’s a well-rounded player who has been one of the best players in baseball for a long, long time.
And Votto will get into the Hall of Fame, easy. I’m sure some trolls will try to argue against him on Twitter when this piece goes live. But the baseball writers who make up the HOF voting electorate are getting more open minded each year, as the old school voters are replaced by voters who understand the value in the areas in which Votto excelled. By the time he gets onto the ballot, his election will be a foregone conclusion, I predict.
Votto is under contract with the Reds for two more seasons, with the Reds holding an option for a third season (2024). I hope Votto is a Red for every single day of those three seasons, for selfish reasons. I love watching the guy play. And I love watching his antics:
Here’s what I wrote at the trade deadline this year:
Time is running out, even if Votto has slowed down the aging process temporarily. With the trade deadline approaching, owner Bob Castellini and Reds management owe it to one of the greatest players in club history—not to mention a really fun team that’s pulled to within four games of first place—to patch the holes on this roster and help Votto finally get the championship he deserves (and the championship we were promised).
We know how that turned out. Well, if Banana Bob refuses to put a competitive team around Votto for the next two years, I could come around to the idea of watching him play for another team, a contender. I’d rather watch Votto in the World Series with the Reds obviously, but I would get a kick out watching him in the Series with anyone. (Except the Cardinals. Definitely not the Cardinals.)
He’s earned it. Be happy that you have at least a couple more years to watch Votto. I hope his days of being underappreciated in Cincinnati are over.
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