Over the winter, as we were tossing around ideas for a feature story to run in the print magazine around Opening Day, one topic seemed obvious. After all, Joey Votto was back!
In an incredible season during which Votto turned 38 years old, the Reds legend proved that the fountain of youth does indeed exist. (It’s in Canada.) He hit 36 home runs and drove in 99, numbers that compared favorably to his glory days of 2010 and 2011 and his best in four years. His slash line was .266/.375/.563 (a .938 OPS that was higher than his career OPS) to go along with a .391 wOBA (tied with Nick Castellanos for fourth in the National League) and a .140 wRC+ (seventh in the NL). Did I mention Votto was 38 at season’s end?
As I began researching the story and conducting interviews, Editor in Chief John Fox tossed an intriguing idea my way: Why not make the case that Votto is the greatest player in the history of the Cincinnati Reds? Audacious, sure, but once I started thinking about it, I was all in.
People have been making the case for years that Votto would end up as the greatest hitter in club history. No less an authority than longtime broadcaster Marty Brennaman even conceded that he was almost certainly the best hitter the franchise has ever seen. Back in 2018 I wrote that Votto is a sure Hall of Famer. Was it such a leap to say that he was not just the greatest hitter, but the greatest player overall?
Well, yes, that’s a pretty big leap. In fact, I wrote a column last year after Joe Morgan’s death that he was the best Reds player of all time. Johnny Bench, Barry Larkin, and Frank Robinson also played for this franchise. Some fans of a certain vintage would want me to add Pete Rose to that list, while somewhat younger fans might want to discuss Ken Griffey Jr. or Kyle Farmer. So, while I tried to make the case (and you can read my story here!), I can’t say I was entirely convinced until I spoke to Votto himself.
Others certainly tried to convince me. One was Carlos Guevara, a roommate of Votto’s in the Reds minor league system who later reached the big leagues with the San Diego Padres. (He’s now one of the hosts of a terrific show about the Reds, Late Night Reds.) You can read my story to see when he first started to notice that Votto was special, but by the time they’d risen to Double-A Chattanooga together, Guevara was sure.
“He put it all together,” he told me. “He was spraying the ball all over the field. He was the best player in the league. That’s when I realized, I’m not just looking at a future big leaguer, I’m looking at an All-Star, a different kind of player.”
The last person I spoke to for the story was Votto himself, a conversation I wasn’t sure would happen due to the MLB lockout and the delayed season. Speaking from Spring Training in Arizona, Votto was completely accommodating and happy to talk about whatever I asked—and I loved his description of the first time he met Griffey Jr.—but from the start he deflected the basic premise of the story. “I have nothing but respect for those players,” he told me. “Frank Robinson is one of my favorite players of all time. Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan, Barry Larkin—to be in that category is an honor.”
Every time I tried to put his name into that group, Votto was quick to add that he wasn’t finished playing. And you know what? He’s right. That’s what convinced me that he just might be the greatest player in Reds history before all is said and done. He still has more in the tank, right?
And then the new season began. Unfortunately, 2022 hasn’t gone the way any of us—especially Votto—envisioned. He’s been on the injured list lately and rehabbing in Louisville, but so far his Reds slash line is pretty ugly: .122/.278/.135 without a single homer. Given the fact that we were publishing a story arguing that he was the best player in club history, the timing could hardly have been worse. (Well, it could have hardly been worse for me, which is what’s important.)
But I’m not worried. First of all, we’re talking about just 74 at-bats so far! I wouldn’t judge anyone on a sample size that small. Plus, you doubt Joey Votto at your own peril. He suffered through his worst year ever as a professional in 2019, hitting .261/.357/.411 with just 15 home runs and 47 RBI. For the first time in his career, he was a below average hitter according to OPS+. Halfway through the 2020 campaign, Votto was hitting just .191/.321/.326 and, as media critics noted, letting his teammates down.
And then he turned everyone around, once again becoming one of the best hitters in the league. That’s when I decided I would always give Votto the benefit of the doubt. He’s forgotten more about hitting than most big leaguers will ever know. He’ll figure it out. And even if Votto doesn’t rebound, he’s already transitioned into his next career as a social media superstar.
Jokes aside, what Votto proved to us last season is that he still has plenty left in the tank. I only wish the Reds had decided to capitalize on his late-career resurgence. In an interview just after the season ended, Votto appeared to make a statement to ownership/management about urgency going into the off-season:
“We’ve got good players and guys in the prime of their career right now,” Votto said. “We always want to win, we’re trying to be a perennial playoff team. As far as there being an urgency, I don’t feel one year’s urgency changes to the next. I’m also not in the front office, and I’m not very objective. But there are some guys who are really good players right now, and we have to take advantage of them.”
Unfortunately, the Reds have completely given up on building a championship team around Votto. He deserves better. But at least we can still enjoy him while he’s performing in the home team’s uniform or when he’s performing on TikTok.
You can agree with me about Votto being the best player in Reds history, or you can disagree. But you can’t argue that he’s been a special player for nearly two decades. I tip my cap to Joey Votto, who is truly one of a kind.
Chad Dotson authors Reds coverage at Cincinnati Magazine and hosts a long-running Reds podcast, The Riverfront. His first book, The Big 50: The Men and Moments That Made the Cincinnati Reds, is available in bookstores and online.