Joey Votto is a Hitting Savant. And Still Underrated.


Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Joey Votto is the most underrated hitter in all of baseball.

How’s that for a hot take? Whether it’s actually true or not is a matter of perspective, but since there’s no way to measure “underratedness,” I’m not going to attempt to prove that it’s true. I’m sure you won’t mind just taking my word for it, right?

I do believe that what Votto has been able to accomplish at the plate over the last two seasons has been criminally underappreciated, especially by Reds fans. And that’s a shame, because Votto has been on a roll unlike almost anything this city has ever seen.

Let me be as clear as I possibly can: you need to pay attention to Votto every single day and cherish the things he’s accomplishing as a hitter. Because there’s a very good chance that you’ll never again—for the rest of your life—see another Reds hitter do the things that Votto has been doing over the last couple years.

Let’s set the stage. You probably already know that Votto was hitting .213 on May 31 this year, after an extended slump that had even his most ardent supporters perplexed. No one should have worried. When Votto started hitting, he really started hitting.

Since June 1, Votto has hit .377/.504/.600. After the All-Star break, Votto really kicked things into high gear, reaching base safely in 27 of 28 games, and hitting .455/.552/.707 with five home runs and 24 walks.

Last weekend, Votto went 4-5 in an 11-5 victory over Milwaukee. That performance raised his batting average above .300 for the first time all season.* For the entire season, Votto is now hitting .303/.428/.511 with 19 homers and 62 RBI.

*And yes, I know the objections to using batting average as a statistic, and I agree that there are many, many more accurate ways to evaluate a player’s production. Repeat to yourself: “This is just a baseball column, I should really just relax.” It’s a proxy, a nice round number that is cherished in baseball history. Let’s not throw out the baby with the sabermetric bath water. It’s amazing to me that Votto was able to raise that average so much in so little time.

Even better, when you take into account the terrible start to Votto’s season, the big first baseman is leading the league in on-base percentage for the fifth time in seven years. And his current OBP of .428 would rank among the top ten in Reds history all-time.

Further, Votto’s current wRC+ (149) and wOBA (.400) rank within the top five in the National League. Again, even with the poor start to his 2016 season, Votto’s name is still on the leaderboards among the elite hitters in the league.

And last year was even better!

Votto’s final numbers in 2015 were great: .314/.459/.541. His numbers in the second half—.362/.535/.617 in 73 games—were nothing short of ridiculous. He was second in the league only to NL MVP Bryce Harper in WAR (7.4), wRC+ (172), and wOBA (.427).

But last year wasn’t just among the best seasons of any 2015 hitter; in many respects, it was one of the great hitting performances in the entire history of the Cincinnati Reds franchise. To wit:

– Votto’s OBP of .459 was the third-highest single season on-base percentage in Reds history. Only Votto’s own 2012 season (.474) and Joe Morgan’s 1975 (.466) were better.
– Votto’s OPS in 2015 was 1.000. He is one of only seven Reds in the history of the club ever to post an OPS that high. And he’s done it three times now.
– Judging strictly by offensive WAR, Votto’s mark of 7.0 last year was the best of his career. Only seven other Reds have ever posted an offensive WAR above 7.0: Pete Rose, Tony Perez, Ted Kluszewski, Cy Seymour, Barry Larkin, Frank Robinson, and Joe Morgan (who actually did it five times!).

This is why I’m constantly telling people that they don’t want to miss a single Joey Votto at-bat. He’s a historically great hitter, at least within the context of the Cincinnati franchise. Enjoy this guy while he’s still a master of the craft of hitting baseballs.

And I mean it when I say “historically great.” Looking at career numbers, you might be surprised where Votto ranks on the Reds all-time franchise lists. Among batters who have played in at least 500 games with the Reds, Votto is:

– 1st in OBP with a career mark of.424; Morgan is second (.415) and Robinson is a distant third at .389. Adam Dunn (.380), Rose (.379), and the immortal Rube Bressler (.379) are next.
– 1st in OPS, at .956. The rest of the top five are Robinson (.943), Dunn (.900), Morgan (.885), and Eric Davis (.877).
– 1st in OPS+ (which is adjusted for era, park, and league effects) with a career number of 156. Robinson is second at 150.

If your eyes glazed over at all those numbers, here’s the short version: Votto has the highest OBP, OPS, and OPS+ in the entire history of the Cincinnati Reds. He’s also eighth on the club’s all-time home run list with 211 (and he’ll likely pass Jay Bruce and George Foster by the end of next season). He’s fifth all-time in walks; Pete Rose is first, but if Votto can stay healthy, he’ll almost certainly pass up Morgan, Johnny Bench, and Larkin to move into second place some time next season.

And by the end of this season, there’s a reasonable chance Votto will pass Vada Pinson on the Reds career WAR list. That will put him #6 all-time behind only Rose, Bench, Larkin, Robinson, and Morgan. All baseball legends.

As we can see from those career numbers, it’s not like Votto just started hitting these last two years. It’s just that he seems to be less appreciated for his elite hitting than ever before. Perhaps I’m sensing something that isn’t there. But why wouldn’t everyone appreciate Votto’s brilliance at the plate?

There are at least a few reasons that might be the case. One is that the Reds have been miserable the last two years. Who pays attention to great hitters on lousy teams?

Another reason is that Votto started slow in each of the last two years, which got the narrative train off and running out of the station with the story that Votto was not “elite” any longer, as a certain Reds broadcaster proclaimed early last season. Many Reds fans have also bought into the idea—one that is being force-fed nightly by a couple members of the current Reds broadcast crew—that Votto only cares about walks.*

*I shouldn’t have to say this, but that is, of course, a completely ludicrous charge. Look at those numbers above. Those are statistics that show a complete, well-rounded hitter that is among the most productive in the game. Yes, Votto walks. But he also produces runs at a clip that is among the very best in baseball. Period.

Finally, Votto’s defense and baserunning have slipped as he has aged, which has caused his overall WAR to dip (especially this season). Reds fans are notorious for being critical of players who can hit well but struggle in the field (see Dunn, Adam). And there are certainly valid criticisms that can be made about Votto’s defense, especially. I won’t try to defend him in this space.

But that doesn’t detract from the fact that Joey Votto has been a very special hitter over the last two years. You’d better enjoy it while it lasts. I know I will.

Chad Dotson is a contributor to Nuxhall Way, ESPN’s SweetSpot blog, and the founder of Redleg Nation. You can follow him on Twitter at @dotsonc.

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