Joey Votto isn’t going to reach 3,000 hits or 500 homeruns, both numbers that are a lock for Hall of Fame enshrinement. Alas, that doesn’t matter. On average, there are around forty MLB players in any given season to take the field that will be enshrined into the hallowed hallways of Cooperstown. For some, the answer is more obvious. Just on the Dodgers alone there’s quite a few sure-fire electees, such as Albert Pujols, Max Scherzer, Clayton Kershaw and Mookie Betts. All of the aforenoted players will surely be elected in their first try. There are other players around the league that would also be safe bets should they retire tomorrow, such as Mike Trout, Miguel Cabrera and Zack Greinke. Some players, however, aren’t as cut and dry and are subject to a lot of conversation. One player that will warrant wide conversation is Votto, who changed the game in so many facets.
So, what should a Hall of Fame player look like? That’s up to the discretion of the person but for me, Hall of Famer’s come in many different forms. Some people want a high-hit threshold that values players such as Robin Yount more than it does players such as Reggie Jackson. Some people are in awe of the homerun ball which values players such as Jim Thome more than it does Derek Jeter. Some people consider defense, which has gotten players such as Ozzie Smith and Alan Trammell enshrined even if their offensive numbers weren’t quite up to par to their contemporaries. We’ve recently seen an analytic drive that led to the inclusion of players such as Edgar Martinez, Larry Walker and Ted Simmons. The analytic wave is also putting a focus on players such as Todd Helton and Scott Rolen, both of whom seem to be on the right track. There’s a variety of ways to be a stellar ballplayer and only 333 MLB players have been honored in the Hall of Fame. It’s baseball’s most exclusive and elusive club, a club that’s home to the biggest names in the sport: Aaron, Mays, Gehrig, Thomas, Boggs, Henderson and Robinson. For me, it’s how much a player means to the game. Cooperstown’s goal is to preserve the history of baseball and tell its story vicariously through the museum. Which players were consistent enough to be in the top echelon of ballplayers? Which players, perhaps, may have not had the greatest career on the surface but mean a lot more through the moments that we remember witnessing in awe (Jack Morris, Bill Mazeroski, Carlton Fisk)?
Joey Votto has a strange case, as at 37 years of age, the Reds icon won’t reach an arbitrary statistic such as 500 homeruns or 3000 hits. It wasn’t until August 16th, 2021, fifteen seasons into his MLB career that the former NL MVP reached 2000 hits. That’s a measurement matched by players such as Todd Zeile, Edgar Renteria and Alvin Dark. Three very fine every day ballplayers, but three ballplayers that nobody is clamoring for Hall of Fame consideration. Yet, the legacy that Joey Votto has been able to formulate goes beyond any numerical measurement. There is only one player to debut in the 21st century and collect at least 2,000 hits while posting a lifetime OBP over .400 and that man is Joey Votto. Among the best and most consistent players, Votto’s career has flown under the radar because he’s spent the entirety of his run on the Reds, a team that over his career have been to the postseason only twice, were no-hit by Roy Halladay in 2010 and swept by the Braves in 2020.
Since the All-Star break, Votto has proven that he “still bangs” as he’s posted 14 homeruns an an OBP over .440. It looks as if he’s the Joey Votto of old, the Joey Votto who posted a .434 OBP complimented by 241 homeruns from 2009-2018. Votto, who’s hit 321 homeruns over his MLB career, has walked 1263 times. Votto has 16% BB rate over the course of his career. For comparison, Rickey Henderson is second in MLB history in walks drawn, and had a 16.4% BB rate. The average HoF first baseman has around a .375 OBP, a mark that Votto has annihilated. The average HoF first baseman slugs around .500, below Votto’s career .520 mark. The average WAR posted by first basemen in Cooperstown hovers around 60, making Votto (63) slightly above the average first baseman. There are only four first baseman in MLB history to have at least 300 homeruns and a .415 career OBP. One is Joey Votto, the other three (Jimmie Foxx, Frank Thomas, Lou Gehrig) are all in the Hall of Fame. By all analytical rates, Joey Votto is an easy, slam-dunk candidate. It’s just not easy to find somebody who barely scratches 2000 hits to have already punched his ticket to Cooperstown.
Most cases are strengthened by trivial merit such as how they’re viewed in their own time. It’s hard not to believe that the aura surrounding Derek Jeter isn’t helped by the flip, or the Jeff Maier incident, or the November homerun despite him having amassed Hall of Fame statistics on his own. Tom Glavine was a first-ballot selection in 2014, but when he hit the ballot he had his moments in the sun: the entire 1991 campaign that turned a season around and culminated with his masterful Game 6 performance in 1995. Jack Morris in ’91 going head to head against John Smoltz, Mike Mussina setting the record for most Ks in a postseason game, Joe Morgan in Game 7 of 1975 or Edgar Martinez and his double against the Yankees. Postseason heroics is why we still talk about players we’d have otherwise forgotten about, players such as Francisco Cabrera or Tony Womack, who were far from Hall of Fame players but because of a memorable moment have stood the test of time. It’s players such as Michael Brosseau and Miguel Montero who will be in similar vein of a Womack or Cabrera thirty years from now, but we won’t have a postseason moment for Joey Votto and in many regards, it’s unfairly held against him. He’s had 100x the career of a Brosseau, but Votto didn’t have the opportunity to hit a dramatic go-ahead bomb off of Aroldis Chapman. That’s not his fault, it’s his teams fault. Joey Votto has done everything imaginable to put himself in Hall of Fame trajectory yet his team hasn’t been competant his entire career. One man does not carry a team in baseball. With his team constantly out of it, he couldn’t even deliver a signature stretch to where he leads his team to the postseason to continue building a Hall of Fame legacy, a la CC Sabathia with the Milwaukee Brewers. Hardware is also key for quite a few traditional voters and while Joey Votto has his MVP from 2010, only two years into his MLB career, Votto hasn’t won much hardware since. The argument, however, is that he should have. In 2017, Marlins’ Giancarlo Stanton hit 59 homeruns en route to his MVP. Votto, who hit 36 homeruns, finished a mere two points behind Stanton in voting total (302 to 300) after two writers conspicuously left Votto off of their ballot altogether. Even two last place votes would’ve granted Votto his second career MVP. The only non-active, non-PED users to win multiple MVP awards that aren’t in the Hall of Fame is Dale Murphy and Roger Maris. Votto that season led MLB in walks (134), OBP (.454) and OPS (1.032). Votto hit 36 homeruns, drove in 100 and posted an 8.1 WAR. His 8.1 WAR was the highest in MLB, his OBP towered over Stanton’s, he hit for a much better average (.320 to .281) and played superior defense. Joey Votto was a better player than Giancarlo Stanton in 2017. That isn’t a knock on Stanton, who with 330 homeruns by the age of 31 and a 42.3 WAR, should be on a Hall of Fame path if he can get himself healthy again.
The way that we can talk about Votto in 20 years that we cannot about most other players, however, is how he changed the game. The following is excerpt from a piece I wrote last year about Votto’s 2010 season that’s linked above:
“Baseball is more three true outcome than ever: walk, strikeout or homerun. Players are more focused on taking pitches and getting on base any way possible, which eliminates giving the opposition a free out with a sacrifice bunt. Instead of trying to go for doubles and expanding the zone, they simply take the balls given to them to get on-base for the next man up. Pitchers have to find new ways to attack hitters, which isn’t necessarily an issue because their stuff is filthier than ever. Attacking the zone predomin antly leads to more strikeouts or more homeruns. Both of these are made even more common with the rising popularity of an uppercut swing as baseball has put more of an emphasis on launch angle. That uppercut swing to elevate the ball eliminates small ball, while they miss pitches they normally wouldn’t. But, in turn, they drive pitches out of the yard they wouldn’t with a more old school approach.
Let’s look at Votto’s 2010: 91 BB, 37 HR, 125 Ks. That’s 253 of the three true outcomes out 547 at bats. That is roughly 46% of his at bats. Since walks aren’t included in batting average, if we extend this to plate appearances for more context: 253 outcomes of 648 plate appearances. That’s roughly 40% of his outcomes. This was before this took off and took the league by storm. Votto’s career statistics you’d find on the back of a baseball card are more indicative of this era over his entire career than any era before him, yet this approach has only been in the mainstream for four or so seasons. He has hit .304 lifetime, which tells you how incredible his hand-eye coordination is. The back of a baseball card truly doesn’t do Joey Votto any justice. He’s never popped up to the pitcher or catcher at any point in his career. He has just seven pop ups to second base. Remarkably, he didn’t pop out to a first baseman for the first time in his career until April of 2019. He made his Major League debut in 2007. He’s a special kind of player, but with him it truly is a three true outcome. He doesn’t get under the ball much. He has struck out 1,354 times in his career while walking 1,217 times. He has hit a homerun in 295 trips to the plate. That’s 2,866 times he’s had one of the three true outcomes in a regular season ballgame in 7,595 plate appearances. That’s 37% of the time. The three true outcome rate was 33% across baseball in the 2018 season. Judging by the most recent season with 162 games in 2019, the percentage of three true outcome was 35.1%, the highest across the league ever. This past season, albeit a shortened 60 game campaign, was 36.1%.”
Joey Votto is the posterboy for how the game evolved, but not only that, the game tailored itself after Joey Votto’s approach at the plate. As mentioned in the quote, MLB saw a 35.1% three-true-outcome rate in 2020, the highest its ever seen and a number that climbs by the year. Updating that portion for Joey Votto’s career totals to include the 2021 campaign, he has 38% three-true-outcome rate for his career. The idea behind a three-true-outcome increase is that you’ll take the extra K’s to make pitchers work more and raise the pitch count, while also increasing your chances at walks to get on base. If you can hit a homerun, it’s far more welcomed than a basehit up the middle, even if you’re sacrificing a higher K-rate with runners on. Opponents of the strategy scrutinize it often citing that it doesn’t work, but the league sees an increase in runs-per-game every year the three-true-outcome sees an increase. A rampant change in offense for the better shows that factually the strategy does, in fact, work, even if it’s not as enjoyable in some areas.
Votto is no doubt the best at this, however, as he’s found a fine-line in working the count and taking basehits wherever the pitcher gives it to you and only swinging at pitches he can handle. Votto has had four MLB seasons with a walk rate higher than a chase rate. He’s also sacrificed hits for walks, with six seasons walking in triple digits. That amount of walks explains why he doesn’t reach a trivial such as 3000 because every walk takes away an opportunity to get a base hit. Yet, his knack for getting on base has led to leading the NL in OBP on seven different occasions. He would have led in an eighth in 2015, posting a gaudy .459 OBP, but he finished second to eventual MVP Bryce Harper who had a .460 OBP. Votto has perennially hit over .300 (.303 lifetime) and has a .937 lifetime OPS. Joey Votto is such a transcendent MLB hitter that 29 teams that don’t have Joey Votto have based their approach based off of Joey Votto.
In a time where character clause matters more than ever, as noted by the exclusion of Curt Schilling in recent election cycles, Joey Votto has been one of the game’s classiest representatives throughout the duration of his career. Armed with the most wholesome soundbites in the sport’s history (including the night of his 2000th hit, telling the story about his dog Maris), Votto has gone out of his way for underprivileged children, children with terminal illnesses, fans in need and an expansive history of charitable work. Just this year alone, he gave a bat to a little girl who came to see him play despite it being his day off. Votto’s history of self-deprecation, as well as his worry about the city over winning every day paint a picture of a man humble and without ego, enjoying life’s proverbial curveballs whenever they come their way and smashing them as if the pitcher had hung them. If character clause can keep guys out, it certainly can get guys in. Perhaps, not on the writers ballot, but it absolutely helped the enshrinement of a borderline at best candidate such as Harold Baines, one of the kindest souls in MLB history, when he was elected by a number of his peers on the veteran’s committee. Character should matter and there’s very few players in sports with more class and character than Joey Votto.
Joey Votto is a Hall of Fame player by every stretch of it, yet if you vote based on traditional merit it’s hard to see that. When I think of the best players of the last fifteen years, Joey Votto is instantly one of the first names that comes to mind.
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