Reds’ Joey Votto keeps proving he’s an all-time great hitter

Joey Votto (Aaron Doster/AP)

If you’re anyone other than Reds play-by-play man Marty Brennaman, you probably know that Joey Votto is a really good hitter. Votto is a five-time all-star, he won the NL MVP award in 2010, and has finished in the top seven in MVP voting a total of five times. He’s having another monster season in 2017, on pace to challenge or beat his personal best in multiple offensive categories. His greatness isn’t a secret.

But even die-hard Votto boosters might not be fully aware of what the Reds first baseman has done. Beyond the all-star games and hardware, beyond Votto closing in on Ferguson Jenkins and Larry Walker for the title of greatest Canadian baseball player of all time, there’s also this: By one key metric, Votto ranks as one of the dozen best hitters…ever.

A student of hitting and also of hitting stats, Votto has become keenly aware of all the metrics that define success at the plate. Granted, he’s on his way to topping .300 for the eighth time in the past nine seasons, an incredible feat during a season in which strikeouts are at all-time high levels and the league is hitting just .255.

But Votto is also well-versed in a slew of metrics that go well beyond Triple Crown stats. He pores over exit-velocity numbers, ready to adjust his swing if he’s not generating enough heat off the bat. No one needs to remind him that he’s on track to lead the league in on-base percentage for the sixth time in his career. And he dissects spray charts, looking for the best path to base hits. When the Cubs recently tried an extreme defensive alignment by stacking the outfield with four defenders, Votto calmly slashed a ball down the right-field line for a double anyway.

Despite the breadth of his statistical knowledge, though, Votto has long held one particular stat as his favourite: Weighted Runs Created Plus, also known as wRC+. A complicated-sounding statistic by name, wRC+ has a very simple mission. It takes every hitter in baseball, breaks down each one’s individual offensive stats, adjusts for park factors (a hitter playing his home games at hitter-friendly Coors Field would have his numbers adjusted down, while another at pitcher-friendly AT&T Park would get an upward bump), and spits out one number to sum it all up. A wRC+ score of 100 denotes a hitter who’s exactly league average, 110 represents production that’s 10 per cent better than average, while 90 is 10 per cent worse.

For his career, Votto’s batting .313, with a .427 on-base percentage, and a .541 slugging average. Take those numbers, adjust for Great American Ballpark (Votto’s home field for his entire major league career), and you get a wRC+ of 158. That means that in his 11th season in the big leagues, he’s produced numbers that are a jarring 58 per cent better than league average.

In baseball, as in life, context is everything. Being 58 per cent better than anyone at anything sounds impressive. But how does that performance compare to other great hitters in baseball history?

Turns out, really, really, really well. Votto’s 158 wRC+ ties him for 10th among all hitters with at least 200 major league games played. 10th!

Here’s the top 12. You won’t have any trouble recognizing these names.

Name wRC+
Babe Ruth 197
Ted Williams 188
Lou Gehrig 173
Rogers Hornsby 173
Barry Bonds 173
Mike Trout 170
Mickey Mantle 170
Ty Cobb 165
Joe Jackson 165
Stan Musial 158
Jimmie Foxx 158
Joey Votto 158

When you’re in a virtual tie with the likes of Stan Musial and Jimmie Foxx, and not far from, say, Ty Cobb, you’re a helluva hitter. Even more noteworthy is the list of hitters who’ve put up numbers that are inferior to Votto’s, according to wRC+. That list includes Willie Mays (154), Frank Robinson (153), Hank Aaron (153), Joe DiMaggio (152), and many other all-time greats.

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A big chunk of that excellence comes from Votto’s supernatural ability to get on base. Like that wRC+ number, Votto’s .427 career OBP also ranks 12th all-time — ninth among players whose careers started after 1900.

That impressive on-base ability is precisely (and oddly) what’s irked naysayers like Brennaman. Votto’s critics imagine hypothetical scenarios in which the Reds trail by a run in the ninth inning, Votto comes up with runners on second and third, and prefers to draw a walk on a pitch half a millimeter outside to load the bases, rather than swinging at a pitch that could result in a game-winning hit. This scenario, we’re told, happens all the time. Never mind that it doesn’t, and never mind that Votto far more frequently draws walks on pitches much further off the plate that would be tough for anyone to hit.

Never mind also that Votto — fully healthy since 2015 after struggling with significant injuries in 2012 and 2014 — is at the height of his powers as he approaches his 34th birthday next month. With 33 home runs, he’s just four off his 2010 career high. Slugging .597, he’s just a few ticks short of his career-best .600 mark, also set in 2010. And while this stat relies partly on teammates’ ability to reach base in front of him, Votto’s also on pace to knock in 112 runs, which would leave him just one short of the career-high 113 he drove in back in that same 2010 MVP campaign. That’s some impressive power and productivity for a hitter who chokes up heavily on the bat with two strikes, as if he’s been time-warped back to 1972.

A caveat applies here. Since wRC+ is a rate stat and not a counting stat, it will almost certainly get worse as Votto’s career eventually hits a downslide, the same way a career .300 hitter would start to see that number slip as his reaction time and bat speed start to slow.

Even if and when that occurs, we’re still quibbling over small beer. Imagine a hitter so good, his decline phase might drop him all the way down to the neighbourhood of Hank Aaron and Joe Freaking DiMaggio. That’s where we’re at with Joey Votto — stats aficionado, ace trash talker, proud Canadian, future Hall of Famer…and one of the greatest hitters who ever lived.

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