Examining Joey Votto's past; assessing his future


If you are not yet aware, Joey Votto is good at playing baseball.  We at Red Reporter are committed to bringing you the hard-hitting analysis you deserve, so there you go.

In fact, as of Friday, August 6, Votto leads the National League in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and-just in case you are tempted to think these facts are a function of his home ballpark-OPS+.  He has a non-zero shot at becoming the first triple crown winner since Carl Yastrzemski in 1967, and the first to do it in the NL since Joe Medwick in 1937.  Combined with Cincinnati's surprisingly strong season, Joey Votto may be your current MVP front-runner.  Without any doubt, he has been the best player on the Reds this year.

That he is the unquestionable team MVP is not shocking.  He finished 2nd in Rookie of the Year voting in 2008 and was the team's best player in 2009 despite missing a month's worth of action.  In my mind, however, there's always been an element of surprise to each new rung of Votto's accomplishments, in part because he wasn't a mega-hyped prospect as he made his way through the Reds' farm system.

There is something about Votto's career path that catches you off guard, though.  Obviously, we don't expect most players to become MVPs, but the ones that do carry those expectations were phenoms who broke through at the MLB level at a very young age.  Votto made his major league debut on September 4, 2007, six days shy of his 24th birthday.  Of all the MVP winners in either league since 2001, only two made his ML debut at a later age: Ryan Howard, who was 24, and Ichiro Suzuki, who can be excepted since he was playing in Japan's most senior league at the age of 18.

A skeptic can be forgiven for asking: should the Reds have brought Votto up earlier?  Did they mismanage his career?  And should Votto's unusual career trajectory give management and fans pause as he becomes a candidate for a super-sized contract?

More after the jump...

Let me preface the following analysis by saying I am not a scout, by trade or by hobby.  All analysis and presumption that follows is strictly a consequence of statistical records.

Joey Votto was drafted by the Cincinnati Reds in the 2nd round of 2002's June amateur draft.  The 18 year old was assigned to the Gulf Coast League team in Sarasota, and it would appear the franchise wasn't entirely sure what to Votto, with respect to his defensive abilities.  Votto filled the DH role almost as often as not, and when he did get to play both ways, he didn't have a set position, playing the hot corner, behind the plate, and out in the outfield.  All three proved fairly disastrous: he made 8 errors in 19 games at third, 3 errors in 3 games in the outfield, and 2 errors in 7 games at catcher-plus he allowed three passed balls, and only threw out 4 of 18 prospective base stealers.

His offense, however was pretty good:

Year

Team

Level

Age

Pos

Err

AB

R

H

2B

3B

HR

RBI

BB

K

SB

CS

Avg

OBP

SLG

2002

Sarasota

Rk

18

3B/C/OF

10

175

29

47

13

3

9

33

21

45

7

2

.269

.342

.531

Meanwhile, in Dayton, a 19 year old by the name of Edwin Encarnacion was more than holding his own at A-ball.  A wise and prescient decision was made to move Votto full time to first base.  Armed with a new mitt, Votto was assigned to Billings for the start of the 2003 season, where he began his first full season of pro ball.  He tore it up, and earned a mid-season promotion to Dayton.  The wonderful minorleaguesplits.com allows for "minor league equivalency" translations for any stats at the A-ball level or higher, so you will also see an MLE line that attempts to translate how Votto might have hit had he been playing for Cincinnati:

Year

Team

Level

Age

Pos

Err

AB

R

H

2B

3B

HR

RBI

BB

K

SB

CS

Avg

OBP

SLG

2003

Billings

Rk

19

1B

12

240

47

76

17

3

6

38

56

80

4

0

.317

.452

.488

2003

Dayton

A

19

1B

9

195

19

45

8

0

1

20

34

64

2

5

.231

.348

.287

2003

MLE

19

1B

N/A

212

10

33

6

0

0

11

18

75

1

6

.158

.229

.193

A very vital component of Votto's skill set was evident from an early age: his ability to take a walk.  144 total strikeouts on the year mitigated one's assessment of his strike zone judgment, but clearly this was a patient and talented hitter.  Organizationally, Votto now faced a much clearer path to success: the only player of consequence ahead of him was Dernell Stenson, a 25 year old used-to-be-a-prospect, who was hitting well at AA Chatanooga.  The team was likely confident in the bat, but the 21 errors at first showed there was still work to be done on that front.

Votto clearly struggled in his first taste of A-ball, so he was re-assigned to Dayton to begin the 2004 year.  Following the previous year's pattern, he destroyed the league and earned another mid-year promotion:

Year

Team

Level

Age

Pos

Err

AB

R

H

2B

3B

HR

RBI

BB

K

SB

CS

Avg

OBP

SLG

2004

Dayton

A

20

1B

10

391

60

118

26

2

14

72

79

110

9

2

.302

.419

.486

2004

Potomac

A+

20

1B

0

84

11

25

7

0

5

20

11

21

1

1

.298

.385

.560

2004

MLE

20

1B

N/A

516

39

108

25

1

11

52

50

154

6

3

.209

.280

.324

2004 was, more or less, was a barren time for Cincinnati's farm system.  Not only were there no top-tier prospects in the system, but there was literally no one barring Votto's development as the first baseman of the future.  And even though Votto played just 21 games at the Advanced-A level, the team would not have been crazy for thinking that Votto was good enough to jump to AA-ball for the 2005 season  Here, though, they made what was perhaps the seminal decision in Votto's developmental path: the Reds assigned Votto to their Florida State League team in Sarasota, and left him there for the year.  That Votto's overall numbers took a dip wasn't surprising; the FSL is typically the most pitching-friendly league in pro baseball.  What was surprising, and encouraging, was that Votto's power numbers remained fairly constant, and it was evident that his defense had taken a definite turn for the better:

Year

Team

Level

Age

Pos

Err

AB

R

H

2B

3B

HR

RBI

BB

K

SB

CS

Avg

OBP

SLG

2005

Sarasota

A+

21

1B

8

464

64

119

23

2

17

83

52

122

4

5

.256

.330

.425

2005

MLE

21

1B

N/A

482

44

98

17

1

12

56

35

136

3

6

.204

.261

.316

In 2005, the primary AA first baseman for the Reds was Ryan Hanigan, who also played some catcher.  He had hit well, but not well enough to block Votto from advancing to Chatanooga in 2006, where Votto first made advances onto the elite prospect scene:

Year

Team

Level

Age

Pos

Err

AB

R

H

2B

3B

HR

RBI

BB

K

SB

CS

Avg

OBP

SLG

2006

Chatanooga

AA

22

1B

14

508

85

162

46

2

22

77

78

109

24

7

.319

.408

.547

2006

MLE

22

1B

N/A

528

60

134

37

1

16

54

58

118

20

8

.254

.328

.419

By the end of 2006, Votto ranked 43rd on Baseball America's top 100 list, and was the 3rd highest ranked player in the Reds organization, behind Homer Bailey (5th) and Jay Bruce (14th).  As with most prospect-related issues, age plays a large role in these rankings, and while Votto wasn't necessarily old for AA, he was perhaps one year older than a typically elite prospect would be for the same level.

One of the questions I wanted to answer in doing this survey was ‘Was there a time in Votto's minor league career where he should have been playing with the big club?'.  Certainly, the MLE's help with that, as does the particular performances of the players actually manning first base in Cincinnati at the time.  In 2006, Scott Hatteberg started 122 games at first base, and put together an OPS of 826, while his primary backup (Rich Aurilia) had an OPS of 867.  Given that 2006 was Votto's first big performance year, and that he would have likely underperformed the incumbents, there was no reason for Votto to have been in the majors.

For 2007, Votto was understandably promoted again, this time to the AAA level, playing for Louisville.  Somewhat curiously, Votto was given time in left field in addition to his typical first base role.  Offensively, '07 wasn't as good as the prior year, but it was good enough to earn the big prize, a September cuppa coffee:

Year

Team

Level

Age

Pos

Err

AB

R

H

2B

3B

HR

RBI

BB

K

SB

CS

Avg

OBP

SLG

2007

Louisville

AAA

23

1B/LF

13

496

74

146

21

2

22

92

70

110

17

10

.294

.381

.478

2007

MLE

23

1B/LF

N/A

512

58

129

18

2

17

72

55

117

15

11

.252

.329

.394

John Sickels often argues that it is in a player's best interests to receive a full year of development time at each level of the minors, except in special cases.  As with in 2006, Scott Hatteberg was the main man at first base in Cincy, hitting for an OPS of 868, and he was backed up by Jeff Conine (729).  I think a pretty good case could be made that Votto would have equaled or bettered Conine's production, but was likely better served by playing every day in Louisville.

As mentioned before, Votto was called up on September 4th, and the Reds-who were light years from contending-made sure he played, having Votto start in 21 of the final 24 games of the season at both first base and left field.  Timing is nearly everything in life, and our hero made the most of his: hitting .321 in 84 at-bats, complete with 11 extra base hits.  If the Reds were doubting Votto's ability to stick at the game's highest level, he erased all doubts, and the rest is ongoing history.

You've been witness to his MLB production, listed now by OPS+:

2008 - 125

2009 - 155

2010 - 170

It's been a stunning ride.  So where does it go from here?

I believe that Joey Votto's development has not been hurt by his "late arrival" to the big leagues.  In fact, I think it was a remarkably fine display of patience and commitment to the process by the Reds organization.  We are very likely witnessing Votto's quick ascendancy to the prime of his career, and the significant gains in power and on-base prowess are very good signs for the future.

Here's Votto's ML career so far, with 2010 extrapolated to a full season given current totals:

Year

Age

AB

R

H

2B

3B

HR

RBI

BB

Avg

OBP

SLG

2007

23

84

11

27

7

0

4

17

5

.321

.360

.548

2008

24

526

69

156

32

3

24

84

59

.297

.368

.506

2009

25

469

82

151

38

1

25

84

70

.322

.410

.567

2010*

26

556

111

180

30

3

40

108

92

.324

.420

.604

And a typical career projection might look like this over the next ten years:

Year

Age

AB

R

H

2B

3B

HR

RBI

BB

Avg

OBP

SLG

2011

27

525

108

173

35

2

39

117

85

.330

.423

.627

2012

28

541

97

170

31

2

36

110

81

.314

.404

.579

2013

29

549

94

170

33

2

35

109

83

.310

.400

.568

2014

30

554

93

174

32

2

34

107

81

.314

.402

.563

2015

31

541

85

166

31

1

31

101

78

.307

.394

.540

2016

32

540

78

161

30

1

29

94

76

.298

.385

.519

2017

33

528

72

155

29

1

26

88

78

.294

.384

.500

2018

34

523

67

153

28

1

24

85

69

.293

.375

.488

2019

35

515

61

146

26

1

22

78

70

.283

.369

.466

2020

36

509

56

142

26

1

20

74

67

.279

.363

.452

As you all know, projecting anything beyond ten years into the future is pure folly.

I have a hunch, possibly driven by fan bias, that this understates Votto's future to some degree, because: a) his 2009 was affected by his extended time away from the game; and b) he's made such drastic leaps in production in such a short time.  In other words, he may be a late bloomer.

If he stays healthy, I see Joey Votto's floor as Ryan Howard with a better glove and more speed.  Should the Reds choose to enter into a long-term contract negotiation, they will have sufficient leverage to offer a contract that is well short of Howard's average annual value, due to Votto still being three years short of free agency.  My vote: for a six-year deal that will ensure that the Reds' first baseman of the present will be the first baseman of the future, will lock in Votto's best years, and give the team cost control to build around a potential perennial MVP candidate.

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