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Figuring out a Hall of Fame path for Joey Votto

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MLB: Cincinnati Reds at St. Louis Cardinals Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Joey Votto has been the best player on the Reds throughout the entirety of his 10-year career. That can hardly be debated, as he’s led the team in bWAR every full season he’s played, with the exception of 2008, when he was still the most valuable position player, and his tumultuous 2014 campaign.

His greatness related to not only his teammates, but his peers around baseball, is just part of the reason we’ve assembled this week of appreciation for Votto here. But as this week winds down, it’s time to take a look at how Votto’s career stacks up against the rest of baseball history.

We’re down to just a week before the 2017 Hall of Fame class is announced, so it’s easy to wonder which players we watch in the present will be involved in those conversations years down the road. And for the Reds, the only current player one could rationally have these types of dreams about (sorry, Brandon) is Votto.

Let’s get this out of the way right off the bat: If 33 year-old Votto retired today, it would be very difficult to put him in the Hall of Fame. Even at 10 years into his career, he just hasn’t played enough time. Another important thing to acknowledge is that flashy counting stats are never going to favor him. Votto’s almost certainly never going to clear the 500 homer or 3,000 hit threshold, two long-established but arbitrary benchmarks for all-time greats when it comes to hitting. He’s also cleared 100 RBI’s just twice, much to the chagrin of an unfortunate portion of the fan base.

One counting stat that Votto might have a shot to impress with, however, is wins above replacement. As it stands, Votto has tallied 47.0 fWAR in his career. As this Fangraphs article points out, the median fWAR total for Hall of Fame first basemen hovers around 57. That same article claims that Votto could be close to a legitimate Hall of Fame case with one more six-win season, something he’s done four times already in his career, along with three four-win seasons and one two-win season. That would give him about 67 fWAR entering his age-38 season, which one would have to believe would give Votto a strong case for induction.

Votto’s case for the Hall of Fame, however, goes far beyond simply compiling numbers year after year. The first reason for that is the fact that he excels most when you compare him to his peers. Since his debut, Votto is third in baseball with 157 wRC+, behind only Mike Trout and Miguel Cabrera. You might have heard of them. If you wanna go back further, that wRC+ is the highest number for any Red since 1882. He also has the highest career OBP (.425) of any Reds player in the same time frame, and has the eighth-highest batting average at .313.

Votto also has the benefit of having skills that will age well, and playing a position that older players have an easier time holding down. Players who rely on speed, power and defense, more often than not, see their skills begin to diminish by the time they reach their mid-to-late-30’s. Players who rely more on batting eye and contact abilities, however, have a much easier aging curve. One of the biggest knocks against Votto has always been his contract, but the fact is Votto has a better chance than most of still being a productive hitter as he approaches his age-40 season, which is how old he’ll turn in the final guaranteed year of his deal.

He will also be the beneficiary of a smarter voter base when it comes time to decide his fate. The current voters who still believe home runs, wins and saves are the most important things won’t still be voting in the late 2020’s when Votto is reaching eligibility. It will be a newer generation of voters who understand the importance of OBP, OPS+, wRC+ and other stats in deciding how dominant a player was in his career.

While the first two months of 2016 were alarming, Votto’s re-emergence after that proved that he isn’t going anywhere. He’s just two years removed from a 7.5 fWAR season, and would approach that again if he could put together a full season of work similar to what he did June through September of 2016.

Nothing is ever guaranteed, especially in this game. But if you’re searching for a 33-year old candidate to put together five to seven more years of productive hitting, and maybe even amass another 20-25 fWAR along the way, it’s hard to find anyone more prepared than Joseph Daniel Votto. Nothing is more important in hitting than not making an out, and nobody is better at that in baseball right now than Votto. If he finishes his career with a line resembling the .300/.420/.530 pace he’s set to this point, he’s not just in a Hall of Fame discussion, but in the discussion for the greatest hitters of all-time.

Is Votto a Hall of Famer? Not yet. But he may not be far away from being a serious contender, or even a virtual lock.