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Updating the Top 100: Joey Votto

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Joey Votto’s place on the all-time list

MLB: Cincinnati Reds at Chicago Cubs Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

At the end of the 1974 season, Tony Perez had finished his age-32 season and had played in 1,452 games in his career to that point, splitting his defensive time at 3B and 1B. This career had spanned parts of eleven seasons and Perez had been on some very good teams, reaching the postseason three times (but with no championships). In addition, Perez had been included as part of five all-star teams and finished in the top 10 of NL MVP voting four different times.

At the end of the 2017 season, Joey Votto has just finished his age-33 season and has played in 1,430 games in his career to this point, playing exclusively at 1B. His career has spanned parts of eleven seasons and Votto has been on some very good teams, reaching the postseason three times (but with no championships). In addition, Votto has been included as part of five all-star teams and has finished in the top 10 of NL MVP voting six different times.

While there’s some curious similarities there, the two players are not truly similar at all:

Perez had the reputation as a clutch player, but the only statistical advantages he had (has) over Votto are that he played 3B for five seasons and his RBI totals, which were clearly influenced the quality of his teammates. Three of these seasons, he had Rose, Morgan, and Bench hitting in front of him…

Regardless, he was an excellent hitter who carries no shame for not being as good a hitter as Joey Votto.

The point of bringing up Perez into this conversation is two-fold. First, for what it’s worth, I’m moving Votto into the rank of greatest first basemen in franchise history, slotting ahead of Perez. For some, this is probably an overdue recognition, but I try to look at this from a hit-by-a-bus-tomorrow standpoint. I think Votto is there now, as compares specifically to Perez.

The other interesting exercise is in thinking about Votto as a potential Hall of Fame inductee many years from now, and Perez creates one of the more natural comparison points given their shared Cincinnati heritage.

What makes this a problematic comparison, however, is that Perez had fewer career bWAR than Votto holds today and yet Votto doesn’t seem to profile as a hit-by-a-bus-tomorrow Hall of Famer. Because Perez is objectively one of the weaker first basemen in the Hall, he holds very little value as an in/out threshold. Moreover, Perez’s qualitative value is heavily influenced by what happened the two subsequent seasons after data in the above table. In 1975 and 1976, Perez had typical good hitting seasons, but they weren’t notably great (OPS+ marks of 124 and 118, respectively). What he did have was: three home runs in one of the most iconic World Series contests in baseball history and then a middle-of-the-order presence in one of the most dominant teams ever. He was famous more than he was a legitimate Hall of Famer.

The point is not to litigate Perez’s case. I think it’s great that he’s in. Rather, I think the interesting question is how much more does Votto need to do to get in. And I think the target is somewhere around Jeff Bagwell, who took seven ballots to get in. Bagwell played for one team, won one MVP award, was never part of a championship team, had a career 149 OPS+, and totaled 79.6 career bWAR. Votto needs 25 more WAR to get there, with six seasons to do it. He’ll need health and probably one or two more monster seasons to make it happen, but it’s looking more and more like a good possibility over an exercise in wishful thinking.

Votto seems to do something every year, numerically, that jumps off the page as an interruption to any preceding trend lines. This season, per Votto’s vows, his defense bounced back to the category of “solidly good first baseman”, as he posted the best advanced metrics of his career. What’s next for Votto? He’s too well-rounded a hitter to not approach hitting in a “take what they give you” sort of way, but doesn’t it seem crazy that Votto has never reached the following round-number milestones in a season: 200 hits, 50 doubles, or 40 HR? It’s probably not a great bet that any of those numbers make their first emergence at age 34+, but after Votto’s MVP campaign in 2010, we weren’t predicting that he’d be even better seven seasons later.

Joey Votto climbs two notches on the all-time list from #8 to #6. He is the greatest first baseman in franchise history.

Top 15 1st Basemen in Reds history

1

Joey Votto

2

Tony Perez

3

Ted Kluszewski

4

Frank McCormick

5

Dan Driessen

6

Jack Beckley

7

Sean Casey

8

Lee May

9

Jake Daubert

10

Dick Hoblitzel

11

Hal Morris

12

Rube Bressler

13

Gordy Coleman

14

Deron Johnson

15

Hal Chase