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Joey Votto chasing idol Ted Williams, on-base history

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He has reached base at least twice in 20 straight games.

Cincinnati Reds v Los Angeles Dodgers Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

Before leaving to serve his country in World War II, Ted Williams had already logged a Triple Crown season for the Boston Red Sox, doing so at age 23 in a masterful 1942 season. And, after returning from the war, he added another Triple Crown to his ledger at age 28 with a sparkling 1947 campaign. He twice was the American League Most Valuable Player - though in neither of those particular seasons, surprisingly - and his .406 batting average in the 1941 campaign stands as one of the most mythical marks in modern baseball’s statistical history.

Williams posted the kind of counting stats that made the back of baseball cards stats the back of baseball card stats. Four times he led the AL in RBI, on four different occasions he led the league in HR, and in six different seasons he took home a batting title. The approach he took to getting those numbers, came with a much lighter level of reporting in Williams’ day, one that in retrospect looks both mesmerizing and a tad familiar. While twice he took home a traditional Triple Crown - batting average, dingers, and ribbies - in nine separate seasons he led all of Major League Baseball in OPS. Seven different times he led all of baseball in OPS+. Eight times he led his league in total number of walks, and on a whopping twelve individual occasions did he lead all of baseball in on-base percentage.

Williams .482 career on-base percentage ranks as the greatest in baseball history, though that was hardly the statistic he was most famous for while plying his trade in the Boston OF. It was, however, reflective of Williams’ specific techniques and preferences while in the batter’s box, an art he eventually detailed in his 1970 book The Science of Hitting. And as most ardent fans of the Cincinnati Reds over the last decade know well, Joey Votto bought a copy of that book the day after he was drafted and carried it with him for some five minor league seasons, as none other than Paul Daugherty relayed in a 2010 interview on the heels of Votto’s first National League MVP award.

It’s no secret that Votto has long studied Williams, and while the game has changed from featuring routine eephus pitches to consistent 100 mph fastballs, Votto has done an admirable job in replicating Williams’ style and production to the best of his modern ability. Votto currently owns a .427 on-base percentage for his career, which ranks both 12th on the all-time list and leads all active players by a whopping .017. Five times has Votto led his league in walks, he’s twice led his league in OPS, and twice he’s claimed the league lead in OPS+, too, counting this season to date. And as recently as the 2015 season, he again found himself being written about in the same breath as Williams as his incredible second half OBP surge caught the eyes of great writers like Joe Posnanski.

Two years later, Votto is at it again, this time chasing a Williams’ streak that has been the benchmark of its kind in MLB history since 1948. In the first game of a May 31st doubleheader against the Philadelphia Athletics that year, Williams went 2 for 4 with a homer, two runs scored, a walk, and three runs driven in. And while he went 0 for 3 in the second half of that doubleheader, he managed to walk twice. For 19 games after that through a June 24th doubleheader against the Chicago White Sox, he got on base at least twice in every single game, a 21 game stint that is the longest such streak of its kind. In doing so, he hit .486/.635/.851 (1.486) in 104 PA with 36 hits (5 HR) and 32 walks, striking out only twice (!) in the kind of mythical run in which seemingly only he could pull off.

Votto, to date, sits with a current 20 game streak of reaching at least twice in each game, one he began on July 26th in Yankee Stadium with a 2 for 2, 2 walk, run scored outing. During his streak, he’s hit .435/.611/.742 in 90 PA, with 27 hits (5 HR) and 29 walks and 2 HBP, striking out just 9 times in the process. His streak now sits just one game shy of Williams’ record, with his next outing on Wednesday night against Chicago Cubs starter John Lackey, against whom he’s reached base 15 times in 34 PAs as part of a .292/.441/.583 career line in their tussles. And, if he does so, he’ll have his name etched next to his hitting idol in the record books concretely this time, not just in an albeit incredibly impressive homage.

“Baseball is just my job,” Votto once repeated to Dayton Daily News legend Hal McCoy, as Posnanski noted in that 2015 piece. But while that seems simplistic in its straightforwardness, the important takeaway from an otherwise innocuous quote is that baseball to you and me is quite different than baseball to Joey Votto. To Joey Votto, “baseball” means “baseball the way Ted Williams played it,” and with that in mind, Votto’s playing baseball as good as it can be played at the moment.