The time has long past for us to stop being surprised by what Joey Votto can do. To call him even a generationally talented hitter seems to undersell him a bit, and this year is hardly any different. He currently ranks second among all National League position players in bWAR (6.5). and his wOBA (.425) and wRC+ (163) each lead all of Major League Baseball. It’s an exceptional offensive season by the rest of baseball’s standards, but not necessarily by Votto’s own standards, as the pace those figures set place him around his second best bWAR season and his fourth best wOBA and wRC+ seasons.
There is one thing, though, that Votto has a chance to do this season that he’s never done before. Well, so there’s more than just one thing, certainly, but for the intents and purposes of this particular article, this is gonna focus on just one thing. It’s a big thing, though! It’s a significant aspect of his game. Are you ready for it?
With 15 games left, Votto is on track to play his first full season with replacement-level defense at first base.
Okay, fine, it’s not the most exciting or impressive thing you’ve ever heard. If Votto was a replacement-level hitter, for instance, his numbers at the plate would look a lot like Billy Hamilton’s .632 OPS, and we’d all be projectile vomiting into our ballcaps while begging baseball’s prankster gods for mercy and every other deity for the sweet release of death.
It’s notable in Votto’s case, though, for a few reasons. The first of those is that this is Votto’s 11th season in the big leagues. The first of those consisted of just 24 games, and two others consisted of 62 and 111 games, respectively. Subtracting those three years gives us eight full seasons by Votto, and every one of those dWAR values that he’s posted has been in the negatives – including the year he actually won a gold glove in 2011.
It’s also notable because it comes on the heels of the worst defensive season of Votto’s career. In 2016, Votto finished the year with -2.4 dWAR, according to Baseball Reference. Not only was that the worst total for any first baseman in the league – it was, according to both BB-Ref and Fangraphs, one of the five worst defensive seasons for any player in the majors. And while Votto had always been a below replacement level first baseman in his career, he’d never finished with a figure worse than -1.0 dWAR. It was a number so poor that, in a season that saw Votto finish with the best OPS+ in the NL, he still finished with just 4.0 bWAR.
With 15 games left in 2017, his dWAR figure for the year sits right at 0.0. Fangraphs actually has Votto ranked as the third best defensive first baseman in baseball this season, while BB-Ref ranks him fourth. Defensive metrics can be fickle and tricky, but that’s still a really significant turnaround, one that’s rare to see in the span of just a year. There aren’t many players in the game that can claim to be a top-three player both offensively and defensively at their position, but this season, there’s evidence to support that Votto is doing just that.
There’s only so many fielding stats to dig into, but the ones available do paint a fine picture for the work Votto’s done. His fielding percentage of .998 is third best among all major league first basemen, while his UZR score has turned from -7.0 in 2016 to a clean 6.4 in 2017. His total zone runs also rank in the top five of all MLB first basemen.
This is all great and welcome news, but it’s also fantastically rewarding to observe as the season comes to a close. Votto talked before the season started with MLB.com’s Owen Perkins about how he worked his tail off in the offseason to improve his defense. The Enquirer’s C. Trent Rosecrans took notice of the improvements back in May, and Votto again stressed how seriously he took being not just a competent first baseman, but a good one.
Now it’s September, and it appears more evident than ever that Votto’s hard work has paid off. His work ethic has always been one of the first things those around him will talk about, and the fact that he’s given his game a full makeover in the field – at 34 years old, no less – is the latest manifestation of that work he puts in.
Just six months ago, Eno Sarris at Fangraphs understandably dubbed fielding “(t)he thing Joey Votto isn’t good at”. Now, it’s just another feather in his cap.