To thundering chants of “MVP! MVP! MVP!” no one in the MLB does more with less.
When Joey Votto steps to the plate, taking his customary glance into a distant empty seat before settling into the left-hand batter’s box, one truth seems inevitable to the fans of Cincinnati –something great is about to happen. To a city that hasn’t witnessed a playoff victory since 1995, he brings more than a monstrous bat and poise to the plate. He brings hope. He brings with him a notion that never before resounded within the walls of Great American Ballpark; we may be witnessing the greatest hitter in baseball.
Votto’s 2012 campaign, so far, has transformed that once seemingly impossible notion into something, oh, so possible. Sixty-five games into the season, no one is hotter, and the numbers Votto is creating are simply incredible. In his past 22 games, he’s hitting .500, reaching base safely in all of them but one. He’s on pace for 70 doubles this season; the all-time record is 67, held by Earl Webb since 1931. No one has even hit 60 doubles since 1936. Votto is also on pace to amass 200 hits and 130 walks. Most people have heard of the last, and only, player to ever do that. It was some guy named Babe Ruth. Needless to say, Votto is potentially facing a season of not just greatness, but historic proportions.
Obviously, Votto’s incredible season doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Other players across the league are having great hitting seasons, thus far. Here’s how Votto compares to some of baseball’s most prolific hitters of 2012 (through June 17, 2012):
WAR (wins above replacement)
Clearly, Votto isn’t currently vying for the Triple Crown or running away from his competition in every category. But, a closer look reveals that Votto ultimately is the most valuable hitter of this elite group. For one, his lower power numbers are deceiving. While he isn’t mashing home-runs at a record pace, combining doubles and home-runs into total bases evens the power-playing field (Votto: 104, Hamilton: 116, Braun: 98, Beltran: 90, Wright: 76). And his low RBI total can’t be blamed on Joey Votto –that falls on the shoulders of those hitting around him.
The most common hitters batting in front of Joey Votto are Zach Cozart and Drew Stubbs. They aren’t exactly giving him ample opportunity to drive them in. Zach Cozart is hitting .264, with an on-base percentage of just .308. He’s also struck out 55 times. Drew Stubbs’ numbers are very similar, if not worse. He’s hitting .235 with a .300 OBP and 59 strikeouts. And to make matters worse, Votto’s protection in the cleanup spot hasn’t done much to strike fear in the pitchers issuing walks to number nineteen. Brandon Phillips, the most common cleanup hitter, is having a pretty good season. He’s hitting .287, getting on base over 33% of the time, and has recently gone on a home-run tear. But he’s also grounded into ten double plays this season. There’s a reason that Joey Votto leads the league in intentional walks. Pitchers aren’t too intimidated by Brandon Phillips.
Compare that supporting cast with the lineups that surround most of the other hitters on the list, and you’ll see why Votto means more to his team than any hitter in baseball.
Hitting in front of Josh Hamilton:
- Ian Kinsler: .274 BA/.338 OBP/33 SO
- Elvis Andrus: .298 BA/.375 OBP/33 SO
Hitting behind Josh Hamilton:
- Adrian Beltre: .309 BA/.336 OBP/11 HR/5 GIDP (Grounded into Double Plays)
Hitting in front of Carlos Beltran:
- Rafael Furcal: .287 BA/.339 OBP/33 SO
Hitting behind Carlos Beltran:
- Matt Holliday: .282 BA/.305 OBP/12 HR/7 GIDP
Hitting in front of David Wright:
- Kirk Nieuwenhuis: .290 BA/.350 OBP/60 SO
- Daniel Murphy: .273 BA/.318 OBP/34 SO
Hitting behind David Wright:
- Lucas Duda: .262 BA/.352 OBP/10 HR/3 GIDP
*Stats in italics are the few in which Reds’ hitters have better stats.
That’s right. David Wright is getting better support from the unknown trio of Nieuwenhuis, Murphy, and Duda than Votto is from his friends leading off and cleaning up. In nearly every category, all of these hitters out-perform those batting before and after Votto at the top of the Reds lineup. So, yes, Votto trails in RBI. But 19% of all base-runners that have been on in front of him this season have scored on his at-bats. That’s bested, in this group, only by Josh Hamilton.
If anyone can empathize with Joey Votto’s lack of surrounding support, it’s his fellow NL Central MVP candidate Ryan Braun. His most common leadoff hitter, Rickie Weeks, is hitting a lowly .177 and has struck out 77 times in twelve less games. At cleanup, Aramis Ramirez is only batting .252, has only hit 7 home-runs, and has grounded into eight double plays. If anything, Braun’s supporting cast (which also includes the irrationally flamboyant Nyjer Morgan in the two-hole) may be worse than Votto’s.
So why is Votto more valuable than the reigning MVP? One needs to only look at the standings. Braun’s team is far from first place, despite a rotation that includes Zach Greinke, Yovani Gallardo, Shawn Marcum, and Randy Wolf. Even though they lost Fielder in the off-season, expectations were high in Milwaukee. The reality is much lower.
That can’t be said in Cincinnati. Votto, alongside one of the league’s best bullpens, is carrying his team to a smashing of most analysts’ pre-season predictions. Their rotation of Johnny Cueto, Bronson Arroyo, Homer Bailey, Mike Leake, and Mat Latos doesn’t look near as prolific as the Brewers’ staff, but it is the Reds that sit atop the standings and well above .500. The season is young, but in the River City of Cincinnati, it is also promising.
Much of that promise –a foreign scent in the air of Cincinnati these days—arrived with the bat and consistent greatness of Joey Votto. If Cincy is to be restored to its old status as a baseball city, it will come alongside the beautiful swing of their favorite Canadian left-hander. Not only can I not imagine a hitter in today’s game more important to his team’s success…I can’t imagine a player more important to his fans. A trip to Great American Ballpark reveals why.
The stadium is littered with the number nineteen –on the backs of children, adults, and their newest hero. When “Paint it Black” by the Rolling Stones sounds over the system and Votto steps to the plate, first glancing upward, then zeroing in on the pitcher, the crowd erupts. He’s their guy. And there is no other quite like Joey Votto. Often, the bases are empty when Votto takes his place in the batter’s box. And sometimes, the fans can only look on in silence as the catcher stands up to issue the intentional walk. But none of that matters.
Because something comes alive in Cincinnati when Votto shakes off the donut and takes his wood to the plate. It’s more than his incredible stats and his quest for history. It’s a feeling –a feeling that hasn’t touched the hearts of Cincinnati in over a decade.
It’s the feeling that, by God, with this Canadian kid at the plate, they have a shot. They have a shot at greatness. And with the recent contract extension given to Joey Votto through the foreseeable future, it’s a feeling that promises to last for many more nights in Cincinnati’s riverside stadium.
Over the years, many definitions have surfaced for “value” in the prognostication of the Most Valuable Player Award. But this year, much like the base paths that fall beneath his feet, Joey Votto seems to have all of them covered.
*Author’s note: As I wrote this article, Votto hit his 13th home-run of the year.