He's not a flashy player.
It's clear when he takes the field. A wry smile, which may slightly border arrogance, is across his face as he trots out to first base. He's either in the home whites if he's in Cincinnati, or road grays. There's a loose vibe to him, the vibe where we know he's talented, and he knows we know. Hell, he knows how talented he is. He doesn't seek our validation.
He also knows he need not take this game too seriously. You see it when gives a little entertainment the fans seated along the first base foul line, or when he fully embraces his Canadian heritage on live television. If he knows how good he is, he also knows one other thing: this game is fun. So, he has fun.
Especially when he flexes into his swing and sends a moonshot into the night sky. Do the stars look different in Cincinnati than from, let's say, Pittsburgh? When he flashes the leather and makes a diving stop, does the dirt taste different at Great American Ball Park from Miller Park in Milwaukee?
This is the curious case of Joseph Daniel Votto, an exceptional talent who has quietly flown under the radar. Perhaps it's because he dedicated his entire 11-year career to the Reds instead of the bright lights of Los Angeles, New York, or Boston. Or maybe it's because his numbers, like him, aren't flashy. Not in the traditional sense, not in an era where "chicks dig the long ball." But like him, his numbers are consistent and unique. Consistent and unique in such a way they warrant a whispered "wow" under your breath if you ever take the time to look at the backside of his baseball card.
Hall worthy numbers?
Votto is the model of consistency across the board. He's a gamer, 100 percent. He's failed to play 150 games in a year only three times. Twice, in 2017 and 2013, he played the full 162 game schedule. 2011 saw him play 161 games. In 2015 and 2016 he took the field 158 times. In an era where it seems as if players are getting bigger, stronger, and yet more fragile, Votto has weathered the grind that is a full baseball season with durability and determination. He's getting paid to go out onto the field and perform, and that's exactly what he'll do.
Six out of his 11 years have seen him finish in the top-10 for MVP voting, culminating in his single award in 2010 when he hit .324 with 37 home runs and 113 RBI. 2017 saw him finish in second with an almost identical stat-line: a .320 batting average, with 36 home runs and 100 RBI, falling second to Giancarlo Stanton and his 59 home runs and 132 RBI.
But his most astonishing stats are the more under appreciated ones. Sure, his .313 career batting average is the result from the nine years of him hitting over the .300 mark, but the rise of sabermetrics has turned the attention towards the lesser-known statistics. His .963 career on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS, which measures a player's ability to get on base and also slug for power) is second highest among active players and 15th all time. That's better than current Hall of Famers Jim Thome and Jeff Bagwell, to name a few. It's also better than future Cooperstown enshrinees Albert Pujols and Miguel Cabrera.
How is this possible? Votto is one of the few players who can walk more times than he strikes out. Let's not forget Aaron Judge, who was crowned unanimously as American League Rookie of the Year, struck out over 200 times in 2017. Votto struck out a measly 83 times compared to drawing 134 walks. It was the third time in his career where he walked more times than striking out. It was also the fifth season he walked over 100 times and was the eighth season his on-base percentage was over .400
A legacy worth immortalizing
Votto stands as an anomaly in modern baseball. His style of play, reminiscent of the dependability and consistency of the days of DiMaggio, Musial, or Brock. And yet he stands amongst the Ruthian juggernauts of today, where, as Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine so eloquently put, “chicks dig the long ball.”
All the while playing on a terrible team.
His standing as one of the elite hitters in all of MLB becomes all the more eye-opening when one examines the teams he's played for. For the second consecutive season, the 2017 Reds finished with 94 losses. It was the third straight season of 90+ losses after having lost 98 games in 2015. His continuous success and perennial consideration for the league's most prestigious award comes to him even when he has a giant target painted on his back.
So it begs the question: where would his career be if the Reds hadn't been bottom dwellers for the last five years? Could he have an extra MVP award or two in his trophy room? How much better would his personal stats be if he was playing in, say, Yankee Stadium or Fenway Park? What if he was an Astro or Dodger, surrounded by talent? A man doesn't make a team as even Ted Williams was powerless to end the World Series drought that plagued his Boston Red Sox career.
And frankly, Votto's propensity to getting on base and not making outs is the modern-day equivalent of Ted Williams. Plus, the pitching is a lot better.
What Votto has done nothing short of extraordinary. He has shaped baseball with his own personal style of play, one that values a high on-base percentage precision bat control at the plate. He refuses to swing at the pitcher's pitch and turns the tables into his favor. His keen perception of the strike zone is elite. Votto, in an era where making outs is easy, is hard to get out.
Is that enough for him to enter Cooperstown? He won't have 3,000 hits. Nor will he have 500 home runs. He might not even have a single World Series ring and could never win an MVP again. But what he will have is a legacy, a legacy of being a renaissance man who could do it all when such well-rounded skill sets are reserved for the likes of Mike Trout and Bryce Harper.
His achievements are spectacular in their understatements. They are spectacular as he is even if his supporting cast has played to the standards of the Major League equivalent of the Bad News Bears. He is admirable in the way he puts his head down and plays the game, sometimes with the intensity of a slumbering volcano suddenly awakened, but most of the time with the attitude that says: “this isn’t about me. It’s about the experience.” Not quite in the Aaron Judge level of humility, and yet not as arrogant as Jose Bautista, or even the days of Manny Ramirez.
For 11 years, Joey Votto has firmly planted himself in the top percentile of players across the entire league. But he doesn’t care about the validation. Joey Votto answers only to himself. The only expectations important to him are the ones he places on himself and the ones he places on his team. And the Cincinnati Reds are undoubtedly his team until the day he decides to either see the immortal Fall Classic glory somewhere else or when the leather of his cleats are worn and the spikes are shaved to the nub and it's time to hang them up.
It's a career worth celebrating. A career worth immortalizing.
And here’s food for thought: By the end of his career, Votto would have 2,000 hits, 300 home runs, 1,000 RBI, and 1,000 walks. The Hall of Fame sure enjoys the even, well-rounded number.
Talk about being consistent.