Joey Votto: The right choice for National League MVP
While Giancarlo Stanton made some noise with his bat in 2017, Votto quietly continued to be the most productive hitter in the league.
Joey Votto might just be the most under-appreciated name in baseball. It’s tough when you’re in your mid-30’s and playing alongside guys like Bryce Harper and Mike Trout but even stacked up against players like these, Votto consistently produces amazing numbers year in and year out. Unfortunately for him, a flash in the pan is more exciting than consistency, and the former wins MVP awards more often than not. This year though, even while pitted against someone like Giancarlo Stanton who had a nearly historical season, Votto is the most deserving of the label of “most valuable” in the National League.
Why Votto should win
If you want to talk about historic seasons, Votto is your guy. For starters, the first baseman finished the season with a .454 OBP. That was the highest in baseball and the highest in the National League by a huge margin. Justin Turner came in second at .415. There was a bigger gap between Votto and Turner at No. 1 and No. 2 than between Turner and Marcell Ozuna at No. 2 and No. 14.
That .454 OBP wasn’t a result of streaky play either. Votto reached base in 150 out of 162 games in 2017. No, that’s not a typo. He is one of four players in the history of the game to reach base in as many games in a single season. Wade Boggs holds the record with 152.
Looking even more closely at Votto’s ridiculous on-base percentage this year, you’ll see that this was only the third time since 2008 that a player had an OBP over .450. The other two instances include Bryce Harper’s .460 from his insane 2015 MVP campaign and Joey Votto’s .459 from that same year. When you extend the list all the way back to 2000, names like Barry Bonds, Jason Giambi, and Todd Helton pop up, all MVP caliber players in their own right.
Let’s talk a little more about Bonds though. In the past two decades, there have been five seasons in which a player has lead baseball in both walks and intentional walks. Four of those five seasons belong to Barry, including 1997, 2002, 2003, and 2004. The fifth such season? Joey Votto in 2017. He finished this year with 134 BB and 20 IBB. Not only is the guy good at working walks, but it is apparent that pitchers are even afraid to pitch to him.
And you would be too. Votto lead the National League in OPS+ (168), wRAA (62.9) and wRC+ (164), all while slashing .319/.454/.575. So, not only did he got on base, but he created runs, more so than anyone else in the league. Couple these numbers with a 1.225 OPS with runners in scoring position (over 300 points higher than Stanton’s .892) and Votto was an absolute nightmare to pitch to no matter the situation in 2017.
I had to save the best for last though. Guys who see a lot of pitches tend to walk more, but they also strikeout more, right? Well, not Joey Votto. With a 19.1 BB%, he walked more frequently than anyone else in the NL. Meanwhile, his 11.8 K% was the fourth lowest in the league. This gives Votto an absurd 1.61 BB/K ratio, which was so far and away better than anyone else in baseball it’s silly. Justin Turner was the next best at 1.05. No player has had a higher BB/K since 2009 when Albert Pujols and Dustin Pedroia put up 1.80 and 1.64 rates, respectively.
Thus, while Stanton’s home run total might stand out when compared to great seasons in recent memory, so do Votto’s numbers in so many more ways, leading the league in just about every offensive category that matters.
Why Votto won’t win
There are three major reasons Votto probably won’t win the award this season, despite his unparalleled performance. The first is that he plays for the lowly Cincinnati Reds, who finished 2017 dead last in the NL Central.
Of the past 20 MVP award winners, only four have played for non-playoff bound teams. Those four include Mike Trout (2016), Bryce Harper (2015), Albert Pujols (2008), and Ryan Howard (2006). Of those four players, none of them played for a team that finished last in their division. That means only 20% of MVP winners in recent history have played for non-playoff teams, and 0% have played for last place teams. To put it lightly, the odds aren’t exactly in Votto’s favor.
For the second reason Votto won’t win, look at the WAR leaderboards. Stanton lead the National League in both fWAR (7.0) and rWAR (7.6), but it was damn close. The Reds first baseman came in just behind him in both stats at 6.5 fWAR and 7.4 rWAR. In terms of fWAR, three other position players finished tied with or ahead of Votto, including Charlie Blackmon (6.5), Kris Bryant (6.8), and Anthony Rendon (6.9). In terms of rWAR though, which places less value on defensive performance, none of those guys finished within a full win of Votto.
The third reason Votto won’t win is the style of game he plays. There is a clear trend of teams and players valuing power hitting as opposed to the small ball approach. This is evidenced by the continually increasing home run totals and strikeout rates. As a result, it seems as though players who hit like Votto aren’t perceived as contributing as much to their team as a player like Stanton who hits 50-60 home runs a season.
In truth though, this is what should make Votto stand out all the more amongst his competition for the award. Home runs are a dime a dozen in the league today. I don’t mean to discount Stanton’s accomplishments this year, but when guys who never used to reach double-digit home run totals are now putting up 20 home run seasons, the players who already hit a lot of home runs just aren’t as valuable as they used to be. Still, guys like Votto who are on-base machines have become even more valuable than ever because, in order for home runs to hurt, you need to have guys on base to drive in.
And as we’ve examined, Votto can do all of these things, and at an elite level. He gets on base when he needs to, and he drives in runs when he needs to, and there’s not much that is more valuable to a team than a player who excels at both.