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How Good is Joey Votto?

The Reds’ 200 million dollar man seems to get better every time we turn around, and the first 66 games of 2012 are no exception.  Not only is Joey Votto off to the best start of his career, but his monthly splits are trending upward.

June 17, 2012; Flushing, NY,USA; Cincinnati Reds first baseman Joey Votto (19) singles to right during the seventh inning against the New York Mets at Citi Field. (Anthony Gruppuso-US PRESSWIRE)

Yesterday, this got me to thinking (as did the blurb at the beginning of this Jayson Stark piece), how good is Joey Votto?  He’s the best player on the team.  He’s an MVP candidate.  Is he better than Josh Hamilton, Miguel Cabrera, Matt Kemp?

That, of course, depends on many things.  Are we looking beyond 2012, are we focusing solely on hitting, etc etc.

Right now it’s becoming harder and harder to argue, at this point in time, that Joey Votto isn’t the best hitter on the planet.

I started with 2012.  Votto leads baseball in batting average, on base percentage (OBP), on base plus slugging (OPS), weighted on base average (wOBA), and weighted runs created plus (wRC+).  The last couple probably started sounding a little goofy, and if you really want to know the nitty gritty details that go into calculating these stats, I’ll let you look them up.  But essentially, when it comes to evaluating a player’s offensive value with a single number, you may consider wOBA and wRC+ two of the more sophisticated stats that do a pretty decent job of taking everything into account.

What is most notable about these leaderboards is the distance Votto has created between himself and his closest competitor.  In order to get a feel for this, think of wOBA as being on the same scale as OBP.  A number greater than .350 is pretty good.  As of Sunday, 57 players had a wOBP greater than .350.

Greater than .400 is outstanding (13 players).  Votto now sits at .470.  Josh Hamilton and Carlos Gonzalez are tied for second at .439.

Of course, roughly 40% of the season has passed, and putting up these kinds of numbers over 65 games is much different than doing so for an entire season.

Still, it’s pretty fun to look at.

wRC+ takes things a step further.  This number not only rolls the player’s offensive value into one number, but it also compares his output to the rest of the league.  From Fangraphs:

League average is 100, and every point above 100 is a percentage point above league average. For example, a 125 wRC+ means a player created 25% more runs than league average. Similarly, every point below 100 is a percentage point below league average, so a 80 wRC+ means a player created 20% fewer runs than league average. 


What’s great about wRC+ is that it’s also park and league adjusted.  So essentially, you can compare players across teams, years, eras, etc.

What I really wanted to do was find out how Joey Votto’s 2012 season compares to other great seasons in recent history.  Obviously, again, we have to keep in mind that 2012 is just a partial season, but it still represents a significant chunk of time during which Votto has performed exceptionally.

Using Fangraphs, I searched every player-season over the past 20 years – not completely arbitrary as baseball experienced its first round of modern expansion that year - and ranked them by wRC+.  Results are below (this was written Monday, before Fangraphs’ database was updated, though the table was pulled on Tuesday, which includes Votto’s 2-for-4 performance last night… his wRC+ jumped from 200 to 204):

2002 Barry Bonds Giants 143 612 149 46 117 110 9 0.370 0.582 0.799 0.546 245
2001 Barry Bonds Giants 153 664 156 73 129 137 13 0.328 0.515 0.863 0.539 236
2004 Barry Bonds Giants 147 617 135 45 129 101 6 0.362 0.609 0.812 0.538 234
2003 Barry Bonds Giants 130 550 133 45 111 90 7 0.341 0.529 0.749 0.506 214
1994 Jeff Bagwell Astros 110 479 147 39 104 116 15 0.368 0.451 0.750 0.491 207
1998 Mark McGwire Cardinals 155 681 152 70 130 147 1 0.299 0.470 0.752 0.493 205
1994 Frank Thomas White Sox 113 517 141 38 106 101 2 0.353 0.487 0.729 0.497 204
2012 Joey Votto Reds 66 287 84 13 45 45 4 0.368 0.491 0.667 0.476 204
1993 Barry Bonds Giants 159 674 181 46 129 123 29 0.336 0.458 0.677 0.469 193
2001 Jason Giambi Athletics 154 671 178 38 109 120 2 0.342 0.477 0.660 0.466 193
1996 Mark McGwire Athletics 130 548 132 52 104 113 0 0.312 0.467 0.730 0.488 191
2002 Jim Thome Indians 147 613 146 52 101 118 1 0.304 0.445 0.677 0.459 188
1994 Albert Belle Indians 106 480 147 36 90 101 9 0.357 0.438 0.714 0.474 186
2001 Sammy Sosa Cubs 160 711 189 64 146 160 0 0.328 0.437 0.737 0.463 185
2003 Albert Pujols Cardinals 157 685 212 43 137 124 5 0.359 0.439 0.667 0.462 185
2002 Manny Ramirez Red Sox 120 518 152 33 84 107 0 0.349 0.450 0.647 0.459 185

Obviously, 2001-2004 Barry Bonds was unlike any other player of his generation, and perhaps all of baseball history.  Of course, performance enhancing drugs may have had something to do with that, but I will not be addressing that specifically here.  The numbers are there, and they are remarkable (seriously, take a few minutes to look those over).

Next on the list is Jeff Bagwell’s 1994 season.  As well all know, 1994 was the year of the strike, and several players, including Bagwell (and the player who’s number seven on this list), were having historical years.  I won’t go into it all here, but several major records were being threatened.  As you can see, Bagwell’s numbers would be outstanding even if he’d produced them over the course of 162 games, and not 110.

Mark McGwire is another sticky situation, as many consider his historic 1998 to be tarnished by PEDs as well.  Nevertheless, it is there, in the record books.

And then, we get to Joey Votto.  In the past 20 years, only 7 times has a player produced a year better than the one Votto is on pace to have.  Four of them came from the player who is most associated with the PED mess, and whose reputation has likely been damaged beyond repair.  Another from a man in a similar situation.  And two more from would-be Hall of Famers who put up outstanding numbers in a potentially historic, albeit incomplete, season.

I’m not necessarily trying to discount what these other players have done, but the point is there nonetheless.  What Joey Votto is doing this season doesn’t come around all that often.  At times, he seems like a machine.  Routinely hitting doubles to the gap in two-strike counts, getting on base two or three times a game, coming through in big moments.  Sometimes it’s hard to know exactly what you’re witnessing, until you take a step back to examine it.  It’s telling to note that of the top 24 wRC+ seasons since 1993, only three have occurred since Bonds’ final epic season in 2004 (Albert Pujols has the other two – 184 in ‘08 and 182 in ‘09).  Since the steroid era, no one has dominated an entire season the way Votto has thus far in 2012.

I’d say the 12 year contract is off to a pretty good start.

Follow Aaron on Twitter @aaronjlehr.

Topics: Baseball, Cincinnati Reds, Joey Votto, MLB

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