Joey Votto: An All-Time Great?


Mandatory Credit: Frank Victores-USA TODAY Sports

From the sweet, succulent skies in April, to the suffocating winds of September and October, we are bearing witness to greatness.

The same way that I gawked at the fact that my dad had watched Hank Aaron play, and how he marveled that my grandfather lived during Babe Ruth and befriended Stan Musial, we will one day tell our kids that we got to see the great Joey Votto play.

Temporocentrism is the belief that what is happening at the current moment in our own lives is the most important thing to ever occur.  While it is logical and virtuous to live in the present, the term is not an endearing one.  In the modern age of baseball, I believe we even sometimes underappreciate the legends of our sport, the American sport.  Are we so naïve to think that Albert Pujols and Miguel Cabrera are not already two of the greatest players to ever live?  The short list of all-time greatest first baseman includes Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Pujols and Cabrera.  Not mentioned on that list, Joey Votto.  Fortunately, for him, he has another decade of baseball to bolster his resume.

A noted devout follower of Ted Williams’ gospel of hitting, Votto is the closest any of us have ever witnessed to divinity in a hitter.  There is no question that other left-handed batters such as Tony Gwynn, George Brett and Wade Boggs, were immortals in their own right, but they pale in comparison to what Votto may be able to achieve by the time his career comes to a close.

In particular, a majority of this argument is predicated on the fact that what Joey Votto has managed to accomplish in his short career to this point is not yet Hall of Fame worthy.  Basing the statements on potential alone, the parallels may be clearly drawn.

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Since 1922, when baseballs begin to accurately depict those used today and not bowling balls, there are only five men with a higher career batting average on the road than Joey Votto.  In order, they are: Bill Terry (.352), Lou Gehrig (.351), Tony Gwynn (.334), Joe DiMaggio (.333), and Ted Williams (.328).  In case it needed to be reiterated, all of those men mentioned above are enshrined in Cooperstown, New York, at the National Baseball Hall of Fame. 

Atop that list was the legendary Bill Terry.  A largely unknown member of the Hall to throngs of baseball folks who don’t possess a deep knowledge of old time ball.  For nine consecutive seasons (1927-1935), Terry never once saw his average dip below the .320 mark at seasons end.  He even managed to bat over .400 in 1930 while a member of the New York Giants, achieving one of the most unattainable marks in sports.  Unfortunately, for Terry, there was no vote on the National League’s Most Valuable Player that year, or he would have had a heated race with Chicago Cub Hack Wilson for the honor. 

Never in Terry’s career did he win a MVP award, yet he finished his career with a lifetime batting average of .341.  Although his era never quantified walks in the proper light, he finished with a rather non-elite .393 on-base percentage for his career.  In comparison, Votto is currently at .314/.419.  Had Bill Terry been a member of a different organization that did not play exceptional baseball around the time of the Great Depression, he may not be a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame. 

Case in point, Don Mattingly.  Another sweet swinging icon that the local fan base endeared because he was theirs.  At his pinnacle, there was little doubt that Mattingly was on his way to becoming one of the best to ever play the game.  Had he been a member of the Yankees that took baseball by storm at the turn of the century, he would have had four World Series rings to his credit on top of what is already an impressive résumé.  

Mattingly only batted at a slash line of .307/.358/.471 for his career, yet those numbers are skewed by his sharp decline in production at the age of 29.  Through his four-year peak period (1984-1987), he batted .343, .324, .352 and .327 along with leading the league in doubles three straight years, driving in 487 runs and slugging 119 home runs.  He won the MVP in 1985 and won three straight Gold Glove awards.  In New York Yankee history, he will remain an icon.  To the rest of baseball, he will always be the guy who never got the ring.

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In fairness, it is nearly impossible to quantify the differences between eras and which Hall of Famer was better.  Would you rather have Rogers Hornsby or Joe Morgan?  Babe Ruth or Hank Aaron?  Willie Mays or Ken Griffey Jr.?  Lou Gehrig or Albert Pujols?  On one hand, players from the 1920s-1940s had the advantage of not facing Negro League players that were certainly just as skilled.  On the other, the modern day players have faced diluted talent due to the largess of baseball in our nation.  Teams have nearly doubled since the days of Ruth and Gehrig, not to mention, so have body sizes.  Ruth was only 6’2”, 210 pounds.  There are high school pitchers that don’t get Division I scholarships with that body type. 

Shall we compare Joey to his modern day counterparts?  That seems to be the most accurate and honest assessment of greatness.  You should be the class of your peers, the name that jumps off the page.  

Let us start with Todd Helton.  In the same sense as Mattingly, Helton was never on a winner.  He also only managed to finish in the top-5 in MVP voting once in his entire career, which is more of a byproduct of the steroid era than anything else, but he is lacking a single MVP trophy.  His 2000 season was the stuff of legend, as he produced inhuman numbers: .372/.463/.698 (led the league in all three categories), 216 hits (led the league), 59 doubles (led the league), 147 RBI (led the league) and 42 home runs.  Even with those numbers, just one singular vote for the MVP award was credited to him that season.

The next words out of every fans mouth when questioning Helton’s Hall of Fame status is thusly, Coors Field.  He had nearly the same number of at-bats away from the launching pad as he did at home, and as one would expect, his numbers are heavily slanted.  With 89 less home runs, 312 fewer RBI, an average that drops by 58 points and an OPS that plummets by 193 points, the argument is incredibly valid and open for interpretation.  Of course, Helton could not control the fact that he played in Colorado.  He, like Mattingly, Terry, Votto, became a folk hero in his new city as he wore one number, at one position over seventeen big league seasons.  Being one of the most recognizable faces in the game for over a decade may not be able to garner Helton enough votes for enshrinement, but his numbers are undisputable, regardless of his team’s ability to advance come the Postseason.

The other iconic left-handed hitter that garners attention as one of the game’s finest down at first base would be Jason Giambi.  As glaring as Todd Helton’s ballpark factor is for his Hall of Fame candidacy, what Giambi was pumping into his body comes under equal scrutiny.  There are no secrets when it comes to “The Great Giam-bino,” who attempted to wipe his slate clean by pleading guilty and washing his hands of his wrongdoing. 

Looking through Giambi’s statistics, one central theme is glaring: by “old school” standards, he comes up significantly short of the Hall.  Over what has been a 19-year career that is entering its 20th season, Giambi has compiled a large mass of numbers that when sifted through are less impressive than meets the eye. 

Just at the end of last season did he scratch the 2,000 hit mark.  His batting average is a less than awe-inspiring .278.  He “only” has clubbed 438 home runs for his career.  By past traditions, a .300 batting average, 3,000 hits and 500 home runs were a clear indicator of a Hall of Fame worthy candidate.  Realistically, none of those marks will be achieved, which is fascinating due to the fact that Giambi was one of the biggest names in the game (and paid liked it) for the duration of the 2000s. 

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So, how important to the point is it for Joey Votto to actually win championships?  In baseball, unlike the other three major sports, individual greatness is not cyclical to the talent level of a teammate.  Sure, if you would like to get technical, the number of RBI a player has is directly determined by a player’s ability to reach in front of him, but not as drastic as a quarterback needing his offensive line, or a point guard needing a spot-up jump shooter for him to get an assist. 

Ted Williams never won a World Series.  In fact, he “only” won two Most Valuable Player awards.  When we gloss over the greatest hitters of all-time though, Williams is not lower than second on the list of rational men. 

For his career, he had a .482 on-base percentage.  Joey’s peak year was in 2012 when he attained .474, but also missed the majority of the second half due to his knee injuries, allowing the number to stay stagnant.  Williams also missed three peak years of play due to military service, an unheard of notion in today’s day in age.  Upon his arrival back to baseball, he won the American League’s MVP trophy and won his team a pennant. 

Is it a stretch to compare Joey Votto to arguably the greatest hitter to ever tighten up a pair of cleats?  It may be, but at the same time, there are glaring similarities.

The keen batting eye.  Hitting is an art form, even if it is not something that can be bought and viewed in a museum.  Votto is as close as a disciple of Williams as one can possibly be without being his carbon copy.  This obsession with Votto’s lack of RBI and why it makes him an inefficient player is complete fallacy.  Elite, legendary hitters such as Votto and Williams do not extend their strike zones at the benefit of the pitcher.  If a pitch is a ball, it is a ball, and Votto does not offer at it–what a concept.  Just because he makes an obscene sum of money for his exemplary plate vision does not mean that he should be vilified; in fact, it should be the exact opposite.  The majority of players would rest on their laurels with the type of lifetime contract that Votto has, yet, he strives to improve every single facet of his game. (See: Alfonso Soriano, Barry Zito, Carlos Zambrano, and most importantly, Alex Rodriguez.)

“But, Ted Williams drove in over 1800 runs in his career; Votto will never get to that number.”  Let us realize that no one is Ted Williams.  It would be disrespectful to assume that any player could ever be as individually unique and selfless as the Splendid Splinter.  To help explain the discrepancy, you’ll have to follow my train of thought for a moment: Williams played at a time when it was prideful to attack the team’s best hitter.  Pitchers obviously did not jump at the opportunity, but it was not modern-day Barry Bonds treatment.  Additionally, pitchers wore down much more often, presenting more opportunities late in the game to get a fat pitch from an exhausted hurler.  Baseball today can best be exemplified by the St. Louis Cardinals and their flamethrowing bullpen, which makes it seem like a 95 MPH fastball is a requirement.  Votto gets a fresh batch of those pitchers every game, every series, every month. 

The intent of this article is not to persuade you that Joey Votto is a better hitter than Ted Williams, or whomever your favorite all-time great might be.  It has been a way to show you that Votto has his place among the immortals.  He will be a Cincinnati Red for every game of his Major League career, proving that he is indeed a rare breed.  An intelligent, thoughtful man, who just so happens to possess the greatest hitting eye in the last 60 years, is a Red and he is more than proud to call Cincinnati home.