Freddie Freeman has given baseball fans some memorable mic’d-up moments in the past few years, so here’s a request: Mic up Freeman every time Atlanta and Cincinnati meet.
We could all use more conversations between Freeman and Joey Votto.
“When you get to first and talk to him about hitting, for me it’s like talking with Chipper Jones,” Freeman told Sporting News last week. “Chipper will say, ‘Just toe-tap this and everything works.’ And I’m like, ‘Well, Chipper, not everyone is Chipper Jones.’ Not everyone is Joey Votto. How he views hitting and talks about hitting and thinks about hitting, it’s very hard to get on that level, because I feel like he’s mentally above everybody else in that situation and it’s hard to comprehend what he’s thinking.”
Votto’s career has been fascinating. He fits exactly zero traditional baseball molds.
He’s been called both an underrated star and an overrated star — sometimes during the same season! There’s nothing baseball people — fans included — love more than finding comps: Player X is like Player Y, or Player X has pieces of Player Y’s game mixed with the best parts of Player Z’s game.
But Votto? Good luck with that. He’s just Joseph Daniel Votto. He is his own person, and we’re lucky to be able to watch him compete in his own way.
“When you can be a feared hitter for 15 years, which is what he’s going on, that’s all you can ask for,” Freeman said. “You know the other team is game-planning around you. As a hitter, you know when you walk into that box, everything is about you, and that’s how it has been for Joey Votto his entire career. When other teams are just trying to get around you, you’re the best in the game.”
Votto turns 38 on Sept. 10 and is under contract for two more seasons, at $25 million per year with a $20 million club option for 2024 ($7 million buyout). After disappointing power totals in 2018-19 — an average of 14 homers and 57 RBIs in an average of 144 games those two seasons — Votto has experienced a bit of a power/career revival in 2021.
He might not be performing quite at Peak Votto levels, but he’s shown the lost power stroke was a dip and not the new normal, and he’s absolutely been a catalyst in Cincinnati’s push toward a potential playoff spot in 2021. For the season, Votto has a .924 OPS with 23 homers and 68 RBIs in 83 games. He has 318 career homers and is a handful of hits away from 2,000 in his career.
Is he Cooperstown bound? Let’s look.
The Cooperstown case
We’ll start where most every Hall of Fame conversation starts, with the JAWS leaderboards page on Baseball-Reference. The three primary numbers are WAR, then WAR7 (the best seven seasons, by WAR, for a player’s career, not necessarily consecutive) and JAWS (a rating created by Jay Jaffe that helps compare players over different decades). So, among players who were primarily first basemen, the average bWAR/WAR7/JAWS line is 66.9/42.7/54.8
Votto is at 62.5/46.9/54.7. That’s pretty close. He’s a tick below in one category, a tick above in another and dead on with the third. And remember, these are the average numbers for Hall of Fame first basemen, not the numbers for the “worst” Hall of Fame first baseman. Willie McCovey was a different type of hitter than Votto, but his final line is strikingly similar: 64.5/44.9/54.7. McCovey, who finished with 521 homers, was elected in his first year on the ballot, with 81.4 percent in 1986.
Votto, during his peak years, was an on-base machine. He’s led the NL in the category seven times, and that doesn’t include the year he finished second to Bryce Harper in the category (.460 to .459). In fact, here’s the entire list of first basemen (with at least 40 percent of career games at first) who have at least 300 homers and an on-base percentage of .415 or better:
Yep, only four first basemen in baseball history have hit those two benchmarks. That’s pretty damn good company.
Here’s another select club, using the same 40 percent qualification: First basemen who have reached the 3/4/5 plateau, meaning they have a career average of .300 or higher, a career on-base percentage of .400 or higher and a career slugging percentage of .500 or higher:
Yep. Only Helton, who’s currently on the BBWAA ballot, joins the group.
The Cooperstown hesitation
The advanced metrics love Votto. The more traditional counting stats, not so much. It makes for a complicated Cooperstown case. He’s never really been known as a truly elite slugger — that run of homers in seven consecutive games this summer notwithstanding — despite playing his entire career at a position typically associated with sluggers and run-producers. He won’t win many points among the more traditionalist voters.
Example No. 1: Votto has 1,034 RBIs in his career. Among players who played at least 40 percent of their career games at first base, that ranks just 62nd in MLB history. Not great. He’s behind guys like Mark Grace (1,146), Wally Joyner (1,106), Kent Hrbek (1,086) and Jeff Conine (1,077). Good players, definitely, but none lasted more than a year on the BBWAA ballot, and only Grace even came close to a second appearance.
Example No. 2: Votto has 318 home runs. He’s higher on this leaderboard, placing 37th. Still, that’s behind non-Cooperstown players such as the Fielders (Cecil and Prince had 319 each, which is a darn spooky stat), Mo Vaughn (328) and Tino Martinez (339).
Example No. 3: Votto will soon reach 2,000 career hits (he’s at 1,992), and lots of people seem to think that’s what moves him from probable to lock. I’m not sure that’s the case. Let’s look at the list of first basemen (again, with the 40 percent qualification) who have at least 300 homers, 1,000 RBIs and 1,900 hits:
You know what? We’re not giving you every name on that list, because it’s 27 names long.
And, sure, there are plenty of Hall of Famers on that list, but also Derrek Lee, Lee May and Tino Martinez. Votto’s at 318 homers, 1,992 hits and 1,034 RBIs, but Adrian Gonzalez finished with 317, 2,050 and 1,202. He played his final game in 2018, which means he’ll be on the ballot for the class of 2024. And he absolutely had a stellar career, but he’s not exactly being talked about in the same breath with fellow 2024 ballot newbies Adrian Beltre, Joe Mauer and Chase Utley.
Votto is way above Gonzalez in WAR and JAWS — 62.5 and 54.7 for Votto, to 43.5 and 39.1 for Gonzalez — and that’s a separator, but in trying to present a balanced look at Votto’s resume, the fact that he compares to Gonzalez in three pretty significant categories isn’t a point in his favor.
The two counting stats are going to give more than one voter pause.
Similar Hall of Famer
Told you, finding comps for Votto isn’t easy.
Gehrig, Foxx and Thomas are the only three Hall of Fame first baseman with a better on-base percentage than Votto, but they were more traditional home-run hitting sluggers. There are two first basemen in the Hall with similar home run and on-base numbers: Hank Greenberg (331, .408) and Johnny Mize (359, .397), but both players missed three-plus years to military service during World War II. That’s not the same thing, obviously.
McCovey, as we mentioned, has similar WAR/JAWS stats, but he wasn’t the same type of hitter at the plate. Dan Brouthers had a .415 career on-base percentage, but he played from 1879 to 1904, and that’s not a good comp, either.
So, basically, there is not a good Hall of Fame comp, which is pretty interesting by itself.
Similar non-Hall of Famer
Lance Berkman. The longtime Astro and short-time Yankee, Cardinal and Ranger split his career (though not evenly) between the outfield (964 career starts) and first base (726 career starts), so he’s different from Votto in that way. But at the plate, he was a very similar hitter. He could pop the ball over the fence regularly, but he knew how to take a walk and hit the ball where it was pitched. And his career, as you’ll see, matches basically where Votto is right now, though Votto isn’t done; Berkman played his final game at 37 years, 219 days old and Votto is currently 37 years, 335 days old.
Votto’s had nine seasons with an on-base percentage of .400 or better, Berkman had eight (plus another at .399). Both had eight seasons of an OPS+ of 140 or better (Votto’s at 132 this year, so he could get to nine). Berkman had 11 seasons of 20-plus homers, and Votto’s had nine. Both had six seasons finishing in the top seven of the MVP voting; Votto won one, while Berkman’s best finish was third (twice).
Let’s look at some of their numbers.
Pretty similar, right? Berkman received only five votes in his lone year on the BBWAA ballot, equal to 1.2 percent of the vote. Players need to receive at least 5 percent to stay on the ballot for another year. Berkman’s lone year was crowded, no doubt. Four players — first-timers Mariano Rivera and Roy Halladay, plus Mike Mussina and Edgar Martinez — received the necessary 75 percent, and six other players received at least 39.8 percent. That’s 10 guys at 39.8 percent (Fred McGriff, in his final year of eligibility) or higher, and voters are only allowed to vote for 10 players. So it’s pretty incredible that 10 other players slotted in somewhere between Berkman and McGriff. That, folks, is a crowded ballot.
Now, if voters were free from restrictions and allowed to vote for the players they thought were Cooperstown-worthy and not just some combination of 10, would Berkman have stuck around at least another year? Yeah, it seems likely that 16 voters would have deemed the switch-hitter worthy if they weren’t limited to 10 votes.
If Votto had played at some point before the 1980s, I’m not sure Cooperstown would have been in his future. There weren’t statistics to properly appreciate his skill sets, and counting numbers were what mattered. Look at Gil Hodges and his 370 homers outside the Hall.
But it’s a different era, and he’s looked at as a future Hall of Famer in the game.
“I think so,” Freeman said. “He’s a 3/4/5 guy, and that’s extremely hard to do. Most guys can’t even wrap their minds around it, especially in today’s game, when you’re facing three different pitchers a game. He’s got a couple more years, obviously, but the body of work is impressive.”
So, yes. Votto will get in. It might not be on the first ballot — maybe by the time he’s eligible, the 10-vote rule will be a thing of the past — but eventually, he’ll join Larry Walker and Ferguson Jenkins as natives of Canada in Cooperstown.
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