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  • Writer's picturemjdietz17

Many People Refer to Joey Votto as a 'Future' Hall of Famer. He’s Not.

Originally published prior to the 2019 MLB season

Don't hire a speech writer just yet, Joey.

Following a fantastic three-year stretch from 2015-2017 when Joey Votto hit .320/.449/.557, it became rather commonplace for him to be referred to in baseball circles as “a future Hall of Famer.” His career .427 on base percentage ranks 12th all-time and in an era where strikeouts have continued to rise, Votto’s ability to make contact consistently has set him apart from many of his contemporaries. Unfortunately, his overall case for election is incredibly weak. He lacks the traditional production normally associated with an “offensive” position and his teams have had relatively little postseason success. If you measure Votto up against recent 1B who have failed to receive the necessary votes for enshrinement, he falls short in almost every statistical category. Realistically, Votto would need another three seasons of good-to-great production to have a shot at earning a plaque in Cooperstown.

Before we get too far into this, let's get one thing on the table. Votto is awesome. He is essentially a baseball god when it comes to getting on base and avoiding strikeouts and infield fly balls (which, statistically, are the least likely to help your team on offense). The facts I'm going to lay out in no way reflect how I feel about Joey Votto and his abilities as a baseball player, but more so about how the Hall of Fame evaluates one's career: opting to reward milestones, longevity and excellence across the board rather than a player who demonstrated a singular, outstanding ability. As we get farther along into the era of analytics and WAR, maybe wisdom among the voting constituency shifts to appreciate things like OBP and contact rate more than they currently are and the emphasis on HR and RBI subsides.

But as things stand today, that change in how the voters evaluate players is merely speculation.

Votto’s entire HoF case is currently built on his on base percentage. Short of another MVP campaign or a surprise World Series win or two, his elect-ability will be directly linked to his one shining metric. Even with OBP getting more respect across baseball due to the shift towards analytics in front offices, it's still not a stat that the BBWOA fawn over when filling out their ballots. Yet, no one in the modern game has shown the ability to consistently get on base like Votto – nobody. He has led the league in walks five separate times and on base percentage seven (including the last three). He refuses to swing at pitches out of the zone with two strikes and it’s helped him make six All-Star teams and carry a career .311 batting average. Furthering his cause, Votto has won an NL MVP (2010) and helped the Reds to the playoffs on three separate occasions (2010. 2012 and 2013). He’s had three seasons where he’s posted 7.0+ bWAR and his career average (not including 2007 where he only played 24 games) is a stout 4.9 per season. Essentially, he’s been an All Star player for most of his career. Defensively, Votto has never been stellar but he did win the Gold Glove in 2011 and he’s certainly never been a liability in the field like some of his contemporaries.

Except all that adds up to is a plaque in the Hall of Really, Really Good.

There are two “future Hall of Fame” first baseman currently playing in MLB in Albert Pujols and Miguel Cabrera, and comparing Votto to either one of them is completely unfair. Pujols will go down as the very best at the position all-time (he’ll be the only 1B ever to eclipse 600 doubles, 600 homers and 2,000 RBI and only the second ever with 100+ WAR). Cabrera has a chance to go down as a Top-3 guy, behind Pujols and Lou Gehrig. And even if he doesn’t; his multiple MVPs, World Series wins and batting titles put him well ahead of Votto in terms of overall accomplishments. And Cabrera may still have a few good years left as a DH in the American League.

But you don't have to be the best ever to make the Hall, just one of the best. Votto's on base and batting average certainly points to him being worthy eventually, but it's not enough. The problem with having a HoF case like Votto’s based around rate stats (especially when your career isn’t over yet) is they tend to go down as a player ages, counting stats can only go up. This means it’s incredibly unlikely Votto finishes his career with his two best selling points where they are today and being well behind every modern HoF first baseman in those pesky traditional stats (H, HR, RBI, etc) will hurt him.

I think the most comparable player to Votto in the modern era is probably Todd Helton. Statistically, they’re incredibly similar (although Helton had much more power in his early career). Both will (most likely) spend their entire career with the same team and both have a stigma associated to their offensive numbers due to their home ballpark. Now, Helton received 16.5% of the HoF vote this last winter in his first year on the ballot; but he's got some things working against him, namely the PED users clogging the ballot. The "Coors Effect" will definitely hurt him (as it did with Larry Walker) but he’s easily the best player in Rockies history, so it seems there is a path for Helton to get in. If Helton has that path to enshrinement, certainly Votto must as well?

Take a look:

Pretty close, right?

The rate stats are nearly dead even with Helton having a nice edge in counting stats, particularly RBI. But Votto shows up well and I think you could say he’s “in the ballpark” (bad baseball pun, sorry) with the next modern 1B who should get elected. I do believe being the "best" Rockie of All-Time will eventually float Helton above the necessary 75% but it will take another five-plus years and some players need to come off the ballot. Votto isn’t even close to the best Red of all time with players like Johnny Bench, Pete Rose (regardless of what you think of his gambling) and Joe Morgan ahead of him, but if Helton gets in, that’s great news for Votto-ites, right?

Not so fast.

Remember earlier when I said Votto would need at least another three good seasons to get into the HoF conversation? Well, the stats posted above are Votto’s current numbers with another three seasons of his career 162 game averages added to H, 2B, HR, RBI and BB. This is what I mean when I say Votto needs several more good-to-great seasons before he can even make a strong HoF case. And unfortunately for him, the list of MLBers who performed at or above their career averages after their age 35 seasons is solely made up of names implicated in the PED/steroid era. Assuming Votto can produce at his career avg for the next three years is incredibly generous. Looking at the actual numbers where they stand today illustrates the gap between he and Helton in the counting numbers, even though their rate stats are comparable:

I don’t think it can be overlooked that a player like Helton – who is essentially Joey Votto plus another three All-Star level seasons – failed to get 20% of the vote in his first year on the ballot when talking about whether or not Votto should be labeled a “future Hall of Famer.”

At Votto’s current age, Pujols had over 500 HR to go along with a laundry list of accolades. Cabrera had four batting titles and two MVPs. Even Helton had 500+ doubles and 1200 RBI and, again, he’s borderline based on his first year vote totals. Some might point to Votto’s MVP as a distinguishing factor between his and Helton's candidacies, but keep in mind Helton won three Gold Gloves to Votto’s one, four Silver Sluggers to Votto’s none and led the NL in triple crown categories twice (both in 2000) when Votto has never done so. And even if you still have Votto ahead of Helton based on that slight edge in OBP, the gulf in counting stats is enormous.

And that’s just the gap to Helton who might not even get in. What about the guys who’ve actually reached the 75% threshold recently?

There are some pretty clear offensive benchmarks among this group, sans Votto, which is made up of the three most recent 1B inductions and the two current “locks.” Those round numbers the Hall voters love to see: 2250 hits, 450 doubles, 450 HRs and 1500 RBI... Every, single guy ticks those boxes and some blow them completely away (cough, cough Pujols).

Going back to Helton, you see he only eclipses those targets in hits and doubles; which might be part of the reason he failed to find his name on even a quarter of ballots in his first go-around last year. Especially with voters factoring in he played most of his career in a great offensive park.

Realistically, Votto only has a shot at reaching the doubles mark – he falls well short in the others, even though his batting average and OBP measure up against the rest of the pack nicely. And while I realize it’s unfair to ding Votto for his counting stats when his career isn’t yet over, it’s also unreasonable to expect his rate stats to remain elite after his age-35 season or expect him to suddenly log 4 straight 200 hit/50 HR campaigns. The real crux of Votto's Hall of Fame candidacy is that he needs to improve his counting stats at a freakish pace while maintaining elite (and I'm talking better than we've ever seen) rate stats. This kind of late career surge seems unlikely, if not impossible, based on how much ground he needs to make up in the triple crown numbers just to even up with a guy like Helton or Jeff Bagwell.

But couldn't Votto be that outlier HoF guy who bucks conventional wisdom and gets in with a unique profile? There's a chance, though very small. The Hall is loath to accept members with numerous low totals in the traditional stats since it would open the door for other players falling short of the perceived criteria for election. If Votto were simply short in one category, maybe two, you could make a case. But he likely won't have a singular counting stat benchmark to build his resume around. And again, that's only if he can keep his BA and OBP where it is today.

What will Votto’s career line look like when it’s over? I actually think I’ve got a pretty good idea and what I’ve done is taken Helton’s 162 game average from age 36 on and tacked them onto Votto’s current career totals. Votto could play past age 39, but I think it’s unlikely he plays more than 648 games (4 x 162). If he were to play five more years, that would be roughly 130 games per season. If it were six, it would be 108. Eventually, the age is going to catch up and limit his availability. I feel like Helton and Votto are so similar through age 35, that it stands to reason their 36+ seasons will end up looking similar as well.

The longer Votto plays in order to rack up counting stats might not benefit his HoF worthiness as much as one would assume. Through age 35, Helton carried an slightly more impressive slash to Votto current line: .328/.427/.567 – so expecting Votto to age as gracefully as Helton might even be a bit generous. But there’s really no good way to project regression due to aging – one thing can cause a much faster decline in some players when others can hang on as their skills deteriorate gradually. With 648 more games at the 162-game averages Helton posted, Votto’s final career numbers would look something like this:

Obviously this is more projection than prediction, but the key thing to focus on here is the precipitous OBP drop. Helton averaged a healthy, but not stellar .353 OBP over his final four seasons (and he failed to reach 450 at bats in any of them due to injury/rest), yet his career OBP dropped more than 13 points. Votto, who has 931 fewer at bats than Helton at the same point in his career, has less protection against a late career dip in OBP (and to a lesser extent, batting average). So using Helton's full 162-game averages in an effort to get Votto’s counting stats closer to those perceived targets negatively impacts Votto's BA and OBP more drastically than it did Helton who had better 2B/HR/RBI production in his early career.

Clearly, Votto is caught in a bit of a HoF quandary – he needs as many plate appearances as possible in the twilight of his career to hopefully reach (or get as close as possible) to the milestones the BBWOA loves to see when they cast their votes, but in so doing may actually see a drop in the rate stats that are currently propping up his potential candidacy.

Joey Votto has been a great player so far in his career and that’s nothing to be ashamed of. But has he been one of the greatest first baseman of all-time? No, especially not in the modern era. He's been unconventional and great at things we don't normally associate with slugging first baseman, but he falls well short of truly elite offensive production for the position over a full career. He’s certainly been one of the best in MLB history at not striking out and drawing walks, but one has to wonder if he could have expanded his strike zone a bit earlier in his career and found himself with a few more MVP-caliber seasons. It’s beyond the pale to talk about Votto like he’s a “lock” to make the Hall of Fame, that kind of thing is reserved for the very best that have ever played the sport. Does he have an outside chance? Sure. Everyone theoretically has a chance until they hang it up but he’s got a lot of work to do before it should even be talked about and history is definitely not on his side.

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