Joey Votto is Not Context Neutral

He’s simply the 2017 NL MVP

Richard Fitch

Once again, we ponder that most timeless of philosophical postseason baseball questions, the one that hangs in the air like an ill-conceived slider thrown in the ninth at its most inauspicious moment:

“If an MVP season occurs on the banks of the Ohio River and enough Baseball Writers’ Association of America voters refuse to acknowledge it, did it make a sound?”

Trumpeted across the interwebs and maybe even the New York Times, came the stunning news:

“The Great Analytics War ended at 48 minutes after midnight on November 3, 2016. The terms were unconditional surrender…. The victors were Theo Epstein, the analytics movement, and the game of baseball.”

Verily, a great battle was surely won. But, the war? I’m not so sure. I’ll await the announcement of the 2017 NL MVP Award before I begin warming up my vocal cords and launching into a Saint Crispian’s Day speech in celebration of the victors of that bloody battle on Sabermetric Hill.

The prejudice against players who do not vie for postseason contenders — however bereft of common sense — thrives with certain members of the voting media. For a dwindling few band of brothers, the award, clearly an individual prize, remains on a shelf reachable only by those playing for meaningful treasure in October with teammates capable of helping them get there.

One prominent east coast writer, upon being showered with the gobsmacking numbers surrounding Joseph Daniel Votto’s furious second half of the 2016 season, pronounced them achievements made during “garbage time” — surely a reference to the Cincinnati Reds 2016 season of rebuilding discontent.

Lacking the pressure that goes with great stakes — so the argument goes — players on losing teams log fake numbers at discount prices.

Is it more difficult to perform under pressure? Perhaps. Although, you’d think that players who have reached the pinnacle of their profession, and are among the rarest of athletes, have long ago solved the problem of pressure. What is pressure anyway? Who’s to deny that Jake Arrieta — surrounded on all sides by great talent — feels less pressure than the lone star on a losing team, the full weight of nine innings laid upon his singular shoulders?

One of the best rebuttals comes from the great Joe Posnanski:

“Think about it: What pressure is there on players in pennant races? The pressure to win? Sure. But players come to the ballpark energized. Everyone on the team is into it. The crowd is alive and hopeful. The afternoon crackles. Anticipation. Excitement. There is nothing in sports quite like the energy in a baseball clubhouse during a pennant race. Players arrive early to prepare. Teammates help each other. Everyone’s in a good mood. There’s a feeling swirling around: This is exactly the childhood dream. The added importance of the moment could, in theory I suppose, create extra stress. But the reality I’ve seen is precisely the opposite. The importance sharpens the sensed, feeds the enthusiasm, makes the day brighter. Baseball is a long season. Anything to give a day a little gravity, to separate it from yesterday, to make it all more interesting …anything like that, I think, is much more likely to make it EASIER to play closer to the peak.
A losing clubhouse? Exactly the opposite. The downward pressure is enormous and overwhelming — after all, who cares? The town has moved on. A Hawaiian vacation awaits. Teammates are fighting to keep their jobs or fighting to impress someone on another team or just plain fighting. The manager might be worried about his job. The reporters are few, and they’re negative. Smaller crowds make it easier to hear the drunken critics. Support is much harder to come by, and there is a constant, intense force demanding that you just stop trying so hard. After all: Why take that extra BP? You’ve got the swing down. Why study a few extra minutes of film? You’ve faced that hitter before. Why take that extra base? Why challenge him on that 3–1 pitch? Why? You’re down 9–3 anyway.”

That constant, intense force Joe describes — this most human of tendencies to slacken — is anathema to Joseph Votto. The Reds best player is the marching band that takes the field — then refuses to yield. You see it in the figure 162, the number of games Votto played in this season. You see it in the way Votto relentlessly deconstructs a strike zone drawn and redrawn like an etch-a-sketch each night as a different umpire unpacks his wares behind the dish. Like Leonardo DiCaprio’s grip on that piece of wreckage at the end of Titanic, Votto tenaciously holds on to every pitch, lest a priceless at bat get away from him, sinking into the darkness, forever lost .


Two players stand between Votto and the 2017 NL MVP award. The first is Paul Goldschmidt. Below is a cursory look at how the two match up:

What we see very clearly is that Votto dominates. He leads the National League in numerous statistical categories (OBP, wRC+, OPS+, walks, etc.). Goldschmidt leads in NONE. The Arizona Diamondback did win a Gold Glove, but according to Fangraphs, Votto was the better defender with one more Defensive Run Saved (11 to 10) and an Ultimate Zone Rating of 6.6, besting Goldschmidt’s 3.7.

But, Goldschmidt played for a winner, you say? And that’s true. But he slumped badly at the end of the season. In September, he staggered to a .171/.250/.305 slash line finish. It was J.D. Martinez who carried Arizona to the playoffs, not Goldschmidt.

This is really a slam dunk.

That leaves Giancarlo Stanton and the Number 59. Below is a look at Stanton vs. Votto:

We don’t need charts and graphs to understand Stanton bestrides the baseball world with his power. It’s dominant over any single number Votto has produced. However, in most other categories, Votto comes out on top. His versatility at the plate, the ability to do so many things with the bat, is part of the reason why that despite the huge edge in power — the final WAR numbers are very close. And as we know about WAR, the difference between 6.9 and 6.6 is virtually indistinguishable as a measure of who is the better player.

Votto is hurt by the fact that at first base, he plays at a less important position, defensively. But a look at the numbers shows that in Defensive Runs Saved, Votto owns the exact same advantage (11 to 10) over Giancarlo that he does over Goldschmidt. By Ultimate Zone Rating, Stanton owns the tiniest of edges at 6.7 to Votto’s 6.6, a product of the positional adjustment. But still, first base.

Unlike the comparison with Goldschmidt, the postseason argument would seem to be a non-issue when choosing between Giancarlo and Joey. But, it’s complicated.

As we watched the 2017 postseason, almost every game was lauded as some of the best baseball we’d seen in many a year, games for the ages that will surely be placed on a shelf alongside Game 6 in 1975. Much of this was a product of the home run. It’s not just chicks who did the long ball. The swooning that accompanies the sight of baseballs going far is not the provenance of one gender. The first batter of the 2017 postseason, Brian Dozier, launched one into the seats, foreshadowing the deluge just on the horizon. Bryce Harper’s extra innings home run, Francisco Lindor’s grand slam to cap an enormous deficit against the Yankees, Jose Altuve’s 3 HR game, Justin Turner’s imitation of Kirk Gibson’s 1988 walk-off — were all mainlined into the psyche of female and male fans alike.

No, Stanton wasn’t there, but his 59 dingers resonate, nevertheless. Home runs always have. There’s a romance with the long ball that exists nowhere else in the game.

Yet, context matters. 2017 saw the baseball imbued with magical properties not unlike a certain little blue pill, making everything go farther into the night. For Stanton, this has meant his skillset has been enlarged, inflating power stats that while still very impressive, would be a little less so prior to this year. Each of the categories Stanton leads Votto in (SLG, HR, WAR) are a reflection of his power.

In contrast, Votto’s skillset — getting on base, not striking out, the things that produce runs — plays in a hostile environment where everyone comes out of the bullpen throwing 95–96 miles per hour. In a world of high leverage situations and managers who more and more know how to address them, leaving hitters with fewer opportunities to take advantage of tiring pitchers, the Reds’ superstar has, in the words of Jeff Sullivan over at Fangraphs, “simply stopped striking out.” Votto struck out an amazing 51 few times than he walked in 2017(134 BB, 83 K).

In short, what Stanton has done with the wind at his back, Votto has done into a gale force headwind. And that should be the difference-maker when the award is announced.

Nevertheless, Joey Votto continues to toil in the relative shadows of the game’s elite, his at-bat routine practiced, precise and yes, still under appreciated. Driven, he seeks to perfect the always imperfect, and in doing so, rediscovers himself and the game once more. Barrel meets ball, the crack of the bat too often echoing among the empty seats.

Are enough voters listening?

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