The Rarefied Air of Joey Votto

Lost among extraordinary offensive numbers is a renewed commitment to defense and another mountain climbed

Richard Fitch

When we last left our hero, he had reached to summit after a long and steep climb up the face of baseball’s current run prevention machine, an edifice defined these days by unholy velocity and baseballs that seem to ride the edge of a sixty foot, six inch event horizon before laughably slipping off the edge as they approach home plate. After a replacement level start to his 2016 season, there he was on August 13, 2016, back on top of the baseball world, sporting a very excellent slash line of .303/.429/.514.

But no one stays at the top for too long these days. Just as the elements at the mountaintop demand retreat, so do the game’s best pitchers adjust and force good — and yes, Mr. Brennaman — even elite hitters to retrench and navigate new routes back to the top.

Legendary climber Anatoli Boukreev, who summited the world’s highest mountains without supplemental oxygen, had not just skills at his service, but an iron will few individuals can tap into. Like Boukreev, Joey Votto supplements his considerable skills with a single mindedness only seen in athletes who wore numbers like 23, 42 and 14.

Since that misbegotten season of 2014 — when “left distal quad” became the most malodorous phrase in the Queen City since “downtown streetcar” — Votto seems to have been on a quest. Not just to play every day, but to play every day at yet another level; to raise his own considerably elevated bar.

Since that night in August 2016, when he finally climbed back to .300, after being marooned for months on the Isle of Ordinary, here were Votto’s numbers as he toed the foul line waiting to make his 5th all-star appearance:

Fangraphs

Like the sun, he’s turned brilliance into an everyday event. But that everyday brilliance comes at a cost. If it doesn’t blind us first, at the very least it distracts us from the less shiny, but nevertheless necessary vitals, eventually dulling the senses. As I’ve lamented before, the paint-by-numbers approach to creating a Votto portrait is woefully lacking. The depth of the player — and the player’s game — demand more. At the risk of mangling the English language, your average “elite” player would be tempted to coast, sporting the numbers Votto has laid before us the last two seasons. It’s that unrelenting drive — the desire to push the needle into the red — that sets him apart. The Ferrari sees the Lamborghini up ahead. And while he knows he cannot catch him, there’s still ground to be made up. Because the chase never ends::

“Personally, until Trout came into the league, I thought every year I would be in the conversation for best player in the game and he [messed] that up for everybody. Babe Ruth and Ted Williams included. He’s ruining it for everyone. You can’t be in that conversation unless you do every aspect of the game and I love competing against the best and it’s something I take a lot of pride in and it’s something I think I fell a little bit short on this year. Offensively, I felt I was as competitive as I could compete with anybody in baseball but defensively, I feel like I’ve got a ways to go. And it’s exciting to have another challenge to overcome, so I’m grateful for that.”

So, while we fix our gaze on the outrageous offensive output, Votto, prospector that he is, sifts through the infield dirt searching for tiny nuggets of WAR dust. It’s the search for a better defensive game — a way to mitigate inclement leather that has diminished past season-ending WAR totals — that pushes him to another summit.

After a miserable defensive year in 2016, which dinged his total WAR, Votto has re-dedicated himself. With 6 Defensive Runs Saved and a UZR of 4.0 according to Fangraphs, he’s already more than halfway to the numbers that won him a Gold Glove in 2011.

Defensive numbers are far from perfect, but more than ever they give us a revealing look into the worth of a player while he’s armed with his preferred cowhide. Metrics like DRS and UZR measure how much better or worse than average a player is at his position. So, to be clear, Votto hasn’t just saved 6 runs so far this season, he’s saved 6 runs more than the average first baseman.

Fangraphs — July 20, 2017

Looking at the numbers above — sorted by first basemen — we see that Votto’s Def rating ranks him 4th among all players at the position in the majors. If you value DRS, his ranking remains 4th. If you prefer UZR, he ranks 3rd. The negative ranking at -3.0 reflects his adjusted positional ranking to include all fielders. Because first base is the least difficult position to play defensively, first basemen uniformly score poorer than their teammates around the diamond. Overall, Votto is ranked 109th among all fielders in Major League Baseball as of July 20, 2017.


But, more important than the numbers is what these numbers convey — the sheer granularity of Votto’s work. Every nook and cranny of his game probed, dissected in the search for more value.

Behind the closed venetian blinds at 100 Joe Nuxhall Way, injuries and the non-emergence of the starting pitching prospects must have Williams & Co. wondering if The Rebuild must be pushed back another year.

Like Marisa Tomei cinematically stomping her foot on the porch planks, somebody needs to be shouting that Votto’s baseball clock is ticking. Nearly 34 years of age, he’s positioned to have the best season of his career, better than the one that brought him the National League’s MVP award. But time waits for no man; and certainly no baseball franchise. The Reds may need to accelerate The Rebuild, find some free agent pitching and damn the torpedoes.

Meanwhile, the rest of us just get to watch as Number 19 continues to add to his considerable legacy, one that deserves a memorable postseason run to go along with those starry starry stats.

The Ohio Valley July heat down at Great American Ball Park has distilled 2017 into a tale of two seasons here on the Banks. The Rebuild and the Rarefied. The rarefied summer air of one Joseph Daniel Votto.

Miss it at your peril.

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