Joey Votto’s Greatness Is Wasted On The Reds
Few players have produced so much for teams that almost never make the playoffs.
By Neil Paine
During a season full of stellar individual performances — from Giancarlo Stanton’s home runs to Chris Sale’s strikeouts — Cincinnati Reds first baseman Joey Votto quietly put together one of the most obscure-yet-impressive streaks in baseball history. Between July 26 and Aug. 15, Votto reached base successfully at least twice in 20 consecutive games, putting together only the eighth such streak since 1913.1 During that span, Votto hit .435 and put up a downright Barry Bonds-ian on-base percentage of .611.
It was classic Votto, who has a knack for reaching base that has few historical peers. But it was also typical in that it came midway through yet another hopeless Cincinnati season. The Reds are 14.5 games out of the National League’s last wild-card spot, with essentially no chance of making the playoffs. So far in 2017, Votto is tracking for 7.0 wins above replacement (WAR),2 while leading the majors in on-base-plus slugging percentage. Assuming the Reds miss the playoffs, it would mark the sixth season in which Votto had at least 4.5 WAR (roughly an All-Star-caliber season) while his team failed to advance to the division series — the Reds have only reached the NLDS twice since Votto debuted in 2007, and they lost the best-of-five series both times.3
All told, Votto has generated 41.2 WAR in seasons where the Reds either missed the playoffs or lost the play-in game. Since the playoffs expanded in 1995, few hitters have seen more of their individual excellence go to waste:
Good batters on bad teams
Position-player WAR accumulated for teams that didn’t make the division series of the playoffs, 1995-2017
LAD, SEA, BOS, TEX
SEA, TEX, NYY
HOU, PHI, NYY, LAA, LAD, NYM
KCR, NYM, SFG, NYY
SEA, NYY, MIA
PHI, STL, TOR, CIN
TOR, FLA, NYM
Votto isn’t alone among active players who’ve produced bushels of squandered value. FiveThirtyEight favorite Adrian Beltre is the division-series-era leader in inconsequential WAR, with his teams having flushed away more than 60 of his wins over the years (including, most likely, 3.5 more this season5). But at age 38, Beltre is also five years older than Votto, and he — like many other names above Votto on the list — at least experienced some postseason success to ease the sting of the lost output. Beltre’s Texas Rangers, for instance, came within a single strike of winning the World Series in 2011.
Votto hasn’t had that chance yet. So if we filter our original list down and look at wasted WAR through age 33, Votto climbs to No. 9 on the list of position players. Although he may never pass Beltre, Bonds or Alex Rodriguez in total wasted WAR, perhaps Votto’s eventual fate will be as his generation’s version of Todd Helton, the longtime Colorado Rockies first baseman who finally made the World Series in 2007 after years of pouring great stats into the void.
Meanwhile, on the pitching side, there’s the increasingly tragic case of erstwhile Seattle Mariners ace Felix Hernandez, who dominated the American League for a decade but still fell victim to his team’s ongoing playoff drought. Here’s King Felix and the rest of the leaderboard for wasted WAR among hurlers:
Good pitchers on bad teams
Pitching WAR accumulated for teams that didn’t make the division series of the playoffs, 1995-2017
MON, BOS, NYM
CHW, MIA, TOR
MON, ARI, CHW, ATL, FLA
PHI, ARI, BOS
KCR, MIL, LAA, ARI
BAL, FLA, LAD
CLE, SEA, PHI
STL, OAK, ARI, LAA, WSN, MIA
Sadly, Hernandez may not have much more to add to this list — at age 31, his numbers aren’t what they used to be, and his trips to the disabled list are becoming more frequent. But between Hernandez, Beltre, A-Rod, Ichiro Suzuki and Randy Johnson, these lists also serve as a reminder to never discount the Mariners’ ability to squander future Hall of Famers’ production.
As for Votto, it remains to be seen whether the Reds will be able to put his WAR to good use anytime soon. They have MLB’s fourth-worst record so far this season, but the team also has one of the youngest rosters in the majors (Votto aside) and a solid farm system. And while Votto is already 33, Baseball Prospectus’s PECOTA system projects him to have seven more seasons of starting-caliber production left in his career. So even though plenty of Votto’s great performances have gone to waste — 2017 included — there’s some hope that they may mean something more in the future.