Joey Votto has played seventeen seasons for the Reds. To give you a sense of how long ago he debuted, Joe Nuxhall was still calling Reds games. Votto has been in our lives so long we’ve gotten to know him — at least the parts of his quirky, smart, ever-inquisitive personality he wanted us to see. He’s also had a brilliant career in the batter’s box that may have come to an end.
The Reds 2023 season is finished. We’re staring into the abyss at the heart-rending possibility Joey Votto has played in a Cincinnati uniform for the last time. It’s hard even to form that sentence. The end of Votto’s career would represent a towering but unwelcome milestone of separation for Reds fans. It would mark the conclusion of a joyous, rewarding relationship between fan and player.
I don’t know how many 17-year relationships you’ve had. But I’m going to take a minute to reflect on this one.
Joey Votto’s start with the Reds almost dates to the previous century, chosen as an eighteen-year-old in the second round of the 2002 draft. For context, Barack Obama not only hadn’t been elected President yet, he wasn’t even a US Senator. Fresh out of a Toronto high school, Votto wasn’t a preordained prodigy and didn’t rocket through the Reds farm system. He describes the slog of those early years as isolating, unglamorous and humbling. But advance Joey Votto did; one level each year. Before his cup-of-coffee with the Reds in 2007, Votto had played in 133 games for Louisville. That’s more Triple-A experience than Matt McLain, Elly De La Cruz and Noelvi Marte have combined.
Joey Votto didn’t carry the prospect wow-factor of Jay Bruce or Homer Bailey. But by 2008, with his two famous young teammates residing in the rankings stratosphere, Votto had played his way into the top 50.
The Reds hired manager Dusty Baker for the 2008 season. Baker had a reputation for favoring veteran players, one he reinforced on Opening Day by passing over Joey Votto for 38-year-old Scott Hatteberg. In following days, Baker would split time between Hatteberg and Votto, both batting 7th. Two weeks into the season, Votto’s bat had won Baker over. The young Canadian became the everyday first baseman of the Cincinnati Reds. Though it wasn’t until August that Baker had Votto hit in the top half of the lineup. Scott Hatteberg retired at the end of that season, having hit .173 with no homers.
Votto finished second to the Cubs Geovany Soto in the NL Rookie of the Year vote. The following year, he received a solitary (seventh-place) vote for NL MVP. Those awards hinted at what came next. Joey Votto put together a season for the ages, leading the Reds to their first division championship in fifteen years. It won him the 2010 NL MVP, dethroning Albert Pujols of the Cardinals, who had won that award the previous two seasons. Pujols finished a distant second to Votto in the voting, with the Reds slugger receiving 31 of 32 first-place ballots.
And a slugger he had been. Votto mashed 37 home runs, a number surpassed in the NL only by Pujols (42) and Adam Dunn (38) who was then with the Washington Nationals. Votto’s batting average (.324) was second in the league to Carlos Gonzalez of Colorado (.336). The 26-year-old even swiped 16 bases in 21 attempts. Votto led the Major Leagues in on base (.424) and slugging (.600) percentage. He had become JoeyMVP. Our JoeyMVP.
A typical player would take winning his league’s most prestigious award as confirmation for the way he approached the game. Not Joey Votto.
Soon after his landmark season, Votto announced he’d be making a fundamental change to his hitting approach. Pitchers had quit throwing strikes to Votto. His 2010 walk-rate near 15% was well above average. But Votto had let his chase rate jump from 24% to 29%.
In a recent interview with David Laurila at FanGraphs, Votto described his transition this way (paraphrased): In my mid-20s, I changed to a more contact-style approach. I got more motivated to get deeper into counts. It was more of a line drive approach, taking fewer home run chances. Trying to put the ball in play. Make sure my walks exceeded my strikeouts.
I have distinct memory of Votto in an interview ten or twelve years ago saying the new approach meant he wouldn’t be hitting 35 home runs any more. We should look for him to hit closer to 25. Votto recognized the value of getting on base. If he had to trade off a bit of power for that, so be it. From 2011-2016, in the four seasons Votto when played at least 158 games he averaged 26 home runs. Joey Votto wouldn’t hit 30 or more homers again until 2017.
For Reds fans, the spring of 2012 was an exhilarating time. In a jaw-dropping trade, the club had acquired a young pitcher, Mat Latos, from the Padres. In 2011, the 24-year-old Latos had been one of the league’s best, pitching 194 innings over 31 games for the Padres. Here, Latos would work at the top of the rotation with Johnny Cueto and Homer Bailey. Those three plus Bronson Arroyo and Mike Leake comprised a pitching staff with promise. The club had assembled a team to challenge for the NL Central again. With the dramatic 2010 division crown still close in the rearview mirror, it was a heady time for baseball in the Queen City.
But lurking behind that enthusiasm was the so-called Votto Window. The first baseman’s reserve clause time was due to expire after the 2013 season. We tapped our watches wondering if the Reds could win a championship before our superstar left for free agency. The $200 million threshold for free agent contracts had been crossed four times — twice by Alex Rodriquez (Rangers, Yankees), by Albert Pujols (Angels) and Prince Fielder (Tigers). Votto seemed destined for that class of payday. Conventional wisdom held that the Reds wouldn’t, couldn’t pony up that kind of dough. In 2012, the team’s total payroll was only $82 million. [If that number sounds familiar … it’s the same as the Reds 2023 payroll.]
Whispers about big market teams circling the waters for Votto’s services were common. Even if the Castellini Group was willing to see its way to a top-of-the-market contract, would Joey Votto stay? He might prefer the life of New York City or Los Angeles, or make a hometown boy hero’s return to Toronto. Reds fans didn’t know. Right up to the moment we did.
On April 2, 2012, the Reds and Joey Votto agreed to extend his services through the 2023 season. The club would pay Votto $225 million over ten years (2014-2023) plus hold a $20 million option for the so-distant 2024. The equivalent for a contract signed this spring would be 2036. We peeked at the number 2024, but got back to celebrating. The end of the contract was so far in the future it didn’t seem real.
Votto’s mammoth deal was breathtaking in size and duration. It was unprecedented for an organization with a small financial footprint. For the record, the metaphor of an inflexible “window” lacks accuracy. Almost every wall and its windows can be remodeled with the right amount of money.
It needs to be recognized that for a segment of fans, big money changes for the negative the way they view the recipient. Those folks reckon Votto — or anyone — couldn’t be worth that much “for playing a game.” They act like they themselves pay the player, not willing, wealthy team owners. So a few turned against Joey Votto for that reason.
But the reaction for most of us — with Joey Votto’s enlarged window thrown wide open — was unbridled enthusiasm.
Votto signed his extension during one of the greatest decades of offense by an individual player in the sport’s history. From 2009 to 2018, he batted .312, posted an on-base percentage of .434 and slugged at a .532 rate.
For perspective, to find the last Reds player who hit .300/.400/.500 for one season (qualified, at least 100 games) you have to go back to another Joe — Joe Morgan — in 1976. Barry Larkin came close several times (1991, 1995, 1996, 1998) but never quite reached .300/.400/.500. The most recent near-miss season — and I wouldn’t have come up with this if you gave me another seventeen years — was Zack Cozart in 1997, who hit .297/.385/.548. In 2013, Shin-Soo Choo was in spittin’ distance at .285/.423/.462.
But those are single seasons. Joey Votto averaged .300/.400/.500 (and more) for ten years. To find a Reds comp for Votto’s decade you have to go back more than fifty years. Frank Robinson, in his ten seasons with the Reds, hit .303/.389/.554. That was 1956-1965.
Back to Votto. His walk-rate of 17.1% over the decade nearly matched his strikeout rate of 17.6%. The combination of batting over .300 and walking at that prodigious rate allowed Votto to lead the league seven times in OBP. In 2015, Votto’s OBP of .459 (his second-highest season) finished second to MVP Bryce Harper at .460.
In terms of overall run production (wRC+), Joey Votto averaged 159 over that decade. That’s 59 percent better than the typical major league hitter. Votto won the MVP once, finished second once (by one point), third once, sixth twice and seventh once. Joey Votto was durable. During that decade, he played all 162 games twice, 161 once and 158 games two times and averaged 140 games a season.
And in his decade’s worth of 6086 plate appearances, Joey Votto popped out nine times. Mookie Betts popped out 21 times in 2023.
For most of his career, Joey Votto has been healthy. From 2015-2020, his age 31-36 seasons, he missed only 45 games, or fewer than eight a year. Many of those were days off. Like any athlete — any human — he’s become more injury prone as he’s aged. But Votto did suffer two major injuries during the prime of his career.
On a Friday night in San Francisco, June 2012, Votto had singled in the 5th inning. One batter later, Jay Bruce got a base hit and Votto, going first to third, slid awkwardly into the bag, jamming his left knee and tearing his meniscus. Over the next couple weeks, Dusty Baker and the Reds bungled their $200 million-dollar-man’s treatment. They let him play the rest of the road trip without an MRI, even though it was obvious Votto was struggling to run, hit and field. The Reds didn’t use the All-Star break for his surgery. In fact, they let Votto PLAY in the All-Star Game (all caps = me shouting). The added pounding could have worsened his condition before surgery.
Not only did the Reds first baseman miss a month and a half, when he returned he’d lost the ability to drive the ball. In 147 plate appearances, Votto hit zero homers. But Votto refashioned his approach to help the Reds’ postseason drive. He became even more obsessed about getting on base. That September, Votto posted a walk-rate of 26.7% and hit .316. That meant he was on base, available to be someone’s RBI, in more than 50% of his plate appearances.
The injury and negligence surrounding it were tragic because Votto was on pace for a historic season. Half-way through 2012, he was batting .354/.476/.639 with a wRC+ of 194.
You might remember that 2012 Reds team. Ryan Ludwick, Jay Bruce and Todd Frazier picked up the power hitting for Votto. The club got great pitching from all five starters and had a rock-solid bullpen. Baker’s Reds finished 97-65 and won the division by 9 games. [trigger warning] It’s the last time the Reds finished either first or second in the NL Central.
Two years later, Votto strained his left quad from over-training. He tried to play through it for two months, then missed a month, then played a month until he quit the season for good on July 5. Votto got in only 62 games in 2014, but he still managed a 128 wRC+.
Born and raised in Toronto, Joey Votto was not unfamiliar with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. In 2014, he dressed up as a Mountie for a hilarious interview.
Votto’s appearance as an iconic do-gooder drove home the point that ball players can be model citizens. He’s never criticized a teammate, coach, manager or training staff. He hasn’t demanded to play a particular position or bat in a certain spot in the lineup. He took a four-game benching by David Bell with grace.
Off the field, Joey Votto has never choked a woman. He was never arrested for non-payment of child support or for a DUI. He’s never done time for tax evasion. He was never suspended for gambling or PED use. Or for violating MLB’s policy on domestic abuse and sexual assault. He didn’t berate a sportswriter with profanity and personal insults. He was never vulgar on a local radio show. Heck, Votto didn’t even ever get caught shop-lifting t-shirts.
Of course it’s possible Joey Votto tortures spiders and we don’t know about it. But I doubt it.
Stone Age Critics
Joey Votto’s unforgivable sin was walking too much.
“If this guy comes back and is content to lead the league in on-base percentage again, then this team is in deep trouble.”
That’s former Reds broadcaster Marty Brennaman turning his fire on Votto before the 2015 season. That Votto — objectively — was one of the game’s top hitters didn’t slow down Brennaman. The crank was simply turning from years of criticism aimed at Junior Griffey and Adam Dunn to a new generation of targets. Brennaman’s defenders would say the announcer told it like it was. I’d say he told it like he saw it. There’s a difference.
The crux of what chapped Brennaman about Votto was the slugger’s modern view of run production. The one thing announcers in the Brennaman family couldn’t abide in baseball was change. Or new ideas. Especially new ideas that led to change. The Brennemen waged a years-long campaign against the way Joey Votto played baseball. Votto is beloved by Reds fans. But nightly criticism from those giant platforms landed with some.
It didn’t help the Reds were still being run by Mr. Slate. In a 2013 interview, Reds GM Walt Jocketty said Joey Votto needed to be disabused of the value he placed on walks. “Something many more of us in the organization will try to convey.”
Toss in Paul Daugherty, former lead sportswriter for the Cincinnati Enquirer, who used his column to amplify the Paleolithic corner of Reds world. Particularly awful was a 2014 Daugherty screed in which he insinuated Votto wasn’t tough enough or didn’t have sufficient desire to win. Daugherty, of course, wasn’t brave enough to talk to Joey Votto before writing the piece, as he acknowledged.
Another common theme of that crowd was that Votto wasn’t clutch. They held up Big Red Machine favorite Tony Perez as an example of a player who was. Perez did have an excellent OPS with runners in scoring position (.834). Votto’s was more than two hundred points better (1.042). Votto’s career wRC+ with runners in scoring position is 166.
“I’m not going to use the word ignorant – but ignorant,” was Votto’s bullseye reply to these criticisms.
Father Time finally showed up as the Reds first baseman turned 35. Votto’s power numbers dipped sharply in 2018 and 2019. His batting average sank to .226 in 2020. Manager David Bell benched him for three days in late August. At the time, Votto’s exit velocity was 85.3 mph, well below league average.
Keep in mind, Votto had a long way to fall. Even in seasons that weren’t up to his standards, he was still better than the average Joe. His 114 wRC+ over those three “down” seasons would have been the fifth-best on this year’s team, behind Will Benson (128), Matt McLain (128), Spencer Steer (118) and TJ Friedl (116).
Bell’s benching helped. Votto roared back over his final 29 games of 2020 with a wRC+ of 144, including 8 home runs. His exit velocity shot above league average at 89.8 as the club headed to the postseason for the first time since 2013.
Votto’s month-long resurgence at the end of 2020 foreshadowed his remarkable 2021 season.
I’m not making this up. At age 37, Joey Votto led the Reds with 36 homers. Only three players in the National League hit more. Votto drove in 99 runs in his 129 games.
Yes, Votto’s newfound power came at the cost of a few strikeouts. Chad Dotson elegantly describes it as a compromise Votto struck with Father Time. But even then, his 23.8% strikeout rate was right at league average. And Votto was still walking way more (14%) than the average batter (9%). Most telling, Votto’s average exit velocity soared to 92.9 mph over those 500+ PAs. Only six hitters in the NL had a higher number. Votto was in the 96th percentile in hard-hit percentage and overall run production. 100th percentile in sweet-spot contact.
At age 37 Joey Votto had come full circle with success by returning to the approach that won the MVP award more than a decade earlier.
No one knows if Joey Votto will play for the Reds in 2024. He’ll need a heart-to-heart with his left shoulder. Votto was sidelined more than four months between 2022 and 2023 due to significant labrum surgery. In late August, he landed on the DL again with shoulder discomfort. You wonder if he’d have come back at all had there not been a drive to make the postseason. That health issue isn’t over. If Votto believes he can’t get his shoulder back to normal, he’ll hang up his cleats. Votto said point blank the other day he hasn’t decided about 2024.
Assuming Votto is able and interested in playing, the two sides would need to work out the money. Part of Votto’s 10-year contract extension was a team option of $20 million for the 2024 season or, alternatively, a buyout of $7 million. Yes, the heartstrings. Yes, they have the money. But we know the Castellini family isn’t going to pick up a $20 million tab for a 40-year-old player.
However, that still leaves a path to more Joey where the club pays the buyout and the two sides negotiate a separate one-year deal. The example of Ryan Zimmerman and the Washington Nationals is on point. Heading into the 2021 season, Zimmerman had played 15 seasons, all with the Washington Nationals and had opted out of the 2020 season due to the COVID pandemic. The Nationals declined Zimmerman’s $18 million option, instead paying the 35-year-old first baseman the $2 million buyout stipulated in his previous contract. The two sides then agreed on a separate $2-million, one-year deal that included up to $3 million in performance bonuses. How’d it turn out? While Zimmerman was injured often in 2021, he contributed in the postseason by homering twice, including off Houston’s Gerrit Cole in Game One of a World Series the Nats won.
The Zimmerman arrangement could be a viable template for the Reds and Votto. (Including that World Series championship part.) In a conversation a few weeks ago, a Reds front office employee raised the example of Zimmerman to me in quick fashion. Last week, MLB.com writer Mark Sheldon made a detailed case for bringing Votto back.
Many expect the negotiation would go smoothly, based on Votto saying he wants to play only in Cincinnati. I’m not so sure. Votto has also said he wouldn’t want to be insulted.
Would $5 million plus a few performance incentives work?
A Baseball Odyssey
For seventeen seasons, Joey Votto has been our superstar, sports hero, even muse. As with any great player, we’ve cheered his athleticism and skills. We’ve admired all those opposite-field homers. But our time with Votto has also shown we can connect with favorite players in ways that transcend basic excitement.
Votto validated our choice to identify as Reds fans. He — an MVP — played for our team. For my team. His presence on the Reds wrote a permission slip for us to flex a little among friends who were fans of other teams, without having to go back thirty or more years.
Joey Votto also pulled us into the modern world of baseball. Moneyball was published in 2003, telling the story of the 2002 Oakland Athletics and foreshadowing a comprehensive revolution in thinking about how to win baseball games. For many Reds fans, the first time we came face-to-face with sabermetrics (although we didn’t know it by that name) was when Joey Votto explained to us the value of walks and on-base percentage. He asked us to understand he’d be worth more even while hitting fewer long balls. That was an eye-opening idea for me.
As other baseball organizations were modernizing, Reds fans sure weren’t going to hear those innovative concepts from our creaky front office, manager or broadcasters. It was our sports hero who brought us new thinking. And not as an academic abstraction. We saw the way Joey Votto played every night.
Put together the excitement, the validation, the exemplary behavior and his modernness and you understand our singular experience with Joey Votto.
I chose the word “odyssey” for this section for a reason. To me it conveys not just a journey, but one with changes in fortune. Our time with Votto has been packed with thrills, adventure and pride. But those great times came with a side order of melancholy in the form of injuries, sniping and falling short. Votto’s teams won two division titles, but not a postseason series. It was an odyssey of mostly ups, but a few downs, too. It’ll end on a high with the induction of Reds Employee #19 into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
For a long time after Votto signed that window-busting deal in 2012, the end of it seemed like forever and a day away. Well friends, it’s here.
Photo: Steve Mancuso