Erardi: Joey Votto is back on the Hall of Fame radar

Reds star is worthy of Frank Robinson comparison

CINCINNATI - Book your reservations – “Cooperstown 2030” -- for Joey Votto being inducted into the National Baseball of Fame with Buster Posey and Clayton Kershaw.

Of course, I have no idea if Votto can put together the three to four more good seasons that could herald enshrinement, nor do I know if Posey and Kershaw will be eligible by then. (They’re three to four years younger, respectively, than Votto, but I figure that as catcher and pitcher, respectively, their careers may unspool about the same time as Votto’s.)

Two years ago, in late July 2016, I wrote that the Reds wouldn’t have another Hall of Famer for 30 years after having had eight in the last 30 (Ernie Lombardi, Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan, Tony Perez, Sparky Anderson, Bid McPhee, Barry Larkin and Ken Griffey Jr.).  Right about then, Votto began making a fool out of me (something he typically does to his doubters).

Votto went on a second-half tear in 2016 that was one of the best in history. He hit .408 after the All-Star break, becoming only the fourth player in the last 30 years to hit above .400 in any half of any season.

Then last season he finished second in the National League Most Valuable Player vote with a 7.5 WAR (Wins Above Replacement) in his age 33 year. Ironically, that’s the same WAR that former Red slugger Frank Robinson put together in his age 33 year as a Baltimore Oriole.  For my money, Robinson is still the greatest Reds hitter of all-time (despite what my sabermetric friends say in giving the edge to Votto), because I just can’t separate Robby’s Baltimore years from his Cincinnati years; he simply never should have been traded, let alone at age 30 after the 1965 season.

From ages 34 through 38, Robby totaled 18.3 WAR, an annual WAR average of close to 4, which is a very solid/borderline All-Star player.  If Votto can do the same – and that may not be a stretch, given the way he takes care of himself, values playing every day, and doesn’t figure to lose his eye (on-base percentage) as he loses his power -- a similar 18 WAR stretch would put his career WAR at 73.1.

That’s a good number, considering that 70 is a threshold for a lower-level Hall of Famer, especially one who does one thing spectacularly.

For Robby, that one spectacular thing was power.  For Votto, that one spectacular thing is on-base percentage.  

Some critics may pooh-pooh the latter in favor of the former, but that’s not the point. As long as something keeps one in the conversation as one of the best players ever, history shows that one will likely be remembered, rather than forgotten, when Hall of Fame voting comes around.  (Which it is now: my Hall of Fame vote must be postmarked by Dec. 31.) 

 To quote Will Leitch from a late-summer column on Sports on Earth, "Giancarlo Stanton hits home runs like no one in a decade, maybe ever. Clayton Kershaw is Sandy Koufax. Mike Trout may be the best all-around baseball player since Mickey Mantle. But no one is as good at getting on base -- the most baseball-y thing there is -- than Joey Votto.”

Votto’s career .428 OBP ranks eighth all-time among players since 1900 with at least 5,000 plate appearances. The seven players above him are in the Hall of Fame and so are the two below him. Here’s the list:

  • Ted Williams .481
  • Babe Ruth .474
  • Lou Gehrig .447
  • Barry Bonds .444
  • Rogers Hornsby .434
  • Ty Cobb .433
  • Jimmie Foxx .431
  • Joey Votto .428
  • Tris Speaker .427
  • Eddie Collins .424.

Examples of being forgotten at Hall of Fame voting time because of not doing any one thing spectacularly despite doing everything well (70 career-WAR range) are Lou Whitaker (74.9), Bobby Grich (70.9) and Kenny Lofton (68.2), none of whom enjoyed even a second year on the ballot (eligible players are removed from the writers’ ballots after failing to receive at least 5 percent of the vote), and Dwight Evans (66.9), who was gone after three years.

Robby – career .294/.389/.537 -- didn’t see his OBP dip hardly at all in his age 34 to 38 seasons, even as his slugging percentage dropped 20-60 points over those five years. Nor would I expect Votto’s OBP to drop precipitously -– career .313/.428/.541 through 10 full seasons – which will be impressive, given that he’s probably the best-combination OBP/slugger since Barry Bonds.

 Joe Morgan is another great “eye” man – career .271/.392/.427 – who produced solid WAR in his age 34 through 39 seasons (total 18.3 WAR, an average of 3.0 WAR annually).  His slugging dropped 40-100 points from his age 33 season, but his OBP dropped only 20-70 points.

Votto also fares well in a prime-time comparison with the “average” Hall of Fame first sacker. I read the following on Sports Illustrated’s website last August by Jay Jaffe: “Already, (Votto’s) seven-year peak total of 43.7 WAR is above that of the average Hall first baseman (42.7), and that should climb higher as well.” (It did. His seven-year peak is now 45.6.) More Jaffe: “Even another 10 WAR over the remaining five years of his contract would push him into the position's top 10.”  

WARs of Hall of Fame First Basemen (careers mostly after 1900):

  • Lou Gehrig 112.4
  • Jimmie Foxx 96.4
  • Jeff Bagwell 79.6
  • Frank Thomas 73.7
  • Johnny Mize 71.0
  • Eddie Murray 68.3
  • Willie McCovey 64.4
  • Harmon Killebrew 60.4
  • Hank Greenberg 57.5
  • George Sisler 54.5
  • Bill Terry 54.2
  • Tony Perez 53.9
  • Orlando Cepeda 50.3
  • Frank Chance 45.6
  • Jim Bottomley 45.3

WARs of First Basemen on ballot now or soon (or still active*):

  •  Albert Pujols* 99.4
  • Jim Thome 72.9 (this is his first yearr on the ballot)
  • Miguel Cabrera* 68.8
  • Todd Helton 61.2 (eligible for first Hall ballot in 2019)
  • David Ortiz 55.4 (eligible in 2022)
  • Joey Votto* 54.8
  • Fred McGriff 52.4 (this is 8th of 10 years on ballot; received 22% last year)
  • Mark Teixeira 51.8 (eligible in 2022)

Seventy-five percent of the vote is required for election.

There was complaining in some parts of Reds Country when the club signed Votto to a 10-year contract for $225 million on April 4, 2012. But that complaining has turned to Cooperstown conversation the last season and a half.

I’m happy to admit I was wrong in what I wrote in mid-summer 2016, and am pleased that Joey Valhalla has put himself back on the Hall of Fame radar.

My favorite all-time quote from Votto is one I read a few years ago. He was speaking of the Big Red Machine when he said it. It showed him to be a student of Reds history, analytics and baseball excellence, plus it showed his supreme confidence:

“I know I could have hit in the middle of that order.”

I would have to agree.

John Erardi has covered the Reds for 33 seasons. His latest book, “Tony Perez: From Cuba to Cooperstown,” is scheduled for release March 1.

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