Let Joey Votto be Joey Votto

With the MLB regular season coming to an end this weekend, SI.com’s Joe Lemire picked an unsung hero for each of the 30 teams. His choice for the Cincinnati Reds was Joey Votto.

You read that correctly – Joey Votto. The 2010 NL MVP. A four-time All-Star. A player who starts a 10-year, $225 million contract extension next season.

As a Reds fan and an unabashed Votto supporter, I’m not exactly impartial on this subject, but he shouldn’t be an unsung hero. His name should be coming up in MVP discussions. (Admittedly, he shouldn’t win it this year, but he’s easily a top 10 candidate.) Yet it’s hard to disagree with Lemire’s classification given the narrative that’s developed around Votto this year.

There’s been an actual discussion in Cincinnati over whether he or Brandon Phillips should be the team‘s MVP. Here’s how their season stats stacked up through Thursday:

Votto .304 .434 .492 .926 100 24 73 6.2
Phillips .260 .310 .397 .707 79 18 102 1.5

In every category but one, Votto has clearly been the better player in 2013. And aside from WAR (wins above replacement), these aren’t exactly advanced statistics, so this shouldn’t boil down to a sabermetric-vs.-traditional stats argument. Yet the entire basis of the case for Phillips as team MVP revolves around the one category (RBIs) where he has a clear edge. That also happens to be the one category in this comparison that’s least in either player’s direct control.

This isn’t meant as a knock on Brandon Phillips.* He’s had to drive in all those runs, and he’s been very good at it, hitting .335 with runners in scoring position. But Phillips has undeniably benefited from having a lot of opportunities in those situations. Spending most of the season hitting behind the two NL leaders in on-base percentage – Votto and Shin-Shoo Choo – he’s got 193 plate appearance with runners in scoring position, the fourth-most in the NL.

It’s not as if Votto hasn’t had opportunities with runners in scoring position, too. He’s come up 191 times in those situations. And while his .293 batting average there doesn’t match Phillips, it’s not exactly horrible.

The problem for Votto – and this is where the criticism from a lot of fans and media comes in – has been getting pitches to hit. Votto has walked 50 times with runners in scoring position, the most in baseball. Even Miguel Cabrera can’t match that total.

The argument goes that instead of just accepting a walk with men on base, Votto should be trying to drive in runs even if it means swinging at pitches that are slightly out of the strike zone. But as Fangraphs’ Jeff Sullivan recently wrote, Votto isn’t necessarily looking to walk; he’s looking for the right pitch to make solid contact. If he doesn’t get that pitch, he takes his base and gives his teammates (like Phillips) a chance to get a run home. That’s not run production the way people usually think of it, but it’s still run production.

On Friday night, Votto broke Pete Rose’s single-season team record for times on base, reaching for the 312th time in 2013. And as Lemire noted, he’s about to lead his league in on-base percentage for the fourth year in a row. The only other players to do that: Barry Bonds, Wade Boggs, Ted Williams, Lou Gehrig and Rogers Hornsby. Votto’s plate discipline is what makes him one of the two or three best hitters in baseball. He should be celebrated for it.
* Aside from the offensive numbers, there’s also the matter of defensive play, where Phillips has been typically brilliant. Meanwhile, Votto has struggled, committing 14 errors.

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