With both Jose Abreu and Freddie Freeman winning MVP awards in 2020, it marked the first time since 2006 that two first basemen won the MVP (Justin Morneau of the Twins, Ryan Howard of the Phillies). But, it was the first time in ten years that a first baseman has taken home at least one of the league’s two MVP awards: Joey Votto of the Reds. Yes, Miguel Cabrera has won two since, but both were in seasons he was primarily a third baseman.
Votto, who received 31 of 32 first place votes (the other going to Albert Pujols), set a new standard for baseball players early on in his career. Votto, who was 26 in 2010, was named the MVP ten years ago today. The way that Votto has changed baseball and the way we view some of its top players is often understated, especially for first basemen. Historically, first basemen are expected to be that middle of the order thump in the four or five hole that’s focus is to drive the ball, not to get on base or hit for average. While Joey Votto did hit 37 homeruns in 2010, he walked 91 times and led the league with a .424 on-base percentage. He didn’t win a batting title, he didn’t the lead the league in RBI, nor did he lead the league in homeruns. Those three statistics by traditional measurement were held sacred up to that point. Instead, what did he lead the league in?
OBP and OPS. Even the year prior to Votto, Joe Mauer of the Twins won the award in the American League because he hit .354 while a guy like Ben Zobrist of the Tampa Bay Rays was worth almost a full win more. Zobrist got little support, finishing behind players such as Kendrys Morales and Jason Bay. Zack Greinke of the Royals was the best player in baseball in 2009, posting a 10.4 WAR, but it’s always a lot more difficult for pitchers to get MVP traction by the nature of the voting (Greinke ran away with the Cy Young in 2009). Ten years after Votto’s victory, it set a precedent that still stands to this day.
Baseball is more three true outcome than ever: walk, strikeout or homerun. Players are more focused on taking pitches and getting on base any way possible, which eliminates giving the opposition a free out with a sacrifice bunt. Instead of trying to go for doubles and expanding the zone, they simply take the balls given to them to get on-base for the next man up. Pitchers have to find new ways to attack hitters, which isn’t necessarily an issue because their stuff is filthier than ever. Attacking the zone predominantly leads to more strikeouts or more homeruns. Both of these are made even more common with the rising popularity of an uppercut swing as baseball has put more of an emphasis on launch angle. That uppercut swing to elevate the ball eliminates small ball, while they miss pitches they normally wouldn’t. But, in turn, they drive pitches out of the yard they wouldn’t with a more old school approach.
Let’s look at Votto’s 2010: 91 BB, 37 HR, 125 Ks. That’s 253 of the three true outcomes out 547 at bats. That is roughly 46% of his at bats. Since walks aren’t included in batting average, if we extend this to plate appearances for more context: 253 outcomes of 648 plate appearances. That’s roughly 40% of his outcomes.
This was before this took off and took the league by storm. Votto’s career statistics you’d find on the back of a baseball card are more indicative of this era over his entire career than any era before him, yet this approach has only been in the mainstream for four or so seasons. He has hit .304 lifetime, which tells you how incredible his hand-eye coordination is. The back of a baseball card truly doesn’t do Joey Votto any justice. He’s never popped up to the pitcher or catcher at any point in his career. He has just seven pop ups to second base. Remarkably, he didn’t pop out to a first baseman for the first time in his career until April of 2019. He made his Major League debut in 2007. He’s a special kind of player, but with him it truly is a three true outcome. He doesn’t get under the ball much. He has struck out 1,354 times in his career while walking 1,217 times. He has hit a homerun in 295 trips to the plate. That’s 2,866 times he’s had one of the three true outcomes in a regular season ballgame in 7,595 plate appearances. That’s 37% of the time. The three true outcome rate was 33% across baseball in the 2018 season. Judging by the most recent season with 162 games in 2019, the percentage of three true outcome was 35.1%, the highest across the league ever. This past season, albeit a shortened 60 game campaign, was 36.1%.
Joey Votto’s three true outcomes in both his career and his 2010 MVP season percentage is higher than the highest single season percentage in MLB history. Joey Votto is baseball’s biggest analytical darling for a reason and it’s because he’s always been ahead of the curve. His OPS for his career is .974, which is now the statistic most front offices value the most. League average during his time in baseball hovers around .750.
Joey Votto’s MVP in 2010 signaled a change in how we perceive the talent across the league and was extremely ahead of its time. The campaign ages extremely well in impact a decade after it was awarded the National League Most Valuable Player Award,
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