NL MVP Race – Joey Votto

By Kevin O’Leary
Reading Time: 5 minutes

Joey Votto is good at baseball. Pretty much anyone who follows baseball would agree with that sentence. Votto is a five-time all-star, won the 2010 NL MVP award, and finished in the top ten in MVP voting on four other occasions. People who are not good at baseball do not earn these honors.

Joey Votto is not good at every part of baseball. Of course, this is relative to other professional baseball players – compared to the average American, Joey Votto is amazing at everything baseball-related. Compared to other professional ballplayers, though, he is not a particularly gifted defender, as he plays the easiest position on the diamond (albeit playing it pretty well). Nor is he a gifted baserunner – he actually ranked as the league’s worst baserunner this season according to Fangraphs’ BsR stat.

However, Joey Votto excels in one major facet of baseball – hitting. This year, no one in the NL matched Votto’s performance at the plate. Given just how well Votto hit this year and that we can quantify the value added by batting far more accurately than value added in other areas, Votto deserves to win his second NL MVP award.

Enough summary – to the numbers! First, a quick focus on Votto himself. Votto posted the highest OBP in the NL, and the difference between him and second place was the same as the difference between second and 14th. He also led the league in OPS and finished in the top six in batting average, homeruns, and slugging percentage. He not only walked more than he struck out, a feat matched by only three other players, but he put up a K-BB% of -7.3%. The difference between him and second place in this category was the same as the difference between second and 17th. Other than a strikeout, the worst thing a batter can do (excluding double plays, which is often good process, bad result) is hit a pop up. Joey Votto only popped out one time all year.

So, Votto did a good job hitting baseballs. However, winning the MVP isn’t about being good – it’s about being better than everyone else overall. Here, I have listed the top 10 players in Wins Above Replacement (WAR) in the NL, their WAR, and the components of their WAR (how many runs added via fielding, positional adjustment, baserunning, and batting, respectively – each win is approximately 10 runs). I’m using Fangraph’s WAR for this exercise.

Name WAR Fielding (UZR) Positional Adj. Baserunning Non-batting sum Batting
Anthony Rendon 6.9 13.6 2.2 1.5 17.3 32.8
Giancarlo Stanton 6.9 6.7 -7.2 -2.4 -2.9 50.2
Kris Bryant 6.7 0.6 1.7 4.8 7.1 39.1
Joey Votto 6.6 6.6 -11.9 -9.6 -14.9 58.8
Charlie Blackmon 6.5 -0.6 2.3 2.0 3.7 38.6
Tommy Pham 5.9 7.9 -3.4 5.3 9.8 32.7
Corey Seager 5.7 6.7 5.9 3.6 16.2 21.5
Nolan Arenado 5.6 6.7 2.3 0.5 9.5 25.2
Justin Turner 5.5 -0.6 1.2 2.1 2.7 35.4
Paul Goldschmidt 5.3 3.7 -11.3 3.3 -4.3 36.0

WAR is a wonderful stat for getting a general idea of how well a player played, but it is also very imprecise. According to the people who invented the statistic, any two players within about a half-win of each other should be viewed as roughly equivalent. Given that the top five players are all within .4 WAR of each other, WAR is not going to be enough to differentiate between them. Therefore, it’s important to consider how these players accumulated those WAR totals.

The impreciseness of WAR largely results from the impreciseness of the non-batting components. Fielding statistics take about three years to stabilize into truly trustworthy numbers. Baserunning statistics involve fairly small sample sizes and therefore can sometimes result in outliers in single-season numbers. Finally, positional adjustments involve a certain level of guesswork and arbitrariness in deciding how much of a bonus or debit each position should get. It’s obvious that an average-fielding shortstop is worth more than an average-fielding first baseman with the same batting stats, but how much more? Analytics gives us estimates, but it’s impossible to say any one answer is exactly accurate.

All of this uncertainty could lead to WAR underrating Votto. As a first baseman, the positional adjustment hits Votto harder than any other of his competitors for NL MVP, docking him a whopping 11.9 runs. Additionally, as mentioned earlier, Votto put up the worst baserunning numbers in the league at -9.6, a number that looks even more striking when compared to the rest of his career, where he rated as a slightly below average baserunner at worst (average of -1 or -2 runs a year). Finally, although Votto’s fielding stats are better this year than in some previous years, Votto himself spoke out this winter about working hard to improve his fielding, which makes a slight rebound in the field believable. Meanwhile, none of Votto’s four closest competitors were hit as hard by the imprecise positional adjustment, none of them were docked nearly as hard in the baserunning category, and all but Kris Bryant received significantly better defensive numbers than they have at any other point in their careers, a potential sign of inaccuracy. Overall, Votto was docked almost 15 runs in these imprecise categories while the next lowest sum by his nearest competitors was Stanton’s -2.9. Give Votto just four of those runs back, and he leaps to the league lead in WAR.

On the other hand, runs derived from batting are by far the easiest to calculate. Linear weights make it relatively easy to assign run values to a single, a double, a strikeout, and so on. By batting runs, Votto blows away the competition. As this stat shows, even Stanton’s prodigious raw power and 59 homeruns were no match for Votto’s unrivaled combination of power, contact, and plate discipline, as Votto led Stanton by 8.6 batting runs. No one else in the league was within 19 runs. As the most trustworthy component of WAR, batting should carry more weight than the rest of the statistic, and by this measure, Votto reigns as the undisputed champion. Other advanced batting statistics, such as WPA and RE24, which both bake in varying levels of context (runners on base and number of outs for RE24, both of these and inning and score for WPA), also concur that Votto was by far the best hitter in the NL this season.

Some will argue that as Votto’s Reds did not make the playoffs, Votto could not have been the “Most Valuable Player” to his team. Fair enough – let’s extend this logic. Any player that did not help his team win the World Series cannot be the MVP, because isn’t the end goal to win the title? All other wins are therefore valueless. Thus, the NL MVP must be a member of the Houston Astr… Hm. That’s an issue. Joking aside, Joey Votto’s MVP chances shouldn’t be hurt by the Reds running the corpse of Bronson Arroyo and his 7.35 ERA out there for 71 innings this year. The award should go to the best player in the league. Votto played in all 162 games this year for the Reds, and the value he added doesn’t disappear just because few of his teammates were able to add any value of their own.

As the WAR leaderboards show, the NL MVP race was very close this year. In a race this close, certainty plays a big role in determining how valuable each player. One of the only things we can be certain of in this race is that Joey Votto was the best hitter in the NL, and it wasn’t particularly close. Even with pessimistic estimates of the rest of his game thrown in, Votto sits near the top of the leaderboard in value added, well within the error bars of WAR. With all this in mind, there is no question that Joey Votto is deserving of his second MVP award. This year’s Joey Votto wasn’t just good at baseball, he was the NL’s best.

Posted in MLB

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