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Joey Votto is a fascinating player. He’s almost always great—hitting above .300 with an on-base percentage over .400 and an True Average over .300 in each of the past eight years—yet seems underappreciated by a not-insignificant segment of Reds fans refusing to look past modest RBI totals. And whenever Votto falls into a slump, that vocal minority cranks the volume higher. It’s an odd dynamic for a superstar and his fans—not unlike Joe Mauer in Minnesota, but even more extreme because Votto’s performance hasn’t actually declined.

His performance has, however, fluctuated wildly. Well, sort of. Votto is one of the most consistent and consistently great hitters in baseball, a .300/.400/.500 machine save for an injury-wrecked 2014 campaign. Basically every season he hits .300, leads the National League in walks and on-base percentage, and racks up at least 6.0 WARP. Within that clockwork-like season-to-season production have been some extreme highs and lows, particularly of late.

Last season Votto batted .277/.392/.484 in the first half, which would have been great for 95 percent of hitters. By his lofty standards it was disappointing, especially after a year in which he was limited to 62 games. Reds fans began to fret that, at age 31 and with nearly $200 million left on a contract that runs through 2023, his days as an elite hitter might be slipping away. They weren’t. Tinkering with the settings on his .300/.400/.500 machine, Votto hit .362/.535/.617 in the second half and finished the season at .314/.459/.541.

This season Votto stumbled out to an even slower start, posting a .207/.330/.367 line after 50 games that was straight-up “bad” rather than “bad for Votto.” Then he went in the lab, with a bat and a pad, trying to get this damn season off. In Votto’s last 81 games—half of a full season, dating back to the end of May—he’s batting .375/.494/.621 with 15 homers, 20 doubles, and 70 walks. And, like clockwork, his overall season line is now at the usual .312/.435/.526, with the NL’s most walks and highest OBP.

The beauty of Votto is that, when asked about his turnaround, he admitted to feeling self-doubt and admitted to seeking help via Baseball-Reference.com, searching for examples of in-their-prime superstars bouncing back from terrible starts to top their usual numbers. “I looked back at Willie Mays in the early 1960s and Stan Musial in the 1950s and Derek Jeter in his early 30s,” Votto told the great Hal McCoy of the Dayton Daily News. “All of them had really poor starts and they all exceeded their career numbers that year.”

Here’s more from Votto:

I was confident early and I did have faith in myself, but I was incredibly frustrated and there were times I was in disbelief over what was going on. I am currently reminded of how long the season is. It took two separate stretches for me to realize, “Man, you have a lot of time.” … I looked at Willie, I looked at Stan, and I looked at Derek. … They didn’t speak to me directly, but they spoke to me through their Baseball-Reference page, through their game logs, and their game experience. And I’m grateful for that and hope that in the future I get to do that for a younger player.

See, told ya Votto was fascinating.

Votto pointed to his early strikeout rate and strikeout-to-walk ratio being clear signs that he was way out of whack. Through his first 50 games, Votto whiffed in 27 percent of his plate appearances, totaling 54 strikeouts compared to 28 walks. In his next 81 games, he whiffed 15 percent of the time, totaling 56 strikeouts versus 70 walks. During his current 81-game stretch Votto leads all major leaguers in batting average (.375) and on-base percentage (.494) while ranking third in slugging percentage (.621).

Those gaudy 81-game totals include hitting .426/.526/.677 in the second half—historic post-break production for the second season in a row. He leads all National Leaguers in second-half walk rate and has one of the league’s 10 lowest strikeout rates, whiffing on just 5 percent of his swings. Votto responded to a rare bad stretch by turning into Super Votto. Here’s a list—via Baseball-Reference.com—of the highest second-half on-base percentages of all time among hitters with at least 200 plate appearances after the break:

  • .608 – Barry Bonds, 2002
  • .594 – Ted Williams, 1957
  • .589 – Barry Bonds, 2004
  • .587 – Barry Bonds, 2003
  • .583 – Ted Williams, 1941
  • .557 – Babe Ruth, 1932
  • .552 – Babe Ruth, 1920
  • .552 – Babe Ruth, 1923
  • .547 – Barry Bonds, 2001
  • .541 – Rogers Hornsby, 1924
  • .535 – Joey Votto, 2015
  • .526 – Joey Votto, 2016

Decent company.

It’s a tall task, even for a locked-in Votto, but if his second-half on-base percentage stays over .500 he’ll join Babe Ruth, Tris Speaker, Ted Williams, and Barry Bonds as the only hitters in baseball history to get on base more than half the time during the second half of back-to-back seasons. Bonds—who accomplished that feat in four straight seasons from 2001-2004—is the only hitter to do so since Williams in 1941-1942.

Here’s how Votto’s current .426 batting average in the second half would rank among the highest post-break marks since Williams retired in 1960:

Votto wasn’t chosen for the All-Star game this year or last year, yet combined during the two seasons he’s hit .313/.448/.534 for baseball's highest OBP and third-highest OPS. In the second half of those two years he’s hit a combined .387/.532/.641 with 123 walks and 87 strikeouts in 118 games. And he’s right, in the future some slumping superstar is going to go searching Baseball-Reference.com for reasons to be optimistic, spot those Super Votto numbers, and come away convinced they can break baseball every second half.

Thank you for reading

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dethwurm
9/06
"Now ya wanna run around, talk about RBIs like I ain't got none?"
-Votto, post-game press conference

I'm personally really glad you wrote this because it's the second year in a row I'd kind of written him off only to find out later that he set the world on fire in the second half. In fact, he's been so consistently good on a year-by-year basis that per B-R he's within about 1 WAR of the JAWS Peak standard - and he'd be over but for an aberrant -2.2 dWAR this year (admittedly I haven't seen many Reds games, but you have to be apocalyptically bad with the glove to lose two entire wins on defense as a first-baseman, and I have a hard time believing that's really the case). If he declines gracefully he'll likely clear the JAWS benchmark when all is said and done.

He's not often talked about as a future Hall-of-Famer but he's quietly building a real case. His candidacy in the face of low RBI totals might very well be the internet's cause celebre 10 or 15 years from now.