Driven by club's success, Votto eyes return to old form
Former NL MVP likely to garner votes for '13, despite frequent criticism throughout year
CINCINNATI -- National League Most Valuable Player Award results will be revealed next month. Reds first baseman Joey Votto will probably receive some votes and plenty of consideration for the top 10, but isn't likely to win the trophy.
When it came to not making outs in 2013, Votto was once again one of the best in baseball. His .435 on-base percentage led the National League and was second in the Majors behind the Tigers' Miguel Cabrera. Votto reached base 316 times this past season to break Pete Rose's club record from 1969. That included a Major League-leading 135 walks, which eclipsed Joe Morgan's franchise record set in '75.
Yet in a twist that Votto was unaccustomed to, his statistics were more scrutinized and criticized by fans and some media than ever before. There is a chance he won't even win the Reds MVP Award when those results are revealed by the Cincinnati chapter of the Baseball Writers' Association of America in December.
"Typically the criticism is accompanied with 'Are you earning your paycheck?'" Votto said in the closing days of the regular season. "My goal is to provide value to the team that's paying me and to help the team that's paying me -- the Cincinnati Reds -- win as many ballgames as possible. If I can help out in any way, whatever way it is, I will do that."
The spotlight that shone on Votto normally comes with the territory when signing a 10-year, $225 million contract extension, which he did in April 2012. A little more attention follows when a left knee injury that required two arthroscopic surgeries limited Votto to 111 games in that season.
And there always be direct comparisons to the 2010 version of himself. That was the year Votto won the NL MVP Award in a landslide after he batted .324 with 37 home runs, 113 RBIs, a .424 on-base percentage and a .600 slugging percentage.
This just-completed 2013 season often had Votto front and center in an ongoing debate of the value between traditional and advanced statistics.
Votto, 30, finished 10th in the NL with a .305 average and quieted concerns about his knee by playing in all 162 games, plus the NL Wild Card Game.
But Votto hit only 24 home runs with 73 RBIs, and his .491 slugging percentage marked the first time he dipped below .500 during a big league career that began in 2007. It sometimes didn't look or feel like Votto was having a strong year. While he batted .291 with runners in scoring position, that split-average dipped to .162 when there were two outs.
Critics during this season even included then-manager Dusty Baker, who told MLB.com columnist Anthony Castrovince in August that he wanted to see Votto drive in more runs.
"Maybe I'm a little different than the new sabermetrics guys," Baker said then, asked what he thought of Votto's season, "but it's the chicken and the egg. Which one is more important? Getting on base or driving in runs? The name of the game is, 'He who crosses home plate the most wins.'"
The debate over whether Votto produced satisfactory results for the Reds often puzzled the first baseman the most. He was frequently asked by reporters if he felt he should or could do more.
"I think people need to come up with a consensus of what's good and what's not good," Votto said. "Just tell me what's good and what would satisfy everyone.
"I bet if you lined up most of the people that are pretty common sensible when it comes to baseball, or savvy baseball people and evaluators, I am providing value."
Because he reached base most often -- and made outs less often -- Votto increased the Reds' chances to score runs and win games. It was the hitters behind Votto's No. 3 spot in the lineup who benefited most. Brandon Phillips, who usually batted cleanup, had a career-best 103 RBIs, while fifth-hitter Jay Bruce also set a personal best with 109 RBIs. Bruce, especially, could garner some MVP votes and seems to be a good bet to win the local award.
"I'm trying the best I can with what's put in front of me," Votto said. "If I took more chances, I would experience more failure. and I don't think I would provide as much value."
There were areas where Votto's game lapsed this season, most notably on defense. His 14 errors led all Major League first basemen and surpassed the career high of 11 errors set during his 2008 rookie season. According to Fangraphs.com, Votto's ultimate zone rating -- a sabermetric stat to measure fielding -- dipped to 2.2 in '13. During his '11 NL Gold Glove Award-winning season, it was 7.0 as he made only six errors. There were only six errors as well in '12.
On Oct. 1, when the Reds' season ended suddenly with a NL Wild Card Game loss to the Pirates, Votto took stock of his year and wished for more.
"I think the thing that stood out the most this year was probably the defense," Votto said before going home. "That two-month stretch where I made seven or eight errors was really frustrating."
Whatever the consensus of the definition of "good," count on Votto spending his winter trying to be great -- by the lofty standards that he sets on himself.
"Offensively, I never really got it going this year. I thought I did well with what I had," Votto said. "It just wasn't my best year this year, offensively. It was, by far, my worst year defensively. I felt like I made a lot of mistakes. I've got to do some learning and put in a lot of work in the off-season and try to make the improvements I can to be a better ballplayer so we can be a better team."
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.