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Joey Votto’s Greatness Is Wasted On The Reds

During a season full of stellar individual performances — from Giancarlo Stanton’s home runs to Chris Sale’s strikeouts — Cincinnati Reds first baseman Joey Votto quietly put together one of the most obscure-yet-impressive streaks in baseball history. Between July 26 and Aug. 15, Votto reached base successfully at least twice in 20 consecutive games, putting together only the eighth such streak since 1913.1 During that span, Votto hit .435 and put up a downright Barry Bonds-ian on-base percentage of .611.

It was classic Votto, who has a knack for reaching base that has few historical peers. But it was also typical in that it came midway through yet another hopeless Cincinnati season. The Reds are 14.5 games out of the National League’s last wild-card spot, with essentially no chance of making the playoffs. So far in 2017, Votto is tracking for 7.0 wins above replacement (WAR),2 while leading the majors in on-base-plus slugging percentage. Assuming the Reds miss the playoffs, it would mark the sixth season in which Votto had at least 4.5 WAR (roughly an All-Star-caliber season) while his team failed to advance to the division series — the Reds have only reached the NLDS twice since Votto debuted in 2007, and they lost the best-of-five series both times.3

All told, Votto has generated 41.2 WAR in seasons where the Reds either missed the playoffs or lost the play-in game. Since the playoffs expanded in 1995, few hitters have seen more of their individual excellence go to waste4:

Good batters on bad teams

Position-player WAR accumulated for teams that didn’t make the division series of the playoffs, 1995-2017

PLAYER WASTED-WAR TEAMS WASTED WAR ACTIVE
1 Adrian Beltre LAD, SEA, BOS, TEX 62.1
2 Barry Bonds SFG 60.7
3 Alex Rodriguez SEA, TEX, NYY 57.0
4 Bobby Abreu HOU, PHI, NYY, LAA, LAD, NYM 51.5
5 Carlos Beltran KCR, NYM, SFG, NYY 51.3
6 Ichiro Suzuki SEA, NYY, MIA 51.1
7 Todd Helton COL 50.7
8 Mike Trout LAA 46.6
9 David Wright NYM 46.5
10 Scott Rolen PHI, STL, TOR, CIN 46.0
11 Miguel Cabrera FLA, DET 42.3
12 Carlos Delgado TOR, FLA, NYM 42.0
13 Larry Walker COL 41.7
14 Joey Votto CIN 41.2
15 Sammy Sosa CHC, BAL, TEX 40.9
16 Albert Pujols STL, LAA 40.6
17 Vladimir Guerrero MON, LAA, BAL 37.5
18 Brian Giles PIT, SDP 36.8
19 Ian Kinsler TEX, DET 35.6
20 Frank Thomas CHW, TOR, OAK 35.0

2017 WAR was prorated to 162 games and adjusted according to the playoff odds of the player’s team. (i.e., for a team with an 80% playoff probability, only 20% of the player’s WAR applied to his wasted-WAR total.)

Source: FanGraphs.com, Baseball-Reference.com

Votto isn’t alone among active players who’ve produced bushels of squandered value. FiveThirtyEight favorite Adrian Beltre is the division-series-era leader in inconsequential WAR, with his teams having flushed away more than 60 of his wins over the years (including, most likely, 3.5 more this season5). But at age 38, Beltre is also five years older than Votto, and he — like many other names above Votto on the list — at least experienced some postseason success to ease the sting of the lost output. Beltre’s Texas Rangers, for instance, came within a single strike of winning the World Series in 2011.

Votto hasn’t had that chance yet. So if we filter our original list down and look at wasted WAR through age 33, Votto climbs to No. 9 on the list of position players. Although he may never pass Beltre, Bonds or Alex Rodriguez in total wasted WAR, perhaps Votto’s eventual fate will be as his generation’s version of Todd Helton, the longtime Colorado Rockies first baseman who finally made the World Series in 2007 after years of pouring great stats into the void.

Meanwhile, on the pitching side, there’s the increasingly tragic case of erstwhile Seattle Mariners ace Felix Hernandez, who dominated the American League for a decade but still fell victim to his team’s ongoing playoff drought. Here’s King Felix and the rest of the leaderboard for wasted WAR among hurlers:

Good pitchers on bad teams

Pitching WAR accumulated for teams that didn’t make the division series of the playoffs, 1995-2017

PLAYER WASTED-WAR TEAMS WASTED WAR ACTIVE
1 Felix Hernandez SEA 51.8
2 Roy Halladay TOR, PHI 49.6
3 Pedro Martinez MON, BOS, NYM 47.8
4 Mark Buehrle CHW, MIA, TOR 43.7
5 Javier Vazquez MON, ARI, CHW, ATL, FLA 42.8
6 Curt Schilling PHI, ARI, BOS 41.9
7 Zack Greinke KCR, MIL, LAA, ARI 34.8
8 Kevin Brown BAL, FLA, LAD 34.4
9 Cliff Lee CLE, SEA, PHI 33.9
10 Dan Haren STL, OAK, ARI, LAA, WSN, MIA 32.2
11 Brad Radke MIN 31.3
12 Roy Oswalt HOU, TEX, COL 30.5
13 Jake Peavy SDP, CHW, BOS, SFG 30.3
14 Kenny Rogers TEX, OAK, DET 30.2
15 Roger Clemens BOS, TOR, HOU 30.2
16 Justin Verlander DET 30.1
17 Chris Sale CHW, BOS 29.9
18 A.J. Burnett FLA, TOR, PIT, PHI 28.5
19 Randy Johnson SEA, ARI, SFG 28.1
20 Jamie Moyer BAL, BOS, SEA, PHI, COL 27.7

2017 WAR was prorated to 162 games and adjusted according to the playoff odds of the player’s team. (i.e., for a team with an 80% playoff probability, only 20% of the player’s WAR applied to his wasted-WAR total.)

Source: FanGraphs.com, Baseball-Reference.com

Sadly, Hernandez may not have much more to add to this list — at age 31, his numbers aren’t what they used to be, and his trips to the disabled list are becoming more frequent. But between Hernandez, Beltre, A-Rod, Ichiro Suzuki and Randy Johnson, these lists also serve as a reminder to never discount the Mariners’ ability to squander future Hall of Famers’ production.

As for Votto, it remains to be seen whether the Reds will be able to put his WAR to good use anytime soon. They have MLB’s fourth-worst record so far this season, but the team also has one of the youngest rosters in the majors (Votto aside) and a solid farm system. And while Votto is already 33, Baseball Prospectus’s PECOTA system projects him to have seven more seasons of starting-caliber production left in his career. So even though plenty of Votto’s great performances have gone to waste — 2017 included — there’s some hope that they may mean something more in the future.

Footnotes

  1. That’s the earliest season in Baseball-Reference.com’s excellent Play Index database.

  2. For the purposes of this story, I’m using an average of Baseball-Reference.com’s and FanGraphs.com’s versions of WAR.

  3. Cincinnati also lost the Wild-Card Game in 2013.

  4. We’re using the division series as the cutoff for wasted WAR here because there was no Wild-Card Game before 2012 — and its one-and-done format is such a crapshoot anyway that it hardly makes sense to consider it a “playoff berth” on the same level as a full-fledged series appearance.

  5. Although Beltre is on pace for 3.5 WAR this season (his season total so far prorated out to 162 games), his Rangers still have a 5 percent chance of making the division series, so in the table above, only 95 percent of Beltre’s prorated WAR counts toward his career wasted-WAR total.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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