On September 15, 2017, Joey Votto stepped into the batter’s box in the first inning against Pittsburgh’s Chad Kuhl. He proceeded to hit a baseball 104 miles per hour off the bat and 411 feet into right-center field off a 96-mile-per-hour pitch. He circled the bases having taken his chances at the National League MVP award a bit higher, and given his team a 1-0 lead. This home run took the Reds’ chances of winning the game a bit higher, but none of it mattered; Cincinnati had been eliminated from postseason contention after their loss at Busch Stadium the previous night. At that moment, the hopes of a lost season rested on Joey Votto alone and his crusade for his second MVP award, an award he lost out on by 2 points.
Seven years earlier, Votto went on a similar crusade through the National League, putting up eerily similar numbers to his older counterpart, but exited the season successfully, receiving all but one first-place MVP vote. In September of 2010, Votto’s quest wasn’t the feature attraction; instead, an imminent conclusion to the Reds’ fifteen-year playoff drought took center stage. Votto watched as Jay Bruce walked off the Astros to make it official, although an NLDS sweep directly followed. In 2017, Votto’s 8.0 rWAR made a terrible team only slightly terrible. Still, Joey Votto’s 7.0 rWAR seven years prior was the difference, a kind of difference Votto has been unable to make since, despite his often herculean efforts.
Cincinnati reached the postseason twice after that momentous 2010 berth. Still, Votto was never truly the difference in either of those campaigns, and he left the contention window with no rings but with a 10-year, $225 million extension. There were six years of losing baseball in the Queen City directly following the start of Votto’s contract, including his memorable 2017. Furthermore, he was fantastic in five of those six, being merely average in 2019. Nevertheless, the best hitting season for a Cincinnati Red not named Joey Votto during this stretch was an outlier 149 OPS+ season for Devin Mesoraco, where he was almost definitely using PEDs. Besides that, there were a few stray 120 OPS+ seasons from Adam Duvall, Todd Frazier, and Jay Bruce, none of which happened simultaneously, leaving the team terrible.
Despite the frustration of having Votto’s elite talent on a bad team, all of that is usually chalked up to Cincinnati’s mid-2010s rebuild. That rebuild appeared to end in the 2019-2020 offseason, as the club added big-name free agents like Nick Castellanos, Mike Moustakas, Wade Miley, and Japanese import Shogo Akiyama. Then, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic derailed the 2020 season; however, the shortened 60-game season and its expanded playoffs were vital in allowing a middling Reds squad to reach the postseason. Votto was merely league average, nothing to scoff at for a 36-year-old veteran, and even though the Reds were swept in the wildcard round, the season brought hope back to Porkopolis.
The 2021 season started out mediocre for Votto, as was expected, given his track record of superb second-half performances. However, Votto took this to an entirely new level, as he hit a home run in seven consecutive games in late July, and for the first time in years, Votto was elevating his team, as the Reds found themselves just six games behind a Padres team that was falling out of contention fast. Things had returned to the glory days of 2010, or so it seemed, as despite Votto’s best season in years where he finished with 36 home runs and a 136 OPS+, it wasn’t enough to thwart a St. Louis win streak, as the history of the wrong year repeated itself with the Reds falling to Cardinal might.
Following that disappointment, Reds owner Bob Castellini seemingly decided that two .500 seasons were enough for one window and forced a $30 million payroll cut, as core pieces Sonny Gray, Eugenio Suarez, Jesse Winker, and Nick Castellanos all left whether through trade, cheapness, or in most cases both. The Reds are currently terrible, and the only difference seems to be that Votto’s age has finally caught up to him, as his current OPS would be a bad OBP by his standards. A slow start has never stopped Votto before, after all, Votto still bangs whether the numbers show it or not, but nine straight losses in April is usually the end of the line.
Joey Votto has 2033 hits, 331 home runs, and 64.0 rWAR for his career, those numbers should put him in the Hall, but if things remain how they are in Cincinnati with organizational stubbornness and penny-pinching, Votto will retire with only his own successes, not those of his team, no matter what he did or does.