Votto’s historic season isn’t one to boast about

With September here, it’s easy to forget about what’s going on with teams toward the bottom of the standings. The rosters have expanded, prospects are getting looks for the teams who are out of contention, and most articles are about playoff races and potential postseason happenings. There’s one issue with overlooking the cellar-dwellers, however: Joey Votto — who is on one of those dwellers — is having a historically great year, and that merits attention.

2015 could easily be the year that forgot about Votto. The Cincinnati Reds are in last place, the NL MVP conversation has been dominated by Bryce Harper since the first month of the season (for good reason), and a number of chronically unsuccessful franchises are looking like they’re headed to the playoffs. This late stage of the season provides a great opportunity to gauge the strength of the storylines during the past few months of baseball, and 2015 has been anything but a disappointment; quite the opposite, in fact.

That makes Votto’s 2015 strangely interesting. In a season that includes the Cubs and Mets succeeding, possibly the best rookie class ever, and a Bryce Harper mega-breakout, Votto is quietly having one of the best offensive seasons for a last place team since 1969, when the divisional era began.

Let’s investigate. First, it’s important to put Votto’s season in context. I’ve pulled the 25-best offensive seasons by wRC+ (a metric that captures a player’s overall offensive output compared to league average) since the year 2000; Votto’s 2015 season currently ranks 19th overall. Take a look:

Highest_wRC+_2000-15

A few other things stand out about this list, namely just how good Harper’s 2015 campaign has been to date: to be included with Bonds as the only player since 2000 with a wRC+ of at least 200 is incredibly impressive. However, we know Harper has been otherworldly this season, so we should start whittling down this list to put Votto in our chosen frame. Votto’s season is special by any measure; it’s a top-20 offensive season in the past 15 years. But let’s do this: we’ll remove players that made the playoffs with their team during the year in question. When we do that, we shave off ten players:

Highest_wRC+_2000-15_NonPOff

These are our great offensive players who didn’t get to continue their great years in the playoffs. Now, how many of the 15 players listed above are/were on a last-place team?

The answer: only Joey Votto and Miguel Cabrera, both in 2015.

If the Reds finish in last place in the NL Central — which they most likely will — and Votto hits even marginally well for the remaining few weeks of the season, he will have arguably the best offensive season for a last-place team in the past 15 years. The finer points of a debate between Votto and Cabrera would probably come down to playing time, and Votto would probably win out due to his full, healthy 2015 campaign. It’s a debate that both men probably won’t care too much about having.

However, that’s only the past 15 years; there’s a lot more baseball history we can comb through. Fortunately, we can look up wRC+ going back to the 1800’s if we want to! We won’t go that far back, though — for our purposes, we’ll just look at all seasons after 1968, which is when baseball divided into divisions and the playoffs expanded to include the League Championship Series. That time frame will at least give us a divisional structure somewhat similar to what we currently have.

Once again, I’ve pulled the best offensive seasons by wRC+ since the beginning of 1969, isolating only those players that were on a team that finished in last place in their division. Here are the top 10:

Highest_wRC+_All_LastPlace

Here we finally have the strange historical perspective on Votto’s season, and we can see that he’s in great company. It’s more or less a wash between him, Cabrera (2015) and Bonds (1996), with all three well above the other names on the list; they are far and away the best three offensive seasons on last place teams since the start of the 1969 season. Another interesting observation is how rarely this happens: there are only 10 players on last place teams in the top 164 offensive seasons in our time frame. The common sense idea that a very bad team won’t have many exceptional individual season-long performances is probably a fair one.

This achievement for Votto is, of course, unfortunate in a way. Producing one of the best offensive seasons on a last place team in over 40 years is not something you go around boasting about, but it does draw attention to the fact that he’s done something very special. He’s had a career year in the midst of a team-wide malaise; that is at the very least interesting, and at the most incredibly impressive.

Harper should and probably will win the NL MVP, but in another season, Votto would be a front-runner for the award. Bonds finished fifth in MVP voting in 1996, showing that it’s not impossible to be in the conversation for MVP if you’re on a last place team. However, the chance of realistically winning the award in that situation is virtually zero.

For the fans, this season is another reminder that Votto’s patient, unparalleled approach at the plate can drive some of the best production in the game. Another year removed from knee surgery, he’s arguably the best he’s ever been; unfortunately for him, however, his best came at an unfortunate time.