We’ve all been paying close attention to the Reds’ struggles lately. Correspondingly, we’re all a little depressed. In order to bring some cheer, I thought it would be nice to talk about Joey Votto and how good he figures to be going forward.

Votto is in the conversation for best player in the majors. He has been excellent since the moment he was called up. In fact, in what amounts to about 3 ½ seasons of playing time, he’s already accumulated almost 20 WAR. The Hall of Fame conversation starts around 60 WAR. Think about that for a minute. Votto is not just a good or very good player. He is a truly great player.

2011 has been the first year since he came up that Votto hasn’t gotten obviously better. In his 2010 MVP campaign, Votto was good for 7.3 WAR. This season, he’s on pace for about 6.9 WAR, give or take. That is, to put it lightly, still a great season. I won’t be surprised, however, if he does a bit better than that.

The most notable change in Votto’s line is his slugging percentage. After finishing at .600 last year, he’s down to .498 as I type. That .498 slugging percentage would be the lowest of his career. So where’s the power? Much of the answer lies in his performance against right-handed pitchers. Votto has killed lefties this year (1.031 OPS), but has been just very good against righties (.890).  Why?

For one, his slugging against righties is down 200 points from last year and 100 points for his career. Additionally, righties are walking him more than 18% of the time: an enormous increase from recent years. That tells you something we’ve all seen. Pitchers are afraid of Votto, especially righties. But there’s a little more to it.

Votto is hitting the ball hard a lot, but he’s not hitting it in the air nearly as much. His Line Drive % is up from 20% to 27%, while his fly balls have declined from 35% to 30%. Add to that a HR/FB rate that is down from last year (though not that far off his career rate) and the lower power numbers start to make sense. However, there is reason to think his power should be better in the second half.

One thing we all know (or at least should know) is that statistical aberrations happen. In May, Votto slugged .408 and hit 1 homerun.  One. I have no idea why that is. I do know that it’s not likely to be repeated. I wouldn’t expect him to slug .600 going forward, but I think we’ll see something around .530-.550 going forward with Votto finishing right around 30 HRs The end result should be a season WAR almost perfectly in line with last year.

Votto will be a Red through at least 2013. How good does he figure to be? And how much should the Reds be willing to pay to keep him in Cincy? The short answers to these questions are: Very, very, very, very good and 17 bajillion dollars, but let’s look at the long answers for fun.

Let’s start with a nice WAR chart where I take a guess at how he’ll finish this year with Fangraphs’ calculated value in third column:

Year WAR Value (M)
2007 -0.1 ($0.3)
2008 4.0 $18.1
2009 4.6 $20.9
2010 7.3 $29.1
2011 ~7.0 $31.2

You will see, I hope, that the Reds have been getting their money’s worth from Votto. I also think it’s important to note that the growth from 2008 to 2009 was bigger than it looks as Votto missed significant time in 2008. Given a full season, he would likely have topped five wins.

This is the part where I normally go on a spiel about aging, but I’m not going to do that (much). All players are unique, but players like Votto are especially so. Votto profiles to age very well. He doesn’t have any bad habits at the plate, and he’s reasonably athletic. He does play first, but he’s average to maybe a shade above average there and his body type is much better than some first baseman we’ve seen.

So this is what I see: When I look at numbers and history, I think Votto has been a touch unlucky this year and I think 7.0 WAR is a reasonable assumption for his current true talent level. He’s 27, so he’s at his peak right now. Given how conscientious he is, I’ll give him one more year at peak production before he starts a nice, slow decline. Just for fun, I’m going to project him out to 2021, when he’ll be 37.

Year WAR Age
2007 -0.1 23
2008 4.0 24
2009 4.6 25
2010 7.3 26
2011 ~7.0 27
2012 7.0 28
2013 6.75 29
2014 6.5 30
2015 6.25 31
2016 5.75 32
2017 5.25 33
2018 4.75 34
2019 4.0 35
2020 3.25 36
2021 2.5 37
Career 74.8  

If Votto puts up numbers something like that, he can just about punch his ticket to Cooperstown. Sure, lots of things could happen. He could get hurt. He could decline in a hurry. But any way you slice his career to this point, he looks like he has a shot at heading to the Hall. If you doubt me, go take a look at some the great work that’s been done calculating the HOF zone. Beyond getting a somewhat late start, Votto fits the curve wonderfully to this point in his career. I personally would have no issue paying Votto very nicely through at least his age 33 season if he decides he’s willing to stay in Cincy. He certainly figures to be worth the money if you use any kind of reasonable aging curve.

I was born in 1980. In my lifetime, there have been three Reds who really made me feel like I was seeing something special: Jose Rijo, Eric Davis, and Barry Larkin. Two of those were cut down by injuries, but Larkin will likely head into the Hall next year. The point I want to make with this article is that Votto is the fourth. We are seeing something special every time he comes to the plate. If he keeps up his fine play this year, his WAR total will be almost exactly where Larkin’s WAR total was at the same age, and Votto gets hurt a lot less than Barry did. So enjoy it—Votto might be the best player Cincinnati sees for a long time.