Cincinnati Reds first baseman Joey Votto is having a pretty good year.
Okay, well…maybe that’s a bit of an understatement. The 26-year-old (soon to be 27) first baseman is hitting .326/.423/.603 with 31 homers and a 13.0% unintentional walk rate. His .440 wOBA is currently tops in the National League and his home run per fly ball percentage is 27.0%, a full 3.9% higher than runner-up slugger Carlos Pena. In other words, he’s having a monster season. As MLBTR’s Ben Nicholson-Smith points out, Votto’s headed for his first year of arbitration—and he’s putting himself in line for a pretty nice raise.
The question is, how much should he make? Nicholson-Smith compared Votto’s production to that of Albert Pujols, Miguel Cabrera, Justin Morneau, Ryan Howard, Prince Fielder, and Mark Teixeira—pretty elite company. Looking solely at the player’s offensive performance in terms of the basic rates and counting statistics gives us a rather limited view of a player’s “true” production, however, as we’re looking at a medley of figures rather than a clean, single number. So for the purposes of this little exercise, I’ll measure the player’s total contribution through Wins Above Replacement (WAR).*
Rather than using the player’s most recent season or the sum of all seasons before he’s eligible for arbitration, I feel that using a 5/4/3 weight is the best way of estimating the player’s “true” value. This way, we place more emphasis on his most recent season—but also account for previous seasons, to help avoid over or under paying the player for his most recent season. Also, I am not considering seasons in which the player only played half a season—so, Ryan Howard’s 2005 season and Justin Morneau’s 2004 season are not considered in estimating the player’s weighted performance. I feel that this is appropriate under these circumstances, because both players spent half of their respective seasons in the Minor Leagues before tearing it up in the Majors. Naturally, if any of these players had injury issues, this would have to be accounted for. But I don’t want to dock a player for circumstances beyond his control (Howard, for example, was blocked by Jim Thome; The Twins opted to keep Morneau in the Minors until late May in 2004 before calling him up for good).
First, a look at Votto’s comparables (listed by descending WAR):
The important thing to track is the “$WAR” figure shown on the far right—this is simply the rate (expressed in millions of dollars) per Win Above Replacement. The first year of arbitration yields a range from $4.5 million to $10 million, with the average being right at $7.1 million. The average raise per player—excluding Teixeira, who had a multi-million dollar commitment when he began his Major League career—sits at $6.5 million. This alone suggests that Votto, who is making $525,000 in 2010, could be in line to see roughly $7 million in arbitration. Of course, this depends on where Votto ranks among those players.
If we exclude his 2010 season altogether, Votto’s estimated level of production is right around 4.4 WAR, meaning that his closest initial comparables are Mark Teixeira and Ryan Howard. So, there’s really no question that he falls under the category of “elite first baseman.” If the season were to end today, Votto’s weighted WAR would be 5.2, which actually vaults him past Teixeira and Howard and into the upper echelon of Pujols and Cabrera. What makes this even more impressive is the fact that Pujols and Cabrera spent a great deal of time at other positions other than first base, increasing their values (as you’ll see under “position”). I would venture to say that leading up to his first year of arbitration, Votto has outperformed all pure prominent first basemen in the past decade. But since the Reds have 35 games remaining, Votto still has some plate appearances left. So, we’re not done here.
Using ZiPS’ Rest of Season projections, in addition to adjusting his other components (defense, baserunning, playing time, etc.) gives us the following projected weighted line:
Of course, we obviously can’t take his rest of season projection as gospel. But it certainly works well as a tool for estimating where he’ll wind up—and as of today, Votto’s projected to finish with a .321/.416/.585 line with 37 home runs, a .432 wOBA and a spectacular 7.1 WAR. His overall weighted WAR stands at a massive 5.8, well above Teixeira and even surpassing Cabrera. We’re talking about a truly elite player.
What obfuscates matters (I’ve been looking for an excuse to throw that word around for a while now) is that we’re not looking at a static dollar per win rate. In fact, I’m sure you’ve already noticed that the player with the highest WAR received the lowest dollar per win rate (Pujols) and the player with the lowest WAR received the highest dollar per win rate (Fielder). So using his closest comparable, Cabrera, isn’t exactly the best way of determining his dollar value. If we use the overall average $WAR ($1.8MM) and apply this to Votto, this suggests he should make around $10.2 million.
I italicized “should” because I’m not convinced that is the likely salary Votto will wind up with—after all, it sounds like most arbitration cases look at the traditional trifecta—batting average, home runs and runs batted in. Votto’s hit .314 and averaged 27 home runs and 86 RBI over the past three years (unweighted). While this looks pretty, I doubt it would convince an arbitration panel that he’s deserving of the same salary as Ryan Howard, who went in with a .292/52/142 line and an MVP Award under his name.
Seven million in my eyes would be the absolute bare minimum—a starting point. But it probably won’t play out that way. Eight million doesn’t seem particularly likely- although possible, nine million seems to be a reach, and ten million is presumably out of the question. And that’s really too bad for Votto, because he’s most likely going to wind up being vastly underpaid.
*I’m the type of guy that likes to calculate most things on my own, even if it takes a lot more time—so the WAR listed is not from Rally’s WAR listed on Baseball-Reference.com (rWAR) or from Fangraphs.com (fWAR). Hitting is expressed as runs above/below the league average through Linear Weights, are park-adjusted, and an adjustment is made for “situational hitting,” i.e. hitting into or avoiding the double play and generating “productive outs.” Defense is an average of UZR and Plus/Minus. Baserunning Runs are measured through Baseball Prospectus’ Equivalent Baserunning Runs. The positional adjustment is the same as Fangraphs’, but the Replacement level is 20 runs per 650 PA in the National League and 25 runs per 650 for the American League. Runs are converted to Wins via PythagenPat.