How Have Previous Joey Vottos Aged?

Now that Joey Votto is signed with Cincinnati through his age 39 season, there’s a lot of talk about how long he can be expected to remain productive. The Reds are basically accepting that this deal will be an albatross at the end of the contract in order to secure premium years at reasonable prices in the first half of the deal. The discussion of the contract should not be whether Votto will be worth the money in 2021, 2022, or 2023 – he won’t be, in almost any scenario you can come up with – but by how much surplus value he’ll be able to create through 2020.

I have more thoughts on long term pricing valuations that I’ll share in the next day or two, but for now, I wanted to look at how productive other similar first baseman to Votto were in their age 28-39 seasons. To do this, I pulled every first baseman in history who had at least 2,000 plate appearances and a wRC+ between 142 to 161 from ages 24-27. Those are the ages that Votto has been a big leaguer for, and gives us a nice four year window leading up a player’s prime. Since Votto has a wRC+ of 152 and a WAR of 22.9 and all the players in the sample have a weighted average wRC+ of 150 and a WAR of 22.0, this group is almost identical in terms of recent performance to Votto at this point in his career.

Here’s the list of comparables, and their 24-27 performance:

Hank Greenberg 2,147 0.327 0.429 0.658 0.475 161 27.1
Jim Thome 2,357 0.301 0.431 0.584 0.432 158 23.1
Fred McGriff 2,603 0.282 0.393 0.525 0.402 154 23.5
Jeff Bagwell 2,324 0.309 0.398 0.537 0.402 153 22.8
Will Clark 2,664 0.303 0.378 0.509 0.386 151 22.9
Eddie Murray 2,412 0.305 0.376 0.534 0.396 149 21.9
Harmon Killebrew 2,435 0.266 0.375 0.561 0.406 146 21.2
Prince Fielder 2,819 0.284 0.400 0.537 0.395 146 17
Don Mattingly 2,750 0.329 0.375 0.542 0.391 145 23.8
Miguel Cabrera 2,697 0.316 0.391 0.566 0.401 145 20
Harry Heilmann 2,395 0.346 0.401 0.527 0.425 142 20.4

Some pretty nice company there. Obviously, Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder don’t really help us understand aging curves much since they’re still in a similar position to Votto throughout their careers, so they won’t be included in the next table, which is how these comparables performed from age 28-39.

Hank Greenberg 2,783 0.299 0.409 0.591 0.450 157 30.5
Jim Thome 6,650 0.272 0.402 0.564 0.406 145 44
Fred McGriff 7,129 0.288 0.372 0.506 0.377 128 36.7
Jeff Bagwell 6,457 0.293 0.413 0.552 0.411 149 56.7
Will Clark 4,573 0.305 0.393 0.483 0.380 127 25.3
Eddie Murray 7,540 0.285 0.361 0.467 0.361 125 44.6
Harmon Killebrew 6,469 0.255 0.382 0.493 0.387 145 52.6
Don Mattingly 3,992 0.289 0.346 0.417 0.336 107 15
Harry Heilmann 4,884 0.364 0.437 0.564 0.452 155 48.7

The weighted average of the group’s wRC+ dropped from 150 to 137, still a fantastic total. These nine players compiled +354 WAR from 28-39 for a straight average of +39 WAR per player. A weighted average pushes the total up to +42 per player, but because guys who were unlikely to keep producing were dropped from the league before they could bring down their total numbers, a weighted average isn’t appropriate here.

You don’t need to do much analysis to realize that these guys were absolutely fantastic players over the bulk of their careers. Mattingly was the worst of the bunch, coming in at +15 WAR in 4,000 plate appearances, but the other eight ranged from All-Stars to Inner-Circle-Hall-Of-Famers for the duration of their careers.

If Votto racks up another +40 WAR before he retires, I’m fairly certain the Reds will look back on this contract with fondness, and they’ll be glad they kept a Hall-of-Fame player wearing a Cincinnati uniform for his entire career. Obviously, there’s a lot of risk involved with injury or unforeseen issues arising at some point, but Votto’s not all that high of a risk for near term performance collapse.

The reality is that there are a good number of positive comparisons for Votto, and any analysis that suggests that this deal is obviously not worth the money isn’t presenting the whole picture. This deal could go very wrong, but previous first baseman who have performed in a similar manner at the same ages as Votto have gone on to have highly productive careers even as they got older.

At some point in the next 12 years, Joey Votto will stop being worth $20 million per year. If he’s worth $30 million per year for a number of seasons up to that point, though, the Reds won’t care.

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