Monday November 22nd, 2010

Joey Votto completed his ascension to the game's elite on Monday by winning his first National League Most Valuable Player award in a landslide, picking up 31 of a possible 32 first-place votes. After finishing second in the Rookie of the Year voting in 2008, Votto was among the most productive players in baseball in 2009 on a per-game basis, but an inner-ear infection and depression stemming from his father's death the year before limited him to 131 games. This year, the 26-year-old Votto played in 150 games and set career highs in virtually every offensive category and led his Reds past the Cardinals to their first winning season since 2000 and first division title since 1995.

Make no mistake, the fact that the Reds won the NL Central, finishing five games ahead of the Cardinals, was the primary reason that Votto won this award over St. Louis' Albert Pujols. Still, it's unlikely there's anyone outraged by the outcome. Votto led the NL in slugging (.600) and the majors in on-base percentage (.424), achieving the latter with 30 fewer intentional passes than Pujols received, and hit .324, 10 points higher than Pujols and second in the league to third-place MVP finisher Carlos Gonzalez of the Rockies. Votto also finished in the top three in the league in homers with 37, RBIs with 113, and total bases with 328.

Pujols, meanwhile, led the National League in home runs (42), RBIs (118), runs (115) and intentional walks, played in nine more games and came to the plate 52 more times than Votto, and won both the Gold Glove and the Silver Slugger awards, which are voted on by the league's managers and coaches, over his fellow first-baseman. Pujols also led Votto in most cumulative advanced statistics including Baseball Prospectus' Wins Above Replacement Player (8.9 to 7.7) and Baseball-References's Wins Above Replacement (7.2 to 6.2). (Fangraphs' WAR gave Votto the slightest edge, 7.3 to 7.2, based on Ultimate Zone Rating's unreliable evaluation of first base defense.)

One could attempt to undermine Votto's numbers by pointing to the fact that Votto plays in a hitting-friendly, homer-happy ballpark, while Pujols plays in a home park that is murder on right-handed home run hitters, but a quick look at the splits shows that Pujols was a weaker hitter on the road (.291/.392/.599, albeit with 25 of his 42 homers) than at home, while Votto did his best work in road grays (.349/.452/.641). Looking at things that way, one realizes that Pujols' advantage over Votto largely boiled down to his edge in home runs, while Votto had a slight edge on Pujols in virtually every other category, including stolen bases, swiping 16 bags to Pujols' 14.

That last point shows just how similar these two players were this season. Both are strong defensive first basemen who are listed at 6-foot-3, 230 pounds and play for teams in the National League Central. Both hit for average with remarkable power and patience, finishing among the league leaders in most offensive categories, and on top of all that, both stole their fair share of bases at a solid rate of success (Pujols' rate was 78 percent, while Votto's was 76 percent). Those steals speak to way both players excel in every facet of the game. Neither is particularly fast, but both have proven as adept at choosing their spots on the bases as at the plate.

That Votto was able to equal Pujols so completely this season is a credit to both men; to Pujols for setting such an elite standard and living up to it year after year, and to Votto for attaining that level of play which had been Pujols' alone for the last two seasons. Indeed, while Votto is the man being honored this year, Pujols second-place finish is in its own way significant. Pujols has now finished first or second in the MVP voting seven times, tying fellow Cardinal Stan Musial for the second most top-two finishes in either league behind only Barry Bonds, who won the award seven times. All that and Pujols won't turn 31 until January. Incredibly, Pujols's 2010 season was the weakest of his last three, the previous two of which ended in MVP honors, yet another reason you won't hear many complaints about the award going elsewhere this year.

Votto may have matched Pujols this season but he has no real chance of equaling Pujols' career accomplishments. For one thing, Votto was 26 this season. By Pujols's age-26 season, he had already finished in the top five in the MVP voting six times and collected 250 career home runs. Votto, by comparison, has 90 major league taters to his name. Of course, it's really not fair to compare any player to Pujols on a career basis, as Pujols is half-way through one of the greatest careers in the game's history.

For Pujols, this season and this vote was not a defeat but further confirmation of his legendary status and place in the game's history. That Votto was able to match him even for one year was a great accomplishment. That he seems likely to be able to do it again next year means this award has announced the arrival, however belatedly, of a major new talent in the game.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.