Toolshed: Finding prospects in Votto's mold

Guerrero Jr. tops those with high-walk, low-K, high-OBP profile

Vladimir Guerrero Jr.'s .450 OBP topped Florida State League batters with 200 plate appearances. (Cliff Welch/

By Sam Dykstra / | November 14, 2017 10:00 AM ET

Joey Votto is a statistical freak.

That's not breaking news to anyone who followed the 2017 Major League season, but with the Reds first baseman one of the three finalists for the National League Most Valuable Player award set to be announced Thursday, it's worth revisiting. Votto led the Majors with a .454 on-base percentage and the NL with a 1.032 OPS. His 165 wRC+ trailed only that of Mike Trout (181) and Aaron Judge (173). He walked more times than he struck out, and it wasn't close. His 19.0 percent walk rate was tops in the Majors while his 11.7 percent was ninth-lowest. He also hit 36 home runs (his highest total since his NL MVP season in 2010), tied a career high with 106 RBIs and finished fourth in the NL with a .320 average. One last stat to wrap on: Votto reached base 321 times during the 2017 season, that's 33 more times than anyone else in Major League Baseball and the highest mark in any year since Barry Bonds reached 376 times in 2004.

Votto has become the poster child for reaching base, however necessary. His notorious display of choking up with two strikes certainly helps to paint the image. Even Trout, the vaunted best player in the game, strikes out at a higher rate than Votto (17.8 percent vs. 11.7). And Votto has got even more of a well-rounded profile when power is added in, though his jump in 2017 is mostly in line with the increase across the Majors this past season.

This being a Minor League column, it's worth asking the question -- are there any top prospects who could fit the Votto mold down the road? None of these are direct comparisons, of course; it's obviously difficult enough finding someone Votto's equal with the bat at the game's highest level, never mind in the Minors. But these are some picks from's Top-100 prospect list who looked special enough in 2017, especially with their strike-zone discipline and ability to reach base, that they could put up Votto-esque numbers in the bigs.

Vladimir Guerrero Jr.

Joey Votto (2017) CIN 707 .320 .454 .578 1.032 19.0 11.7 1.61 165
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. TOR 527 .323 .425 .485 .910 14.4 11.8 1.23 162

This probably should have been anyone's first guess. The Blue Jays' top prospect jumped onto the scene in his first full season by showing off an impressive hit tool at Class A Lansing and Class A Advanced Dunedin, despite being just 18 for the entire season. While most players that age are understandably free swingers, Guerrero proved to be quite the opposite. His ratio of 1.23 walks-per-strikeouts was fifth-highest among full-season Minor Leaguers while his 11.8 percent strikeout rate was right in line with Votto's numbers in the same category. This isn't a new development either; Guerrero averaged 0.94 BB/K and struck out just 12.7 percent of the time at Rookie-level Bluefield in 2016. The only thing remaining is the power. The right-handed slugger hit only 13 home runs between his two stops this summer, but it's evident there's plenty more to come in that department. Even then, wRC+, which accounts for run environment, that he was still nearly the Midwest and Florida State League's equivalent of Votto overall. More advanced arms will surely test Guerrero as he climbs the ladder, but there's a reason why he'll be in the discussion for top overall prospect in the game this offseason.

Juan Soto

Joey Votto (2017) CIN 707 .320 .454 .578 1.032 19.0 11.7 1.61 165
Juan Soto WAS 123 .351 .415 .505 .919 9.8 7.3 1.33 163

This comes with the rather unfortunate caveat of the small sample, but it's evident why it was so rough to see Soto lose most of his season to ankle and wrist injuries. The 19-year-old outfielder struck out only nine times and walked 12 over 123 plate appearances between Class A Hagerstown and the complex-level Gulf Coast League. Though he made about one-sixth of the plate appearances, he managed to strike out on a less consistent basis than even Votto. That meant a lot of balls in play, and in turn, that turned into a lot of hits. See the batting average. Again like Guerrero, this isn't a big shift for the Nationals No. 2 prospect. Soto hit .361/.410/.550 with just a 13.7 percent strikeout rate and 184 wRC+ over 183 plate appearances in the GCL during his first stateside season in 2016. He looked like he added a few more walks to the profile by the start of May before the ankle injury slowed his progress. Having just turned 19 in October, Soto is still very young, so the injuries aren't too big a setback for a player already on a fast track. But his numbers make what could have been and what could still be all the more tantalizing.

Pavin Smith

Joey Votto (2017) CIN 707 .320 .454 .578 1.032 19.0 11.7 1.61 165
Pavin Smith ARI 222 .318 .401 .415 .816 12.1 10.8 1.13 136

For those looking for a direct positional comp, this might be the place to find it. Smith was taken seventh overall out of the University of Virginia in June and swiftly looked the part during his first foray into pro ball. The 21-year-old first baseman walked 27 times and struck out 24 over his 222 plate appearances with Class A Hillsboro. That came as no surprise to anyone who followed his collegiate career. Smith walked more than he struck out in two of his three seasons in Charlottesville, including his junior campaign in the spring when his BB/K ratio was a killer 38/12 in 274 plate appearances. He also hit .342/.427/.570 in that span and was the fourth-toughest to strike out among NCAA Division I batters. The only thing holding the left-handed slugger back is the lack of pro power. Smith didn't homer during his 51-game run in the Northwest League. The tool is still considered by scouts to be a tick above average, and he did show some pop in the spring with 13 long balls with the Cavaliers. This is far from a perfect comp -- again, there are no perfect comps on this page -- but Votto's strengths are Smith's strengths with some variance in magnitude.

Luis Urias

Joey Votto (2017) CIN 707 .320 .454 .578 1.032 19.0 11.7 1.61 165
Luis Urias SD 526 .296 .398 .380 .778 12.9 12.4 1.05 124

Again, take power right out of the equation. That might be good advice in general for predicting how that tool will play until everyone can see how sustainable 2017's home run jump will be in the Majors. But Urias for all intents and purposes has the makings of Votto Light already. The Padres No. 3 prospect played the entire season at Double-A San Antonio, despite being just 19 on Opening Day, and still managed to be the Texas League's only qualified hitter to walk more times than he struck out. Not only that, he didn't have much competition in the on-base percentage category; Arkansas' Ian Miller finished second among league qualifiers at .382. He didn't walk quite as much as Votto, but he did limit the K's at a similar rate. All that happened in a circuit in which Urias was four years younger than the average player. Imagine the type of discipline he can show as he matures and faces age-appropriate competition still trying to catch up. The power will never come to satisfy a full Votto -- Urias hit only three homers in 2017, and he's gone deep only nine times in a four-year Minor League career -- but his age and use of the strike zone make him one of the game's most fascinating hitting prospects.

Gleyber Torres

Joey Votto (MiLB career) CIN 3037 .289 .385 .476 .862 13.4 22.1 0.61
Gleyber Torres (2017) NYY 235 .287 .383 .480 .863 12.8 20.0 0.64

Before this column comes to its end, it's important to note that Votto's development as an OBP god has come mostly in the Major Leagues. The Reds franchise cornerstone didn't have a BB/K ratio above 1.00 during his time in the Minor Leagues, and his highest OBP below the Majors was .413 between Class A Dayton and Class A Advanced Potomac in 2004. That's still mighty impressive for a 20-year-old, but it's somehow still below his career OBP of .428 in the Majors. So for those that would prefer to look at a player who is following a similar path through the Minors to that of Votto, look no further than the game's current top overall prospect. Torres' numbers between Double-A Trenton and Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre nearly match Votto's career Minor League averages across the board. Of course, Torres' season was cut short when he injured his left elbow and needed Tommy John surgery in June, but there's long been reasons why the shortstop is seen as potentially special offensive talent. He took that to the next level in 2017, when he looked like he was threatening to drop his strikeout rate below 20 percent while raising his walk rate to career-high levels. It's difficult to know what exactly to make of Torres until he can show full health post-surgery, though it is encouraging that the elbow injury was on his non-dominant arm. If he can manage to pick up where he left off, Votto's Minor League roadmap should offer plenty of encouragement.

Sam Dykstra is a reporter for Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @SamDykstraMiLB. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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