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In 677 plate appearances for the Cincinnati Reds in 2016, Joey Votto had 181 hits, drew 108 walks, and was hit by five pitches. That means there were 383 times when Votto made an out. You can see how that would irk a guy.
In a statement released Wednesday night, Votto announced he would not be playing in the World Baseball Classic for Canada, saying, “There were some aspects of my performance in 2016 that I have decided were lacking. I would like to use 2017 Spring Training for preparation.”
Votto led the National League with a .434 on-base percentage last season, and his OPS+ of 160 meant that he was, by that measure, the league’s most productive hitter. He ranked sixth in slugging percentage and offensive WAR, second in raw OPS, eight in hits and 10th in total bases. Playing for a doormat team that lost 94 games, Votto finished seventh in the MVP vote, so what in the world was lacking about his performance?
Well, Votto did have a legitimately horrendous start to the season, at least by his standards, hitting .213/.330/.404 through the end of May. Never mind that he went on a .378/.482/.619 tear with 20 homers in 106 games the rest of the way, because Votto has a genuine belief that he can and should be that good – or better – all the time. It’s that level of expectation that makes him as good as he is, which is to say that he’ll likely be the second (or third) Canadian-born player to make it to the Hall of Fame, joining Fergie Jenkins (and maybe Larry Walker, though that’s a longshot given how he’s fared in BBWAA voting).
There’s a worthwhile debate to be had as to whether spring training with the Reds or participating in the WBC with Canada would better serve Votto in preparing for the 2017 season and his annual quest for the 1.000 on-base percentage that at least a part of him truly believes is attainable. Votto, though, surely had this debate internally, and made his decision to spend March with the team that is paying him $172 million over the next seven years to be its cornerstone.
It’s not as if Votto is alone in making this choice. Bryce Harper will not play for Team USA, and Mike Trout was not on the Americans’ provisional roster, though the reigning American League MVP has not officially made his intentions clear. Canada and the USA are in Pool C for the WBC along with Colombia and the Dominican Republic.
The fact that those pool games are in Miami from March 9-13 could be a hindrance for Trout, and may well have been one for Votto, as their MLB teams train in Arizona and a transcontinental junket for an exhibition tournament – national pride at stake or not – is a hassle when you’re trying to get ready for a six-month grind that features constant travel.
This is a problem for the WBC not only this year, but every time the tournament takes place. Baseball players thrive on routine, and as inconsequential as it may seem for stars to take a break from spring training to play in the global event, it’s a big commitment to make. When you’re representing your country, you want to be at your best, and that means amping up to real competition level, not just Cactus or Grapefruit League level, a month before the season really starts. It also means playing an amount of baseball that’s not geared to be best for the player to get ready for the season, but to bring the greatest chance of winning the WBC title.
Because of this, not to mention the restrictions on pitchers that fundamentally change the game in the WBC, it makes more sense to take the tournament to November. Certainly, there would be players reluctant to participate then, wanting to recover from a long season – particularly those who went all the way to the World Series. It’s also hard to say that the talent drain would be any worse than putting on an international tournament without Harper and Trout representing the United States, or without Canada’s best position player of all time suiting up with a maple leaf on his chest.
Whatever you think of Votto’s choice and his belief that his 2016 performance was not up to snuff, the World Baseball Classic in 2017 is worse off not having him as a part of it.