Erardi: Joey Votto is back on the Hall of Fame radar

Reds star is worthy of Frank Robinson comparison

John Erardi | WCPO Contributor
3:42 PM, Dec 29, 2017

CINCINNATI - Book your reservations – “Cooperstown 2030” -- for Joey Votto being inducted into the National Baseball of Fame with Buster Posey and Clayton Kershaw.

Of course, I have no idea if Votto can put together the three to four more good seasons that could herald enshrinement, nor do I know if Posey and Kershaw will be eligible by then. (They’re three to four years younger, respectively, than Votto, but I figure that as catcher and pitcher, respectively, their careers may unspool about the same time as Votto’s.)

Two years ago, in late July 2016, I wrote that the Reds wouldn’t have another Hall of Famer for 30 years after having had eight in the last 30 (Ernie Lombardi, Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan, Tony Perez, Sparky Anderson, Bid McPhee, Barry Larkin and Ken Griffey Jr.).  Right about then, Votto began making a fool out of me (something he typically does to his doubters).

Votto went on a second-half tear in 2016 that was one of the best in history. He hit .408 after the All-Star break, becoming only the fourth player in the last 30 years to hit above .400 in any half of any season.

Then last season he finished second in the National League Most Valuable Player vote with a 7.5 WAR (Wins Above Replacement) in his age 33 year. Ironically, that’s the same WAR that former Red slugger Frank Robinson put together in his age 33 year as a Baltimore Oriole.  For my money, Robinson is still the greatest Reds hitter of all-time (despite what my sabermetric friends say in giving the edge to Votto), because I just can’t separate Robby’s Baltimore years from his Cincinnati years; he simply never should have been traded, let alone at age 30 after the 1965 season.

From ages 34 through 38, Robby totaled 18.3 WAR, an annual WAR average of close to 4, which is a very solid/borderline All-Star player.  If Votto can do the same – and that may not be a stretch, given the way he takes care of himself, values playing every day, and doesn’t figure to lose his eye (on-base percentage) as he loses his power -- a similar 18 WAR stretch would put his career WAR at 73.1.

That’s a good number, considering that 70 is a threshold for a lower-level Hall of Famer, especially one who does one thing spectacularly.

For Robby, that one spectacular thing was power.  For Votto, that one spectacular thing is on-base percentage.  

Some critics may pooh-pooh the latter in favor of the former, but that’s not the point. As long as something keeps one in the conversation as one of the best players ever, history shows that one will likely be remembered, rather than forgotten, when Hall of Fame voting comes around.  (Which it is now: my Hall of Fame vote must be postmarked by Dec. 31.)

To quote Will Leitch from a late-summer column on Sports on Earth, "Giancarlo Stanton hits home runs like no one in a decade, maybe ever. Clayton Kershaw is Sandy Koufax. Mike Trout may be the best all-around baseball player since Mickey Mantle. But no one is as good at getting on base -- the most baseball-y thing there is -- than Joey Votto.”

Votto’s career .428 OBP ranks eighth all-time among players since 1900 with at least 5,000 plate appearances. The seven players above him are in the Hall of Fame and so are the two below him. Here’s the list:

  • Ted Williams .481
  • Babe Ruth .474
  • Lou Gehrig .447
  • Barry Bonds .444
  • Rogers Hornsby .434
  • Ty Cobb .433
  • Jimmie Foxx .431
  • Joey Votto .428
  • Tris Speaker .427
  • Eddie Collins .424.

Examples of being forgotten at Hall of Fame voting time because of not doing any one thing spectacularly despite doing everything well (70 career-WAR range) are Lou Whitaker (74.9), Bobby Grich (70.9) and Kenny Lofton (68.2), none of whom enjoyed even a second year on the ballot (eligible players are removed from the writers’ ballots after failing to receive at least 5 percent of the vote), and Dwight Evans (66.9), who was gone after three years.

Robby – career .294/.389/.537 -- didn’t see his OBP dip hardly at all in his age 34 to 38 seasons, even as his slugging percentage dropped 20-60 points over those five years. Nor would I expect Votto’s OBP to drop precipitously -– career .313/.428/.541 through 10 full seasons – which will be impressive, given that he’s probably the best-combination OBP/slugger since Barry Bonds.

Joe Morgan is another great “eye” man – career .271/.392/.427 – who produced solid WAR in his age 34 through 39 seasons (total 18.3 WAR, an average of 3.0 WAR annually).  His slugging dropped 40-100 points from his age 33 season, but his OBP dropped only 20-70 points.

Votto also fares well in a prime-time comparison with the “average” Hall of Fame first sacker. I read the following on Sports Illustrated’s website last August by Jay Jaffe: “Already, (Votto’s) seven-year peak total of 43.7 WAR is above that of the average Hall first baseman (42.7), and that should climb higher as well.” (It did. His seven-year peak is now 45.6.) More Jaffe: “Even another 10 WAR over the remaining five years of his contract would push him into the position's top 10.”  

WARs of Hall of Fame First Basemen (careers mostly after 1900):

  • Lou Gehrig 112.4
  • Jimmie Foxx 96.4
  • Jeff Bagwell 79.6
  • Frank Thomas 73.7
  • Johnny Mize 71.0
  • Eddie Murray 68.3
  • Willie McCovey 64.4
  • Harmon Killebrew 60.4
  • Hank Greenberg 57.5
  • George Sisler 54.5
  • Bill Terry 54.2
  • Tony Perez 53.9
  • Orlando Cepeda 50.3
  • Frank Chance 45.6
  • Jim Bottomley 45.3

WARs of First Basemen on ballot now or soon (or still active*):

  •  Albert Pujols* 99.4
  • Jim Thome 72.9 (this is his first yearr on the ballot)
  • Miguel Cabrera* 68.8
  • Todd Helton 61.2 (eligible for first Hall ballot in 2019)
  • David Ortiz 55.4 (eligible in 2022)
  • Joey Votto* 54.8
  • Fred McGriff 52.4 (this is 8th of 10 years on ballot; received 22% last year)
  • Mark Teixeira 51.8 (eligible in 2022)

Seventy-five percent of the vote is required for election.

There was complaining in some parts of Reds Country when the club signed Votto to a 10-year contract for $225 million on April 4, 2012. But that complaining has turned to Cooperstown conversation the last season and a half.

I’m happy to admit I was wrong in what I wrote in mid-summer 2016, and am pleased that Joey Valhalla has put himself back on the Hall of Fame radar.

My favorite all-time quote from Votto is one I read a few years ago. He was speaking of the Big Red Machine when he said it. It showed him to be a student of Reds history, analytics and baseball excellence, plus it showed his supreme confidence:

“I know I could have hit in the middle of that order.”

I would have to agree.

John Erardi has covered the Reds for 33 seasons. His latest book, “Tony Perez: From Cuba to Cooperstown,” is scheduled for release April 1.


Erardi: Lee May, star from the original Big Red Machine, dies in Cincinnati

John Erardi | WCPO Contributor
11:09 PM, Jul 30, 2017
7:26 AM, Jul 31, 2017

CINCINNATI -- If Lee May had been the Reds first baseman who had stayed here in Cincinnati in 1972 instead of being traded to Houston, he'd have gotten a lot more consideration for the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Instead, his close buddy, fellow Reds first baseman Tony Perez, made it.

It was fitting then, that on this baseball weekend, May, 74, affectionately known as the "Big Bopper,” would die after a lengthy illness in Cincinnati while his fellow teammates and National Hall of Famers Perez, Johnny Bench and Joe Morgan had gathered in Cooperstown to honor the Hall's newest player-inductees: Ivan Rodriguez, Jeff Bagwell and Tim Raines.

"Yes, Lee could have been that guy to make it to Cooperstown had he been the one to stay," said Tommy Helms, May's longtime friend and fellow Reds Hall of Famer. "He was a great slugger, a great teammate and one of funniest guys I ever met. If Lee was around, you had a smile on your face."

As members of the original Big Red Machine, Helms and May played together in Cincinnati from the mid-1960s through the early 1970s, and then together again for three more seasons in Houston (1972-74), where they had been traded in the Joe Morgan deal.

“Lee didn’t miss a beat; he kept hitting home runs and driving in runs even though that was a tougher park to hit in,” recalled Helms.

May hit 39 HR with 98 RBI in Cincinnati in 1971, and went 29/98 in Houston in 1972.

It was Helms who gave May the nickname the “Big Bopper from Birmingham” (Ala.), later shortening it to just “Big Bopper.” Helms tried on Sunday to give the credit for that nickname to former Reds manager Dave Bristol, but Bristol told me Sunday that it wasn’t him who coined it; more likely, he said, it was Helms or former Red George Culver.

“George texted me (Saturday), ‘The Big Bopper is gone,’" recalled Bristol.

But Culver didn’t join the Reds until 1968, having come over from the Cleveland Indians in a trade for Tommy Harper. Helms and May battled it out (.319 to .321, respectively) in Triple-A San Diego in 1965 (May out-homered Helms 34 to 6) in what was a very lively clubhouse, as manager Bristol recalled it.

“Lee’s demeanor wasn’t quite as outgoing back then; he was determined not to say or do anything that would get him sent back to Macon (Ga., in the South Atlantic League),” said Bristol. “But there’s no way he was going to get sent back to Macon; he was too good a hitter.

"So soon as he got to the big leagues (in 1966), he and Tony (Perez) began battling it out for the starting job. They were great competitors, but the best of friends. I talked to Tony (over this weekend), and he told me Lee was his best friend.”

The name “Big Bopper” was borrowed from the late J.P. Richardson, an early rock and roll musician (“Chantilly Lace”) who died in a plane crash with fellow musicians Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens in Clear Lake, Iowa, on Feb. 3, 1959.

“Lee was great for a ballclub,” said Bristol, “because he could say things to teammates who needed a kick in the rear, but he could get his point across in a funny way, but real quick. Those guys -- May, Rose, Perez, all of ’em -- always had your back.  Lee gave me everything he had, every single day.”

Helms said May occasionally telephoned him during the offseason. One time their conversation went like this…

   May: “Tommy, how ya’ doin’?”

   Helms: “I’m doin’ OK.”

   May: “How’s your weight?”

   Helms: “Uh, it’s OK.”

   May: “No it’s not.”

   Helms: “Whaddaya mean, ‘No it’s not?”

   May: “You sound fat.”

May told me that one day in the late 1960s he walked in the door at Crosley Field and found a trail of white shower towels leading to his cubicle, where somebody had perched a bottle of Cutty Sark (Scotch whisky) and the team’s water cooler.

“That was his drink – Cutty and water,” recalled Bristol. “I wanted to get the message across to him, ‘Don’t let the stuff get the best of you.’ I never won that battle, but the Cutty didn’t win it either. Lee just kept on hitting and hitting.”

When the Reds traded May, Helms and utility player Jimmy Stewart after the 1971 season, May was at his offensive peak; he had just hit 39 HRs with a .532 slugging percentage and .864 OPS (on-base plus slugging), all career highs. His offensive WAR (Wins Above Replacement) was 5.1, tied for tenth in the National League; he was 12th in the MVP balloting.

From 1969-71 he'd averaged 37 HR, 101 RBIs and an .835 OPS.

“He struck out (145 times, leading the NL in 1971), but never once did he throw his bat or helmet,” Helms said. “He’d just come back to the dugout and say, ‘I’m going to go back up there the next time and see if that guy can do that again.’ ”

May’s production barely tapered in Houston and later Baltimore. Between 1970-78,  he averaged 25 HRs and 96 RBIs, leading the American League with 109 in 1976.

Over his 18-year career, May batted .267 with 354 HRs and 1,244 RBI. He had 2,031 career hits (725 for extra bases), and drove in 90 or more runs eight times. In the 1970 World Series against the Baltimore Orioles, he hit .378 with 2 HR and 8 RBI in five games, a series the Reds lost four games to one.

“I’ve got some (fresh-picked) okra in the fridge for Lee,” said Helms. “He liked the okra from North Carolina, said he had a pitching buddy from North Carolina who used to bring it to him, and now he wanted me to bring it to him. I’m here now (North Carolina), and I’m coming home soon, but not soon enough for Lee to get his okra.”

John Erardi has been writing baseball in Cincinnati for 33 seasons. His seventh  Reds book, “From Cuba to Cooperstown: The ‘Tani’ Perez Story,” is scheduled for release March 1, 2018. There are two chapters covering Lee May’s friendship with Tony Perez.



Column: Raisel Iglesias will be following the Cuban heritage of Dolf Luque for Reds on Opening Day

Luque a hero in his homeland as player/manager

John Erardi, | WCPO Contributor
7:00 AM, Apr 3, 2016

CINCINNATI -- Raisel Iglesias can't be expected to know everything about Dolf Luque, the last Cuban pitcher to have taken the Opening Day mound for the Reds, way back in 1928.

But rest assured that Iglesias, tabbed to get the Opening Day start here, knows something.

And that is good, because in a way, with Cuba so much in the news these days, Iglesias is resurrecting the memory of Luque in Cincinnati.

Not so much in Cuba, where Luque's name still resonates, but in the States, and especially Cincinnati, where he's been forgotten by all but the deepest aficionados of Reds' history.

These aficionados can tell you that Luque's 1923 season of 27-8, league-leading 1.93 ERA and six shutouts, was one of the truly great pitching seasons in baseball history and tops in Reds lore. They can tell you that Luque was remarkably durable over 20 big league seasons, going 193-179, pitching his last game at age 44 in 1935.

And, also, that he pitched in two World Series – 1919 with the Reds, and 1933 with the New York Giants.

On the other hand, in Cuba every baseball fan knows of Luque.

Yes, every Cuban baseball fan – young and old – that I talked with during an eight-day trip to Cuba last December knew of Luque who, as good as he was a pitcher in the major leagues, was an even better manager back home in Cuba.

“Sure, I know of Luque,” said our 43-year-old cabbie, Daniel Maiza Valdes, at Jose Marti International Airport.

“Everybody who's a serious baseball fan here knows Luque. Just like everybody knows Martin Dihigo Sr., who you call the black Babe Ruth. There are monuments to Luque and Dihigo in the Estadio Latinoamericano, where my team, the Industriales play.”

Player and Manager

If you want to imagine Luque, think of a slightly shorter Johnny Cueto, every bit as much as the bulldog, who goes after hitters with confidence and control.

But Luque was even more than that.

Cueto would have go on to manage 20+ seasons in the major leagues to equal the stature of Luque.

Pick any one of these, and you'll have a good analogy as any to Luque's impact on baseball:

-- A cross between Tom Seaver and Christy Mathewson (but with way more managerial pedigree), and the durability of Pete Rose.

-- John McGraw (yes, Luque was that good of a manager.)

-- Joe Torre (had Torre done it 50 years ago).

Although the 5-7, 160-pound Luque made “only” two Opening Day starts (1921 and 1928) – he was 2-0 – he probably would have made more had he been a little sharper in the spring. He lost a series of Opening Day nods to fellow starting pitcher Pete Donohue, a stylish 6-2, 185-pounder who was a master of the changeup, including five straight seasons' worth (1923-27).

“Opening day starts were not that big of a deal before the 1940s or so," explained Reds historian Greg Rhodes. "The manager picked who looked best in spring training -- who he thought was ready, not who was the 'ace.'"

I don't know if the writer William Faulkner knew of Luque (Ernest Hemingway certainly did; in “The Old Man and the Sea,” he quotes the old man as asking, “Who is the greatest manager, really, Luque or Mike Gonzalez?”), but one of Faulkner's most-often quoted lines applies:

“The past is never dead. It's not even past."

In Cuba, that is especially so.

Interrupted by History

In a way, everything there stopped on Jan. 1, 1959, when Fidel Castro came out of the mountains. And it's never really caught back up, exhibited by the vintage 1950s American cars that still grace the streets. So little new has been built, and so much old hasn't been kept up.

Even the great history made in Havana in recent weeks was made in places that would have been familiar to Luque, who died 59 years ago.

  • Estadio Latinoamericano, where the Tampa Bay Rays played the Cuba national team as Pres. Obama and Raul Castro watched? Luque managed there.
  • Ciudad Deportiva, where the Rolling Stones gave a bravura performance? That was under construction and only a year from opening when Luque died in July 1957.
  • Hotel Nacional, the first stop of the major league baseball contingent of mostly Cuban defectors last December? Luque himself attended functions there many times.
  • Estadio Pedro Marrero (“La Tropical”), where player-manager Luque, he of the 1919 World Champion Reds, pitched several innings against the 1940 Reds, the World Champions-to-be. Luque was 50 years old. La Tropicala is a track-and-field facility today.
  • The Vedado Tennis Club, for whom Luque played baseball, is now named something else, like so many other places in Cuba. (Castro even renamed Tony Perez's hometown.) The tennis club building is still there.
  • El Presidente Hotel, where Jim Bunning stayed while playing winterball for the Marianao Tigers in 1956-57, is still a top hotel in Havana.

Dolf Luque never had to endure the transition of Cuba from exporter of sugar, cigars and baseball players to the U.S.

The economic stresses of that, along with the repression of human rights, are the truest legacies of Castro's reign, in my opinion, based on what I saw and felt in Cuba.

Basically, if you hadn't gotten out before the Missile Crisis in October of 1962, you weren't getting out for almost another 20 years. And if you got out, you probably didn't go back, because you knew you'd be stuck there for quite awhile. I talked to Tony Perez at length about this at the end of his playing career, and I've since added Cuban greats Luis Tiant, Tony Oliva and Bert Campaneris, among others, in the past eight months.

Since the notable defections of the Hernandez half-brothers, Livan and Orlando, in the mid-to-late 1990s (the lesser-known, Rene Arocha, defected in 1991 and by April 1993 was making his major league debut in St. Louis against the Reds with Reds manager Perez watching), the floodgates have opened.

There is no doubt in my mind that Luque, who was determined to be the best at his craft, would have defected had he been around today.

That he didn't have to – and that he didn't live to see the havoc Castro wreaked on his his people – was a blessing.

Cuban Appreciation in Cincinnati

For those of us in the States, especially in Cincinnati where baseball has such high regard, it is our blessing to have the Cincinnati game so enhanced by the infusion of Latino talent.

Nowhere do we appreciate it more than from Cuba, because we know what the Cubans risked to get here, and what they sacrifice to stay.

That Luque didn't have to give up either – and that someday other Cubans hopefully won't have to – is the point.

And that, for me, is what Iglesias' Opening Day start represents.

Here's hoping Iglesias takes a little bit of Luque out to the mound with him Monday.

Here's hoping we get to see a little bit of Luque in Iglesias.

In the 1920s, there is no place Luque would rather have been, knowing that he would be able to go back home to Cuba after the season ended.

May that be true for Iglesias this year.

May he get to go home a hero.

This is John Erardi's 32nd season covering baseball in Cincinnati. He has authored or co-authored six books on the Reds, including "Big Red Dynasty" and "Crosley Field." His latest book, a fishing memoir titled “The Mud Daddy Chronicles,” is available at He is working on a book about the Reds and Cuba.