Rising to stardom: Joey Votto

Over the next few weeks, we’re going to look at a few 2011 All-Stars to see how they rose through the minor leagues to become All-Star major leaguers. We’ll begin with 2010 NL MVP Joey Votto.

The Reds drafted Votto in the second round of the 2002 draft out of a Toronto high school, the 44th overall selection. That turned out to be a pretty good second round as the Red Sox scooped up Jon Lester with the 57th pick and the Braves selected Brian McCann with the 64th pick. Votto would eventually make up for Cincinnati striking out on the third overall pick on high school right-hander Chris Gruler, who underwent three shoulder operations in the minor leagues and never reached the majors.

Originally drafted as a catcher, Votto played just seven games behind the plate in rookie ball that year, instead playing most of his 50 games at third base, his position in high school. But he was drafted for his pure swing and power potential, not his glove, and the Reds moved him to first base in 2003. Votto finished second in the Gulf Coast League in 2002 with nine home runs and ninth in OPS. Like a lot of Canadians, Votto hadn’t faced a lot of tough competition, and it showed in 2003 in the Midwest League, when he struggled with a .231 average and just one home run in 60 games. Demoted to the Pioneer League, he hit better there, but he finished the year with just seven home runs in 435 at-bats. However, he showed the patient approach that he’d carry into the big leagues by drawing 90 walks (although striking out 144 times).

Despite the 144, Baseball America named Votto the No. 5 Reds prospect heading into 2004, writing that “he moved closer to the plate and started driving the ball to left field last season. Votto draws lots of walks but is often too patient at the plate, putting himself into poor hitting counts by taking a lot of borderline pitches. Defense will never be his strong suit. A coach’s dream, Votto is a baseball rat who studies the art of hitting.”

Votto spent most of 2004 back at Class A Dayton of the Midwest League, posting a .301/.413/499 with 19 home runs between there and 24 games at Potomac. He spent all of 2005 at Sarasota of the Florida State League, hitting .256/.330/.425 with 17 home runs, 52 walks and 122 strikeouts. Some of prospect luster had worn with the poor season, and Baseball America ranked as the No. 9 Reds prospect, behind guys like B.J. Szymanski, Rafael Gonzalez, Miguel Perez and Tyler Pelland. Baseball American did cite his improved defense and surprising speed on the bases, but also said he lacks plus bat speed and said his swing had lengthened in 2005.

He put everything together in 2006 at Double-A, hitting .319/.408/.547 with 46 doubles, 22 home runs and 78 walks, finishing fifth in the Southern League in batting average, second in home runs and first in OPS. He vaulted back up to No. 3 on Baseball America’s Reds prospect list (behind Homer Bailey and Jay Bruce) and appeared on its top 100 list for the first time, at No. 43. He responded with a solid year in Triple-A in 2007, hitting .294/.381/.478, with 22 home runs and 70 walks, and earning a September call-up to the Reds.

Baseball America ranked him as the No. 44 prospect before the 2008 season, writing that he “didn’t watch any Reds games or highlights in 2007 because he vowed to see the Great American Ballpark in person by earning a promotion.” He went 3-for-3 with a home run in his first big league start. BA projected him as a .278-.280 hitter with 25-homer power in the majors.

Anyway, at the time nobody was projecting Votto as a future MVP -- maybe a guy who would make an All-Star team or two, but not an MVP. Baseball Prospectus rated his comparables players as guys like Tino Martinez, Eric Karros and J.T. Snow -- solid first basemen, but not superstars.

So why did Votto develop better than expected? I think that first quote about him being a “baseball rat” speaks volumes. This is a guy who moved slowly through the minors. It took him a year to adjust at low Class A and he had mediocre time at high Class A. He learned and adjusted at each level; he wasn’t a guy who just relied on natural talent. Also, I think he his athleticism was always underrated. Once regarded a poor fielder and slow runner, he proved experts wrong in both phases, where he’s turned into a solid fielder and guy who can swipe a few bases. But undoubtedly the biggest key to his success is his plate discipline, something he had from the beginning of his career. Just check his walk totals in the majors: 59 to 70 to 91 to 62 already this season. He’s learned to wait for his pitch, which in turn has allowed him to become a .300 hitter in the majors.

Not bad for a guy who the Reds originally drafted in part because he was willing to sign for $600,000, lower than most of the second-round picks selected after him in 2002.