Individual excellence makes Joey Votto the Canadian athlete of the year

Joey Votto is coming off an incredible 2017 season, but he’s under-appreciated because of his subpar team. (Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

(Editor’s Note: Joey Votto has been named the Lou Marsh Trophy winner for 2017. The other finalists were Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins, cross-country skier Alex Harvey, curler Rachel Homan and moguls skier Mikael Kingsbury. Yahoo Canada Sports managing editor Dan Toman voted for Votto.)

As 2017 winds down, it comes time to reflect on which athletes, teams, and storylines have impressed us most this year.

When it comes to Canadian sports achievement, the Lou Marsh Trophy is a formalized representation who was the best athlete from Canada each year – but it’s also the kind of discussion had informally by sports fans across the country.

So, who is the Canadian athlete of the year?

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The most obvious answer is Sidney Crosby. Crosby hoisted the Stanley Cup, won the Conn Smythe and took home the Rocket Richard Trophy. That sounds like an open-and-shut case. For some there’s no rebuttal to it, that’s going to be enough. That’s fair, but there’s another athlete worthy of the title by the name of Joey Votto.

Ultimately it depends on your philosophy about what makes an athlete great. If team success is primary consideration for you Crosby has to be your pick. He was the undisputed leader and best player on a team that won a major championship. No other Canadian did that. Give the man the Lou Marsh.

On the other hand, it seems kind of unfair to credit Crosby for having good teammates. Sure, he was the leader of the Pittsburgh Penguins, but he also had stars like Evgeni Malkin, Matt Murray, and the internet’s favourite champion – Phil Kessel – who he probably wouldn’t have won the Stanley Cup without. If he doesn’t get the Cup, he can also kiss the Conn Smythe goodbye and his candidacy looks a lot shakier. It’s hard to punish someone for having a good team, but it’s also unfair to give them all the credit.

Votto is in the polar opposite situation. Thanks to historically bad pitching, the Cincinnati Reds put up a dismal 68-94 record and never sniffed the playoffs. There is quite literally nothing he could have done to change that outcome. He did his best by hitting .320/.454/.578, but a single baseball player is incapable of being worth the 19 additional wins it would have taken to get that awful club to the playoffs. Baseball-Reference has Votto’s Wins Above Replacement at a massive 7.5 already – 26.5 would be too much to ask.

If we throw out the teams for a second, this looks like a very different race. Crosby was second in MVP (Hart Trophy) voting. Votto was second in MVP voting. Crosby led the NHL in the single most important offensive category, goals. Votto lead the majors in the single most important offensive category, On-Base Percentage.

The difference isn’t that Votto didn’t just lead in one category. He led in a few. Walks. Intentional Walks. Games Played. Walk-to-Strikeout Ratio. Outside-the-Zone swing percentage. Admittedly those are primarily patience-related, but Crosby doesn’t top any other scoring-related leaderboards, not even-strength, power-play, playoff goals or even shots.

[Related: Lou Marsh honour ages well for Canada’s top athletes]

In an age where strikeouts rates are exploding in baseball, Votto cut his almost in half at an age (34) when bats often start to slow. As a result, his BB/K ratio of 1.61 didn’t just lead the league it annihilated the competition as Justin Turner’s 1.05 was second best. The mental part of his hitting was utterly unmatched by his peers.

He was no slouch when the bat hit the ball either. His 36 home runs ranked 14th in the majors and he had just one popup all season, showing the absurd precision of his swing. Votto wasn’t just taking pitches, he was mashing pitches.

From the beginning of his 2017 season to the end, Votto was fighting for a hopeless cause. That doesn’t mean he didn’t fight as hard or skillfully as Crosby, or any other Canadian athlete. He was a unique and deadly offensive weapon, deployed for an utterly overmatched squad.

If he’d played for the Dodgers or Astros perhaps he’d be a World Series hero and runaway Lou Marsh favourite. There are quite a few teams he could have driven to the playoffs, there are more he could have helped in October. Unfortunately for him, the Reds weren’t one of those teams – or particularly close.

That shouldn’t do a thing to take away from what he accomplished.

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