The honorific of Best Hitter in Baseball is hereby declared open for claim, at least until Albert Pujols fully rediscovers the form that locked down the title. Pujols has slipped enough to rank 21st in batting average, 11th in slugging and sixth in adjusted OPS over the past three seasons. That's enough slippage to leave the title up for grabs.
It may surprise you that the player with as good an argument as anybody to be considered BHB has never started an All-Star Game, never won a playoff game and is coming off a year in which he "struggled" -- well, only he would call a season in which he led the league in walks, doubles and OBP a struggle. Folks, it's time to wake up and appreciate Joey Votto of the Cincinnati Reds, as pure a hitter as exists in the game.
Votto, the 28-year-old first baseman now in his sixth season, began this week leading the league again in walks, doubles and OBP, not to mention OPS. He is hitting .346, including a 30-game stretch in which he has hit .400 and an insane 10-game hitting streak in which he is hitting .576/.615/.909. I could throw a gazillion other numbers at you to help define the wizardry of Votto, but I like these three best:
• Votto has not popped up to the infield all season. In fact, he has popped out to the infield only three times in 2,138 plate appearances over the past four seasons.
• The average NL hitter bats .198 when he is behind in the count. Votto hits .300 when he is behind in the count.
• Votto has pulled a ball foul into the stands only once in his entire major league career. Once.
"Sure, I remember it," he said. "It was my rookie year. It wasn't that deep -- and maybe 20, 30 feet foul. I haven't hit a long home run foul in my whole career."
I was stunned when Votto told me that. We were talking about pull hitting last Friday because I was intrigued that he had not hit a home run to rightfield all year. (Lo and behold, he smacked a Wandy Rodriguez breaking ball into the rightfield seats about two hours later.) I told him I've noticed that he almost never gets out on his front foot with the barrel well in front of the plate -- a mistake of timing that often creates the empty drama of the majestic but worthless foul "home run." And that's when he told me he never has hit one of those crowd teasers.
Amazing. But Votto is the most amazing hitter you've heard the least about. With his incredible balance and the stillest head in the hitting business, he is a lefthanded version of Manny Ramirez in his prime.
"Funny you should say that," Votto said. "He's one of the guys I try to model myself after. I watch tapes of Manny a lot."
Like Ramirez, Votto's balance is so great and his stroke so fast that his contact zone -- the airspace where his barrel meets the baseball -- is deeper that just about every other hitter. The deeper the ball, the more time a hitter has to decode its spin, speed and location. But unlike most hitters, Votto does not sacrifice power by letting the ball get deep. He crushes balls with regularity over walls in centerfield and leftfield.
Letting the ball travel also gives Votto a retaliatory weapon in situations when a pitcher is empowered by a count in his favor. Pitchers make their money on precisely that empowerment -- "Get ahead, stay ahead" is the pitching coach's mantra, and the numbers bear it out. But the rules don't apply when Votto is in the box. Pitchers lose that huge edge against him. To hit .300 when the pitcher has the count in his favor is stunning. (By way of comparison, Josh Hamilton hits .242 in such situations and Miguel Cabrera .286.)
"I feel like the more pitches I see the more information I have," Votto explained. "I can start checking pitches off the more I see. I study pitchers and have an idea of what they're trying to do. And then as I see pitches in an at-bat I start to check them off in my mind until I get to a point where I have a good idea of what's coming. You can call it guessing if you want."
Technically, nobody is better than Votto, the 2010 NL MVP. But is he the Best Hitter in Baseball? When I put that question to one veteran hitting coach, he answered, "Josh Hamilton is the Best Hitter in Baseball. He's just too dangerous. But he can't be the Best Hitter in Baseball because he's going to get hurt again. He always does. So on the one hand he's a better hitter than everybody else, but on the other hand he's always hurt. So then you have to look at Matt Kemp. Miguel Cabrera, Joey Votto and Albert Pujols when he's locked in -- and he's not locked in right now."
Votto is on top of his game right now, just as Kemp was in April and Hamilton was in May. But to determine the BHB we need a bigger window to consider than one hot month. So let's look at the past three seasons (2010-12) because these are the years Pujols has opened the door for someone else to claim BHB. Now consider the leaders in some offensive categories from 2010-12:
From these numbers, you can rule out Hamilton, if only because of the durability question. He can be the BHBWH -- Best Hitter in Baseball When Healthy. (Hamilton has been on base 171 fewer times than Votto over the past three years.) Rule out Kemp, who, with his hamstring injury, will not be able to consolidate his one breakout season, 2011.
You're left with Cabrera and Votto, two pure hitters who were born five months apart in 1983 and are hitting their prime years. The numbers favor Cabrera. But keep this in mind: Votto gets less help from his lineup. Yes, he hits in a hitter-friendly park, but Votto gets far fewer chances to hit with runners on base than Cabrera -- or even Carlos Lee of the Astros, for the matter.
Under Dusty Baker, the Reds have been awful at getting the manager tablesetters for the top of his lineup. The Reds are tied with Pittsburgh for the worst combined OBP by the first two spots in the batting order (.272). Here's where they have ranked in table-setting OBP since 2008: 15, 16, 11, 6, 15. (Paging Billy Hamilton, the phenomenal speedster in A ball.)
Over the past three seasons, Cabrera has batted with 157 more runners than has Votto (1,089-932), including a 27-runner advantage this year (150-123).
And if you're a hitting connoisseur, well, that infield popup statistic on Votto is interesting. Infield popups are as useless as strikeouts. They don't advance runners and they don't put pressure on a defense. It defines a poor contact point, even if fans might admire the mesmerizing flight of a particularly high popup, known in the Sibley Guide of balls in play as the "Major League Popup."
Over the post four seasons, Cabrera has hit way more popups than Votto: 43-3. And keep this in mind as Votto exhibits stupendous control of his bat and the strike zone: He is on pace to lead the league in on-base percentage for a third straight year. Only five players have done that since World War II: Ted Williams, Joe Morgan, Mike Schmidt, Wade Boggs and Barry Bonds.
Fact is, Votto runs in some historically great company, but tends not to get the attention afforded Pujols, Hamilton, Cabrera and Kemp. Maybe this is even the year Votto finally gets to start for the NL in the All-Star Game. All it took was virtually his entire competition for the honor to go away.
Ten different players have been named NL All-Star first basemen over the previous seven years. Where are they now? Check out this attrition:
In AL (3): Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder, Adrian Gonzalez
On DL (2): Ryan Howard, Lance Berkman
In minors (1): Gaby Sanchez
Retired (3): Derrek Lee, Dimitri Young, Nomar Garciaparra
Still playing 1B in NL (1): Joey Votto.