- David Schoenfield, SweetSpot blogger
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Joey Votto has not played in the past two World Series.
He has never hit 28 home runs in one round of the Home Run Derby.
He's not a former No. 1 overall pick who overcame the demons of a drug addiction.
And he did not hit four home runs in one game earlier this season and hit .400 for the first six weeks.
But Votto, and not Josh Hamilton, is the best hitter in baseball right now.
Votto, of course, plays for the Cincinnati Reds, who would have attracted more attention if his teammates were named Rose, Morgan and Bench instead of Cairo, Hanigan and Heisey. Playing for the Reds now means you're a long ways from the center of the baseball universe, so even though Votto was the 2010 National League MVP, he remains a minor name on a national scale, well-known by fantasy players and diehards but not a big name to casual fans.
In the Reds' exciting 6-5, 10-inning victory over the Detroit Tigers on Friday, Votto had another big game, going 3-for-5, including a long three-run homer off Rick Porcello in the third inning. Porcello's pitch wasn't bad -- a tailing 2-1 fastball on the outside corner, but Votto crushed it just to the left of center field.
That's what Votto does better than any hitter in the game right now: wait, wait, wait ... boom. While Hamilton is hyper-aggressive at the plate -- no regular has swung at a higher percentage of pitches outside the zone than Hamilton this season -- Votto makes pitchers throw strikes. While Hamilton has swung at 46.6 percent of the pitches he has seen that were outside the zone, Votto has swung at just 21.1 percent.
Here are the heat maps of all their swings in 2012, and you can see how Votto lays off the outside pitches:
Of course, approach is just a means to production; Hamilton's approach clearly works for him. As I write this, Hamilton just slugged his 22nd home run, in the fifth inning of the Rangers' game against the Giants. Votto has just 10 home runs. Hamilton is hitting .341 and has 59 RBIs; Votto is hitting .360 with 38 RBIs. Hamilton must be better! He has more home runs and way more RBIs!
Most of you reading this probably understand that there's much to evaluating a hitter's production's than the traditional Triple Crown stats. So, yes, Hamilton has a 12-homer advantage. But Votto has outdoubled Hamilton 25 to 12 and, thanks to Hamilton's more free-swinging ways, drawn 46 walks to Hamilton's 22. That means Votto gets on base more while using fewer outs, which can be seen in each player's on-base percentage -- Votto's is .480 and Hamilton's .397. That 83-point gap is the same difference between Hamilton and, say, Marco Scutaro. According to FanGraphs' all-encompassing batting statistic, wOBA, Votto led Hamilton entering Friday's games at .458 to .450 (Paul Konerko actually ranked second at .454).
But the RBIs! Simply a matter of context. Votto entered Friday's action hitting .405/.526/.905 with runners in scoring position and .392/.517/.747 with men on base. Yes, that's a 1.431 OPS with runners in scoring position. And he went 2-for-3 on Friday, including the home run. Hamilton entered Friday hitting .358/.435/.736 with RISP and .355/.420/.806 with runners on.
So Votto's RBI total is merely a reflection of his teammates, not a lack of clutch hitting on his part. The guys batting in front of him on Friday were Zack Cozart and Chris Heisey, with OBPs of .301 and .292. The guys batting in front of Hamilton had OBPs of .342 and .371. In fact, if you still don't believe, Votto's average in high-leverage situations this season is a robust .487 with four home runs and nine doubles in 39 at-bats (before Friday).
He actually did fail to come through in a key situation on Friday, striking out against Phil Coke with two out, two on and the game tied in the eighth inning. But even in that at-bat you could see what makes Votto so tough: After Coke got ahead with two strikes, Votto choked up on the bat even more than he normally does (like Barry Bonds, he always chokes up a bit, not gripping the bat completely at the knob). Coke got him, but it's another indication of why Votto hits well with two strikes.
Speaking of Bonds, how rare is the .480 OBP that Votto owns right now? Since 1950, it has been just 10 times by five players -- including four times by Mr. Bonds. Before Bonds, the last player to do so was Frank Thomas in 1994.
And before Rangers fans get all worked up, this isn't criticism of Hamilton. It's actually a compliment, because if you can be mentioned in the same breath as Josh Hamilton in 2012, maybe you do deserve a little more recognition.