Best in the game? Votto leaves little doubt

Best in the game? Votto leaves little doubt

CLEVELAND -- Reds first baseman Joey Votto's incredible hitting numbers this season have certainly demanded the attention of the baseball world. Not surprising, an increasing number of its inhabitants are screaming to the heavens that Votto very well could be the best hitter in the game.

Votto, who has never thumped his chest and said to the masses, 'Look at me,' isn't doing the backstroke over the latest wave of attention.

"I'm not a big fan of a lot of the adulation or the credit, especially from media outlets, because they can be very 'here and now,'" Votto said. "A couple of weeks ago, Josh Hamilton was the best hitter in baseball. Two weeks before that, Matt Kemp was the best hitter in baseball. I'm a firm believer that over an extended period of time, you have to earn the respect of your peers in general."

Through 68 games, Votto's .367 average, .486 on-base percentage and 1.145 on-base-plus slugging percentage lead the Majors. His 55 walks lead the National League.

Then there are the Major League-best 30 doubles. That has Votto on pace to hit 71 doubles, which would break the Major League record of 67 set in 1931 by Boston's Earl Webb. The club record of 51, co-held by Frank Robinson and Pete Rose, is already in danger of falling.

"Votto is in some kind of zone," Indians closer Chris Perez said. "We knew that coming in, how hot he is. I just try to keep the ball low. A single is a lot better than a double or a homer. He's a great hitter."

With hits in 24 of his last 25 games, Votto is batting an astounding .484 (44-for-91) with 13 doubles, six home runs and 17 RBIs in that span. He's reached safely via a walk or hit in 64 games this season.

"[Peers] would view a guy like Miguel Cabrera in that conversation because he's done it for seven, eight or nine years," said Votto, who has 13 homers and 45 RBIs. "Albert [Pujols] is in that conversation. It's not difficult to credit me with that during a hot stretch. Clearly, I'm in a hot stretch. I'm not going to maintain this for my career. If you're going to say that, it has to be a big-picture thing, not something for two or three months and all of a sudden you're the best."

Hamilton had an incredible first two months for the Rangers, batting .395 in April and .344 with 12 homers in May. He is batting .217 in June. Kemp was hitting .417 with 12 homers and 25 RBIs for the Dodgers in April before a left hamstring injury twice sent him to the disabled list.

Votto, 28, has hit at a high level since his first full season in 2008 and is a .318/.413/.561 hitter for his career. It helped earn Votto a 10-year, $225 million contract extension in April that will keep him in Cincinnati through 2023, with a club option for '24, when he will be 41 years old.

Opposing managers are certainly giving Votto the respect that is afforded for someone who is the best, or at least one of the best.

"Our game plan right now is not pitch to him at all, if we can," Indians manager Manny Acta said. "We're also not going to be pushing our luck, because we do understand that even the best hitters fail more times than they're successful. But he's on a tear right now. Lefty, righty, it doesn't matter. The only thing you can get out of him with a left-handed pitcher is he doesn't hit as many homers against them as he does against righties.

"He's just scary. He's like Miguel. Your whole game plan revolves around those guys. You're counting the outs from the sixth inning to make sure guys don't roll the lineup over, walking guys or not making plays, so you don't have to see him in the ninth inning. That's how good he is."

For fans into advanced statistics, Votto's performance adds another layer to the "best hitter in baseball" label. According to Fangraphs.com, his 4.8 wins above replacement (WAR) lead the Majors, ahead of Ryan Braun and David Wright. His line-drive percentage of 27.5 percent also leads baseball and is the big reason for his insane doubles total.

Votto loves the line drives and his doubles total because "that's who I am as a player."

In weighted on-base average, an OBP stat with an adjustment for power hitting, Votto also leads at .471.

"I don't doubt what I'm doing," Votto said. "I realize I'm hot lately. I'm not going to hit .370 over an extended period of time. But I believe in my approach that I've had success with currently is a lasting approach and something that will continue to bring success."

For pitchers that have to face Votto, there are few easy decisions. Even when he's down in the count, his average is .299. And an 0-2 count doesn't mean an automatic out is coming, especially when Votto is willing to move his feet in the batter's box and shorten his swing. He's hitting .326 (14-for-43) after he's down, 0-2.

Votto has yet to pop out to the infield this season, something he didn't do at all in 2010, when he won the NL Most Valuable Player Award.

"He was locked in the MVP year for extended periods of time," Reds manager Dusty Baker said. "He's in that same quality mode this year. He started out a little slow. He works hard, and water seeks its own level. I'm beyond surprised at this point. It's not like he's some rookie the league hadn't learned about. I've seen them try everything they can try. He can really hit."

In 2011, Votto batted .309/.416/.531 with 29 homers and 103 RBIs and felt he struggled.

"A lot of people wouldn't agree with that, but I could certainly say to myself that I wasn't playing as well as I should have," Votto said.

In 2010, Votto hit .324/.424/.600 with 37 homers and 113 RBIs. In 2012, he feels closer to his '10 approach than his '11 one.

"It's very similar; I feel like I'm a better hitter than I was then, simply because I'm giving away less at-bats," Votto said. "I'm a more patient hitter, and I'm taking a little more of what the game gives me."

Even if Votto doesn't maintain his current pace, continuing to hit at a high level will have the game calling him the best hitter in baseball. And he might not be able to give that title back so easily.

Mark Sheldon is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Mark My Word, and follow him on Twitter @m_sheldon. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.