The best first baseman in baseball is probably Paul Goldschmidt. Entering Wednesday's games, he's posted a 173 wRC+, he's walked in an absurd 17.8% of his plate appearances, he's hit 22 home runs, and he's even stolen 17 bases. Goldy does it all.
The second-best first baseman in baseball is probably Joey Votto. It's almost weird to be saying that in 2015, but it shouldn't be. It feels as if Votto has been around since the Pleistocene Epoch, yet he's only 31. Injuries cut short a brilliant 2012 campaign and again struck last year, when he only appeared in 62 games. He's returned with a vengeance this year, and looks like his old self. In 448 plate appearances over 102 games, Votto is hitting .309/.433/.530. That slugging percentage is noticeable, as it's on track to be his highest mark since 2012.
This is important. In his last full season, 2013, Votto hit 24 homers. He's already hit 19 this year, and looks poised to pass that threshold. Last year, 13.3% of Votto's balls in play were softly hit. This year he's brought that rate down to 9.4%, and increased his hard-hit rate to 36.1%. FanGraphs' PITCHf/x values show that Votto is having a major rebound campaign against sliders and curveballs, so he's not relying on just hammering fastballs either. Per Brooks Baseball, Votto hit only .115 and .222 against sliders and curveballs, respectively, in 2014. This year those rates are .237 and .414. Here he is teeing off on a Kyle Lohse curve.
Healing from the quad strain that sidelined Votto last year has certainly returned some of his strength. He's pulling more balls than ever (40.3%), which is more than 5% over his career average. The rest of his batted ball numbers have remained relatively stable, so it's safe to assume that Votto is using his rediscovered capacity for muscling balls to convert line drives into extra-base hits.
One of the recurring narratives surrounding Votto was that he walked too often at the cost of hitting homers and driving in runs. The argument went that because Votto is a middle-of-the-order hitter, his job is to prioritize knocking in runners rather than simply getting on base. This year, Votto is having his cake and eating it too. He ranks fifth in all of baseball in Runs Created, a Bill James brainchild statistic that seeks to quantify just how many runs a batter is responsible for. Votto is also second in Times on Base, behind (of course) Goldschmidt.
The days of Votto being the unquestioned class of his position are through, in all likelihood. Yet his renewed greatness is going largely unnoticed as the NL Central leaves the Cincinnati Reds behind and the rest of the league pilfers the team for spare parts. Votto's behemoth contract means that he'll probably stay at the Great American Ballpark for some time to come. Reds fans are spoiled to have a player of Votto's caliber play for them every day, and one hopes that the rebuild in Cincinnati will be a quick one so that Votto's prowess can be harnessed for a title run.
Nicolas Stellini is a featured writer at Beyond the Box Score. He also covers the Yankeesand their Double-A affiliate, the Trenton Thunder, at Pinstripe Alley. You can follow him on Twitter at @StelliniTweets.