What does that mean? In case you're not familiar with OPS+, it takes a player's on-base percentage + slugging percentage and adjusts it for the context of the player's league and home park. Thus we can more easily compare hitters from different eras.
For example, Votto enters Monday's game in Cleveland hitting .366/.489/.652. He leads the major leagues in batting average, on-base percentage, doubles (28), walks (54) and OPS (1.141).
Here's why OPS+ becomes a valuable and fun tool.
The National League is hitting .252/.317/.397.
Compare Votto's season to, say, Manny Ramirez with the Indians in 2000. Ramirez hit .351/.457/.697 that year, leading the AL with a 1.154 OPS.
But in 2000 the American League hit .276/.349/.443, an OPS 78 points higher.
Even when taking out the pitchers' hitting from the NL stats, Votto is producing in a much tougher hitting environment. Ramirez's OPS+ checks in at a still impressive 189, but not quite as good as Votto's 204.
Another example. In 1949, Williams hit .343/.490/.650 -- like Votto, a 1.141 OPS. The AL hit .263/.353/.379. There weren't as many home runs, but check out the league on-base percentage: 36 points higher than Votto's league. Williams drew a lot of walks (162 that year), but it was also easier to draw walks then. (Votto, by the way, is on pace for 138 walks.)
Factor in Fenway Park (a little better run environment for hitters in 1949 than The Great American Ballpark is right now) and Baseball-Reference rates Williams' season as a 191 OPS+.
In fact, I may look silly for saying this, but that's kind of who Votto is right now: Ted Williams. Both draw a ton of walks and hit for a high average. Williams hit a career-high 43 home runs in 1949, the only season he topped 40. Votto is on pace for "only" 30 home runs ... but he's on pace for 69 doubles.
As Justin Havens and Katie Sharp of ESPN Stats & Information point out, Votto's eye at the plate has improved significantly from his 2010 MVP season. Look at how he's fared on pitches outside the strike zone the past three seasons:
He's laying off more of those pitches, but when he does attack, he's producing a .960 OPS.
Anyway, Votto's 204 OPS+ isn't necessarily unprecedented; there have been 49 seasons since 1901 where a hitter had a 200 OPS+ or higher, the last being Barry Bonds in 2004. Of course, 23 of those were by Williams (six), Bonds (six) and Babe Ruth (11). Nineteen of the 49 came in the 1920s and 1930s, a period when runs scoring was matched only by the offense seen in the "steroid era."
If we take out the 1920s and 1930s and the 1994-2007 steroid era, here are the players who generated a 200 OPS+:
Four of those big years (Cash and Mantle in 1961, McCovey in 1969 and Bonds in 1993) came in expansion seasons, five more in the dead ball era, which I wouldn't exactly refer to as modern baseball. Leaving out what I'll call those special circumstances, that leaves only a few 200+ OPS years in modern baseball that happened in a non-expansion, non-high-octane offensive eras:
Six seasons by Ted Williams
Two seasons by Mickey Mantle
One season each by Stan Musial, George Brett and Barry Bonds
(For those who want to keep track, the players who achieved a 200 OPS+ in the steroid era were Bonds, who did it each year from 2001-2004), Jeff Bagwell and Frank Thomas in 1994, Mark McGwire in 1998 and Sammy Sosa in 2001.)
I'm not discounting all those other seasons, but merely pointing the difficult of Votto doing this at a time when pitchers have regained control of the game. So far, of course, it's only been through 65 games. But what a stretch of hitting.