- Will Luke Voit be the Yankees first baseman come playoff time? He's making a great case for his inclusion since his arrival in the Bronx.
In the high-stakes world of Major League Baseball, Yankees general manager Brian Cashman repeatedly bilks some of the game’s smartest minds to get exactly what he needs. When Derek Jeter retired and left a gaping void at shortstop, Cashman acquired an unheralded 25-year-old shortstop from the Arizona Diamondbacks named Didi Gregorius who hit .243/.313/.366 and 13 home runs in 191 career games. Gregorius has eclipsed 20 home runs in each of his last three seasons; the pitcher they lost in that trade, Shane Greene, has a 5.15 ERA since leaving the Bronx.
Cashman acquired outfielder Aaron Hicks from the Twins for backup catcher John Ryan Murphy in a small November 2015 trade to aid the Yankees’ outfield depth. Hicks was a 2008 first-round pick with marvelous athleticism, a great eye and excellent defense but poor batting average when he came to New York. Since arriving, he’s become an everyday outfielder and one of the most patient hitters in the American League. And he has 24 home runs in 2018. As for John Ryan Murphy? He played 26 games for the Twins and logged a line of .146/.193/.220 before being traded to Arizona in July 2017. His career OPS+ with the Twins is 12.
Whenever Brian Cashman completes a trade, he is usually going to win it. The latest example of the Yankees GM’s wizardry is Luke Voit, a meaty first baseman Cashman acquired from the St. Louis Cardinals on July 28 for relief pitchers Chasen Shreve and Giovanny Gallegos. Voit, a Missouri native who played collegiately at Missouri State, played in 62 games with the Cardinals in 2017 and hit four homers in 124 plate appearances. He played just eight Major League games in 2018, but Cashman acquired him as a possible replacement (or motivator) for struggling first baseman Greg Bird, who is currently hitting .195 with 11 home runs in 301 plate appearances.
A month later, Voit’s seventh homer of the year—five of which have either tied a game or put the Yankees ahead—caused Yankees play-by-play announcer Michael Kay to ask, “Where would the Yankees be without this guy?”
At 27 years old, Voit started spring training competing for a crowded first-base job that included Matt Carpenter and the defensively challenged but offensively gifted Jose Martinez. He’d be sent down to Memphis to start the season, and would stay there save a quick June call-up when he logged one hit in 12 plate appearances. He wouldn’t see the big leagues again until August 2 in a Yankees uniform.
In the absences of Aaron Judge and, until recently, Gary Sanchez and Didi Gregorius, Voit has helped stabilize a Yankees lineup that was expected to punish opposing pitching en route to an AL East crown. Thanks to a historic season from the Red Sox and a host of untimely injuries, the Yankees will, barring a meltdown, host the Oakland A’s in the AL Wild Card game. If Voit continues terrorizing opposing pitching with his screaming line drives, he’ll be starting in that game. Voit's knack for big home runs—see his eighth-inning homer against the A's, his first two homers as a Yankee and the tiebreaking homer below—has already endeared him to the notoriously prickly New York fan base.
Despite Voit’s sinewy build (6’ 3”, 225 pounds), he doesn’t specialize in towering home runs as much as he does lasers. Since arriving, he is fifth in the league in percentage of barreled balls (defined as a ball comparable hit with a launch angle and exit velocity that led to a minimum .500 batting average and 1.500 slugging percentage per plate appearance) trailing vaunted power hitters like Joey Gallo and J.D. Martinez, over 50% of his contact is “hard-hit” (defined as 95+ MPH) and he’s homering every 10.6 at-bats. The power is there, and it derives from his raw strength.
In the era of launch angle and long swings, Voit showcases a shorter, more violent hack that produces some scorching line drives that exit the ballpark quickly. For instance, this bullet against Tigers reliever Victor Alcantara.
Now let’s compare Voit’s swing path with the likes of launch-angle subscribers Gallo and Cody Bellinger along with a more classic line-drive hitter in Paul Goldschmidt*.
*All graphs courtesy of Statcast.
Notice Voit’s relative lack of pop-ups despite his really high home run rate. Voit's sample size is limited, but his line drive percentage (28%) is better than Gallo's (24%) and Bellinger's (22%), a promising sign for a player who hits one homer run every 11 at-bats. Like Bellinger and Gallo, Voit is primarily a fly-ball hitter, but he's been relatively successful hitting all quadrants of the zone. Pitchers are going to work Voit low and outside the more he appears because he can't seem to elevate those pitches—he has a 100% ground-ball rate when he makes contact and an over 70% K-rate when he misses—but he punishes anything over the middle half. Perhaps he lacks the third dimension that the best power hitters maintain, but he's proven himself as a significant power threat despite his recent arrival.
Voit could afford to strike out less (he’s whiffed 22 times in 81 plate appearances), and has relative trouble with offspeed pitches (he swings and misses at 44% of breaking balls in the zone) but the sample sizes don't allow for definitive conclusions yet. What we do know is that “the Luke Voit Show” according to manager Aaron Boone is a needed boost for a Yankees team getting decidedly little offense from its first basemen.
Perhaps he’s providing a mere jolt, but Voit is making a serious challenge to be the (unlikely) starting first baseman for the Yankees down the stretch.