How Yankees’ Luke Voit Became a Clubhouse Leader and Won MLB’s Home Run Crown

Author:
Publish date:

NEW YORK — With his eyes glued to the ground, Luke Voit shuffled into frame and took a seat in the Yankees’ Zoom room.

Just over an hour had passed since New York’s heartbreaking defeat in a decisive Game 5 against the Tampa Bay Rays in the American League Division Series. Hair slicked back beneath a backwards cap, shoulders hunched, Voit sighed.

The first baseman wasted no time as his portion of the Bombers’ postmortem presser began, immediately criticizing his own performance in the ALDS. In the first two sentences that came out of his mouth—as many hits as he tallied in the series—Voit said he felt as though he had let his team down.

Sure, the slugger’s brief cold spell came at an inopportune time. The fact of the matter, however, is that without their first baseman, the Yankees would’ve been watching the ALDS from home on that fateful Friday night. As New York’s manager Aaron Boone uttered a few weeks prior, this team simply wouldn’t have advanced to the postseason without Voit.

In his third season in pinstripes, a year chock-full of unprecedented circumstances, the 29-year-old blossomed into an MVP-caliber ballplayer on the diamond and an outspoken leader in the locker room.

We’re talking about a home run barrage of historic proportions, enough long balls to lead the league and set a new career high. And get this, the production at the plate was just the tip of the iceberg. Not only was Voit setting an example day in and day out, playing through injury practically all season long, he displayed unwavering clubhouse candor. At the Bombers’ lowest points of an often a tumultuous campaign, Voit never strayed from critiquing himself or his teammates, evolving into a veteran presence by holding everyone accountable.

So how was Voit able to take such a significant leap forward as both a player and a leader in 2020?

Long before he sat addressing the media after a loss in Game 5, solemnly assessing his team’s performance after another early postseason exit, the first baseman had set his sights on growth across the board this season. Little did he know back then what he was about to accomplish.

“I am what I eat. I eat a lot of steaks. That's why they call me meat. How about that?”

Voit’s laughter drowned out the sound of heavy rain as it pitter-pattered on the windows outside a coffeeshop in downtown Tampa.

It was late February and the Yankees first baseman was a few hours removed from completing his workout at the club’s Spring Training facility a couple exits up the road.

Despite an early report time scheduled for the next morning, set to follow a relaxing evening with his wife, Voit was looking ahead. Not just at the slate of Grapefruit League contests remaining on New York’s schedule nor Opening Day—not yet postponed by COVID-19—looming a couple weeks away.

Voit’s mind wandered five years into the future. A smirk crept to his face as he confidently made a prediction.

“I’ll be playing first base for the Yankees,” he said. “Won a couple World Series, made a name for myself, done a lot in the community. Just impacted a lot of people.”

Never in “a million worlds” did the kid from Wildwood, a city just outside of St. Louis, Mo., think he would one day play for the New York Yankees. That changed in the summer of 2018 when the former Missouri State Bear was dealt by his hometown Cardinals for a pair of relievers days ahead of the Trade Deadline.

Upon his arrival to The Big Apple, Voit was starstruck. All of a sudden, he was living out a new dream and loving every second of it. Well, everything except the traffic.

“When I found out that I got traded there I was like, 'to who, the Yankees? Holy cow,'” he recalled, beaming. “I get to play for the team The Great Bambino played for, who Derek Jeter played for, who Reggie Jackson played for. I grew up watching Jeter and Tino Martinez and Andy Pettitte just like we all did.”

There’s no question plenty of legends have donned pinstripes in the past, but Voit was also inserted into a clubhouse filled with teammates that will one day be associated with the greats as well. Asked about the group of ballplayers that he’s been surrounded with since suiting up in a Yankees uniform, Voit called it “stupid.”

“I'm hitting behind Giancarlo Stanton and all of a sudden I'm doing cage work with Aaron Judge or Gleyber Torres and it's normal, it's a normal day,” he explained. “After a while, I get a text from one of them and it's kind of cool and then you're like ‘oh, it's just one of my buddies.’”

Surrounded by the best of the best, Voit has also been driven to get better at his own craft, learning from those around him. He thought back to countless friendly battles with those three aforementioned teammates, including an intense exercise reserved for the final round of batting practice called The RBI Game.

“Bases loaded, two outs and it's all based off RBI,” Voit explained. “Get a double, it's two RBI. Hit a homer, it's four RBI. Single, two RBI. It always gets up to usually somewhere between 16 and 20 points so you gotta let it eat. If we tie, then you have a one-pitch swing off. And if you win, you don't have to pick up any of the balls.”

With a roster brimming with greatness, the slugger’s excitement heading into 2020 was palpable. At the time, only a few weeks separated the first baseman from what was scheduled to be Opening Day and New York’s star-studded group was as healthy as it had been in quite some time.

That included Voit himself.

“Everything's going good, I feel explosive again,” he explained. “Feeling more athletic, more agile, so all the stuff that I needed to get where I wanted to be, I feel like I'm better at.”

As those that follow the Bronx Bombers will recall, Voit wasn’t himself at the end of last season. The 6-foot-3, 255-pound slugger ripped all three tendons attaching his hips to his pelvic bone last year, resulting in bilateral core muscle surgery days after New York was eliminated from the playoffs.

After playing in 118 games in the regular season—almost double his previous high of 62 games played during his rookie year—the first baseman didn’t make a single postseason appearance. He didn’t even make the Yankees’ ALCS roster.

“My upper body and lower body weren't attached,” he explained, breaking down the freak accident. “A lot of people are like, ‘oh you should stop working out now since this is an injury from working out.’ No, it's an injury from playing sports my whole life. I'm glad I got it especially since I'm still in my 20s too. It's something I didn't want to have towards the end of my career that was lingering and now I'm fixed up.”

With a little help from his wife’s cooking, an increase in cardio spliced between his strict weight-lifting regimen and forfeiting late-night snacking during MLB’s COVID-19 hiatus, Voit showed up to Summer Camp in even better shape than he was in back at Spring Training. He did end up with a case of plantar fasciitis for most of the season (referred to consistently as “foot stuff” prior to the reveal of an official diagnosis) but based on the numbers Voit produced this year, “fixed up” is certainly a fair assessment.

Voit mashed 22 home runs to lead all of baseball, playing in 56 of the Yankees’ 60 games. That’s on pace for 64 home runs in a full 162-game season. Plus, Voit’s homer total eclipsed his previous career-high of 21 long balls, set the year before in 510 plate appearances. In 2020, Voit hit more homers than he had the previous year in nearly 300 fewer trips to home plate (234).

It wasn’t just big flies. Voit posted a .277 batting average to go along with a team-leading 52 RBI, 41 runs scored and .610 slugging percentage. His 59 hits and .948 OPS were second-best on the Bombers behind fellow infielder and AL batting title recipient DJ LeMahieu.

Over the course of the season, Voit’s teammates and coaches referred to the breakout star as an impact player, someone notorious for doing a lot of damage, a “pillar” and a “rock” in New York’s lineup and an individual worthy of consideration for the AL MVP Award.

When LeMahieu calls you a “complete hitter,” however, you know you’re doing something right.

“Not only did he hit a bunch of homers, but he had some huge homers for us and really carried us this year,” LeMahieu said of Voit on the final day of the regular season. “He’s not just a home run hitter. He definitely takes big swings, but he has a great approach the other way, gets tough RBIs in situations and obviously the home runs speak for themselves so I’m really happy for him.”

Even with his “foot stuff,” Voit was able to lead the Majors in home runs. That’s something only seven others have previously accomplished in Yankees franchise history.

To be on such an exclusive list, associated with the likes of Lou Gehrig, Mickey Mantle, Alex Rodriguez and Babe Ruth, Voit was honored.

“It’s just awesome company,” he said days ahead of securing the HR crown. “[Ruth] hit 700 home runs. That means I’ve got to start hitting like 150 a year to catch up to him. That’s never going to happen but hopefully I can stay in that category with those guys.”

Home run after home run, Voit would hobble around the bases, grimacing as he celebrated with his teammates. Without fail, however, he’d jog out to first base the next half inning, clearly dealing with discomfort but never skipping a beat.

By playing through his foot issue practically all year long, he earned the respect of his teammates (if he hadn’t done so already).

“I think we all aspire to try to be the guy that can overcome certain challenges physically, mentally, whatever they may be to put your team in the best position to win,” Yankees’ ace Gerrit Cole said. “I would hope that not just Luke, but everyone has that kind of mentality. He’s been doing a good job of setting an example for us.”

Beyond consistently praising the guidance and hard work of his Yankees’ hitting coaches—Marcus Thames and P.J. Pilittere—Voit was able to excel at the plate this summer by sticking to a change in his preparation. Rather than taking slow-pitch batting practice before a game with the rest of the position players, Voit would step in against a high velocity pitching machine, perfecting his bat path over and over against the pitch that that night’s starter was most likely to use against him.

“It's all about timing for me,” he explained. “Instead of going out for BP and seeing pitches 50 to 55 [mph] the whole time, I'm emulating whatever that pitcher is trying to do to me and having that same approach in the game to where I know where I have to get my bat to at what point and how I have to stay to the ball to get the extension to get that extra power, that extra 20-to-30 yards on the ball.

“There's a bunch of drills I do in the cage before I hit the machine to make sure I'm staying through the baseball. And making sure I'm attacking the ball at the right place as well so low ball or high ball, inside or outside.”

Voit traced his machine routine back to the previous summer. Ahead of a matchup with right-hander Chris Paddack of the San Diego Padres, Voit stood in the cage taking reps against fastballs up in the zone. He went on to homer on the second pitch he saw in his first at-bat.

The pitch? You guessed it. A high heater.

It’s those stories that prove to Boone that Voit had transitioned from a good hitter to a great one.

“I just think from a plan standpoint, with more experience now at the big-league level he’s becoming a veteran, he’s found a great routine as far as getting ready for the game and I feel like he does a great job of going up there and sticking to his game plan,” Boone said. “When he gets a mistake or a pitch he’s looking for, he’s doing damage with it.”

Personal accolades aside, this season wasn’t always smooth sailing for the Yankees. As calendars flipped from August to September, New York had lost 15 of its last 20, including a season-high seven-game losing streak.

In that span, Voit didn’t take a single day off, hitting seven home runs. Nonetheless, he didn’t shy away from speaking on behalf of his entire team’s poor performance.

“It’s embarrassing for us,” Voit said moments after a debilitating loss to the Blue Jays in Buffalo. “I feel like teams really aren’t scared of us right now. … We’ve just been playing like crap, that’s the bottom line.”

Weeks later, Voit equated his club’s performance to that of The Bad News Bears, saying the way New York was playing “was not Yankee baseball.”

Each time he spoke out, his manager was aware of the slugger’s comments. That said, Boone never felt the harsh evaluations were detrimental to his ball club. In fact, he explained that Voit’s passion and presence as a strong personality in the clubhouse were key to New York’s overall success.

“There’s no question he has a strong voice, his candor, telling it how it is, shooting it from the hip is something that we love about him,” Boone said. “I think he’s had a presence since he got here. … But I do feel like there’s more of a veteran presence about him now.”

“I've always been an outspoken guy and I think the more that I'm getting put on the media and stuff, I'm saying it how it is and I'm not gonna lie,” Voit added. “I'm gonna sit here and be truthful about what's going on. And sometimes, it sucks.”

Through the good times and the bad, Voit reminded himself that he’s playing the game of baseball for a living. Fans are wearing his jersey, chanting his name and even on the night’s when he goes 0-for-4, there are plenty of positives to hold onto.

“That's what I always bring to the table. I want to bring the energy and remember I'm playing a kid's game,” he said. “I just gotta have fun. I can't play forever.”

Before heading back to the visitor’s clubhouse to finish packing up his belongings after Game 5, Voit was asked to evaluate his season one last time.

“It was a fun year, but not good enough,” he said. “I'm just gonna do everything I can to get better and keep grinding. The offseason starts for us tomorrow so I'm gonna get after it.”

Through all the home runs, all the personal development, solidifying his reputation as one of the best at his position in the league, this slugger simply wasn’t satisfied.

“It's the third year in a row going through it so I’m going to use it every workout, every BP session, cage session I have and be ready for Spring Training next year.”

Voit won’t report back to Tampa for another few months. When he arrives, it’s fair to assume the same excitement from last February will be back in full force once again. If the strides Voit took this year and his hunger to avoid another early winter are any indication, we’re only beginning to see what Luke Voit is capable of.

“I'm gonna do everything possible like I said to figure it out. After having a good year, I need to be better. There's a lot of stuff I’ve got to work on and improve overall as a player, hitting, defense, everything. Awesome guys in this locker room and it's just going to make me want it more and more and more.”

To keep up with all of Inside The Pinstripes’ coverage, click the "follow" button at the top right-hand corner of this page.

For more from Max Goodman, follow him on Twitter @MaxTGoodman. Follow ITP on Twitter @SI_Yankees and Facebook @SIYankees