Luke Voit had a career year in 2020, as we all know. (This is part of the reason why many wanted to trade him; it is why I was against that idea outright.) This can make it somewhat challenging to identify a way for him to tangibly improve in 2021. However, this turned out to be fairly easy: Voit, despite his incredible season, actually took a significant step back with his plate discipline.
Here is a handy visualization that gets directly to the point:
Pretty clear decline there, sinking to levels not seen since his August 2018 breakout in New York. Unsurprisingly, there was a correlated increase in Voit’s chase rate over the same period – which, combined, drove his on-base percentage down to a fairly pedestrian .338. I put together this chart that shows the three figures from 2017-20, with league averages in parentheses:
|OBP||Walk Rate||Chase Rate||PA|
|2018||.398||10.6% (8.5%)||27.5% (30.9%)||161|
|2019||.378||13.9% (8.5%)||26.6% (31.6%)||510|
|2020||.338||7.30% (9.2%)||33.3% (30.6%)||234|
|Career||.363||10.9% (8.5%)||28.9% (~30%)||1,029|
There are a few obvious takeaways from this. First, Voit has always drawn walks at a rate higher than league average. (That is also visible in the Statcast chart above.) Second, he has been above average at laying off pitches outside of the zone. This is a fairly straightforward relationship, so no surprises here, and it clearly correlates with his robust on-base percentages. Finally, this changed significantly in 2020.
This is all pretty simple stuff. Complicating matters is, well, everything about 2020’s pandemic season: it was only 234 plate appearances. This prompts at least two questions: 1) How real was any of that, and 2) Would this have reversed given time? The answer to question one, unfortunately, is that it was real. I think it goes without saying that 2020 holds less analytical weight than the typical season. But it still happened and we have to just take it for what it was.
As for question two, let’s break down the 2020 season into two-week chunks and chart Voit’s walk rate over that:
- July 23-August 6: 5.6% walk rate
- August 7-August 20: 10.6%
- August 21-September 9: 9.1%
- September 10-September 27: 4.1%
What we see is that for half the season, Voit was hardly walking. For the other half, he was walking at a level reasonably close to his career average. In a short season, though, that is enough to alter a stat line and make something like this stand out at first glance.
So, if what I am saying is that this is all short-season nonsense, where does the improvement come in? That’s the crux: this story is not quite so simple, as the sort of pitches Voit was swinging at were not all created equal. Check this out:
First, his swing percentage by Statcast zone in both 2019 and 2020:
In theory, Voit’s 2019 looks essentially ideal: he did not swing at nearly anything outside of the zone. By contrast, in 2020, he increased his out-of-zone swing percentage in three of the four quadrants, up-and-away excepted.
Next, let’s look at this exit velocities in the same quadrant, year-over-year:
Now we’re cooking. Look at how the increase in exit velocity on pitches low-and-in. (While the same is true for up-and-away, the low swing rate there suggests it is a very small sample. I am discounting it altogether.) This correlates what we see in 2019, too: his highest exit velocities are in this same area when he makes contact in the zone. It’s his power zone, in other words. It tracks that he is able to drive the ball there, even when it’s slightly out of the zone.
Here is a particularly delicious example:
And here is another, slightly less delicious but still tasty example:
Finally, it’s time for the bad news: Voit only made contact with 5 such pitches in 2020. Five! That should show just how spurious all of this is. He still swung-and-missed a lot and there isn’t much to go off here. That said, this is the spring. It is a time for optimism.
Let’s be optimistic and put this all together. For Luke Voit to improve on his fantastic 2020, he can do two things. First, he can return to his pre-pandemic norm of laying off the junk. I fully expect this to be the case, given the unusual nature of the 2020 season. Second, he can try to attack fastballs down-and-in a bit more. As was (sort of) on display last season, he can really drive the ball when he connects with those pitches, and they are in his power alley.
If he can somehow accomplish this very specific feat, he will have improved as a player. The good news is that when the only room for improvement is “swing slightly more at a specific subsection of balls and return to normal everywhere else”, you have yourself a pretty good player on your hands. And, with Luke Voit, the Yankees certainly have one of those.