Acquired at the 2019 trade deadline, Luke Voit was the savior the Yankees didn’t know they needed. Mark Teixeira’s last productive MLB season was 2015, marking the conclusion of a multi-decade stretch during which the Yankees enjoyed offensive superior production from first base. The drop-off was stark.
From Opening Day 2016 through the 2018 trade deadline, Yankee first basemen hit .226/.302/.409 (90 wRC+), coupled with just a 9.6% BB rate and a 27% K rate. By contrast, the team’s first basemen hit .252/.354/.466 (119 wRC+) with a 12% BB rate and 19.5% K rate over the prior 3,500+ games from 2002-2015. Times were suddenly very tough at a position that was once reliably sturdy.
As we all know, Luke Voit came along and hit .333/.405/.689 (195 wRC+) in the 2018 season’s final two months. While that sort of production was always unsustainable, there was plenty of evidence to suggest that Voit was, in fact, the real deal. Voit’s very first at-bat of the season, in the first inning of Opening Day, served as a reminder of that fact. To the video!
That was the start of a torrid first half for the Yankee first basemen before he, like nearly everyone else, suffered a major injury. Voit’s sports hernia sidelined him for weeks and clearly hampered his second half production. He also did not take a single at-bat in the playoffs. He was not even rostered for the ALCS against Houston. It was a tale of two Voits.
Nevertheless, even with that slump, which soured him in the eyes of many fans, the evidence from shows that the Yankees know who their first baseman will be on Opening Day 2020. Folks, Luke Voit is good. Let’s break this one down.
First Half: Carrying the Team
Throughout a flurry of devastating first-half injuries, including to stars like Miguel Andújar, Giancarlo Stanton, Gary Sánchez, and Aaron Judge, stood Luke Voit. By the end of April, Voit was easily the team’s most consistent and reliable hitter.
He hit .275/.392/.523 (144 wRC+) in the season’s first month with 8 big flies. Voit supplemented this production with a keen eye (13% BB rate), drawing at least one walk in 16 of his 29 games. He was an anchor at the plate. As I noted at River Ave. Blues at the time, he stepped up his production following Judge’s injury, going 11-27 (.407) with a .483 OBP in the immediate aftermath of the injury. For the second consecutive season, Voit was a godsend.
The production would continue far beyond the first month. Voit was hitting .280/.393/.509 (140 wRC+) on June 29, the London game from which he was pulled early. Here were his rankings in key metrics among qualified first basemen through that point:
- Batting Average: .280 (6th in MLB, 2nd in AL)
- On-Base-Percentage: .393 (4th in MLB, 2nd in AL)
- Slugging Percentage: .409 (11th in MLB, 5th in AL)
- Walk Rate: 14.0%, (7th in MLB, 4th in AL)
- wRC+: 140 (7th in MLB, 3rd in AL)
- fWAR: 1.8 (10th in MLB, 4th in AL)
And on and on. He was among the best first basemen in baseball in that period and definitely in the top tier of American League first basemen. All told, from August 2, 2018 through June 29, 2019, Voit hit .296/.396/.565 (156 wRC+) with a 13% walk rate and 31 home runs in 500 plate appearances as a Yankee. That, folks, will do.
He also had some notable hits in the first half. By WPA, his biggest hit came on May 25 in the first game of a doubleheader in Kansas City. The Yankees just blew a 3-0 lead in the previous inning before Voit gave them the lead for good:
Personally, though, my favorite Voit moment of the season (more on why in a moment) came in early April in Houston. With the imposing Gerrit Cole on the mound in the first inning, Voit absolutely unleashed on a Cole fastball and hammered it to dead center field. Check it out:
Cole only surrendered just seven home runs to center field in all of 2019, and only five to right-handed batters. Voit’s was one of those, and it was a beauty. For Luke Voit in the first half, though, it was merely par for the course.
Second Half: Crippled by Injury
All good tales must come to an end eventually though, right? Such was the case for Voit in 2019, whose apparent abdominal strain quickly metastasized into a much more serious sports hernia. The hernia was diagnosed on the day of the trade deadline. It put the rest of his season in jeopardy. Although he would avoid surgery (at the time) and return to the field, the Luke Voit to whom we’d grown accustomed did not return.
There are a number of ways to quantify his rough second half. Here are some of the ugly numbers. During the last two weeks of the season, for example, Voit hit just .031/.184/.031 (-28 wRC+). He logged just 1 hit in 38 plate appearances while striking out more than 34% of the time during that stretch.
That was not a case of mere small sample size. Take the longer view, from his return at the end of August. Voit hit just .200/.319/.338 (80 wRC+) over that period, slugging only two home runs. Go back even further, and you’ll see that he hit just four home runs over his final 52 games of the season. And on and on we could go.
The graphs illustrate this, too. Check out his rolling batting average:
His rolling slugging:
And his rolling wRC+:
You just hate to see that. Make no mistake about it: Voit really, really struggled in the second half. He was basically a different player. I mean, this is stark:
- First Half: .280/.393/.509 (140 wRC+)
- Second Half: .228/.348/.368 (95 wRC+)
I think you get it by now. However, it’s worth noting that Voit had surgery immediately following the 2019 season; it didn’t even make a week before he went under the knife. That the Yankees didn’t roster him during the ALCS highlights the fact that he was not healthy. I don’t find it fair, given the broader sample of his work as a Yankee, to evaluate him given those extenuating circumstances.
Moreover, as I said, Voit didn’t look the same. He had no power at the plate, even though his approach and OBP remained fairly constant. A sports hernia will do that to you–it’s a gruesome injury that is really inhibiting for a player who relies on their strength to drive the ball. That’s important to remember, because I’ve seen a few folks suggest that the magic carpet ride is over. To that I say…not so fast!
Beneath the Slump, Encouraging Signs
To be fair, I am a noted Luke Voit Stan, but there is clear evidence that suggests Voit will return to form once he’s healthy. That’s because, despite the ugly stats I carved out above, there are plenty of under-the-hood metrics to highlight his value as a hitter. I mean:
- Average Exit Velocity: 91.1 mph
- Average Launch Angle: 15.7 degrees
- Hard Hit Percentage: 47%
- Chase Percentage: 21.3%
- Walk Rate: 14%
No, that was not his season averages, nor was it even his first half. That was actually Voit’s peripherals during his slump. Perhaps I’m wearing pinstriped glasses here, but that does not exactly seem like a player who is busted. If anything, it says to me that Voit was a bit unlucky during the slump and that his numbers should have been better. And, again, that’s with a pretty bad injury.
Remember, the Yankees fell in love with Voit while he was a St. Louis farmhand because of his impressive batted ball data and approach at the plate. He demonstrated how that approach translates to results over his first 500 plate appearances. Even while slumping, he kept up that approach–and the batted ball data stayed fairly consistent. I take that to be encouraging, myself.
Finally, Voit improved in another key area: against high-velocity fastballs. This is a go-to for me as an analyst, but I think it’s a useful proxy against which to judge a hitter. In 2018, Voit hit just one home run on fastballs over 95 mph, hitting .211 with a .288 wOBA against such pitches overall. He often looked overmatched.
In 2019, though, Voit hit .258 against those pitches with a .373 wOBA. He even hit three home runs off high-velocity fastballs. I highlighted one off Cole earlier, which is why it is my favorite moment of the season for him. It shows his growth in a previously-weak area for him against a marquee pitcher. Anyway, here is another, which came on a 99 mph Jose Alverado fastball:
Voit took this one the other way and really hammered it. That’s impressive stuff right there–and, again, is a real improvement over his 2018 production, which makes it even more encouraging.
Oh, and one more note about those three home runs: every single one of them came before June 1. In other words, before he got hurt. Given all of the other context here, I’m very willing to say outright that Voit’s struggles came purely as a result of his injury. Nothing more.
Luke Voit will be the Yankees’ first baseman on Opening Day next year barring an injury or very unexpected trade. He will deserve it, too: even counting his second-half slide, Voit is hitting .280/.384/.517 (141 wRC+) since donning the pinstripes. That will do.
Moreover, if you’re concerned about such things, Voit will likely keep up the production at what is great value to the organization. The 28-year-old first baseman is not even arbitration eligible until 2021, meaning he will make about $600,000 next year. He’s not going to hit the market until 2025.
There are many questions facing the Yankees as the organization heads into a crucial offseason, but the team and its fans can feel confident knowing that they have a middle-of-the-order force ready to rejoin the team in 2020. If recent history is any indication, the rest of the league had better watch out.