Why Voit belongs alongside elite sluggers

September 7th, 2020

Just before the Trade Deadline in 2018, the Yankees made what was seen as an under-the-radar deal, acquiring Luke Voit from the Cardinals. Voit arrived in New York in August, slammed 15 homers with a 186 OPS+ over the final two months and spent an entire winter fielding questions about whether what he'd done in just 148 late-season plate appearances "was real."

In 2019, despite dealing with some injury issues, Voit mostly backed it up, hitting 21 homers with a 121 OPS+. In 2020, he's hit 13 homers, just two off the Major League lead. He's fifth in the American League in slugging, and he has the eighth-highest OPS in the AL, and ... well, can we stop asking if it's real now?

"We had been on Voit the last two years," Yankees GM Brian Cashman said last summer. "We noticed he was someone that was putting up really strong offensive numbers in the Minor Leagues. Some of them we may think are real, some we don't. We thought there was some realness to his stuff."

"Some realness," the man said, accurately, and while he was referring to Minor League batted-ball data, we don't have that handy. But after parts of three seasons in the Majors, we no longer really need it, either.

Let's go back just over two years ago to the day Voit made his Yankee debut, Aug. 2, 2018, when he went 0-for-4 as the DH in New York's 15-7 loss to Boston. Since then, you can say all sorts of fun things about Luke Voit, like ...

1) He's been baseball's best-hitting first baseman.

Setting aside Cody Bellinger, who technically still qualifies on this list but is now clearly an outfielder, no regular first baseman (minimum 750 plate appearances) has out-hit Voit since Aug. 2, 2018. (We're using Weighted Runs Created Plus to show this, as it's park adjusted and set to 100 as league average, though most any good advanced metric would agree. Voit does, anyway, telling FanGraphs last year that "the wRC+ stat is a big one.")

146 wRC+ // Voit
141 wRC+ // Anthony Rizzo
137 wRC+ // Freddie Freeman
136 wRC+ // Max Muncy
134 wRC+ // Pete Alonso
131 wRC+ // Paul Goldschmidt
129 wRC+ // Yuli Gurriel
127 wRC+ // Matt Olson
126 wRC+ // José Abreu

Voit isn't the defender Olson and Freeman are, but we're focusing on offense here. There's not even as much of a playing-time gap as you might have thought, either; Voit has 780 plate appearances since then, while Alonso has 846 and Olson 898.

It's not hard to see why, either. Only Alonso (.550) has a higher slugging percentage among this group than Voit (.542), but Voit has a 29-point advantage in on-base percentage. Despite playing for the Yankees, Voit still doesn't quite have the name recognition most of these players do. That's what we're out to change, isn't it?

2) It's not because of Yankee Stadium.

While he's obviously not a lefty pull hitter like Brett Gardner, it still feels like any time a Yankee slugger shows power, this is where the conversation is going to go. It's not this.

Voit, Yankees career, at home
.268/.364/.499, 132 wRC+, 30% strikeout rate

Voit, Yankee career, on road
.288/.391/.567, 154 wRC+, 24% strikeout rate

In fact, Voit's .567 slugging on the road since joining the Yankees is very nearly the best in the AL -- it's ties for seventh among those with 300 road plate appearances.

3) It's because of good, hard, solid contact.

Here is a list of 12 names. We're not going to tell you what it is yet. Just look at the names.

31% -- Aaron Judge
29% -- Joey Gallo
28% -- Miguel Sanó
26% -- Mike Trout
25% -- Nelson Cruz
25% -- Jorge Soler
24% -- Ronald Acuña Jr.
23% -- Christian Yelich
23% -- Matt Olson
23% -- Fernando Tatis Jr.
22% -- Kyle Schwarber
22% -- Voit

Without knowing anything at all about what we're measuring, you know what this group is. It's a list of the elite sluggers in baseball. It's a list with enough bright names that just being on it tells you a lot about the quality of the hitter.

What we're showing here, for the record, are the leaders since Voit's Yankees debut in percentage of batted balls that are considered either "barrels" (basically the perfect combination of exit velocity and launch angle) or "solid contact" (a quality batted ball that just missed the barrel designation.) The Major League average in that time is 13%; when you hit a ball this way, the results are a .669 average and a 2.061 slugging percentage.

That is what Cashman was almost certainly talking about, in regards to what he and his team saw from Voit in the Minors. Sure, the .327/.407/.565 line he'd put up in Triple-A in 2017 superficially looks nice, but the PCL that year -- and any year, really -- is a high-offense league. (His OPS barely made the Top 20 in Triple-A that year, and no one's watching Kevin Cron, Taylor Ward, or Jared Walsh -- some of the players ahead of him -- light up the Majors.) It's the underlying qualities that led to that line that caught the Yankees interest.

4) His aggressiveness works in his favor.

Since that Aug. 2, 2018, Yankees debut, there have been 135 players to take at least 750 plate appearances, including Voit. He's famously aggressive on those 0-0 counts, swinging 44% of the time, seventh-most in the Majors. But what's far more interesting than that is what happens when he does. He mashes the ball, more than anyone else, except for the one guy who might be the greatest player ever.

Highest batting average on first pitch, since Aug. 2, 2018
.507 -- Trout
.493 -- Adam Eaton
.484 -- Voit

Highest slugging percentage on first pitch, since Aug. 2, 2018
1.090 -- Trout
1.063 -- Voit
.978 -- Schwarber

We've seen what that looks like a few times recently, like last Saturday when he homered on Robert Gsellman's first pitch ...

... and on Aug. 26, when he took the first pitch he saw from Ian Anderson in the sixth inning into the bleachers.

“I have never felt any better in my life," Voit told the New York Post in February. "It’s everything. I feel faster, more agile and my strength is back.”

That's the typical "best shape of my life" line that we see and laughingly dismiss every year, because dozens of players say it and then it leads to nothing. But in Voit's case, maybe there's something to it, because he had October surgery to repair bilateral core injuries -- described by Voit himself as being told that he "tore everything down there" by his doctor.

"He’s in great shape and I think he's got a big year ahead," manager Aaron Boone said at the time. He didn't know how right he was.