The shortened 2020 season will be remembered for a lot of things, good and bad. But one of the most enduring performances among Yankees players was that of Luke Voit. In just 56 regular-season games, the Missouri native launched 22 home runs, becoming the seventh Yankees player to lead the Majors in that category outright. For Voit, the impressive season came on the heels of a roller-coaster 2019, during which he cemented his role as the team’s everyday first baseman by hitting 21 homers in 118 games, but also missed significant time with a sports hernia that required surgery that October.
After spending four years in the Cardinals’ Minor League system and then bouncing up and down between St. Louis and the team’s Triple-A affiliate during much of the 2017 and 2018 seasons, Voit welcomed a trade to the Yankees. Following the July 2018 deal for pitchers Chasen Shreve and Giovanny Gallegos, as well as international bonus pool money, it didn’t take long for Yankees fans to fall in love with the burly slugger, and his feelings about the Big Apple and playing at Yankee Stadium were just as warm. Voit, who turned 30 in February and brings a .274 career batting average and 62 home runs into the 2021 season, spoke with Yankees Magazine editor-in-chief Alfred Santasiere III prior to the start of Spring Training.
Yankees Magazine: Take me back through the unique 2020 season. What was the experience of playing amid so much uncertainty like for you?
Luke Voit: It was obviously a year that I will never forget, especially because of the virus and all of the testing we had during the season. It was different in every way, in New York City and everywhere else. I still remember being in the clubhouse in Tampa when everything got shut down [last March]. It was crazy. It gave me a little more time to get healthy and strengthen things up after my hernia surgery, but as we watched what was going on throughout the world, we all wished it was a normal year. We didn’t think we were going to play in 2020 for a while, and finally we got a deal done with Major League Baseball. But during that time, I worked out a lot; I lost 15 pounds and just got more athletic overall. That ultimately helped out my game in 2020. When I finally got up to New York for the summer training camp, I realized how little time we had to get ready for the start of the season. And the 60-game regular season felt like it took about three weeks to get through. We knew that we had to take every game seriously because every game meant so much. Things got tough for a while, especially because we didn’t have the team we thought we were going to have originally, with so many players being injured. We also didn’t play for almost a week in August. That was challenging, and not knowing if that was going to happen again was just as hard. We fought our way through the uncertainty, the testing and restrictions, and we made it into the playoffs. In some ways, playing through a pandemic was a bump in the road. It was just something that we had to deal with and make the best of, especially when you consider how much worse others had it than us. I wish we could have succeeded in October, but despite our best efforts, we came up short.
YM: What are your thoughts on all that you were able to accomplish personally during the 2020 season?
LV: I’ve learned a lot over the last few years from my coaches. I’ve matured as a baseball player and learned a lot about my swing and about myself as a defensive player. I want to keep improving every year, but 2020 ended up being a big year for me, especially coming off of the injury I had the season before. I have always had to prove people wrong, and I’m going to continue to do so. That’s who I am. I wanted to do the best I could, and I had to step up even more with the injuries we had on our team. It was a crazy year, and in some ways, it was fun, hitting all of those home runs. I’m happy that I had a good season, but our ultimate goal was to win a championship. Not doing that just fueled the fire going into this offseason.
YM: When you look at the list of Yankees who have won home run crowns, you see names such as Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Mickey Mantle and, more recently, Alex Rodriguez and Aaron Judge. What does it mean for you to now be on that same list?
LV: Those names are legendary. Most of those players are in Monument Park and in the Hall of Fame. Aaron Judge is an MVP candidate every year, and when his career is over, I’m sure he’ll be recognized just like those other immortal players were. It’s an awesome thing to be recognized with those names, but I want to continue to grow as a person and as a baseball player. It’s great to think about, but I only hit 22 home runs. It’s not like we played a full season and I hit 60 home runs. I have to keep hitting more homers.
YM: From 2013 to 2017, you worked your way up the Minor League ladder in the Cardinals organization. For so many players, the movement toward the big leagues can be tedious and painstaking. What were the most challenging aspects of that journey for you?
LV: Every time you take the field in the Minors, you’re doing so in front of 30 teams. There’s always pressure to perform well because scouts are watching every one of your at-bats. My coaches always told me that if I hit, I would make it to the big leagues. Teams will always find a place for guys who can hit. The Florida State League was a tough place to play, but I started hitting well there. It seemed like it was 110 degrees and really humid every day, and the ball didn’t fly at all. That’s also when you start facing a lot of the real prospects, pitchers who all seem to throw 100 miles per hour. When I was in college, I was a little thick-headed, but when I got to the Minors, I put more effort into learning how my body worked, and I was more open to doing different drills and trying different techniques to develop as much power as possible. Being adaptable and willing to listen to coaches and trainers took time for me to do, and that in and of itself can be challenging. But once I started to trust the people around me, things began to change for the better.
YM: What emotions did you feel when you finally got called up to the big leagues with your hometown team in 2017?
LV: It was a dream come true. Sometimes you don’t think that you’re ever going to get that call, but I remember when I did. I called my girlfriend -- who ended up becoming my wife -- and we both broke down and cried on the phone. I called my dad, and I will always remember how excited he was. I got to come home to St. Louis, and that was a really nice experience. It was incredible going to that stadium as a player as opposed to as a fan. I’m thankful to the Cardinals for giving me an opportunity to play in the big leagues. It was frustrating because there were a lot of good players in front of me, and I was still going up and down after my big-league debut. At 27 years old, I never thought I would get traded. Usually teams are after younger prospects, but I was hitting well in Triple-A, and the Yankees saw that. I was excited to get a fresh start and a new opportunity. I was ready to take that opportunity and run with it.
YM: What were some of the things you did when you got to New York in 2018 to make the most of your new start?
LV: I worked really hard with Marcus [Thames] and P.J. [Pilittere], our hitting coaches. I spent a lot of time learning how pitchers were throwing to me, thinking about where my hands were when I was at the plate and how I could use my legs to generate more power. In my first two months with the Yankees, I was able to transform myself into the best hitter I could be. I love thinking back on that time because I was treated so well by the fans, right off the bat. Between the curtain calls, the roll call before games and the “Luuuke” chants, coming to the Yankees was a special experience. I can’t wait to get our fans back into the Stadium so that we can get back to the good old days.
YM: How did your two–home run performance at Baltimore in your eighth game with the Yankees impact your confidence?
LV: I remember (Orioles starting pitcher) Alex Cobb hanging me a curveball, and I got him early in the game. I came up again in the 10th inning against (relief pitcher) Cody Carroll with a chance to put us up by three runs. When I hit that second home run, I felt like I was in a good spot and that I could finish the season strong. Being able to pull a ball for a home run and then hit another homer the opposite way was a big confidence-builder for me. That’s what I was able to do in Triple-A, and now I was doing it in the big leagues.
YM: What adjustments did you make over the last year that you believe have helped elevate your performance?
LV: I began to bend my knees more last season. Another thing was strengthening my adductors and my hips during the rehab from hernia surgery. My back and my hips were a lot stronger, and that really helped me with my swing. I have an open stance, so it was even more important that all of those muscles were strong and ready to go after the surgery. I also finished my swing with two hands last season for the first time. That helped me get a lot more extension through the baseball and get really good spin on the ball. Rather than hooking balls for doubles, I was hitting those same pitches 400 feet. I did a lot of homework on opposing pitchers before games. I really got into video, and when we faced pitchers who may not have had their best stuff and were relying on their third or fourth pitches, I was more prepared to take advantage of that. I watched how opposing pitchers threw to guys like Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton, players who pitchers attack the same way they go after me. That helped me to sit on some pitches and attack. Everyone said that I was more aggressive in 2020 than 2019, but I didn’t feel that way. Pitchers want to get ahead in the count right away, and I have never had an issue with swinging at the first pitch.
YM: What are your thoughts on this team going into the 2021 season?
LV: We didn’t hit with runners in scoring position last year, and we need to get better at that. Getting Luis Severino back will help us a lot. We didn’t have the starting pitching depth we needed in the playoffs, and hopefully we will in 2021. Bringing Zack Britton back was a great move, and we needed to bring DJ LeMahieu back. We hate losing in the postseason, and it was even harder falling short to the Rays last year. We’re going to do everything we can to get over the hump. I know that we’ve all worked hard to get our bodies ready for the season, and I’m confident that all of those hours of work along with our desire to be the last team standing will pay off in a big way this year.
YM: How would you compare the experience of playing in front of the Cardinals’ fan base in the Midwest with Yankees fans in the Big Apple?
LV: They are both great but very different. They will root for you no matter what in St. Louis. They will even cheer for visiting players if they do well. They travel really well, and they are happy with you if you are out there trying to do the best you can. When you’re playing for the Yankees, you have to produce. If you don’t, you’re going to get booed. We have some of the best players in the world, and I’ve seen them get booed at Yankee Stadium. At the same time, we have a big advantage over road teams. Our fans try to get into the heads of opposing players. I’ve never heard a stadium as loud as ours when something exciting happens. Yankees fans ultimately care. They have your back if you perform.
YM: Switching gears, your brother, John, was a captain on the Army football team. From your experiences visiting the United States Military Academy at West Point, what left the most lasting impact on you?
LV: West Point reminds me of a castle. I think about all of the people who have shaped American history and spent significant periods of time up there. It’s an unbelievable place that has turned boys and girls into men and women who defend our country. My brother just got deployed to Afghanistan in November. It’s scary to think about that, but at the same time, he has trained for the last six years to be able to do what he needs to do. His supervisors loved the fact that he was a captain on the Army football team. He’s a leader, and he’s capable of taking men into battle to defend our country and to accomplish the goal at hand. I know that he’s going to do whatever it takes to get the job done. Go Army. Beat Navy.
YM: Since you also played football when you were growing up, I’m curious as to who your favorite athletes were.
LV: Mark McGwire was my favorite baseball player. And I grew up rocking Brett Favre jerseys all over the place. I loved the way he played the game; he was the ultimate competitor, and he was so tough out there. Growing up in St. Louis, I was a big Rams fan until they broke my heart and left for Los Angeles. But when we had them in St. Louis, Kurt Warner was my favorite Rams player. I was a linebacker in high school, and I loved watching Brian Urlacher. I wanted to play the position the way he did, with toughness and passion.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Alfred Santasiere III is the editor-in-chief of Yankees Magazine. This story appears in the magazine’s Spring 2021 edition. Get more articles like this delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription to Yankees Magazine at **yankees.com/publications**.