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Is Luke Voit’s success sustainable for the Yankees?

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An attempt to project the future of the Yankees’ new first baseman

MLB: Boston Red Sox at New York Yankees Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

My favorite thing about baseball is the unpredictability. In the NBA, for the better part of a decade, you’ve known that Lebron James’ team will win the East. Since 2003, only four quarterbacks have represented the AFC in the Super Bowl. Baseball, being a game of mostly failure, seems to buck the trend of predictability and faux parity that other sports are slaves to.

That’s why Luke Voit has been so much fun for the Yankees in 2018. Acquired for Chasen Shreve and Giovanny Gallegos, Voit was such a “meh” move at the time that our own news post focused on finally getting Shreve out of the Bronx. Since then, the big man has been a revelation, a 175 wRC+ making him the team’s best hitter since he was traded. Voit didn’t exactly come out of nowhere, he’s had some success in the minors, but it’s safe to say nobody saw this kind of production coming.

The question now is, where is it going? Luke Voit is probably not the best true talent hitter on the Yankees, but is he a Shane Spencer type, where he’ll light the sport on fire down the stretch and then wash out of baseball? Is he something else?

To start, let’s evaluate the most basic building blocks of hitting: exit velocity and launch angle. We know that his raw contact output mirrors well with a few of the best hitters in the game, and it establishes a high floor of his performance. With an average exit velo of 92 mph and launch angle of 15.2 degrees, we get this basic breakdown of batted balls:

This field shows us the expected output for these Statcast marks. Obviously we’re using Voit’s averages, but more optimal averages in both exit velocity and launch angle will result in better hitting outcomes over a long enough sample size. Aaron Judge’s raw averages, for example, establish a baseline BA of .875, while Austin Romine’s just .514. This can be useful for setting the floor of a player’s output, the higher the baseline BA, the higher the floor.

So right away, Luke Voit is probably at least a bit better than league average, say a 110-115 wRC+ over a full career. He’s not played like league average, though, and so the question becomes, how high is his ceiling and how sustainable is it? For that, we have to get a bit more granular, and look at his approach at the plate.

One of the metrics I like a lot is K/BB, the ratio of strikeouts to walks. For batters, this shows that a given player understands the strike zone, and recognizes the pitches they can and can’t hit. It’s also one of those metrics that stabilizes fairly quickly, meaning it doesn’t take that long to deduce one part of a player’s true talent level.

Now remember, because walks are the denominator, you’d like the ratio to be hovering around 1. That indicates that a player walks nearly as often as they strike out, which is good. That kind of strike zone control should translate into sustainable offensive success, right?

If you read most of my posts, you can probably find which of the points above is Luke Voit. So the short answer is yes, a lower K/BB tends to correlate well with a higher wRC+. For this set, the correlation coefficient is -0.41, which for our purposes works. As one metric declines (K/BB should be smaller, ideally), the other increases. When we shorten this sample down to qualified hitters, the correlation coefficient goes to -.62, proving an even stronger negative relationship.

Luke Voit notably tends to buck this trend. Based on the distribution above, he should hover closer to the 100-120 wRC+ range of performance. The wRC+ range he’s in right now is the realm of Aaron Jude, Mike Trout and Mookie Betts, three of the most strike-zone aware hitters since Barry Bonds. Voit, meanwhile, has an average K/BB ratio of 2.61, and the league average is 3.05. He’s better than average to be sure, but within one standard deviation of it. Those three other hitters average half that, 1.30. So either Voit has to get a lot more selective at the plate, or we’re bound to see a pretty notable drop-off in production.

The other key to Voit’s performance is how pitchers are approaching him. The easiest way to look at this is heatmaps. First, the total distribution of pitches Voit’s seen this year:

Pitchers have mostly worked away from Voit, and he’s responded clearly by being able to hit those pitches with authority. How does he fare against inside pitching?

Poorly. Like all hitters, Voit crushes pitches over the middle, and has been able to extend well and hit pitches away. He does see a real decline in production on pitches inside, though. That’s not necessarily a problem, as long as he lays off pitches inside. Play to your strengths, right? If you can’t hit inside pitching, don’t try to hit inside pitching. Except, well...

Voit actually makes more contact on inside pitching than he does anywhere else in the zone! He goes after those pitches, and does less with them, than any other part of the plate. This could be the biggest hole in his game, the inability to leave alone pitches he can’t do anything with. As long as he keeps offering at inside pitches, and keeps doing nothing with them, pitchers are going to keep throwing inside.

Interestingly enough, this contact rate on inside pitches plays into the K/BB yellow flag above. We know that Voit tends to struggle with anything inside, so he’s better to just let them go and hope they’ll be called balls. This should boost his walk rate, making him a more sustainable hitter, and if pitchers can’t count on him to get himself out with inside pitching, they’ll be forced to move back away, where he feasts.

Luke Voit has been a revelation and one of the best stories in baseball in 2018. He’s probably too good to completely fade away, but there are real holes in his game that explain why he was a Quad-A player for so long. He has the first base job for the rest of the season, but if he wants to really grab a hold of the position next season, I can point out where he needs to get better before spring training.