Perhaps no move in recent memory better encapsulates Brian Cashman’s “Ninja Cash” capabilities than his pilfering of the Cardinals last summer for first baseman Luke Voit. For Chasen Shreve and Giovanny Gallegos, Cashman brought the Yankees Babe Ruth reincarnate for two months. The move has stiff competition, such as literally Shane Greene for Didi Gregorius, or John Ryan Murphy for Aaron Hicks, but the import of Voit stands up there among New York’s best moves in recent years.
Even if Voit never played again, his incredible production last year would be enough to make his acquisition worth it. Of course, Voit will play again, and could remain on the team for years to come. He will face pressure to prove he was no one-hit wonder, a flash in the pan, that he is a legitimate slugger at the big-league level.
Voit has a long way to go to definitively prove anything. It may be months or years until we have a conclusive answer to the question of what exactly Voit is and can be. However, while it’s impossible to make any concrete statement’s about Voit’s legitimacy, we can say one thing for certain; if Voit were for real, this is exactly what it would look like.
For one, if Voit were for real, his stellar 2018 would stand up to scrutiny. Nit-pickers would grow red in the face, digging into his breakout campaign and unable to find flaws, unsustainable BABIP numbers, and indications that he simply got lucky for several weeks at the end of the year.
And that is what we have. Sure, Voit did run a .365 BABIP overall in 2018, a figure he’s unlikely to repeat going forward. Yet we’re past the point in sabermetric analysis that we can just point at a high BABIP and yell “Regression!”. We can see what the player did to earn that good fortune on balls in play.
In Voit’s case, he did a lot. So many of his batted balls fell in for hits because so many of his batted balls were scalded. Per FanGraphs, an eye-popping 47% of his batted balls were hard hit. Turn to Statcast and sort their leaderboard by barrels per plate appearance, and Voit’s name appears at the top of the list. He ranked third in proportion of batted balls struck harder than 95 mph.
Voit deserved every bit of success he achieved in 2018. Now, we know now more than ever that past performance doesn’t guarantee future performance (check out the frigid free agent market for proof), which leads us to our second primary piece of evidence of Voit’s efficacy: his projections. If Voit were for real, the projections would forecast him not exactly to repeat his 2018, but to at the very least perform at a high level at the plate.
Lo and behold, Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS projections peg Voit for a healthy .264/.344/.474 slash line and a 122 wRC+. Coming off a season in which the average first baseman ran a 105 wRC+, that’s first-division starter stuff right there. Even more encouragingly, Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA loves Voit, projecting a .280/.350/.506 line and a 127 DRC+ (BP’s new hitting metric, Deserved Runs Created Plus). Obviously, the projection systems won’t project anyone to hit .333/.405/.689, as Voit did with the Yankees, but they do forecast Voit to play like one the American League’s best first basemen.
And lastly, if Voit was legit, he would not stop raking the moment the curtain lifted in 2019, and without question, he hasn’t. Voit has slugged through spring training, and while spring stats come with all the usual caveats and asterisks, itt’s certainly not a bad sign that Voit has continued to slug, even as the game’s haven’t counted.
Voit has hit .302/.380/.605 this spring in 50 plate appearances. That’s a tiny sample, produced against a motley crew of pitchers. Even so, three of Voit’s four home runs have come against pitchers with legitimate major-league pedigrees (Ryne Stanek, Matt Shoemaker, and Mike Wright) and the fourth one came against top Braves prospect Bryse Wilson.
Spring stats are nearly meaningless, but there is a body of evidence that suggests that extreme spring performances can provide a signal of what’s to come. In this case, the signal in the noise might simply be that Voit is picking up where he left off, and that his torrid finish to 2018 was not a mere one-off.
To repeat: this is not to say that Voit is dynamite. He could be Shelley Duncan, or Kevin Maas. Or, more likely, he could be Luke Voit, someone who established himself with a historic debut, and went on to prove that he was no fluke.
If Voit was for real, he would have backed up his 2018 surge with outstanding underlying numbers. Check. He would convince the cold, calculating projections that he was a first-rate first baseman going forward. Check. He wouldn’t come into spring looking flat and out of place, but with a chip on his shoulder to prove he could do it all again. Check. Nothing, so far, about Voit screams fluke. He likely will never approach the heights of his summer of 2018, but he doesn’t have to to leave the Yankees and their fans happy with their new slugger.