The Yankees finally have a resolution to what’s been ailing Aaron Judge, but like many unhappy endings, his fractured rib raises more questions than answers. Among them is just who will fill in as the number two hitter now that he’s unavailable on Opening Day and beyond.
Judge has become a fixture near the top of the Yankees’ lineup when healthy, and his presence there is part of a broader movement by some teams to bat their best hitters directly behind the leadoff man. He joins other elite sluggers like Mike Trout and Christian Yelich in the two-hole.
The strategy has emerged over the last decade. Choosing a two-hitter used to be more about finding a player who could handle the bat well — hit behind runners, lay down a bunt — and less about driving the ball. Look no further than Derek Jeter, the Yankees’ own former number two.
Now managers seek to maximize team run production by increasing the number of at-bats their best hitters get, while keeping men on base in front of them. Judge embodies this new school of thought, bringing a deadly combination of patience and power to the second spot when he’s healthy.
In his absence this spring, Aaron Boone has filled in with Luke Voit, Gleyber Torres, Miguel Andujar, Mike Tauchman, Brett Gardner, and Gio Urshela. Tauchman, another productive outfielder with good wheels, might seem like a natural fit, but he’s only had 296 plate appearances with the Yankees, and it seems premature to burden him with the number two spot.
Voit has batted second in three games this spring, picking up a couple singles and a walk. But more important than preseason numbers is his approach at the plate. Voit profiles the least like a traditional Jeteresque two-hitter among Boone’s options, but without Giancarlo Stanton available, he offers the best approximation of Judge’s strengths.
In 2019 he slashed .263/.361/.480 with a 13.9 BB% and a 126 wRC+, and ZiPS projects .266/.361/.480, a 11.4 BB%, and a 123 wRC+ in 2020. Compare that to Judge, who’s projected to post .260/.377/.563, a 15.1 BB%, and a 138 wRC+ next season, and the rough similarities start to emerge.
At his best, Voit slugged at near-Judgean levels last season.
He’s not likely to mash the ball quite as hard as Judge, and he doesn’t draw walks at quite the same rate — but he could be a reasonable facsimile, especially if he stays healthy and gets hot early, as he did in 2019 when he reached base in 42 consecutive games. Besides, he’s not expected to fill Judge’s giant shoes for a full season.
So what’s the drawback? As much as Voit might be able to replicate some of Judge’s output with the bat, there is a worrisome difference between their offensive skill sets: Judge, as big as he is, is a relatively speedy runner. Luke Voit is… not.
Baseball Savant places Voit’s sprint speed in the 28th percentile in all of baseball, which isn’t exactly ideal for a guy near the top of the lineup, even in the new age of powerful two-hitters. When DJ LeMahieu gets on base in front of him, how often will Voit erase the opportunity with a double play ball?
Not enough to sweat it. He only grounded into 12 double plays in 510 plate appearances last year. Judge hit into 11 in 63 fewer appearances. Voit’s career ground ball rate is below league average at 40.1%, and Gleyber Torres, who could very well bat third behind him, has a rate nearly five points lower.
And no one will be asking Voit to steal bases; he’s never recorded an attempt at the Major League level. Sure, like most hitters Voit may snuff out some rallies with poorly timed double plays, and he might not go first to third very often, but the pop in his bat — and in the rest of the lineup — will provide plenty of oomph to move him along the basepaths.
None of this, of course, will entirely make up for the loss of Judge to start the season. He’s a unique player who improves the team in both the box score and the clubhouse. Fortunately Luke Voit doesn’t need to be Judge to help the Yankees navigate the first few weeks of the season; he only needs to be himself — and hopefully he does it from the second spot in the lineup.