One of the few bright spots in what’s becoming a forgettable season for the Yankees has been Luke Voit’s emergence as the best (healthy) hitter on the club. He roared into town after being traded from St. Louis, and then was a powerful addition to the lineup before getting hurt last summer. As for this year, he’s appeared in 38 of the Yankees’ 42 games headed into play Wednesday night, a 153 wRC+, and is just one home run shy of the MLB lead with 14.
Up until 2020, though, Voit has shown a profile that fits with a lot of Yankee batters—take lots of walks and hit for power. He’s never posted a walk rate below 10% at any stop in the majors, and in fact last year had the second-highest walk rate of any Yankee with major playing time, trailing only Aaron Judge.
And yet, come 2020...
Only three guys have seen a bigger loss in walk rate this year. Most of these hitters have seen their production fall, but Voit is hitting better than ever!
Nothing correlates with offensive production like reaching base, in fact, you can see how important getting on is to overall offense:
Nobody in baseball has been able to do more with their offensive production despite reaching base less often than Voit. His .348 OBP has been the lowest mark of his professional career, save for a partial season in 2017 and a stint at High-A in 2014. Yet his production means he’s going to receive down-ballot MVP votes.
That probably has something to do with the other part of his season...
Voit hasn’t stopped striking out, but he has gotten much better at making contact with his swings. That pairs well with his always excellent Statcast figures—he’s in the top fifth in the league in average exit velocity and top ten percent in barrel rate (how often he combines optimal exit velocity and launch angle)—the kind of hits that land for extra bases, or never land at all.
All of this comes at a time where we’ve seen the real impact of lineup protection. Protection has been a slippery topic among baseball analysts—does stacking a lineup with good hitters really give each hitter more pitches to hit, or does stacking a lineup with good hitters just lead to lots of offense because the hitters are good? In general, the jury is out.
Anecdotally, at least, we’ve seen two examples of how lineup protection might actually work. Mike Trout has seen the highest increase in fastballs in 2020, and the highest increase of pitches in the zone, largely because Anthony Rendon is now hitting behind him. This could be playing a role in why Trout isn’t reaching base as often, since more balls are thrown in the strike zone.
On the other end of the spectrum, Voit’s been seeing fewer fastballs and fewer pitches in the zone than last year, and his overall percentage change is above league average. Part of this is probably due to protection problems—the top of the Yankee lineup has largely been DJ LeMahieu, Luke Voit, and then a general shruggy emoji after that. With no dangerous three-hole hitter, there’s no reason to challenge Voit.
Now usually you would see walk rate jump in these situations, but that’s not happening with him. He’s seeing slightly fewer pitches per plate appearance and been more aggressive both in an out of the zone, and his power output is diverse as well:
Being able to make contact and drive the ball with power in and out of the strike zone really is an incredible thing. This heatmap is broken down by slugging per ball in play—one of the problems with making contact with balls is, you don’t generally square them up. Voit’s paired his aggressiveness and contact with squaring up pitches out of the strike zone, making it pretty impossible to pitch around him.
I think this indicates an understanding in Voit’s mind that there’s not a lot of power in this version of the Yankees’ lineup. The team is tied for 12th in isolated power, and over the past two weeks without Aaron Judge, the team is dead last in all of baseball. Even DJ LeMahieu, the other reliable bat in the order, has seen his power output closer to his below-average 2018 than his excellent 2019.
So, on a team with a real power outage, it looks like Voit has decided to be the Little Red Hen and do it himself. I think that’s been a big part of his aggressive approach—it does LeMahieu a lot of good to reach base when Voit is hitting behind him, but it doesn’t do Voit as much good if Brett Gardner is hitting third. In that example, it’s probably best for the team for Voit to go up looking to drive the first good pitch he gets, rather than work a count deeper and deeper.
The real thing to watch will be how Voit’s performance changes as the Yankee lineup gets healthier. If Miguel Andújar and Gleyber Torres can continue to build off of slow starts, or Giancarlo Stanton and Judge return and are productive, how does the pitching approach to Voit change? Does he stop being so aggressive with pitches outside the zone? If he receives more lineup protection, does that affect his contact probability on each swing?
The only way we’ll have answers to these questions is if the rest of the Yankee lineup improves, which itself is an open question for the rest of 2020. For now, Luke Voit’s unique mix of contact, aggressiveness and power has made him the team’s best hitter, and in a way we wouldn’t have expected all the way back in spring training.