Luke Voit has established himself as an essential bat in the Yankees’ lineup this year, and he’s also emerged as a team leader in the clubhouse. There’s been so much excitement this year surrounding Voit’s status as a potential MVP candidate and MLB’s home run leader that the hype overshadows a less obvious accomplishment: his improved defense at first base.
When GM Brian Cashman traded for Voit back in 2018, Voit’s defensive prowess was not part of the package. Cashman saw enough potential in Voit’s bat to trade for him, despite the general assessment that Voit, as a first baseman, was decidedly below average. It wouldn’t be a surprise if Cashman acquired Voit solely for his value as a DH.
But Voit is the kind of player who is never content with his own performance. Voit’s drive to develop as a first baseman and blue-collar work ethic are both a recipe for success and especially well-suited to the culture of the Yankees’ organization. It’s not easy to stay so hungry when the duration of a typical 162 game baseball season is so long. Voit’s approach stands out against the trend toward specialization in today’s game. As CC Sabathia pointed out in a recent episode of R2C2, ballplayers nowadays can excel in one area and stay in the big leagues.
Back in March during spring training, some Yankee fans were even wondering if Mike Ford ought to get more reps at first. But the assumption that Voit’s fielding this year would look like it did in 2019 was wrong. The improvements Voit has made with regard to his footwork and defense at first base are apparent and pass the eye test. But he doesn’t just look better at first; the metrics behind his defense support what fans have seen in him this season.
Voit finished 2019 with -12 defensive runs saved. Although his -2 DRS this year is still negative, that improvement by 10 is significant. In 2020, his .993 fielding percentage is fifth-best in the American League behind José Abreu, Matt Olson (who’s won two Gold Gloves), Yuri Gurriel, Evan White and Miguel Sanó. Perhaps most telling, Voit’s ultimate zone rating has shot up to a league-average .1 this year, which represents a sizable increase from his UZR of -3.9 in 2019.
Footwork — not to be confused with “foot stuff” — is particularly important for first basemen, and in this area Voit’s skills have developed noticeably since last year. Voit’s movements in fielding his position look more nimble and natural than they did last year and in 2018. This is likely due to the weight Voit lost in the offseason. In recent interviews, Voit has said that in 2018 and 2019 he became frustrated with how frequently he was getting pulled out of games, often in the seventh or eighth inning for a defensive replacement.
That frustration motivated him to slim down at the end of last year. During the offseason he upped his cardio workouts and cut down on the carbs. It’s paid dividends in how much smoother he looks fielding his position in 2020.
Just as important as his offensive power and defensive skills, Voit’s increasingly prominent leadership presence on the Yankees is easily observed during games and postgame interviews. Some have credited Voit with helping the Yankees curb their abysmal losing streak earlier this month, when the Yankees lost 15 games out of a 20-game stretch.
When a team is playing as poorly as the Yankees were during that period, it can be hard for players to answer questions from the media in a thoughtful way. When it seemed like the Yankees were dancing around the reality of their season unraveling, Voit’s straightforward statement on September 8 after a disappointing loss to the Blue Jays felt refreshing.
Luke Voit: We just gotta get back to what the New York Yankees are. I feel like teams aren't really scared of us right now and it's kind of a sad thing. pic.twitter.com/eCcj9BOeAb— YES Network (@YESNetwork) September 9, 2020
It worked. Not only do fans appreciate Voit’s willingness to be blunt, but the Yankees needed a firm kick in the ass. Voit stepped up as a vocal leader in that moment, when the Yankees needed one.
The way he conveyed a sense of urgency and spoke truthfully regarding how bad the team was playing also contrasts with a memorable postgame interview from August 16, 2018, when Greg Bird — Voit’s former competition for the starting job at first base — lost a lot of respect for the comments he made after a game when the Yankees didn’t play well. Instead of acknowledging the team’s poor performance and his own errors during the game, Bird basically said that his sloppiness in the field was OK because there would be future chances to do well.
Everything Bird said goes against the Yankees’ culture of winning. Moreover, the interview conveyed a lack of competitive drive. Luke Voit, in essence, is the opposite of Bird. He’s striving always to get better and to work harder. Hitting home runs isn’t enough for him; Voit wants to be a complete player on both sides of the baseball. At the end of this season, Voit’s home run total will likely receive lots of acclaim and attention. It will be well deserved, but his improved defense says a lot more about Voit and the kind of ballplayer he is.