Is It Legit: Unbuttoning Luke Voit’s Outstanding 2018 Season
Luke Voit is fighting an uphill battle against perception. The soon-to-be 28-year-old first baseman fits a barrel-chested, plodding first baseman archetype that is quickly going out of style in an era that increasingly values lineup versatility above all else. As a result, Voit’s journey to the MLB has taken longer than anticipated, spending nearly five years toiling in the minors for a St. Louis Cardinals franchise that was reticent to use a roster spot on an impressive hitter with limited positional flexibility.
Fortunately, Voit caught a break after being traded to the New York Yankees in July 2018, leveraging off the Yankees’ lack of first base depth and the availability of the DH spot to propel himself to consistent at-bats over the last month of the season. He made the most of the opportunity, smashing 10 home runs and slugging a video game-like .736 in September. That performance propelled Voit’s season-long wRC+ to 187, which was second in baseball among players with at least 150 plate appearances, outpacing MVP winners Mookie Betts and Christian Yelich.
Despite hitting like the best player in baseball for nearly 20% of the 2018 season, ESPN has Voit ranked as the 211th hitter in their fantasy rankings and his current ADP according to FantasyPros sits at 189. Other players in those ranges include the pedestrian Yonder Alonso, Evan Longoria, and Jackie Bradley Jr.
I suspect many onlookers view Voit’s age, position, defensive ability, and physique and immediately discount him as just another one-dimensional, power-hitting first baseman. However, this type of mental shortcut misses several nuances that make Voit an intriguing player going forward. While it’s unlikely that Voit continues to hit at an MVP-caliber level, his impressive minor league track record, strong MLB showing, and underlying peripheral data point to a legit player that could hit like a top five first baseman in 2019.
A Legitimate Approach
Before delving into Voit’s overall production, let’s work to understand him as a hitter. It doesn’t take more than one look at the bulky righty to understand that his muscles can translate to some serious power. Voit accentuates this power potential by picking his spots well and putting an aggressive swing on the ball, highlighted by this home run on an up-and-in fastball from Marlins reliever Adam Conley in June 2018.
Voit coils, reads the pitch, and attacks the ball for a line drive home run to right. Many hitters would likely have difficulty turning on a 95 MPH pitch with that inside location, showing that Voit also has plus reaction capabilities and bat speed.
Along with the power and quick-twitch ability, one of Voit’s best qualities is his pitch recognition. His 77.9% career zone swing percentage ranks in the 97th percentile of batters with at least 250 plate appearances since 2017. However, unlike most of the hitters on the upper end of the zone swing charts, Voit isn’t purely a free swinger. His 29.7% outside swing rate is below the MLB average and shows that Voit has a discerning eye at the plate. Voit’s “lock and load” approach does lead to an excess in swinging strikes, however, that’s fine since his heavy hacks result in elite exit velocities.
Another player that employs a very similar approach to Voit is Oakland slugger Khris Davis. Both players own nearly identical plate discipline and corresponding batted ball metrics. Davis has proven that a hacking, high swing-and-miss approach is successful so long as you’re choosing to swing at the right pitches. These players look to do damage to pitches in the strike zone and make loud contact when they connect.
Nearly half of Voit’s career batted balls have left the bat at 95 MPH or higher and his 92.2 MPH exit velocity is in the upper echelon of hitters. But perhaps the most impressive aspect of Voit’s hit tendencies are that, despite hitting a large number of balls in the air, he hits very few pop-ups – only five in his 285 career plate appearances Considering that pop-ups are tantamount to strikeouts in terms of their negative value, Voit’s avoidance of them is an underrated aspect of his approach.
Scalding the Baseball
Voit has combined strong pitch recognition, power and batted ball authority for quite some time. Across 2,269 minor league plate appearances, Voit logged an impressive 17.8% strikeout rate along with a .370 OBP. And while some of Voit’s early minor league seasons were spent in pitcher-friendly environments, thus muting his overall minor league power numbers, he averaged an ISO north of .200 and a SLG above .500 from Double-A onward. But evaluating boxcar minor league statistics feels like trying to decipher smoke signals these days. Fans want exit velocity, launch angle and xwOBA data to confirm the numbers in the box score, and unfortunately, those figures aren’t available at the minor league levels.
But Voit’s first taste of MLB action with the Cardinals in 2017 provided a further glimpse into his skill set, with a robust 91.2 MPH exit velocity and a well above average 9.6% barrel rate. However, some of Voit’s power was constrained by a 48.2% ground ball rate that limited his extra-base hit potential. In 2018 Voit built upon his 2017 performance, increasing his exit velocity to 93.0 MPH and cutting his ground balls to 35.0%. The end result was arguably the most impressive bat ball profile of any hitter in baseball.
Voit’s 12.4% barrel rate per plate appearance led the entire MLB among players with at least 100 batted balls in 2018, while his barrel rate per batted ball was second at 20.0%. His average exit velocity and average exit velocity on fly balls and line drives were both in the 95th+ percentile. His max exit velocity was in the 73rd percentile.
Almost any MLB player can go on a month-long hot streak and deceive teams, fans and fantasy managers alike into believing their true talent is something more than it actually is. More often than not, these hot streaks are fueled by some combination of extreme batted ball luck, leading to an inflated BABIP, as well as some favorable outcomes on flyballs leading to home runs, resulting in an unsustainable HR/FB rate.
To that extent, Voit’s .365 BABIP and 40.5% HR/FB rate in 2018 will be difficult to sustain over a full season. However, their absolute levels aren’t that ridiculous and are largely supported by the aforementioned batted ball statistics. Whether Voit can maintain a 95th+ percentile performance in exit velocity and barrel rate next season is another question altogether, however, fans should take solace in the fact that Voit earned his .322 / .398 / .671 triple slash fair and square.
Bringing things full circle – remember the wRC+ leaders from 2018? Trout, Voit, Betts, Martinez, and Yelich? It also turns out they were the top five performers in xwOBA, and they were paced by Voit at .437.
The Short Porch
Thus far we have focused on Voit’s pure performance as a hitter. However, there is an important environmental factor trending in Voit’s favor, and that’s the fact that he will play half of his games in Yankee Stadium going forward.
Yankee Stadium is known for its short right field porch, which stretches to a mere 314 feet in right and 362 feet in right center. Fly balls hit to right field in Yankee Stadium outperform their expected xwOBA by an astounding .251 points (.674 to .423), likely the result of many 320- to 350-feet fly balls converting from would-be outs in other ballparks to home runs. Most people err in thinking that left-handed hitters are the main beneficiaries of this setup. In fact, righties benefit just as much, if not more, because a majority of MLB fly balls are hit to the opposite field.
And sure enough, Voit is the perfect hitter to take advantage of the Yankee Stadium right field porch. The above chart outlines all of his 103 MLB line drives and flyballs to date overlayed on Yankee Stadium dimensions, and clearly shows that most of his power comes to center and right field. Although these spray chart to field overlays aren’t perfect representations of reality, it’s clear that Voit would have had several more home runs if he had spent 2017 as a Yankee as well.
This opposite field home run against David Price highlights the damage that Voit can inflict in Yankee Stadium. He took a 0-2, 93 MPH fastball that was clearly outside, put a protective swing on it and still managed to eke out a 340-foot home run. Considering that Voit’s career average opposite-field fly ball distance is 327 feet, and 317 feet on line drives, we can expect to see more of these in the future.
There will still be some deserved skepticism regarding Voit’s 40.5% HR/FB ratio in 2018. However, his elite exit velocity and barrel rates, combined with an extremely favorable home park environment, indicate that Voit shouldn’t have an issue staying in the upper echelon HR/FB range (~30.0%). One point to consider regarding HR/FB rate is that FanGraphs’ flyball figures include pop-ups, meaning that hitters who hit a lot of pop-ups will have a depressed HR/FB figure and vice versa. Voit’s Yankee teammates Giancarlo Stanton and Gary Sanchez hit roughly three to four times more pop-ups, which is a corresponding drag on their Fangraphs HR/FB rate. On the flip side, Aaron Judge maintains a more similar batted ball profile to Voit and has had no issue hovering around the 30% HR/FB range in his career thus far.
FanGraphs’ Mike Podhorzer recognized this bias several years ago and developed a metric called Barrels/True Flyball, which simply divides a player’s barrel count by the amount of their flyballs net of pop-ups. This statistic correlates very strongly with the typically reported HR/FB metric and is used to validate a player’s home run performance in a given season. Voit’s 57.1% Barrels/True FB was far away and the highest in baseball last year, indicating that there should be some buoyancy to Voit’s home-run hitting abilities.
In the end, we should always exercise caution when evaluating small sample hot streaks. However, Voit earned his 2018 performance. Every advanced metric out there says he was in baseball’s elite. And while we certainly shouldn’t expect 95th to 100th percentile performances in exit velocity and barrel rate next year, I believe that Voit has shown enough through his minor league career, 2017 initial call-up, and 2018 dominance to establish a fairly comfortable performance floor. This floor is further accentuated by the fact that he’ll be playing half of his games in a very favorable home park. And, perhaps above all, Voit’s pitch recognition and plate discipline, as measured by his impressive zone swing to outside swing ratio, makes me convinced of his legitimacy.
Main Graphic by Nathan Mills