Does Luke Voit Still Have a Future with the Yankees?
Does Luke Voit Still Have a Future with the Yankees?
By Chris O’Connor
March 12, 2022
July 28, 2018 was a much simpler time for a Yankees fan, let alone any Major League Baseball fan. Pre-Covid. Pre-Lockout. And the defending World Champions were the upstart, lovable Houston Astros. I had attended my first Yankees game the previous month where I saw Luis Severino shut down the Rays for 3 hits, 2 walks, and 0 runs over 8 innings in a 4-1 victory. On July 28, things were mostly good for the Yankees. They were 66-37 and cruising on the way to a 100 win-season with Severino sitting at 14-4 with a 2.94 ERA, emerging as a bona-fide ace atop the rotation. They did have their share of concerns: they were still 5.5 games back of the Red Sox for first place in the division, Aaron Judge had fractured his wrist two days earlier and would be out until mid-September, and first base was a massive black hole in the lineup. Greg Bird and Tyler Austin were not getting it done and the Yankees needed reinforcements at the trade deadline.
To fill the void, that day the Yankees traded relievers Chasen Shreve and Giovanny Gallegos to the Cardinals for little-known Luke Voit, a first baseman who was stuck in Triple-A. After a brief five-game stint with the Yankees, Voit was sent back down to Triple-A on August 13, but was called back up for good on August 21.
And then, all he did was break out with 14 home runs, 33 RBI’s, and an absurd .333/.404/.689 slash line in his 39 games with the team in 2018. The 27 year-old cemented himself as the first baseman of the future, and he delivered. Across 174 games in 2019-2020, Voit hit 43 home runs, drove in 114 runs, and slashed .268/.366/.513 on the way to a 135 OPS+ .
The 2021 season started on an ominous note for Voit as he underwent surgery for a torn meniscus in his left knee in late March and did not make his season debut until May 11. After struggling for two weeks, he went on the IL with an oblique strain. He returned in late June, but he went back on the IL in mid-July due to left-knee inflammation. The Yankees realized that they could not rely on him in 2021 and traded for Anthony Rizzo at the trade deadline. Voit’s playing time dwindled down the stretch, and then his scene mercifully ended after he aggravated his surgically repaired knee in late September. He ultimately played in just 68 games during the regular season, slashing just .239/.328/.437 for a 109 OPS+. In a sign of just how quickly things move in sports, one year after leading all of baseball in home runs, Voit’s nightmarish 2021 casts doubt on his future with the Yankees. Should they bring him back? Let’s look at the positives and negatives.
On the negative side, Voit is a 31 year-old first baseman who has struggled to stay consistently healthy since becoming a full-time regular in 2019. Voit’s late debut makes him seem younger than he is, but age-wise, he would seem to be at the end of his physical prime. This is all the more concerning when considering his injury history: he struggled with knee and oblique issues in 2021, and he played in just 118 games in 2019 due to injuries in his abdomen. After that season, he underwent surgery to fix the issue and while he played in 58 of the 60 games in 2020, he dealt with plantar fasciitis all season. Voit’s injury history makes it difficult to rely on him and his age makes it difficult to believe that he can put this all behind him. As someone who consistently misses time and is a sub-par defender to a non-premium position, Voit relies heavily on his bat to provide value.
There are worrying trends there, however. His walk rate has declined from a career high 13.8% in 2019 down to 7.3% in 2020 and 8.7% in 2021. His strikeout rate is also trending in the wrong direction: he struck out in a career high 30.7% of plate appearances in 2021. Less walks and more strikeouts is not necessarily a bad thing; rather, it can be a player strategically adopting a more aggressive approach at the plate in order to tap into more power, like Joey Votto in recent years. Anecdotally, I noticed Voit’s swing change in 2020-2021 that would appear to suggest that this is the case. He appeared to have far more of an uppercut than when we first saw him come up with the Yankees, and that kind of approach is backed up by the data. For one, his fly ball-rate has spiked from the ~35% range in 2018-2019 to ~39-40% range in 2020-2021. His launch angle also rose from 12.7 degrees in 2019 to 15.2 and 15.9, respectively, in 2020-2021. While this kind of approach does generally lead to more power, it has hurt his ability to get on base. His 2018 stint with the Yankees was a Ruthian performance unlikely to be repeated, but in 2019 his OBP was still a very solid .378. It dropped to .338 in 2020 (which was masked by all of his home runs) and .328 in 2021. It has also reduced his ability to make simple contact: his contact rate was just 60.9% in 2021, well below his career average of 67.9% and a figure that would have ranked dead last in the league among qualified hitters.
On the other hand, it is possible that injuries and inconsistent playing time were the primary cause of his drop in performance in 2021. This was a player who led the league in home runs the year before, and the start-and-stop nature of his season might have had a bigger impact than expected. Voit’s season can be broken down into three distinct points. He was clearly hampered in May, when he slashed just .182/.280/.250 with 1 home run in 12 games before going on the IL with an oblique strain. In 30 games played between his return on June 22 to August 21, when he stopped receiving regular playing time due to the presence of Rizzo, Voit hit .298/.365/.526 with 6 home runs and 25 RBI’s. In 26 games played (13 starts) between August 22 and the end of the regular season, Voit hit .164/.292.400 with 4 home runs and 7 RBI’s. Voit defenders can point to the inconsistent playing time as a reason for his struggles down the stretch and a full offseason to get healthy and be ready to go on Opening Day. Voit’s $5.5 million salary is also hardly a deterrent and can prove to be a bargain if he stays healthy and mashes.
My take: in a vacuum, bringing Voit back makes sense. The Yankees, however, exist in a world where there are numerous superior options available. Much of what the Yankees want to do will depend on their roster philosophy. If the Yankees want to make a splash at first base, they can go one of two ways: break the bank for Freddie Freeman in free agency or sell the farm for Matt Olson in a trade with the A’s. Both Olson and Freeman are better than Voit, but it would be expensive to acquire both. Shelling out for Freeman would mean committing major money to a 32 year-old first baseman with not only Giancarlo Stanton and Gerrit Cole’s long-term salary on the books, but with a possible massive extension looming for free agent-to-be Aaron Judge. For that reason, I think trading for the 28 year-old Olson is more likely. Instead of committing big resources to a non-premium position, Cashman and co. may choose to go after Carlos Correa or Trevor Story at the top of the shortstop market. In that case, settling with Voit (and his lesser salary) at first base makes more sense, as does a reunion with Anthony Rizzo. The Yankees preferred Rizzo’s superior defense, durability, and left-handed bat to Voit down the stretch last year and could turn to him again in 2022.
Personally, I would be happy with one of the following combinations: Freeman/Olson at first and a stopgap at shortstop or Correa/Story at short and Voit/Rizzo at first. I think that if the Yankees go after Correa or Story, it is more likely they bring back Voit.
If I had to guess right now, I think that the Yankees showed their cards in choosing Rizzo over Voit last season. They do not feel like they can rely on him to be an everyday first baseman. Ultimately, I do not think Luke Voit is on the Yankees in 2022.