The Yankees, First Base, and the 2022 Season
by Cary Greene
February 17, 2022
Much has been said about the state of the Yankees first base situation. Do the Yankees need an upgrade over the often injured Luke Voit, or should the Yankees roll with Voit, fully content to use DJ LeMahieu as the emergency plan in case Voit’s balky knees just can’t hold up?
Is Voit Still Valuable to the Yankees?
The one interesting thing about Voit is his splits. For his career, Voit hits .268 against righties and .264 against lefties. His approach works and I say that because career to date he’s hit .307 against shifts. He’s a special hitter, when on the field. It doesn’t matter who he’s facing. He’s a threat. He also happily takes the ball the other way, as the Yankee faithful well knows
If we look at trends, Voits Barrel% is trending up (15.8% last year vs 13.1% in his amazing 2020 season) and his Hard-Hit% went from 40% to 51.8% over that same span. He’s taking the ball up the middle even more than he usually does over that span as well, with his Batted-Balls going from a 24.4% hit to center field to a 33.8% from 2020 to last season and best of all, his pull rate of 54.4% in 2020 was cut to 44.6% last season.
This is all very good news for a right handed batter who gets around half of his plate appearances in Yankee stadium. These numbers suggest the potential for continued excellent production at Yankee stadium, from a right-handed hitter no less.
Luke Voit is the type of hitter I think the modern day Yankees should hang onto. Analytics have their place in baseball and in this instance, Voit is more valuable at Yankee stadium than many elite left handed hitters are. Regarding Luke Voit’s case to remain with the team, they matter a lot and the big picture suggests the Yankees should hang on to Luke Voit, opposed to dumping him. Right handed batters who can take the ball the other way have a lot of appeal to the Yankees.
If the Yankees could surround a few key right-handed bats like the one Luke Voit carries to the battlefield, with a few left handed, dead pull hitters, the results could be devastating. Thus far, Brain Cashman has utterly failed to accomplish this.
The short porch is too tantalizing for left-handed dead-pull bats and the Yankees have…exactly ZERO of those types of hitters. I’m not sure how that is even possible, but it’s true. I will send a memo to the Yankees analytics department that they might want to acquire a few dead pull left-handed bats. LOL I’ll also send a note to Cashman and copy Hal Steinbrenner that Yankee stadium has a short porch in right field.
Voit’s Main Problem? Injuries. Lots of them!
In all seriousness though, keeping Voit on the field has really been the main area of concern with him and it’s a very real problem for the team. Since coming to the Yankees from the Cardinals in 2018, Voit has missed 41% of the Yankees games, sitting out 145 games of a possible 351 games with a variety of injuries and he even had knee surgery last April. Chart below courtesy of sportrac.com:
Cashman Attempted to Trade Voit
Since Voit has proven to be highly injury prone, he’s almost worn out his welcome in the Bronx and Cashman shopped him at last year’s July Trade Deadline but was unable to make a successful deal though reportedly, three teams were interested in him. According to Andy Martino of SNY, approximately 30 minutes before the trade deadline, the Yankees reportedly had a deal in place to trade Voit to an undisclosed team. But this trade partner apparently had second thoughts and pulled out of these talks at the last minute.
Something had to be done as the Yankees had the worst left-handed hitting in baseball at the time, so Brian Cashman traded for Anthony Rizzo who came in and took over as the Yankees starting first baseman. Rizzo is now a free agent so now Cashman and the Yankees are back to square one – the team needs a reliable answer at first base.
Should the Yankees trade Voit this Offseason?
Many Yankee fans want Brian Cashman to trade for 27 year old Matt Olson, who hits .243 over his career vs lefties and .257 vs righties, but had a major breakout season last year and has two years of team control remaining.
When healthy, Voit has an excellent approach at the plate and he’s a very good hitter. Voit makes loads of hard contact and he drives balls up the middle and the other way very consistently which is really unusual for a right handed hitter. He takes the ball to right field 20.8% of the time, so even though he has a great approach, he doesn’t truly “pepper” the short porch like a left-handed dead pull hitter would. Therefore, while it makes a ton of sense to hold on to such a valuable offensive force, Voit is not the ideal solution at first base.
The primary concern with Voit is simply keeping him healthy. If he could be a full time DH, it would be the perfect position for him. Presently, Voit’s trade value is at a career-rock-bottom of 3.1 as per mlbtradevalues.com. The pitfall in trading Voit now is that the deal would net in return a player similar in value to perhaps, Estevan Florial. I’m sorry but that’s just bad business. NO DEAL! A healthy Voit is worth a lot more than that.
Waiting until the July Trade Deadline, assuming Voit is 100% healthy, there are a number of NL teams that might dearly need a big bat for a playoff push and they might see Voit as a highly desirable trade target. The Reds and Giants both come to mind as potential trade partners.
Let’s say that over the course of the first half of the season, that Voit’s trade value triples or even quadruples from where it is now. A strategy of giving him a chance to show he’s healthy may pay off big. If the Yankees wait until the July Deadline, trading Voit then could fetch a player as valuable as, say, Luis Gil presently is (12.1 trade value per mlbtradevalues.com). How does that sound?
How Hanging on to Voit Could Work
Now that we’ve established that trading such a potentially productive bat as Voit has is a bad business idea for a team that plays its home games in Yankee Stadium, let’s envision what hanging on to him might look like. Voit is an ideal right-handed hitter for a team such as the Yankees, but at this point, playing him in the field regularly is persona non grata because he’s very likely not going to hold up. This means the Yankees either have to platoon Voit or use him primarily at DH. It’s that simple. This is what would have to happen. Voit is going to be a really good DH. Why give him away now for a bag of peanuts and a Coke, when you could wait and get two Italian Sausage sandwiches with peppers AND onions and two Bud-Lites?
The next logical question to ask then is, can Voit be used primarily at DH and perhaps sparingly platooned? The answer is easily Yes, it would be super easy to do over the course of the first half of the coming season – thanks to DJ LeMahieu’s ability to play first base at a fairly high level.
Should the Yankees Make a Trade for a First Baseman?
The Yankees may want to solidify first base and that may involve a trade or it might boil down to taking a plunge in free agency.
Let’s say the Yankees decide to trade for a reliable first baseman who plays great defense and hits left handed. Matt Olson, who has two years of team control remaining, is the clear cut priority trade target. His offensive profile is well suited for Yankee stadium’s confines. The reason his bat would likely work in the Yankee lineup goes beyond his slash line. To quantify his impact, we need to consider that last year, Olson hit .281 against shifts and his numbers against both lefties and righties improved substantially. Olson’s Barrel-Percentage was 12.7% last season and his Hard-Hit-Percent was 48.4%. So where do his hard hit baseballs land?
Well, Olson’s approach at the plate is primarily to pull the ball. His Pull-Percentage last season was 40.4% and he made Hard-Contact 36.3% of the time while hitting the ball in the air 43.7% of the time. Olson also had a true breakout season last year because he actually decreased his focus on pulling the ball (he was at 47.4% in 2020 and 51.7% in 2019).
Olson also doesn’t strike out much at, evidenced by his 16.8% K-Rate and his 12.1% Walk-Rate indicates that he has solid awareness of the strike zone. Another super-intriguing part of Olson’s profile at the plate is that he’s not prone to bouncing into double-plays, as he posted a wGDP rate of -1.7 last season and that’s a huge part of making teams pay for walking batters ahead of his position in the lineup. Olson’s overall offensive approach worked nicely for him in Oakland last year and it’s safe to say it would work well in the Bronx as well.
Olson hits .271 against righties and .270 against lefties so he’s an intriguing left-handed bat who also hits .279 against shifts, which means there’s no real holes in his repertoire that left-handed relievers can exploit.
Defensively, the Yankees get plus-defense with Olson at first base if they make a trade. Olson registered a +6 DRS/+1.4 UZR/.995 F%, which makes Olson the best defensive first baseman in the American League.
Should the Yankees Sign a Free Agent First Baseman?
Let’s say the Yankees spend big on Freddie Freeman, instead of trading for Olson? This is a question Hal Steinbrenner would have to answer, but there are a few eye-popping reasons that Freeman would look sweet in pinstripes.
“Exhibit-A” would be that Freeman obliterates righties (.317 last season vs RHP) and that fixes a massive Yankee problem. If we look at the Yankees leaders in plate appearances last year and also look at how well they handled right-handed pitching, we see a definite opportunity for improvement.
DJ LeMahieu led the team in plate appearances and he hit only .269 with 8 Home Runs and 39 RBI’s.
Aaron Judge was next in plate appearances and he hit .283 with 24 Home Runs and 66 RBI’s.
Giancarlo Stanton was next and he hit .273 with 25 Home Runs and 71 RBI’s.
Meanwhile, Gleyber Torres hit .245 / Brett Gardner hit .212 / Gio Urshela hit .254 and Gary Sanchez hit .191
Opposing managers routinely load up on right-handed starters and relievers when facing the Yankees. They routinely pitch around Judge and Stanton and there’s no danger in doing that because who in the Yankee lineup is there to worry about? Joey Gallo? He strikes out 35% of the time and only hit .198 against righties last year. Enter Freedie Freeman – .317/ 24 HR/ 63 RBI??? Wowww. I can feel Kevin Cash’s stress level going up right now. Inserting Freeman in between Judge and Stanton in the Yankee lineup is intriguing.
“Exhibit B” for a reason to sign Freeman is that he also annihilates shifts (.339 vs shifts for his career). He not only crushes righties but defenses can’t shift against him. That opens the floodgates and means runs would start scoring. It unclogs the bilges of the middle of the Yankee lineup that has needed a purge for years on end now. When we consider the Yankees are very vulnerable to shifts, adding Freeman moves the needle in ways the Yankees need the needle to move.
Again, looking at plate appearance leaders for the Yankees last year, DJ LeMahieu hit only .242 against shifts. This doesn’t cut it when your plate appearances leader, who happens to be your leadoff man, can easily be squelched and kept off base by shifts and right-handed pitching. When LeMahieu comes up for his second, third, fourth and even fifth at bats, he often has men on base in those situations. Opponents slap on the shift and get him out. Then they work around Judge and go right after Gallo.
Granted LeMahieu was bothered by a nagging sports hernia and he actually had surgery on it this offseason so there is a good chance he’ll return to his usual effective self against righties. We’ll have to wait and see how it shakes out for him, it will be interesting.
The reason opponents have a hard time with Judge (.321 vs shifts) is that he’s shift-proof. Cashman needs to extend him and build around him. Giancarlo Stanton (.319) is also shift proof, as is Gleyber Torres (.330).
In Freeman, we have a hitter with a fantastic approach at the plate, one who pulls the ball 39.5% of the time but who also has the ability to easily go up the middle or the other way.
Digging a little deeper, we see that Freeman made 38.4% Hard-Contact and hit only 32.5% of his batted balls in the air. This isn’t ideal for an expensive left-handed first baseman who is supposed to target the short porch. That said, Freeman’s K-Rate was only 15.4% which is flat out excellent. Freeman’s BB-Rate was 12.2%.
Where Freeman’s profile deteriorates a bit is shown by his wGDP rate last year, which was +.9, so this indicates he hits into a few more double plays than an average player so that would be one thing not to like about adding him to a team that already tried to lead the majors in this category. The idea is to get on runners on base and then move the runners while keeping innings going. Double-plays kill big innings.
The Yankee Offense’s Achilles Heel
Also, we know that the Yankees do have a problem hitting into too many double-plays, but if Cashman is looking to move the needle, he should consider that Aaron Judge, who struck out 25% of the time last year, is completely average in his tendencies to hit into double-plays and his +.1 wGDP stat indicates that Judge is not a rally killer. If anything, he’s a batter other teams don’t want to face with men on base.
Giancarlo Stanton meanwhile, who struck out 27.1% of the time last year, had a wGDB rate of -2.9, so clearly he IS prone to hitting into easy double-plays, probably because he hits the ball so hard, which gives the defense time to double him up. When analytics departments are overly focused on exit velocities, a byproduct of hard hit balls can easily be too many double-plays.
If Stanton and Judge are to be in the heart of the batting order, it makes sense to support them with a player batting behind him that doesn’t strike out a ton, avoids double-plays and also has a knack for advancing or plating runners and keeping innings alive. Brain Cashman has not figured this out yet.
If we look at the rest of the Yankee roster and focus on the players that had the most Plate-Appearances last season, there are a number of players who have a propensity to knock into double-plays. Luke Voit (-2.2) led the charge and that’s a significant factor in this conversation.
Gio Urshela (-1.9) has become a true rally-killer as well and DJ LeMahieu (-1.8) was close behind him. Miguel Andujar (-1.7) is another candidate to be an automatic double-play and Anthony Rizzo (-1.3) and Gary Sanchez (-1.2) aren’t very good at avoiding double-plays either. Gleyber Torres (-.7) was a bit better than that lot of cement-footed players on the Yankee roster, but not by much.
Not one of the Yankees who are prone to hitting into double-plays is well suited to bat in between Stanton and Judge.
Interestingly and more as a side note, Joey Gallo, who struck out 34.6% of the time last year (which is the best he’s ever done in his career–yikes) had a +1.6 wGDB so he’s not a problem for the Yankees in any other department aside from actually making contact with the baseball (LOL).
Olson or Freeman?
Defensively, Freeman put up a +2 DRS/-1.0 UZR/.998F% season last year so he’s by all means a solid defender at his position. Olson is a shade better defensively, but Freeman is the better offensive player, though he’s also five years older and on a longer term deal, that’s not ideal considering the projected six year, $200 million contract he’s looking for.
Fans may be split on which player, Freeman or Olson, is a better fit for the Yankees. Are there other options?
The Other Option: Kyle Schwarber
Well, there is one. There is a left-handed first baseman available who hits both lefties and righties as well as Luke Voit does. He doesn’t crush righties like Freddie Freeman does, but he hits a respectable .264 against them while also totally holding his own (.268) against lefties.
However, Schwarber is a dead-pull hitter (45%) who makes a ton of hard contact (39.1%) and a ton of medium contact (45.6%) who hits mostly fly balls 40.9% and this makes him a hitter that absolutely would pepper the short porch. Enter Kyle Schwarber, the player that allows the Yankees to platoon Voit – the player who has a superior profile to Olson, for targeting the short porch. He is looking for 3 years and $57 million so he’s significantly less pricey than Freeman and he’s entering the prime of his career at age 28.
Schwarber, who posted a 27% K rate last year, strikes out at a similar clip to Judge and Stanton, but we have to ask ourselves, in the era of three-outcome baseball, what does he do when not striking out one in every four plate appearances? Well, for one, he’s completely shift-proof – he hit .310 against shifts last season. This means opposing managers can’t pound him inside with lefty specialists late in games and play shifts. It doesn’t work. How would that kind of threat look in between Judge and Stanton?
Schwarber is also hitting medium deep and deep fly balls and he’s hitting them hard. He also had a wGDB of +.8 so he’s able to avoid hitting into a lot of double-plays because he mostly hits the ball in the air (62% fly balls and line drives, 38% grounders).
There is no question, Schwarber is going to be in demand even more with the National League adopting the DH. Still, he actually is the middle of the order bat that fits best in the Yankee lineup. Defensively, Olson and Freeman are both far superior, but trading for Oslon is going to be painful, of this there is no doubt and Freeman is extremely expensive. This makes signing Schwarber, who is a bargain based on his production, is a better overall solution offensively.
How to Accommodate Schwarber
It’s a mistake to think that the Yankees don’t have room on the roster for Kyle Schwarber because he’s another Luke Voit or Giancarlo Stanton. Offensively he’s very different from both of these players and as we’ve covered ad nauseum, he’s a “pepper the short porch power hitting lefty” who is impervious to left handed pitching, shifts and is unlikely to hit into double plays. Schwarber is a guy you want in-between Judge and Stanton. He’s a perfect fit. So how would the Yankees accommodate Schwarber?
Well, as we found out last year, a funny thing happens when the Yankees actually play Giancarlo Stanton in the outfield regularly. He begins to hit a lot better and he also looks pretty good defensively – as in above average looking still.
It’s no secret that the Yankees need a better plan in center field and with Starling Marte now off the market, one in house solution might be to start Gallo in center field, use Judge in left field and play Stanton three or four days a week in right field. With this approach, Aaron Hicks is the fourth outfielder and he probably has a better chance of staying healthy himself. There would also be no primary DH as the Yankees would rotate Stanton, Voit, Judge and even Schwarber at the position.
The Real Problem: The Left Side of the Yankee Infield
With Schwarber, Voit and LeMahieu all playing some first base, Cashman could focus on the real problem, the real need – which is the right side of the infield. Sadly, the lighting in a bottle that was once Gio Urshela has low voltage these days. He’s steadily spiraled into an offensive liability.
Regardless of fangraphs.com projecting him as the opening day shortstop, which we all know is probably not happening, Urshela isn’t even an answer at third base, though he does field the position pretty well and probably better than DJ LeMahieu does. Fangraphs.com is also projecting LeMahieu to get the bulk of his plate appearances at third base, thinking Urshela will be at shortstop most of the time. This is a double whammy and it’s not good.
LeMahieu should be playing third base only when the regular third baseman is either resting or he’s injured. While LeMahieu is far from not a good defender, he’s basically average at the position defensively. He put up a -1 DRS / -.8 UZR at third base last year. Any team in baseball could easily live with his defense at third base. It’s just that he’s vastly better at second base and first base.
The real issue is that Urshela has become a liability on offense and the Yankees should probably look to minimize his plate appearances this season. Defensively, Urshela is actually a little bit better of a shortstop than he is a third baseman.
Signing Schwarber increases the need for both Luke Voit and DJ LeMahieu. LeMahieu can start games off at third base, then flex to first base or second base in later innings depending upon matchups. This creates an opportunity for Urshela to move into more of a reserve infielder role, which is where a light hitting player like him belongs.
The Yankees biggest priority needs to be to sign a shortstop. Trevor Story is a two way player who fits perfectly. Offensively, Story is a lot better against shifts than Urshela is, but he does struggle with right handed pitching whereas Urshela doesn’t as much. Story hit only .239 against righties last year while Urshela (.254) was marginally better. But Story has a superior offensive player in almost every offensive way. He’s also vastly better defensively. Story is looking for six years and 138 million, give or take. With the $200 million saved by passing on Freddie Freeman, the Yankees could afford both Story and Schwarber, which is a better way to use resources to fix the Yankees.
With Trevor Story in place, the Yankees could take their time developing their top prospect, Anthony Volpe, who will probably open the season in Double-A this year. He could make it to the big leagues some time next season and with Story at shortstop, the Yankees could move Volpe to third base to replace Urshela.
Meanwhile, the Yankees number three prospect, Oswald Peraza will be ready a little sooner and the Yankees could ease him into the big leagues at third base and perhaps in center field a little bit, while also using him some at shortstop when resting Story.
The Yankees would be a much stronger team in the long run, if they executed this plan.