When the Yankees acquired Luke Voit from the Cardinals on July 29 in exchange for pitchers Giovanny Gallegos and Chasen Shreve, the deal seemed like little more than a footnote, an incremental upgrade of a contender’s organizational depth, sweetened by the inclusion of international bonus-pool money. Nonetheless, the deal has yielded the hottest hitter of any who changed teams in the weeks leading up to the July 31 trade deadline — albeit in a limited sample size — and, for the moment, a solution to the Yankees’ ongoing first-base woes.
At the time of the trade, the Yankees appeared committed to Greg Bird, an oft-injured 25-year-old lefty who had started 47 of the team’s 56 games at first base since returning from surgery to remove a bone spur in his right ankle. Bird extended that stretch to 66 starts in 78 games into late August, but by that point he had slipped into an 0-for-21 slump. With a banged-up offense feeling the absences of Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez, and Didi Gregorius, manager Aaron Boone suddenly turned to Voit (toined to Voit to avoid Boid and fill da void, if you’re speaking Brooklynese), who has started 11 of the team’s past 14 games. The decision has paid off.
Entering Wednesday night’s game against the A’s, Voit — a beefy, amiable lug (6-foot-3, 225 pounds, seemingly with an ever-present smile) — had homered seven times in 65 plate appearances for the Yankees, batting .322/.385/.678 for a 185 wRC+ since the trade. Five of those homers either tied the game or gave the Yankees the lead, including this eighth-inning go-ahead shot against the A’s on September 4, which marked Voit’s third straight game with a dinger:
Among all hitters with at least 60 PA since August 1 — admittedly, not a high bar — Voit’s 185 wRC+ entering Wednesday ranked seventh. The company is pretty impressive:
|4||J.D. Martinez||Red Sox||135||.376||.459||.650||191|
|12||Jose Abreu||White Sox||79||.338||.380||.676||179|
|17||Mookie Betts||Red Sox||142||.331||.437||.568||167|
Among players traded in July with at least 60 PA with their new clubs, he’s the runaway leader. The performances thin out rather quickly:
|7||Ian Kinsler||Red Sox||74||.304||.351||.406||104|
Note that the No. 3 player on the list, Austin, is the one who was effectively replaced by Voit in the Yankees’ organization. The day after Voit was acquired, the 26-year-old Austin was sent to the Twins along with pitching prospect Luis Rijo in exchange for Lance Lynn — a deal that Craig Edwards called “The Best Deadline Trade of the American League” on the basis of Lynn’s post-trade performance (now 1.4 WAR and 43 FIP-, albeit with a 118 ERA-). Austin had hit a lopsided .223/.280/.471 (99 wRC+) with eight homers in 132 PA while filing in for Bird, but had been stashed the minors since mid-June.
Interestingly enough, both Austin and Voit were drafted as catchers, the former out of a Georgia high school in the 13th round in 2010, the latter out of Missouri State University in the 22nd round in 2013. Austin never played the position professionally, while Voit — who also had gridiron aspirations as a fullback and linebacker that were ended by shoulder injuries — spent just one professional season behind the plate before being moved to first base. Voit never made major waves in the Cardinals’ system, failing to crack their Baseball America top-30 lists in any of his four eligible seasons in their deep system. He didn’t reach Double-A until 2016, and while he hit .297/.372/.477 with 19 home runs at Springfield once he got there, he didn’t receive an invitation to the Cardinals’ major-league camp for 2017.
Thanks to some adjustments made at Triple-A Memphis in 2017 — including a shortened stride, yielding better balance — Voit’s hot showing (.327/.407/.565 with 13 homers in 307 PA) led the Cardinals to trade lefty-swinging Matt Adams to the Braves in May of that season. Voit arrived in the majors on June 25, but between the success of Matt Carpenter’s move to first base and the parallel emergence of Jose Martinez, also a right-handed hitter, he had trouble finding regular work. He hit .246/.306/.430 (94 wRC+) in 124 PA, making 18 starts at first base, mostly while Carpenter played second, and pinch-hitting with considerable success (.303/.378/.455 in 37 PA). Nonetheless, the continued productivity of Carpenter and Martinez sent Voit back to Memphis to start 2018, where he continued to mash (.299/.391/.500 with nine homers in 271 PA). He made just 13 PA with the Cardinals, all from May 31 to June 17, before being traded to the Yankees.
As Beyond the Box Score’s Patrick Brennan astutely pointed out at the time of the deal, Voit’s 2017 Statcast numbers were more impressive than his batting line indicated. His 91.3 mph average exit velocity tied for 10th among 466 players (97th percentile) with at least 50 batted-ball events, and his .342 xwOBA outdid his .316 wOBA.
He’s hitting the ball even harder this year, and elevating it with more frequency:
Voit’s average exit velocity is in the 94th percentile this year. He’s still got a lot of swing-and-miss (14.4% this year, up from 14.0% last year), but he’s improved his strikeout-to-walk ratio from 4.4:1 (25.0% and 5.6%) to 2.9:1 (28.0% to 9.8%).
Voit’s overall post-trade impact isn’t massive, but his 0.7 WAR as a Yankee is 1.4 more than Bird has provided in the same span. What’s more, his quick acclimation to the pinstripes has stirred up mentions of Shane Spencer, a stocky slugger who 20 years ago bashed 10 home runs in 73 plate appearances, most of them late season, for the juggernaut 1998 Yankees. (I actually had a deeper Spencer-related dive planned for this article, on September rookie successes, until realizing relatively late in the research process than Voit had in fact exhausted his rookie status last year. Swing and a miss, Jaffe…) Voit may not be the team’s long-term solution at first base, but at this point in the season, his presence as a low-cost alternative has once again reflected well on the job general manager Brian Cashman has done.
Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.