Luke Voit is expected to come off the Injured List when the Yankees return home on Friday. Out of the New York lineup since the end of July — a sports hernia put him on the shelf — the 28-year-old slugger is currently on a rehab assignment with Triple-A Scranton Wilkes-Barre. His bat looks healthy. Following a shake-off-the-cobwebs 0-for-3 in the first of his four games as a RailRider, Voit has gone 8-for-14, with a pair of home runs, against International League pitching.
He’s already proven that he can hammer big-league pitching. Originally in the Cardinals organization — St. Louis drafted him out of Missouri State University in 2013 — Voit has been an offensive force since donning pinstripes 13 months ago. Acquired in exchange for Chasen Shreve and Giovanny Gallegos, the right-handed slugger has gone on to slash .293/.395/,547, with 33 home runs and a 150 wRC+ in 564 plate appearances.
Voit sat down to talk about his evolution as a hitter prior to Tuesday night’s game against the Pawtucket Red Sox.
David Laurila: If I looked at video from when you first entered pro ball, and video of you now, would I see the same hitter?
Luke Voit: “No, you’d see a completely different guy. I used to have a wide stance. My hands were probably in the same spot, but over time they’ve gone from down to my waist almost to where I have like a Gary Sheffield… my hands are moving. For awhile I had a big leg kick. That started working for me, then I slowly… it felt like pitchers were quick-pitching me. Not on purpose, but rather the quicker the guy was to the plate… that’s something I struggled with. That’s when I developed this little leg swing.”
Laurila: When did you make that change?
Voit: “In Double-A. The leg kick started in High-A, and I felt great with that, but then I got to Double-A and realized I needed something smaller to be on time, because I was getting beat inside. That opened me up a little bit, too.”
Laurila: The leg swing is your timing mechanism.
Voit: “Yes. I don’t move my hands much anymore — maybe just a little bit to get some rhythm and flow in my swing.”
Laurila: You said where you hold your hands has fluctuated.
Voit: “They’ve gone from here to here, to back to here. I brought them back over my shoulder. That came with… I had them lower, but then guys started pitching me up in the zone and I was fouling it back, or swinging and missing. Obviously, the whole spin-rate thing is taking over baseball. Guys are pitching up there, and I have to be able to make contact with the pitch up in the zone.”
Laurila: Is that with your A-swing, or with what might be called your B-swing?
Voit: “I would probably say my B-swing, or however you want to say it. If you get big… that just goes with the reports. You have to know the guy that pitches up in the zone, and if he has a big curveball he throws off of that. Even when I hit pregame… say I’m facing Chris Paddack, a guy who pitches up in the zone, [plus] a changeup. I’m going to put that machine to where it’s pitching me at the top of the zone, so I’m getting that swing down for the game — that level swing to where I’m hitting that pitch instead of getting under it and fouling it back.
“I’m also creating a nice, easy path to the baseball that way. I’m not getting big. It’s so easy to get big on that. Your elbow drifts. Then you foul that pitch off and are standing there, 0-2, like ‘How did I miss that pitch?’”
Laurila: Your preparation is specific to the pitcher you’re facing on a given night.
Voit: “Yeah, and it also has to do with what their secondary pitch is. I’ll hit sliders, or I’ll hit the curveball. Whatever pitch they have, I’ll hit that off the machine before every game.”
Laurila: Later in that same game you might be facing a pitcher with a completely different skill set than the starter. Can you just flip the switch with your swing, and your approach?
Voit: “I can. I’ll watch video on him in the dugout — we have an iPad in there — and if he’s a sinkerballer, or has a big cutter, I’ll know where it’s got to start for me to hit it. It’s also nice having guys like [Aaron] Judge and Gary [Sanchez] who get pitched similarly to me. I can watch their at-bats, and kind of have a game plan from that.”
Laurila: What is your pregame routine down here in Triple-A?
Voit: “We don’t have access to as much stuff down here. We have the video, which is big, so it’s nice knowing… and I’ve faced some of these guys, too. It’s always good to have that in the back of your mind. But it’s definitely different. Some of these places don’t have machines, so I can’t prepare the way I usually do. But being here on rehab, it’s really more about getting my timing down. I need to make sure that I’m on time with fastballs.
“My first two games down here I kind of felt I was late on fastballs. Then I got that right and was hitting sliders. But that’s just how you get pitched. You have to adapt to what they’re going to do, because they obviously have a scouting report on you, just like you do on them.”
Laurila: I admittedly haven’t been following your IL situation very closely. How much time did you have off where you ween’t facing pitchers?
Voit: “A little under a month; about 25 days. Swinging was progressive. I started with flips, then got to BP — there was like a week of that, and then it was about four or five days of BP on the field. That’s when I could hit off a machine, and stuff like that. Then I came here.”
Laurila: Is hitting like riding a bicycle for you, or is missing that much time especially difficult?
Voit: “It’s a little bit of both. It’s obviously nice for your body — especially when you’re injured — to get a break from the game. That goes for mentally, as well. But it definitely throws you out of whack. I feel that my BP was terrible the first couple of days I was back taking it. You’re trying to create stuff instead of just hitting the ball where it’s a pitched. That kind of thing. You want to get that feel back so fast, but in reality it’s usually going to take a week or two.
“I feel like I’m finally starting to get there, but this also baseball. At any point during during the season, it’s going to go week to week. I’m going to have weeks where I feel terrible, but then in the game I’ll feel great. It will be like, ‘This is BP, boys.’ Hitting is a lot about feel.”
Laurila: A question I’ve asked a lot of guys this year is whether they look at hitting as more or an art, or as more of a science.
Voit: “I would say it’s more of an art. Everybody is different. Whether you have a leg kick, just a toe tap, just a baby stride, lift the foot up, your hands are lower or higher, you have an inside-out swing… whatever. Every swing is different. So it’s definitely an art. If it was a science, then everybody would be the same, right?
“That said, I understand why some guys will say that it’s more of a science. There are all the numbers we’re provided with. There’s the technology. We have the knobs on our bats that can tell you what your bath path is like. Sometimes I think that stuff can be a little too much — guys start thinking about everything — but again, everybody is different in the way they go about it.”
Laurila: I’ve had players tell me that regardless of the level of coaching they get, they ultimately have to be themselves.
Voit: “You’re your best hitting coach, for sure.”
Laurila: How does that dynamic work for you?
Voit: “I think you need to have an open mind all the time. You need to be receptive to possible changes, whether it’s in the box or a different mechanism to get ready. There are different drills. I always keep an open mind to that. The coaches I’ve had in New York are great in that they’ve kind of let me be myself. They’ll see where I get for about a month… especially when I got over here. Once I got comfortable with them, they’d throw me ideas, or maybe we’d watch video together on certain things. It’s been great. They do a good job with that.”
Laurila: That sounds somewhat analogous to what typically happens when a player first enters pro ball: the coaches are mostly hands-off for the first couple of months.
Voit: “I actually got pretty early feedback — we got comfortable pretty quickly — but yes, they do need to give you some space, and learn you. You can’t get a good read on somebody from 10 swings. Frankly, it probably needs to be over 1,000, and that comes from the cage, from BP, and also from game swings. You’ve got to see how a guy hits, what he hits. What’s the pitch he hits best? Can he hit a slider in, or a slider away? Is he good against changeups? Does he have a slower bat and can’t hit inside fastballs? There are so many things that create a different hitter, and a hitting coach needs to adapt to. Hopefully he can help make you a better hitter.”
Laurila: Have you heard different messages here than you did with the Cardinals?
Voit: “Every hitting coach is different. I’ve gotten really good advice here, and I’d say it’s more than I got with St. Louis. I think that comes with the analytical side. There’s been a lot of feedback, including some on certain numbers I didn’t know I had.”
Laurila: Can you give an example?
Voit: “How hard I hit the ball, where I ht the ball, swing-and-miss rates, the pitches I swing at in the zone, out-of-the-zone comparisons. The wRC+ stat is a big one. A big thing the Yankees like, in my opinion, is on-base percentage. That’s kind of what’s getting a lot of guys paid now — slugging, and taking your walks when you get them.
“When a hitter gets out of his comfort zone and is trying to create hits… there are going to be weeks when you’re getting a lot of good pitches to hit, and then the next week you might only get eight pitches to hit in your zone. Maybe they’re pitching around you. It could also be where you’re hitting in the lineup. You might not be getting pitches to hit, and if you are, maybe you’re missing them. That’s when you have to be able to take your walks.
“Even though [batting] average is kind of getting thrown out, one thing that helps guys have a better one is the ability to draw walks. It helps eliminate the 0-for-4s and 0-for-5s. Instead, you’re 0-for-2, or maybe it’s a 1-for-3. Those extra few hits a week will help your average. What you don’t want is to be overly aggressive and strike out. That’s the one thing you don’t want to do.”
Laurila: The Astros have the best record in baseball. Their pitchers have the most strikeouts in either league, while their hitters have the fewest strikeouts.
Voit: “There you go.”
Earlier “Talks Hitting” interviews can found through these links: Nolan Arenado, Aaron Bates, Cavan Biggio, Matt Chapman, Paul DeJong, Rick Eckstein, Drew Ferguson, Joey Gallo, Mitch Haniger, Evan Longoria, Michael Lorenzen, Daniel Murphy, Fernando Tatis Jr., Justin Turner, Jesse Winker.
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.