Everyone's favorite story last year was Luke Voit. After a year of frustration with Greg Bird and anyone else the Yankees put over at first in 2018, Voit was acquired with little fanfare, plugged into first base and became the most exciting and fun story for the 2018 Yankees. This spring, the question was, "Is Luke Voit For Real?" I asked the question myself. While Voit has good numbers and is in the plus side of the offensive average, he is not the same dynamo and does not seem to be having the same amount of fun. So what is wrong with Luke Voit?
One could speculate in many ways. Last year, Voit was just a cog in a lineup full of powerful options for a team that broke the all-time homer record. With all the injuries this year, did Voit take too much upon himself and try too hard to make up the difference? Is it a strong factor that people doubted if he was the real deal and he tried too hard to prove he was? That is all speculation, of course, and without Voit opening up about his mindset, that is all it can be.
There are observations one can make. He looks too intense at the plate. Every pitch is a battle. He does not look nearly as happy as he was. His swing at times looks like he has taken the uppercut to new extremes to the point of looking softball-like. His hips bail out (which he never did before) leading to swings and misses, weaker contact and ground balls. Those are all eyeball tests though. And perhaps they are legit since I have been watching baseball for half a century. But for those of you who only want to know the numbers, let's consider some of them.
Last year, Luke Voit put exactly 100 balls in play in fair territory according to Baseball-reference.com. That makes for a very easy way to come up with percentages. You cannot get more easy than that! I like this number better than Fangraphs.com's percentages because it only measures balls in fair territory. Yes, there are foul outs and the like, but I think the fair territory balls in play gives a nice picture. Some of the facts I will present do come from Fangraphs, but most are from B-Ref. The 2018 data includes his short stint with the Cardinals.
The first thing to notice is his pull percentage. In 2018, he pulled the ball only 23% of those balls he put in fair territory. That percentage is up to 33% this year. This meets the eye test that his hips are flying open and he is trying to pull the ball much more often.
Last year, he hit four homers to the opposite field. And he hit a total of fourteen homers to either right field or center field. Out of 100 balls put in fair territory, that is pretty incredible. This year, Voit has only hit one homer to right field and ten to center field (the same as last year) in 69 more at bats!
According to Fangraphs heat maps, Luke Voit's happy zones have shrunk. Last year, there was pink or darker in 22 of Voit's 36 strike zone sectors. This included one on the outer sixth of the plate. This year, he has 18 happy sectors and none on the outer sixth of the plate. This again shows that Voit has lost his approach to think first to drive the ball to right and center.
Voit's ground ball rate has increased by five percentage points while his homer to fly ball rate is lower by almost fourteen percentage points.
The most damning statistic that shows Luke Voit does not have the same approach as last year is his hard hit ball rate. Last year, his hard hit ball rate was 47%. It was that rate that had people thinking Voit was the real deal. This year, Voit's hard hit ball rate is down to 37.1%. That is quite a drop and would account for his Batting Average On Balls In Play (BABIP) dropping from .365 last year to this year's .309.
There are two ways to look at Luke Voit's performance thus far this season. One could say that last year was unsustainable. Voit had never performed like that at any level of professional baseball. And that even where he is this year is as a very good offensive performer. His OPS+ is 131 and wRC+ is 132 (two ways at looking at the same thing). That means that he is 31 or 32% better than league average as an offensive performer. He is still a positive offensive force for the Yankees overall and still a godsend after the Greg Bird days.
On the other side of the coin, if he could go back to last year's approach and take the outside pitch to right or center and keep his hips from flying out, he wouldn't necessarily be the flame that last year was, but he would be better than he is and perhaps he would smile more again.