When future baseball fans look back at the 2020 MLB season, they could view this year’s statistical leaders with skepticism. That was the year teams played only 60 games, they’ll say. That was the year with no fans, the funny extra innings rule, the seven-inning doubleheader games, and the bubble postseason. (The fans won’t think it’s weird that the National League had a DH, because the NL will likely have a permanent DH by then.) Normally, to lead the majors in home runs, you have to destroy pitches for an entire summer; in 2020, all it took was a few hot months. Maybe that’s how fans will remember Luke Voit, the husky Yankees first baseman who has been crowned baseball’s short-season home run king.
After all, Voit seems like a novelty. The Yankees are a team full of big baseball bangers with megamillion-dollar contracts. They have Aaron Judge, a 6-foot-7 powerhouse who could’ve played college football as a tight end and led the AL in home runs in 2017. They have Giancarlo Stanton, a 6-foot-6 former MVP who dominates baseball’s exit velocity leaderboard and twice led the NL in home runs. They have Gerrit Cole, a 6-foot-4 ace who throws one of baseball’s most overpowering fastballs and signed a $324 million contract this offseason. Voit is also big, but not in the way that the Yankees’ most famous players are. When you look at Judge, Stanton, and Cole, you can tell they’re all powerful athletes. When you look at the 6-foot-3, 255-pound Voit, you don’t see a Yankees superstar. You see a guy who might be useful if you need help moving a couch.
But Voit has turned into the team’s most consistent power source. He had 22 homers this season; no other Yankee had more than 10. He averaged a home run every 9.7 at bats; even as the game has come to revolve around the long ball, nobody has hit homers at that rate over a full season since Barry Bonds in 2004. The shortened season surely helps Voit in that stat, but he isn’t a fluke. Since coming to New York in July 2018, Voit has hit 57 home runs in 213 games. In the same span, Stanton and Judge have combined for 58 home runs in 237 games. This mound of baseball brilliance is outslugging the guys who look like they were born to slug. The Yankees have earned a reputation for trying to buy their way to success. Now they’re led by Voit, who was set to make $634,000 this year before the players’ salaries were reduced amid the pandemic-shortened season.
In 2017, Voit made his MLB debut for the Cardinals at the ancient age of 26. The next year, he was traded to the Yankees and rose from oblivion to club 14 homers in just 39 games. But he didn’t seem critical to the team’s success. He was just seen as a Half-Season Home Run Guy. We’ve all fallen in love with Half-Season Home Run Guys—players who show up and find inexplicable power streaks before disappearing forever. (For me as a young Yankees fan, this was Shane Spencer in 1998; for my Mets fan friends, it was Mike Jacobs in 2005.) Half-Season Home Run Guys don’t feel like the future of your franchise. They’re fun flings, not fiancés.
With Voit, it’s different. He has once again become a Half-Season Home Run Guy—except this time, the half-season was the whole season. And he may be the most important player in determining whether the Yankees will play deep into October.
It seemed like there was little spectacular about Voit when the Yankees acquired him in 2018. In this abridged season, Voit has hit 22 home runs. That’s more than he hit over his four seasons at Missouri State (19) or in any full minor league season.
Voit wasn’t a hot college prospect. He actually wanted to play college football—he was a fullback and linebacker, as you might guess by looking at him—but suffered too many injuries to continue playing the sport. (His brother, John, made the game-winning tackle in the 2018 Army-Navy game, and, notably, is not Angelina Jolie’s dad.) Voit thought he was headed to junior college, as reported by The Athletic, but in 2009 a catching spot on Missouri State’s roster opened up.
Voit wasn’t a hot minor league prospect either. Scouts watched him play at Missouri State—but mainly to see Pierce Johnson, the guy throwing the pitches that Voit caught. The Cubs took Johnson with a first-round pick in 2012; Voit wasn’t drafted as a junior, and the Cardinals took him in the 22nd round as a senior.
And even the Cardinals didn’t seem to think Voit was much of a prospect. They believed that José Martínez was better than Voit, limiting Voit’s path to success with the organization after he transitioned to first base. Voit had somewhat of a breakout at Double-A Springfield in 2016; he hit 19 homers over 134 games and won the Texas League batting title and home run derby. (He won a very large knife for the latter, which appears to have made him very happy.) But that seemed more like a cute story than a sign of things to come. By a weird stroke of luck, the Springfield Cardinals play in the exact same stadium that Missouri State does. In 2016, Voit was 25, playing in his fifth minor league season on the heels of a four-year college career, slugging in the same batter’s box he’d been in since he was 18. His teammates called him “The Mayor,” which is a nickname people give you when you’ve been hanging around for too long. Was he a real prospect, or was he perpetually stuck in the same place?
Then Voit stunk when the Cardinals called him up in 2017. He played in 70 games for the team across two seasons, hitting only five home runs while recording more strikeouts than base hits. The Cardinals sent Voit to the Yankees midway through the 2018 season for what in retrospect looks like a comically paltry haul: St. Louis got two relievers, Giovanny Gallegos (who has been reasonably effective for the Cardinals) and Chasen Shreve (who played only 23 games for St. Louis, and whose parents apparently couldn’t decide whether to name him Chase or Jason). This transaction didn’t turn many heads—a 2018 article about the trade proclaimed that the move was about “roster spots and international bonus pool money.” Why would the New York Yankees care about some rapidly aging first baseman who couldn’t stick in the majors?
But the Yankees clearly saw something in Voit. He made consistent contact. New York’s analytics folks were so adamant about bringing him in that general manager Brian Cashman personally introduced Voit to the whole department after the team made the 2018 playoffs so that he could meet the people who fought to acquire him. (The Yankees reportedly tried to acquire Voit multiple times before the Shreve-Gallegos trade.)
When I think of an under-the-radar analytics star, the first thing that comes to mind is the scene from Moneyball in which A’s GM Billy Beane tries to convince Scott Hatteberg to switch from catcher to first base because he recognized the value in Hatteberg’s walk-drawing abilities long before anybody else. But with the Yankees, Voit isn’t excelling at some new or revolutionary stat. He’s leading MLB in home runs, the stat that has been universally understood to mean “being good at hitting baseballs” since the ball was a misshapen lump.
Voit represents a partial reshaping of how the Yankees win. Yes, they have Judge, Stanton, and Cole, and pay handsomely for them. But over the past few seasons their success may be more attributable to their penchant for improving the hitting skills of players who were overlooked, undervalued, or cast aside. Before being traded to the Yankees for cash considerations in 2018, Gio Urshela was a career .225 hitter with eight home runs in 167 games; over two years in New York, he’s hit .310 with 27 homers in 175 games. Before being traded to the Yankees for backup catcher John Ryan Murphy in 2015, Aaron Hicks had 20 home runs; over the past four seasons he’s hit 60 homers while totaling 9.9 WAR. DJ LeMahieu was a two-time All-Star before coming to New York, but still seemed like an afterthought in 2018 free agency. In his first season with the Yankees, he hit a career-high 26 home runs; this year he won the batting title and led the American League in OPS. The Yankees still have the biggest payroll in the sport, but they’d have cratered if they weren’t able to make magic out of players like Voit.
With each new dinger, Voit seems less like a novelty and more like a legitimately great baseball player. He’s not just MLB’s new home run king; he’s a foundational part of the Yankees’ future. Now it’s time to see whether the king of small sample sizes can power baseball’s biggest team through the ultimate small-sample-size stretch—the postseason.