The New York Yankees have a greater history at first base than any other franchise. They have a nearly unbroken steak of stars stretching from Lou Gehrig all the way up through the present day. Luke Voit upholds this positional history with aplomb. Last season, he became the fifth Yankee first baseman to lead the American League in home runs.
Of course, he has yet to make his impact on the lineup in 2021, landing on the IL with a torn meniscus at the end of Spring Training. Without a reliable plan B at the position, the club struggled to score runs in April, getting virtually no production from the fill-ins. Here’s a recap of what we’ve suffered through so far.
It’s never good when an Opening Day starter is retired by mid-April. Bruce had a commendable career including 319 home runs, but only one of those bombs occurred in 2021. He struck out in ⅓ of his 39 plate appearances, collecting only four hits and five walks for a final slash line of .118/.231/.235. On April 14, he went 0-for-4 with two strikeouts and two double plays in a game the Yankees lost to the Toronto Blue Jays by one run. That was the final game of his career.
That’s just his offense. His defense was equally costly. It’s somewhat commonplace to assume nearly any capable ballplayer can handle the position with a little practice, but first base defense actually matters more than we think. Prior to this season, he had played 1,510 Major League games in the outfield but just 54 at first base. It was all too evident that it was not his natural position. His failure to scoop a bounced throw from Gleyber Torres with two outs in the tenth inning on April 7 allowed a run to score. The Yanks lost that game to the Orioles, 4-3 (video from Baseball Savant).
This certainly wasn’t a good throw from Torres, but any MLB first baseman should be expected to snag it. Bruce’s failure to meet the minimum defensive standards cost them at least one game in the standings.
It’s easy to root for Ford. He’s a Jersey guy who reached the big leagues despite going undrafted out of Princeton, then had two hot months in late 2019. When they called him up from the alternate site a few weeks ago, he tried to rally the team with his… mustache? (Baseball is so weird sometimes.) Plus, unlike Bruce, he’s an actual first baseman. He’s no Don Mattingly or Mark Teixeira, but at least he doesn’t have to break in his mitt.
Nevertheless, there’s a reason the club didn’t roll with him out of Spring Training. August and September of 2019 appear to have been a mirage. In 2020, he went just 10-84 with a pair of home runs and a .226 on-base percentage. This year, he’s only 3-31, though two of his hits left the yard. 57.1 percent of his swings on breaking pitches and half of his swings on offspeed stuff this year have been whiffs. Even his numbers on fastballs aren’t great, but a first baseman who can’t hit a curve or slider is a massive lineup liability.
Rougned Odor… sort of
No, Odor is not a first baseman, but his presence in the lineup pushes D.J. LeMahieu over. LeMahieu is an excellent defender, but second base is his natural spot as well as a more impactful defensive position. If Odor was a better gloveman, that wouldn’t be a big deal, but since 2019, he’s been worth -16 defensive runs saved.
While he’s come through in the clutch several times, his overall batting line is subpar and certainly doesn’t make up for the loss of Voit. He’s slashing .169/.269/.373, which is more or less in line with his career numbers. In 2017 and 2019, he compiled two of the worst 30-homer season in baseball history, amassing -0.5 and -0.3 bWAR. His power is legit, but his on-base skills and declining defense overwhelm any positives. The Rangers cut him loose with two years remaining on his contract for good reason.
Looking for Luke
Voit is scheduled to take the field for the double-A Somerset Patriots tomorrow. This will be his first game action since his knee surgery. In his absence, Bruce, Ford, and Odor have combined to hit .143/.255/.328. He may or may not replicate his .277/.338/.610 numbers from 2020, but it’s almost impossible for him not to be an improvement. The Yankees can’t wait for him to return.