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The underrated brilliance of Luke Voit

July 28, 2018. It was hardly a day that seemed likely to go down in Yankees history. The Bombers came back in the 8th inning to beat the Royals 5-4 on that day. They moved to 66-37 on the year, but still trailed the Red Sox by 5.5 games in the AL East. Yeah, remember when the Red Sox were actually good?

With just three days to go until the trade deadline, Brian Cashman made an unassuming move that flew under the radar for most fans at the time. The Yankees traded Chasen Shreve and relief prospect Giovanny Gallegos to the Cardinals for international signing pool money and a 27-year-old first baseman named Luke Voit.

Ironically, the most notable piece of the trade at the time for most Yankee fans would have been the jettisoning of Shreve. Shreve was in the midst of a tough stretch in relief, and fans had been loudly calling for his ouster for several weeks. Few but the most committed of fans would have recognized Gallegos’ name, as he was towards the bottom of the Yankees MLB.com top 30 prospects at the time. And I can say with some confidence that no one had any idea who Luke Voit was, an unheralded minor leaguer from the National League that seemed to be a simple depth move.

At the time of his acquisition, the Yankees starting first basemen were Neil Walker, Greg Bird, and Tyler Austin. In the previous two seasons, Yankees fans were made to endure watching the likes of Chris Parmalee, Dustin Ackley, Billy Butler, and Chris Carter start games at first base. In fact, from the start of the 2016 season (when Mark Teixeira was still the starter) through the time of the Luke Voit trade, Yankees first basemen ranked 28th in WAR and 29th in wRC+. Not what you want from what should be one of the most productive offensive positions!

This is all to say the Yankees were truly desperate for production from first base when Voit was brought into the fold in the middle of 2018. Voit had put together a nice career in the minor leagues, but was far from a premier prospect and had hardly any experience in the major leagues. This is the context that is needed to appreciate the incredible production he’s given the Yankees in the two years since he first donned the pinstripes.

In 174 games as a Yankee, Luke Voit has played to a 3.9 WAR and slashed .279/.380/.519 (141 wRC+). He has solidified himself as the undisputed everyday starting first baseman for the team, a role not firmly held by one player since the 2015 season when Teixeira was still a relatively productive player. In that span, he has produced the 4th highest WAR and the 2nd highest wRC+ on the team, trailing only Aaron Judge.

Not only has he been one of the best Yankees during his tenure in the Bronx, he has been one of the best first basemen in the league. In a position where offensive production is paramount, he’s produced the 5th highest wRC+ of first basemen playing at least 100 games since the date of the trade. He has outproduced household names like Freddie Freeman, Paul Goldschmidt, Matt Olson, and even “Face of New York” Pete Alonso over that stretch.

With 174 games played as a Yankee, it’s fair to say that Voit’s production is no fluke and he’s here to stay as a premier offensive player for the team. But for those that still remain doubtful, his Statcast numbers serve as only more proof that his success has been no accident. His career xwOBA, which captures expected production based on batted ball contact, is .382, actually exceeding his career wOBA of .370. He has been every bit as good as the topline numbers indicate.

To this point in 2020, Voit is slashing .267/.333/.533 (135 wRC+) through his first 17 games played. While it is an admittedly small sample size, he has barreled 15.8% of balls put in play, with a .304 expected batting average, .616 expected slugging percentage, and .407 xwOBA. All of these numbers would represent career bests for Voit, and each number places him in the top 10% of all hitters in 2020. If anything, Luke Voit is continuing to evolve and improve as he solidifies himself as a crucial Yankee player.

It must be conceded that Voit never has been and likely never will be an elite, or even above average defender. He was a -20 DRS player between 2018 and 2019 in about 1000 innings in the field. Defensive metrics take a while to stabilize, but the eye test certainly confirms what the advanced stats say. He will always be a slight negative in the field, but that can be tolerated from a player who is among the five or ten best offensive players at his position.

When the season started, Yankees Twitter was calling for Mike Ford to see more reps at first base over Voit. While Ford can be an excellent bench player for the Yankees, it is nothing short of blasphemy to call for Ford to start over Luke Voit. He has established himself as an essential bat in the Yankees lineup, and a mainstay at a position that was a black hole for many years in the Bronx.

It is impossible not to smile when Voit shuffles into his Sammy Sosa home run hop after blasting a ball into orbit, and Yankee fans should not lose sight of what an incredible player they have in Louis Linwood Voit III. With Judge, Stanton, and now DJ hitting the IL, it is not hyperbole to say Luke Voit is the best active hitter on the team. While few knew his name two years ago, he now looks likely to play a key role in the Yankees chase to return a championship to the Bronx.