Scouts and execs weigh in on Yankees' Luke Voit's chances of leading MLB in home runs in 2021

Scouts and execs weigh in on Yankees' Luke Voit's chances of leading MLB in home runs in 2021
Baseball

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Luke Voit reacts after home run against Rays in Game 4 of ALDS

Luke Voit reacts after home run against Rays in Game 4 of ALDS

From his mighty arms to his sleeveless shirts to his gaudy power numbers, Luke Voit seems to embrace the slugger’s life. He led MLB with 22 home runs in last year’s COVID-shortened season and took obvious relish — and why not? — in doing so.

All that joy and all that bashing leads us to this question for his 2021 campaign:

Can Voit lead the major leagues in home runs again?

The answer, of course, will be revealed as Voit navigates the grind of another pressure-packed Yankees season chock full of championship hopes.

But there are people around baseball who believe. “Absolutely, he can,” said an executive from a competing American League team, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“His swing has damage factors in just about every situation and it’s his priority,” added an MLB scout from an opposing club. “All he needs to do is make contact with that strength that he possesses.

“It’s no small task, but he’ll more than likely produce.”

Voit, 30, became the first Yankee since Álex Rodríguez in 2007 to lead the Majors in homers. His 22 home runs were three more than runner-up José Abreu. It was also one better than Voit hit in 2019, a season in which he had 276 more plate appearances.

Yes, all small-sample cautions apply here. It was a 60-game season, after all. But it was still a big year for Voit, who did it all while battling plantar fasciitis, which he says he’s past now.

“I can remember when (Albert) Pujols couldn’t hit at all because of plantar fasciitis,” the scout recalled.

Voit, who had core muscle surgery after the 2019 season, emerged as a potent power threat in 2018 after the Yankees had acquired him from the Cardinals for two relievers. He had 14 homers and a 1.095 OPS for the Yankees in just 39 games that year and has kept blooming.

In 2020, he even trimmed his strikeout percentage, according to FanGraphs, whiffing in 23.1 percent of at-bats (the MLB average was 23.4 percent). In 2019, Voit’s K% was 27.8 percent.

But his chase rate — the percentage of pitches a batter swings at outside the strike zone — jumped last year to 33.3 percent (the MLB average was 30.6 percent). In 2019, when Voit was beginning to get a rep for controlling the strike zone, something the Yankees adore, his chase rate was just 26.6 percent, according to FanGraphs, five points better than league average that season.

And his walk rate tumbled, too. In 2019, Voit walked 13.9 percent of the time. In 2020, it was just 7.3 percent, nearly two full points below league average.

Voit is aware of all of this. He has talked this spring about getting back to walking more, while maintaining aggressiveness. He knows he had some streaks — he hit 11 homers in 24 August games — and says he’s striving for consistency.

Both could “absolutely” mean trouble for opposing pitchers, the scout said.

We’ll see what happens with the actual baseball this season, whether it’ll be less bouncy or homer-prone. But, the AL executive opined, the game’s potential pitching issues could mean good things for home run hitters.

Since the schedule is expanding from 60 games to a full 162, teams may need to use more pitchers to fill a season’s worth of innings. That “saturation of pitching in the second half” could offer opportunities for the likes of Voit.

Not everyone in the game believes Voit is headed for another homer crown, however. “I think he swings the bat with power, but do I think he’ll lead in home runs again? No, that was a short season,” said a second scout from an opposing team. “I don’t think he’s that kind of hitter.

“He is a pretty good hitter, though. I think he’s capable of 25 home runs, or 30.”

The second scout wondered if hitting so many homers in a short span last year is what led Voit to chase more pitches out of the strike zone.

And, the scout said, Voit will probably see more breaking pitches this year after batting .330 with a .789 slugging percentage against fastballs last year, according to MLB’s Statcast. Against breaking balls, he hit .232 with a .435 slugging.

“With all the video today, the analytics, they figure you out,” the second scout said. “You always have to adjust.”

Still, the second scout sounds a little like he’s rooting for Voit, calling him, “the perfect underdog.

“The Cardinals didn’t give him a real chance and he was blocked there. To his credit, look what he’s done.

“He’s not full of himself. He looks like a regular guy. And he looks like he loves playing the game. Some of those guys, it’s like pulling teeth.”

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