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It’s Time to Talk About Luke Voit

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The Cards’ first base callup has made one hell of a first impression. How much of that is sustainable, though?

MLB: New York Mets at St. Louis Cardinals Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Luke Voit has now played in thirteen major league games, come to bat 37 times, and received at least four standing ovations that I can think of. He has also electrified the fanbase in the way that only a bolt from the blue can; he’s already joined the ranks of the Super Joe McEwings, the J-Rods, the Amaury Cazanas, who hit a home run in 2019 with such a high exit velocity that it actually turned back time and erased his hall of fame career from history, and likely many of your memories. Or the greatest bolt from the blue of them all, Bolt Hart. Er, Bo Hart, pardon me.

Voit has a great story, being from Wildwood and the same high school as the last local legend the Redbirds employed. His grandma seems pretty awesome, too, and let’s face it: that really only adds to the potential for folk-hero status.

There’s also the fact that, considering Voit’s build and place of birth, I think there may be a bidding war soon among local pizza chains to have him endorse their product. Personally, I’m hoping Cecil Whitaker’s gets Voit, so we can have a duel of St. Louis style pizza joints between he and David Freese, with Voit and Cecil’s of course coming out on top because they have shrimp pizza, and Imo’s does not, and shrimp pizza is the best goddamned thing on god’s green earth.

Here’s the thing, though: we’ve seen this story before, and very rarely does the bolt from the blue have any sort of staying power. Sure, J-Rod can run a .382 BABIP for a couple hundred plate appearances and look like a world-beater, or Abraham Nunez can hit a home run off Mark Prior that makes everyone forget temporarily that he’s in the game because Scott Rolen done got busted, but that stuff never lasts. It’s called a flash in the pan for a reason.

However, I happen to think Voit may not be a flash in the pan. So let’s talk about what kind of player the Cards might have on their hands here.

First off, there’s one very big caveat I should acknowledge here: Luke Voit is currently 26 years old. Now, why is that important? Well, partially because it colours any discussion of what sort of long-term piece he could be; a guy already in his mid-20s is working against the clock in a way a 22 year old rookie isn’t. But more importantly, the fact Voit has done what he’s done in the minors the last couple years at ages older than we typically see from legit prospects has to put some slight damper on how we project him. Age relative to level is a huge indicator of future success; it’s why I’ll bet on Dylan Carlson and Juan Soto being future lineup anchors more quickly than I will a lot of other players. Thus, the fact Luke Voit was beating up Double A pitching at age 25, rather than age 21/22, has to inform what we think of him.

With that being said, I honestly don’t think Voit is a fluke. He’s not going to run an ISO of .324 the rest of his career (spoiler alert), but I don’t believe he’s a fluke.

So why don’t I think he’s a fluke, when so many other instant successes over the years — specifically, guys of an advanced age who come up from the minors — have turned out to be? Or just another hot-hand slugger in the Xavier Scruggs model, who parlays the best run of his career into a callup?

Well, because Voit’s profile is markedly different from those sorts of players. Oftentimes, we see the plus power guys scuffle around in the minors for years at a time, striking out at huge rates, only to finally have a half-season run where they suddenly cut their whiffs by a third and look, momentarily, like big-league starters, rather than Quad-A sluggers.

Voit, on the other hand, is not a high strikeout slugger. In fact, up until the last two seasons, he wasn’t really a slugger at all. In spite of a frame that will be regularly described as ‘hulking’ by every baseball writer from here to Kalamazoo (including yours truly), the Luke Voit of Missouri State University and the low levels of the minors was a contact-driven producer.

His freshman season with the Bears, Voit put up an ISO of .211, slugging five homers and seven doubles in just 130 plate appearances, but he also struck out over twice as often as he walked. Beginning with his sophomore campaign, though, Voit transformed himself into a different sort of hitter. He hit just twelve more homers between his sophomore and junior seasons (in over 500 plate appearances), posting ISOs right around the .150 mark, but he also drastically improved his K:BB ratios and pushed his average up closer to the .300 mark. He may have been 6’3” and 225, but Luke Voit in those years hit more like Stanford Stephen Piscotty than Giancarlo Stanton.

In his senior season playing at Missouri State, Voit had a tough go of things. On the good side, he walked more often than he struck out, 25 times to 23, and posted a .299 batting average that was the best of his college career. On the not-so-good side of the ledger, he hit just two homers the whole season (in just under 250 plate appearances), and posted the worst OPS — .781 — of his collegiate campaigns. He made tons of contact, hit for a high average, and had clearly gone too far down the road of low-power contact hitting.

A really interesting thing happened to Voit once he got into the minors, though. Out of the gate, he hit for basically no power, pretty much the same as he did that last year at Missouri State. He headed off to Palm Beach and the Florida State League to begin his first full pro season in 2014, and actually began to show a little more pop. He knocked nine over the wall in the FSL, which is always one of the most brutal hitting environments anywhere in the minors. Surprisingly, the organisation returned him to High A in 2015, and he responded by improving, if only slightly. His ISO actually dropped, from .165 in 2014 to .132 in 2015, but he hit eleven homers and seriously boosted his walk rate. The FSL is a miserable place to hit, but Voit survived it and matured, even if he didn’t blow the doors off.

In 2013, Voit posted a 115 wRC+ at State College. In 2014, his first go at High A, he improved to a 124 mark. In 2015, his return trip to the FSL, Voit boosted his walk rate from 8.2% to 11.7%, and his overall wRC+ to 134. Keep that pattern in mind, because it’s important.

In 2016, it was finally time for Voit to move up to Double A, escaping the clutches of Roger Dean Stadium and the rest of the Florida State League. Funnily enough, moving up to Double A actually took him back to his college field; Missouri State plays their home games at Hammons Field, the same stadium as the Springfield Cardinals. The move also brought Voit to the Texas League, which, while not as hitter-friendly a league as it once was (for reasons no one really understands), is certainly more conducive to offensive production than the deadball league down in Florida.

So what did Voit do upon his return to his old stomping grounds in Springfield? Well here’s where things start to get really interesting, because this is where Luke Voit, Tony Gwynn impersonator, begins to give way to Luke Voit, guy who is 6’3”, 225 and realises he’s 6’3” and 225.

In 546 plate appearances for Springfield, Voit hit nineteen home runs, a new career high (and only two less than he had hit in his first three seasons combined), and pushed his isolated slugging percentage to .180. That’s still not Aaron Judge territory, obviously, but 19 homers, 20 doubles, and 5 triples is beginning to look like a bat that could draw some real interest. Best of all, Voit added that power in to his profile while improving his strikeout rate, from 19.3% in 2015 to just 15.2% in Springfield. So even more contact, a still very solid walk rate (9.5%), and hints of real power emerging.

Oh, his wRC+ in 2016 was 145, by the way. So 2013 - 115, 2014 - 124, 2015 - 134, 2016 - 145. Luke Voit did something that’s very, very difficult to do while moving up the minor league ladder. He improved.

That brings us to 2017, and essentially the present. Voit began the season in Triple A Memphis, and set about to destroying the league with his mighty wrath. The Pacific Coast League is a pretty hitter-friendly league in general (though Memphis’s home ballpark is actually fairly strongly skewed toward pitching, very much bucking the trend of the PCL), and Voit found it a pretty comfortable home, it would seem. We should remember he was heading into his age-26 season at the outset of the year, so this isn’t a young kid just rushing up to the high minors and dominating. Nonetheless, what Voit did to PCL pitching in his first shot cannot be ignored.

The walk rate essentially held ground, at 9.9%, and the strikeout rate increased only slightly, from 15.2 to 17.7%. That’s still well below the league average, by the way, as even the minors have seen an explosion of strikeouts over the past handful of years.

In 293 plate appearances, Luke Voit hit twelve home runs. Now, that’s not a huge number, but extrapolate it out and you’re talking about a 25-30 home runs pace over a full season. Now, add in the 23 doubles he slugged over that same time period, and suddenly you’ve got a guy on a ~30 homer, ~50 doubles pace. That’s....interesting. The .239 overall ISO Voit put up in Memphis is even more interesting.

For the first time in his minor league career, we see an elevated BABIP from Voit at Triple A. In his first shot at High A, Voit posted a .332 BABIP; that was the highest until he got to Memphis and put up a .363. Admittedly, some of the big numbers he was running could be due to that high average on balls in play, but having watched a ton of Memphis games this year, I can vouch for the fact Voit earned that high BABIP. He hit pretty much everything hard in Memphis this year.

And now he’s at the big league level, and he’s showing off big-time power, along with what looks like a very advanced plate approach.

One of the biggest reasons I’m at least partially buying into Voit as the real deal is the trajectory of his career. This is not a pure slugger who lucked or matured into better contact for a short period, making him look better than he actually is. Voit was basically always a hit over power prospect, one who relied on his ability to make contact and draw walks to be productive. He’s added power gradually, over time, and now the profile looks more like the early-career version of Allen Craig (you know, the really really good version), than someone like Xavier Scruggs or David Washinton. (Side note: I feel bad about using Xavier Scruggs as a negative example here; Scruggs accomplished a tremendous feat by making it to the big leagues, and I hope he’s tearing it up now overseas. It’s just that he fits a type of profile we’ve seen flame out against the very top level of competition, and everyone here remembers him, I think. So apologies to the X man, but he’s the best fit here.)

Perhaps the most intriguing part of Voit’s story, to me, is his batted-ball profile. Now, admittedly, minor league stringers are shaky in terms of accuracy, and so the batted-ball data we have from the minors has to be taken with a grain of salt. Still, it’s not as if they’re routinely grading grounders to second as deep fly balls or anything; it’s just that we lose some nuance when we’re unsure of the classifications. Directionally, though, we can parse plenty out.

His first couple seasons in the organisation, Voit ran line drive rates in the upper teens, fly ball rates in the mid- to upper-30s, and ground ball rates in the ~45% range. A little variation here and there, obviously, but for the most part those numbers are really quite consistent.

In Springfield, though — which, you’ll remember, is where Voit really started his coming-out party — the batted-ball profile started to change. His fly ball rate actually dropped, from 38% in 2015 to just over 33%. The ground ball rate dropped slightly as well, from just under 45% in the FSL to 43%. Not a huge move, but small changes are still meaningful sometimes. What really shot up at Springfield was his line drive rate, which jumped from 17.2% in 2015 to 23.9%. Now, we know that line drive rate is the least stable of the batted-ball types, and there’s also a little more grey area on line drives in terms of what stringers consider them, but the fact Voit’s power numbers jumped, combined with an increase in batted balls classified as line drives of over one-third, suggests that Voit really did start to barrel balls up in a big way at Double A.

And then came the move to Triple A, which is where things get even more interesting. In Memphis, Voit’s line drive rate increased slightly, to 24.9%, which is close enough to be a perception difference in whoever was classifying things. However, the ground ball rate, which had been consistently in the mid-40s, and the fly ball rate, which had been consistently in the low-30s, suddenly flipped. In 2016 at Double A, Voit hit 43% grounders and 33.2% fly balls. In 2017 at Memphis, he hit 31.3% ground balls and 43.8% flies.

So what does that mean? Well, it suggests that Luke Voit, contact hitter extraordinaire, improved throughout the minors, making higher-quality contact as he went, and then, at some point either last season or, more likely, during the offseason, he essentially joined the fly ball revolution. He did it in the minors, so we didn’t really hear about it, but it looks like that may be what happened. I remember watching videos of Voit here and there over the past few years, and the guy putting the ball in the air consistently this year at Memphis does, to my eye, look significantly different from the guy hitting hard grounders in Palm Beach. The swing back then seemed flatter, and honestly didn’t keep the bat head in the zone as long, as the version we see now.

Now, admittedly, we are dealing with small samples here. This is the first season of his career that Voit has looked like a fly ball, power-heavy hitter, and it’s possible he just hit a run of hot luck in Memphis and the approach didn’t consciously change. But I have to say, looking at Voit, he’s built like Jose Abreu or Albert Pujols. Someone, somewhere along the line, has to have at least suggested to him that he should really try hitting the ball in the air more often.

To this point in the big leagues, Voit has actually put the ball on the ground quite a bit, but if we’re dealing with a small sample of ~300 Triple A plate appearances, the less than 40 major league at-bats he’s had qualified as positively microscopic. One thing we can say for certain, though: so far, Luke Voit in the big leagues has hit the everloving shit out of the ball, to the tune of a 40.7% hard-hit% and an average exit velocity of just under 93 mph.

I’m not suggesting it’s time we Jim Thome Matt Carpenter and Ryan Howard Luke Voit (funny that the only example of trading an excellent slugging first baseman in favour of a younger but similarly excellent slugging first baseman involves yet another Lafayette graduate), just yet. There’s a long, long way to go before we have enough of an idea what Luke Voit really is to even know for sure he’s a big leaguer, and not just another flash in the pan. But the profile isn’t like a lot of the other hot streak sluggers who come up to the big leagues; the profile is closer to what Matt Carpenter himself did at the big league level, adding power via increased fly balls to an already disciplined approach that gave him a solid base upon which to build.

It’s certainly possible Voit will fall apart over the next month, with opposing pitchers finding and exploiting a hole in his swing or a chink in his approach, and this column will make me look ridiculous. But that’s okay; I’ve looked ridiculous plenty over the years, and you all still read what I have to say without too very much hurling of insults.

I looked at Voit’s swing back early in the year, and I’ve discussed him in the comments here and there back before he came up. All along, I felt that the age thing was keeping him from getting his due (even by me, honestly; I didn’t rank him as a prospect this past offseason, only sneaking him into the honourable mentions section), but that he was closer to an Allen Craig type of hitter than a pure slugger who was likely to get exposed by pitchers capable of not making mistakes over the heart of the plate at least once an at-bat. He’s still surprised me with his improvement, though; that pattern of his OPS improving at ever single stop has continued even to now. Admittedly, he would have to do better than a 149 wRC+ at the big league level to actually improve upon his Triple A production, and that seems doubtful. But Luke Voit, who was never a top prospect, always a limited player, and who got a late start on his pro career, has done something extraordinary as he’s moved up through the minors.

Luke Voit has gotten better. And in doing so, he’s turned himself into a player I’m absolutely fascinated to watch over the rest of this season. And a player I’m not betting against turning out better than we really have any right to expect.