Baseball is speckled with flashes in the pan. Plenty of players have teased our attention with exceptional play for a month or half-season or even a whole season, only to fade into the background as an afterthought. Chris Shelton, Dom Brown, Josh Rutledge…I’m sure you have your own names that come to mind. These are the kinds of faces our brains drudge up when we think about sample sizes; why we’re reticent to buy into what our eyes see on the field through the summer and why we crave data to support it.
So if you’re reluctant to buy into Luke Voit’s September rampage for the Yankees last season, I understand. But know that you’ve got a reason to keep an open mind. In fact, the biggest reason to believe in Voit may ironically be the biggest reason you doubt him as New York’s starting first baseman for 2019 — how he drove the ball.
He hit at a torrid pace from September 1 through the end of the regular season. He accumulated a .402 isolated slugging percentage over that span by having more extra base hits (15) than singles (14). For point of reference, FanGraphs considers a .250 ISO to be excellent. Mike Trout led the Majors in ISO last year with a .316 number.
To be sure, I’m not arguing that Luke Voit drives the ball 85% better than Mike Trout does based on a single month of ABs. But here are the total amount of hitters who achieved an ISO of even .350 for a month through 2016, 2017, and 2018, respectively; followed by how many total monthly qualifiers there were for each year :
That’s it. No more than 42 players in any season ISOd .350 or better for a month from 2016-2018. The guys who did it never accounted for even four percent of those eligible hitters. Keep in mind that the ball was also juiced for a large portion of that time, too, and that we were seeing record amounts of offense. No matter how you want to slice it, performing at this rate is significant, even if only for a month.
That .350 number isn’t just arbitrarily set 50 points lower than what Voit did last September. It’s what his final ISO was for 2018 after accounting for pre-September ABs with the Yankees and scarce early season appearances with the Cardinals before being traded. It lets us account for just a bit more humility in Voit’s overall production while still making the point that he was truly in rarified air at the end of last season.
So he was a phenom for a month. So what?
Let’s consider how players who accomplished what he did between 2016 and 2018 fared through the duration of the season of their crazy ISO performance.
The feat continues to be impressive. A large majority of the players weren’t only on fire for a month, but were at least reasonably productive through the whole season. Sure, for some, a large part of their value came in a single month. But for others, they didn’t have the chance to add to their total production because they were injured or called up late. (Check out the lists here, here, and here if you’d like to see the individual players.) Besides, when you’re counting wins at the end of the season, it doesn’t really matter when a guy got one for you as long as he got one for you.
The thing about that data, in particular, is that the 2018 season is already over. Spectacular as Voit’s September was, there aren’t any more games to track or project for him. If we consider how players who ISOd .350 or better for a month in 2016 and 2017 fared the following season, we can see more of the picture, and what we might be able to reasonably expect from Voit in 2019.
As it turns out, only a combined 13.6% of those players — nine from 2016 and one from 2017 — recorded less than two fWAR the following year. That falls in line almost lock-step with what guys did in the chart above. Though we can see year-to-year volatility in all of these numbers, we also see a considerable lack of risk in the players that produced them. At worst, a single month of off-the-charts production from a player over that time has left a team with an 80% chance of having a solid contributor to continue plugging into their lineup. Being able to rely on a player that way is extremely valuable.
It’s fair to wonder what allowed Voit to drive the ball at such an elite rate last September. In total, 379 hitters had at least 50 combined fly balls and line drives last season. Voit ranked 23rd in average exit velocity in such events at 96.5 mph. That’s better than 94% of his peers.
His heatmaps tell us that pitchers usually attacked him up with fastballs, which he saw roughly 55% of the time, while throwing breaking balls low and away. But he handled it all. The fastballs are what he really took advantage of, taking them yard 14 times. On breakers, he still managed to get on base by hitting singles. His 10.2% walk rate was also above average. Pitchers may try to adjust how they throw to him in 2019 but he’s already shown he’s capable of checking a lot of boxes that make it hard to get him out.
The most curious thing about Voit might be how the Cardinals let him get away. He’ll play 2019 in his age-28 season. He’s already been in pro ball for six years, but had only accumulated 137 plate appearances before getting traded. That’s less than the 148 he had with the Yankees, and it took him nearly twice as many games with the Cardinals to get them. Beyond those details, though, is that St. Louis is known through baseball for developing exactly this kind of player: one who pops up out of seemingly nowhere and contributes two or three wins that helps the team constantly compete.
And yet they sent Voit to the Yankees for 28-year-old Chasen Shreve, a reliever who’s appeared in the Majors every year since 2014 and has managed -.5 fWAR; 27-year-old reliever Giovanny Gallegos, who barely has 30 innings pitched in the show; plus a million dollars in international bonus money that New York used to sign Osiel Rodriguez, a top Cuban pitching prospect.
The deal is already a clear win for the Yankees. The odds are that Luke Voit will tack on a couple more for them in 2019. Don’t write him off as a flash in the pan.
Heat maps, spray chart, and exit velocity data from Statcast. All other data from FanGraphs. Feature image Julio Cortez/AP