Yogi Berra isn’t here to say it, but’s déjà vu all over again for the Yankees. Mirroring their injury issues in 2019, the Yankees have so far lost Luis Severino, Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, DJ LeMahieu, Aroldis Chapman, Zack Britton to various ailments and now recently James Paxton along with Gleyber Torres are the latest to come up on injury reports. Chapman is back and Judge may be returning soon, but it will be a few weeks before LeMahieu and Stanton are back to anchor the lineup.
The effects have been apparent as they dropped six of seven games to the Tampa Bay Rays, who are the only other playoff threat in the AL East, with most recent series this week leading to a three game losing streak for New York. With that said, the Yankees are still a good team with two position players who have stepped up in the absence of the regular heart of the lineup.
Luke Voit is back to full strength after battling a sports hernia last year and his performance so far is potential proof that his 2018 post-trade deadline rampage wasn’t just a product small sample hot streak. With the repeated caveat that this entire 2020 season as a whole is a small sample, Voit is currently putting on a violent display of power.
Let’s just take a look at his Statcast percentiles, courtesy of Baseball Savant:
All statistics with a preceding x signify what Voit’s expected production would be based on his exit velocity and quality of contact. As you can see, he’s finding the barrel of the bat frequently and punishing pitches. This is similar to the aforementioned 2018 season, where he had a Hard Hit% of 54% in 2018, he has a 50% Hard Hit% in 2020. What about Barrel%? He barreled 20% of pitches in 2018 and is currently barreling 22% of pitches in 2020. His wOBA and xwOBA in 2018 were .447 and .444, while in 2020 those same statistics sit at .450 and .467, respectively. So, we have to assume Voit is simply sticking with what worked for him in 2018, right?
Not really. The first, most obvious change is that Voit was able to use the delayed start to 2020 to work on slimming down. But we can see from his stance in 2018 and 2020 that Voit seems to be trying something new:
Voit appears to have a slight bend in his knees in a more open stance this year along, with new positioning of his hands. He also has a slight bat wag in 2020, which could be a timing mechanism, whereas in 2018 he would remain perfectly still. He maintains the same leg kick, which is more of just him lifting his almost straight extended front leg, though I think he’s lifting it slightly higher in 2020:
The result from these two at-bats is the same, a homerun. About the homers though: Voit went to the opposite field with homeruns frequently in 2018, specifically he hit six, versus four to center and five to his pull side. In 2020? Voit has only hit one of his 10 homeruns to the opposite field, with three going to center and six going to his pull side. Overall in 2020, Voit is having considerable amounts of success pulling the ball to the tune of 402 wRC+ with an ISO (Isolated power) of .826 versus a measly 258 wRC+and .317 ISO in 2018.
A big change for Voit is his aggressiveness at the plate. He’s swinging more than ever, with a Swing% of 51.9% versus of a career average of 48.6%, specifically he’s swinging at first pitches 51.8% compared to just 43.2% for his career. This aggressiveness has led to a slight increase in strikeouts and whiffs, with his K% at 28.9% and Whiff% at 33.9%, though they’re still within 2% of his career norms.
Voit is also walking less, with his BB% at 8.4% compared to 11.6% for his career. My snap judgement from this context is that Voit is being less selective with his swings, trading walks for power. Walks are obviously better than outs but slugging extra base hits, specifically homeruns, is an even better outcome.
Pitchers will adjust, probably by feeding a steadier diet of pitches out of the zone to Voit and trying to take advantage of his reduced selective approach. Plus, Voit will be looked at as the main threat in the Yankees lineup until Judge and the rest of the lineup return from their injuries. Though, there still may be one other hitter who can support Voit in the Yankees lineup.
It’s been a long career for Clint Frazier as a Yankee. There’s been controversy about his hair and less than positive results in his recent call-ups to the majors, especially on the defensive side. Frazier was toiling away at the Scranton Alternate Site (which sounds straight out of the Jason Bourne films), until Stanton’s injury forced another call-up and chance to impress.
Like Voit, Frazier has adjusted his batting stance, but this time I’m just going to let him explain the changes:
It’s always fun when athletes are given the opportunity to get into the nitty gritty details of their approach. With Frazier, we can hear him talk about pre-coiling that allows him to stay back and reducing the number of moving parts in his swing, which is always a good thing!
The results have definitely been noticeable. Unlike Voit, Frazier has actually been more selective with his swings. His Swing% is 37.7% in 2020, a career low. With less time spent coiling his body, Frazier has more time to identify pitches and make decisions, which is important in a sport where you have milliseconds to make decisions.
Let’s run through the batted ball statistics: His Hard Hit% sits 59.0% in 2020 to go with a Barrel% of 18.2%, both career highs. His wOBA is .436 and his xwOBA is .464, so Statcast seems to believe Frazier’s contact is legitimate. His average exit velocity this year is 93.9 miles per hour, a full five miles per hour faster than his career average, which fits with everything else I’ve mentioned.
There’s also been a boon to Frazier’s plate discipline, with a career high BB% of 10.0% and career low 16.7% for his K%. He’s seeing the pitches that he thinks he can do the most damage to and not afraid to walk if he doesn’t see something he likes. Again, those additional seconds he gained from pre-coiling seem to give him the necessary time to make quicker and better decisions at the plate. Even if pitchers adjust by attacking the zone with more frequency, Frazier should be equipped to adjust with them.
Frazier’s offense, while lacking in the past, wasn’t as big of an issue as his defense, where he struggled by every metric. In 2020, based on the positioning data from Statcast, it appears Frazier is starting off more shallow than he did in 2019, with the total difference varying anywhere from one to four feet more shallow depending on if the defense is shifted or not. With that change, Frazier is doing much better by DRS, UZR/150 and Outs Above Average, marking slightly above average versus his career norms of below average defense.
The question for Frazier is what will happen when Judge and Stanton return? Will this hot start be used to flip him for a starting pitcher now with James Paxton’s injury and lackluster starts by every rotation member not named Gerrit Cole? Or will he hold onto an outfield spot while Stanton is moved to full-time DH? He expressed displeasure at his role with Brian Cashman and Aaron Boone, which was hopefully received by open ears from both.
In the meantime, the Yankees will have the weather the storm with Voit and Frazier (with Gio Urshela carrying some weight, as well). It appears that the delayed start allowed both players to make some physical adjustments to their games that are paying off and should be sustainable during this pandemic shortened 2020 season.