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A St. Louis Surprise? It’s Very Early, But I Don’t Think Luke Voit Is A Fluke

In watching the early power-drill work of Cardinals’ rookie first baseman Luke Voit, my first reaction is to say: let’s enjoy the show, but please stay calm.

We’ve seen young guys come to the majors and slug like Babe Ruth for a week, maybe a month. And then the pitchers go into their bag of devious magic tricks, and suddenly the baby bopper is swinging at air … a threat to mosquitoes, moths, and flies.

The Cubs had a free-swinging first baseman named Bryan LaHair. In 2012, LaHair blasted 14 homers and slugged .519 before the 2012 All-Star break. He was picked by Cards’ manager Tony La Russa, to represent the Cubs on the ’12 NL All-Star squad.

In the second half of the 2012 season, LaHair hit two homers and slugged .303. That was it. The end of his MLB career. Never appeared in the majors again.

Last season, Colorado rookie Trevor Story was all the rage, pummeling pitchers for 10 homers and a .696 slugging percentage in his first month in the big leagues. And though Story would finish the 2016 season with 27 homers — a total inflated by the driving-range setting of Coors Field — reality has entered the building in 2017. Story is slugging only .397 so far this season and has become the subject of “What’s Wrong With This Dude” pieces.

Jeremy Hazelbaker had himself an April party for the 2016 Cardinals, putting up five homers and a bunch of doubles and slugging .683. The small-town Indiana guy was finally in the show! When is John Mellencamp going to write a little ditty? Well, it’ll be a while. Hazelbaker is playing for Arizona’s Class AAA affiliate.

Let’s turn our attention to home-towner Luke Voit, the pride of Lafayette High School.

He’s an instant sensation, and the STL faithful are going nuts.

We may see a Luke Voit statue outside Busch Stadium any day now.

Kidding aside, I don’t believe we’re seeing a one-hit wonder here.

Sustained success is the only way we’ll know for sure, and that takes time. Like any new big-league player, Voit will have to assemble his own history … a history will ultimately define him.

I mistakenly called him Luke “Volt” on my radio show earlier this season, when I noted his power and his patience, his home runs and his walks, as he began thumping the baseball in his first season with Triple A Memphis. If you think about it, “Volt” does fit.

Voit was promoted to the majors on June 25. And though we only have 29 big-league plate appearances to sort though, Voit has done nothing to raise alarm, nothing to make us think he wasn’t ready, nothing to make us view him as a fringe talent.

The confident Volt isn’t overwhelmed up here … not for a second.

Voit is doing his best to make something clear: this is a lot more than a cute local-boy-makes-good story that soon will fade. I don’t want this story to fade. I don’t want to see Luke’s grandma be sad.

I think Voit has staying power, no pun intended. Pragmatic to a fault, I almost always avoid going gaga over a dude that’s been in the big leagues for about 16 minutes. But Voit has made the minutes count, using his first 27 at-bats to go 9-for-27 with four doubles, two homers and seven RBIs.

As Voit delivers instant impact by whacking extra-base hits in his first two weeks as a Cardinal, he looks different than the usual grip-and-rip sluggers who swing as hard as they can, as often as they can, and repeatedly hack at pitches that land near Iowa.

This isn’t to say that Voit is resistant to attacking pitches off the plate; according to FanGraphs his “chase” rate is about 32 percent so far, and you’d like to see that come down some. But this is Voit’s first time in the majors. Though he’s no boy wonder — Voit is 26 — don’t you expect to see a newbie chasing some bad pitches?

I do. The smart hitters adjust. They develop a foundation — a good hitting approach — and stand on it to endure the inevitable slump that comes with whiffs, strikeouts, and frustration.

Voit will have to do that, and I think he can.

With Voit, my reasons for optimism are largely pulled from his history.

There’s that word again … history.

But Voit’s record really does tell us a lot.

Let’s run through the list here:

1. Voit has drawn a healthy amount of walks at every level. 

At low Class A baseball in 2013, Voit had a 12 percent walk rate.

At high A in 2014, the walk rate dipped to 8.2 percent, which is OK.

But in 2015, in his second swing through high A ball, Voit took his walk rate back up to 12%.

In 2016, his first season in Class AA, Voit posted a 9.5 percent walk rate.

And before his promotion from Memphis this season, Voit had a 10% walk rate during his first exposure to Class AAA pitching.

2. On his path to the bigs, Voit’s strikeout rates were never really a problem. 

Having the patience to draw walks is one way to demonstrate sound plate discipline. Another way to do it is limit your strikeouts. At no point during his five-plus minor-league seasons did Voit finish with a strikeout rate higher than 20.3 percent. In taking important steps toward Busch Stadium the last two years, Voit had a 15% strikeout rate at Double AA Springfield followed by  17.4% strikeout rate at Triple A Memphis. By today’s standards, those strikeout rates are low — not to mention reasonable — for a young power hitter.

3. Small sample, but Voit already is displaying good patience at the plate for the Cardinals. 

In his 29 plate appearances, Voit has seen an average of 4.1 pitches per plate appearance. That’s Matt Carpenter material right there; among the Cardinals’ starting players Carpenter leads with 4.4 pitches per plate appearance. (I should mention Greg Garcia, who plays quite a bit; he’s averaged 4.2 pitches per PA.) So far, Voit has jumped at the first pitch 31 percent of the time, and taken 52.4 percent of the pitches offered to him. .Both figures are about average — but pretty good for a rookie who just got here.

4. Voit has a quick bat and hits the ball hard,  with distance. That’s exactly what you want in a hitter. 

According to the invaluable data at Baseball Savant Voit has an estimated swing speed of 63.7 miles per hour. Again, we have only a mini-sample here, but that 63.7 mph represents the fastest swing by a Cards’ position player this season. And when Voit connects, his average exit velocity is 93 mph, which is the highest by a Cards’ position player. And when Voit strikes the ball, his average distance of 216 feet is second only to Carpenter’s 231.

I am  ashamed for submitting this stat — because as of this writing Voit has only 29 plate appearances, and I know better — but just for kicks, consider Voit’s 93 mph average exit velocity and roll this around in your noggin: The only regular hitters in MLB that have a faster average exit velocity are Aaron Judge (96.3), Miguel Sano (94.1) and Alex Avila (93.1.)

And Voit’s estimated swing speed and average distance would put him in the top 20 in MLB in both categories. But he’s just getting started, and those stats don’t mean much right now. It’s just a glimpse. A fun glimpse. After Voit gathers more at-bats, I’ll keep checking and updating those Statcast metrics.

5. Early on, Voit isn’t getting fooled much … with one exception. 

According to STATS LLC, Voit has seen 57 fastballs and he’s batting .400 against them with a 1.400 OPS.

Voit has seen nine curve balls; he has a .500 average and 2.500 OPS and deposited one of those curves high into Big Mac Land on Thursday.

The slider? No problem. Voit has seen 23 sliders and had a .667 average and 1.667 OPS.

This is a good sign, because pitchers usually can trick and fluster inexperienced MLB hitters by throwing the offspeed stuff, or the hated slider, after realizing he can conquer a fastball.

Up to now, Voit’s only real struggle is doing something — anything — with the changeup.

Voit has faced only 24 changeups, 16 thrown by LH pitchers. And he doesn’t have a hit against the change. More relevant than that, Voit  isn’t laying off the changeup. Lefties in particular are using a changeup to neutralize the big fella. And he’s taken a swing at 56.3 percent of the changeups thrown by lefties. That includes a 75% swing rate on changeups when he’s behind in the count, and a 66.7% swing rate on two-strike changeups.

Those conniving lefties.

Voit will have to adjust and be on the lookout for the changeup.

I think he can handle it, and here’s why:

— Voit has improved at every level. His yearly wRC+, which is park-adjusted runs created, was 15 percent above the league average in 2013, then 24 percent above average in 2014, then 34 percent above average in 2015, then 45 percent above average in 2016, and then 49 percent above league average at AAA Memphis this year.

— He’s made the necessary adjustments. As Voit made his way through the Cards’ system, his power was often unplugged by too many ground balls. From 2013 through 2015, Voit’s  fly ball percentage ranged between 33 and 38 percent. But Voit clearly joined the launch-angle movement at Memphis this season, and his fly ball percentage jumped to just under 44 percent. More balls in the air; more homers.

Voit has a long way to go to affirm — and reaffirm — that he can be a very good MLB hitter over many seasons. But again, I don’t think we’re looking at a novelty act.

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie