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How surprise MVP candidate Luke Voit became Yankees' leading slugger

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Published in Breaking News
Wednesday, 23 September 2020 11:00

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Luke Voit has had quite a journey: from a Missouri Valley Conference standout to a St. Louis Cardinals farmhand stuck without a spot in the majors to, as New York Yankees manager Aaron Boone likes to say, the star of the "Luke Voit Show."

The right-handed-hitting first baseman has transformed himself into a staple of the Yankees' lineup and currently leads the majors with 21 home runs. Only Jose Abreu of the Chicago White Sox (56) has driven in more runs than Voit has this season (49). Voit has more RBIs than Yankees stars Aaron Judge (21), Giancarlo Stanton (10) and Gleyber Torres (16) -- who have all spent time on the injured list -- combined. And that's a long way from where he was less than four years ago, and far beyond even the highest expectations for what he could do.

Voit had spent seven years in the minor leagues before being called up by the St. Louis Cardinals in June 2017. He became an instant hit with fans in his hometown of St. Louis by telling the media he was there to mash "doubles and bombs."

A graduate of Lafayette High in St. Louis, he grew up rooting for the University of Missouri and dreaming of being a linebacker for the St. Louis Rams until two shoulder surgeries derailed his plans. He even received a note of congratulations from Cardinals legend David Freese before his first game.

But the fact that Voit was plunked in his first big league at-bat might have been a sign of things to come. It would not be an easy ride for Voit, and his new wife, Victoria. Three labrum tears and a severe thumb injury later, the brawny slugger thought he had finally arrived. Going back to obscurity at Triple-A Memphis was never part of the plan. Voit promised himself he would do anything in his power to keep him from going back to being called a farmhand, one closing in on 2,000 minor league at-bats.

"My numbers in Triple-A were unbelievable and I felt I deserved a chance," Voit said in a phone interview with ESPN. "Meanwhile, I am seeing all these guys that I came up in the minor leagues with and played against on other teams having success, and I was like, 'I am just as good as them and yet they're getting a chance to play every day. I didn't have that opportunity with St. Louis. And it was a salty feeling for me."

After playing 62 games in 2017, Voit played only eight for St. Louis the next season, batting .182 (2-for-11) with one home run and three RBIs. The Cardinals, who selected Voit in the 22nd round (665th overall) in the 2013 MLB draft, would not wait to see if he could turn things around and join the ranks of their success stories with later draft picks.

"I got stuck. I got stuck behind good players. Matt Carpenter was up playing first. They had Jedd Gyorko who could play first and third; there wasn't really a spot for me. My only spot was on the bench and I was a pinch hitter and that's really hard to make an impact," he said of what little opportunity he had to contribute to the Cardinals. "[Pinch hitter] is the hardest position I think in the big leagues. Coming in in the fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth inning and you're facing usually some of the best guys, it's hard. Baseball is already hard enough, you're already supposed to fail, and to come in and maybe get three or four at-bats a week is hard to do. I would have a stretch of like three weeks where I did play well, but I had to deal with injuries. And when any of those guys came back I went right back down to my role."

In 2018, after hitting .299 with nine homers and 36 RBIs in 67 games for Memphis, Voit got a call he never thought he would get: He had been traded to the Yankees. New York would get Voit and international signing bonus pool money for relievers Chasen Shreve and Giovanny Gallegos. Voit's "I'm going to go out there with a killer attitude and hit bombs and doubles" rookie quote was going to be tested on the biggest of big league stages.

"I just said, 'Holy cow!' I was kind of in a daze," Voit said of his reaction after learning of the trade. "It's the New York Yankees, the best organization in professional sports. I knew I would have a chance at the DH spot, since I'm more of a first baseman and DH, which is huge. Our minor league coaches told us always playing throughout the minors, as much as you play with the birds on the bat on the Cardinals jersey, you're playing for 29 teams every day you take the field. Always remember that. The scouts are always watching you. And I listened, but I never thought it was going to happen to me. We're in Vegas three years ago and boom, I got traded. I was in the locker room and I was shocked. I had my chance."

It turns out that the deal was not even Yankees general manager Brian Cashman's first attempt at acquiring Voit. The Bombers' analytics department had long been interested in him.

"Voit was a player identified by our analytics department as someone that was blocked, with real potential on his bat," Cashman said to ESPN. "We took a few swings at it and failed, probably over two years, two and a half years. That [2018] deadline, when we secured him trading from area of strength, our analytics crew was really excited."

Cashman added: "After we made the playoffs that year, after the celebrating and the champagne, I brought my crew down, and I introduced [Voit] to our analytics department. I wanted to introduce him to the crew that really pushed his name, to have him interact with that aspect of the operation was very important for me. Luke was, as you would expect, really appreciative. It was a cool, genuine moment to see a manifestation of their hard work play out in such a successful way."

Voit got his first taste of the legendary Red Sox-Yankees rivalry in his first game in pinstripes. He was slotted as a DH, batting seventh, sandwiched between then-Yankees first baseman Greg Bird and backup catcher Austin Romine. In his first at-bat, he faced pitcher Brian Johnson in what was a cloudy and humid day at Fenway Park, and lined out to deep right field. His next 16 at-bats over the following five games would yield similar results, and Voit was sent back down to Triple-A. Scranton taught him an important lesson, just as Memphis had.

"I needed to learn that I couldn't be someone that I'm not," Voit explained. "'Just be you, man.' As much as I've said that in the past, it's so hard. It's the easiest thing to get away from. You get in the spotlight, the media can take over, and you get in your head and then you're worried about your stats and so many other things. But at the end of the day I was like, 'Dude, just go have fun; it's the New York Yankees; it's gonna be an awesome experience; you have a chance to win a World Series; like, let's go.'"

Voit proved he was an impact big leaguer when the Yankees needed him most. His joy for the game and enthusiasm was contagious. That clubhouse where he had felt so overwhelmed walking into became his safe place.

"It's an intimidating locker room to pop into, but I was like I have to take this and run with it. This is my opportunity to show them what I can do," Voit said. "That's where I got caught up early on. I was trying to hit a home run 800 feet and then I ended up being sent back down. I was like man, you can't do that. You don't know how many chances you're going to get here. So that's when I went back down to Scranton for like three or four days, Didi [Gregorius] ended up getting hurt again. And I knew it was my job when I came back to use the whole field, like I always had, and be myself, to come up and drive guys in."

Cashman and the team's number crunchers never realized that Voit would do a lot more than drive in runs.

"When we acquired him, we were buying the bat. We believed in the bat. But after we got him, we were pleasantly surprised that we had this larger-than-life, genuine player with great passion for the game," Cashman said. "I told him, he's just like my wrestling hero Jerry 'The King' Lawler. A WWE wrestler who was a big gigantic-like teddy bear that was passionate, wrestled hard, and was a champion. We have learned over the course of time that he had that Nick Swisher-type of love of the game, a passion that played out on the field. Look, we bought the bat, but we got much more than just the bat, clearly, because of his makeup."

In 2012, Voit helped the Missouri State Bears reach their first NCAA tournament since the 2003 College World Series. In 2020, he might help the Yankees get to their first World Series since 2009.

"I just think we're seeing the growth of a really good hitter that's gone to another level and is now having an MVP season," Boone said in talking about Voit's impact this year. "It's hard to imagine where we'd be without Luke Voit, and it's good to see him starting to find his way in that MVP conversation."

Voit rejects any attempt to give him credit or call him the MVP of the Yankees' season. He will quickly dismiss it because he knows how ephemeral it all can be. Voit has been so low that he once questioned whether another team would ever think of him as valuable. But a key part of his success has been trusting that he would come out stronger on the other side.

"I was always played with a chip on my shoulder to prove people wrong. I played with many really good players in the minor leagues, first-rounders signed for a bunch of money, and I would say to myself, 'I'm just as good as these kids.' I had to tell myself constantly that it doesn't really matter, 'as long as you hit, you'll always have a spot,'" he said.

"I love being a Yankee. I hope I am a Yankee for a long time. I want to win. That's what we all want. That's the most important thing. Obviously, the numbers have been good for me and I always want to have as best year as possible. But that is not the goal. The goal is to win a World Series and now's our chance to take advantage and end 2020 on a good note. All I want to do is thank the New York Yankees and Brian Cashman for giving me the opportunity to come here. They took a shot with me and the only way to repay that is to work my butt off until they take the cleats away."

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