Luke Voit hoping to win Yankees' first-base job ... with his glove

ByColey Harvey via ESPN logo
Wednesday, February 27, 2019
ESPN

TAMPA, Fla. -- Aaron Boone paused for a moment, taking time to fully consider the question.

An hour before the very first pitch of spring training, the New York Yankees manager was asked who he believes is his team's better defensive first baseman: Luke Voit or Greg Bird?

"Bird," he said, finally. "But I do feel like Luke continues to make strides as well."

That might not have been so tough a question in the past. But thanks to an iPad, a couple of cameras, offseason time with a Yankees assistant and a newfound respect for the defensive side of the game, Voit is focused on turning his biggest weakness into a strength.

He knows his defense could play a key role in getting his name on the Yankees' Opening Day lineup card.

"Defense is something I never really took pride in coming up in the minor leagues, and it kind of showed a little bit," Voit said.

In 32 games with the Yankees last year, it sure did.

Following the trade-deadline deal that sent Voit from St. Louis to the Bronx, the first baseman made just two errors, but his advanced defensive metrics were significantly worse. According to FanGraphs, Voit's minus-7 defensive runs saved in 2018 was the second-worst mark among all big-league first basemen who played at least 250 innings at the position.

"Now I'm kind of understanding defense is just as important as hitting," Voit said. "You've got to make those plays to win games."

Bird fared slightly better in the field during an injury-plagued season, but according to FanGraphs, he, too, had a negative defensive runs saved figure (minus-3).

"Both guys have shown up here looking in a little bit better place defensively to me," Boone said this past weekend. "Last year, [Bird] was having a hard time getting the reps he'd like to see in practice because he was trying to stay off that foot."

During spring training last March, Bird experienced discomfort in his right foot, stemming from an injury the previous year. The lingering pain ultimately required surgery that took him two months to recover from. Even when he got back to playing regularly, Bird struggled both in the field and at the plate, finishing the year with a .199 batting average. As a result, Voit became the Yankees' primary starter at first, and he delivered -- offensively.

Voit's 14-homer barrage across the final five weeks of the regular season helped him earn the unofficial designation of "man to beat" in this spring's first-base battle.

"Luke Voit has earned the right to be that guy," Boone said. "It's impossible denying the impact he had, just how consistent he was for us really the final couple of months and when we had some key guys out."

Still, the Yankees remain high on Bird, the once-rising star the organization has long been waiting to break out.

"We still have a bet that Greg Bird is going to eventually become the Greg Bird we think he'll become," general manager Brian Cashman said.

For now, though, Bird must fight for his job.

"You're always being competitive, and I like it that way," Bird said. "You've got to bring your A-game, and that's the way it should be."

The battle between Bird and Voit will feature some intrigue Wednesday when the Yankees travel to Lakeland, Florida, to face the Detroit Tigers. With Tuesday's game against the Philadelphia Phillies rained out, New York is sending a larger roster of regulars than originally planned.

Which means both Bird and Voit will be in the lineup. It'll be the first time this spring they've played on the same day. Through the Yankees' three previous spring training games, they've alternated playing days, one-upping each other with strong performances.

During the Yankees' spring training opener, Bird drove a pair of pitches to the deeper reaches of the Boston Red Sox's JetBlue Park. The lefty doubled off the ballpark's version of the Green Monster in left field during his first at-bat, then singled deep down the right-field line in his other plate appearance.

"I felt smooth and easy," Bird said of his swings. "I didn't feel like I was trying to do too much. I feel like I just took my swing. And that's what I want."

A day later at the Tampa Bay Rays' facility, Voit drove an opposite-field RBI single in his first at-bat and launched a three-run homer in his other. On Wednesday, he'll be playing first base as Bird serves as the designated hitter.

"Me and him are good. It's a business, I get it," Voit said. "It's a job opportunity that me and him are both taking, and obviously I proved last year I can do it and I want to keep doing it. I've said I want to produce. But that's part of competing. It's nice to compete and have that little competition going on, but I can only control what I can control.

"I wish him the best of luck. It's no hard feelings. It's part of the game."

In December, Voit took a four-day break from his regular offseason training back home in St. Louis to visit the Yankees' player development complex in Tampa. While there, Voit worked with Yankees infield instructor Carlos Mendoza on fielding techniques and mechanics. As part of Voit's work, Mendoza recorded Voit from the front and side with a series of cameras. Later, after he'd returned to Missouri, Voit critiqued his work while watching it on his iPad.

"The biggest thing with him was his agility, and his ability to work with his footwork a lot quicker, and staying down on the ball," Mendoza said. "Working from down and then up."

Mendoza said Voit's problem in 2018 was that he was too upright during his pre-pitch routine, which led him to being a little less aggressive going after balls than he needed to be.

"He's supposed to stay on his legs, using his lower half," Mendoza said. "That was basically what he wasn't doing.

"We had to put him in a position where he was able to be quicker and react to the ball better, have a better first step on the ball when there's nobody on and he's not holding a baserunner. Having an efficient first step so he could get on the ball and use his footwork so he's able to put himself in a position to catch good hops."

Voit, who dropped 10 pounds this offseason to be more agile on defense, believes the work with Mendoza is paying off. Balls he may have missed by a foot a year ago, he said, he now is catching.

"I wanted to be more athletic, being able to get to balls that I couldn't get to left and right -- bunts, stuff like that, reading spin," Voit said. "It's translating. There's a lot more to work on, but it's stuff I can just progress throughout the season."

The Yankees have taken note.

"We're seeing the results," Mendoza said.

At this stage, the first-base job isn't fully in Voit's grasp. Asked if he could see a scenario in which the left-handed-hitting Bird and the right-handed-hitting Voit platoon, Boone offered a "maybe."

"But we've got a long way to go," Boone said. "We'll see how the spring shakes out, and how the roster kind of shakes out, and we'll see where we are at the end."