Luke Voit, Max Muncy Among Survivors Of College Baseball's Recent Dead-Ball Era
Luke Voit seems like one of the unlikeliest playoff heroes of all time.
A 22nd-round pick as a senior sign out of Missouri State in 2013, Voit is now hitting third in the Yankees' lineup. That seems an extremely improbable spot for a slugger who hit just two home runs as a senior with the Bears.
But in reality, Voit is a survivor. He had the misfortune of playing college baseball at the worst possible time for a player of his ilk. He was a slow-twitch slugger in college baseball at a time when such players couldn’t tap into their greatest strength.
In 2011, the NCAA mandated new bats that were designed to make metal bats more accurately replicate the performance of wood bats. The combination of the new bats and the higher-seamed college baseballs made for a dead ball era. Home run rates fell through the floor to numbers befitting a big league team in the 1900s. Home runs in college baseball didn’t pick back up until 2015, when the NCAA adopted a flatter-seamed baseball that helped the ball carry more.
In fact, Voit’s two home runs were actually the second-most on his Missouri State team in 2013. Missouri State’s opponents hit eight home runs all season.
Voit was a good enough hitter to still be useful for Missouri State that season, despite failing to slug .400. His .299 batting average was second-best on the team. He walked more than he struck out and he also stole eight bases in 10 attempts.
It was enough to entice the Cardinals in the 22nd round of the 2013 draft. And it was enough to convince them to keep Voit around when he didn’t exactly set the world on fire in his first or second pro seasons. The first signs of his breakout came in 2016, but it was last year when he began to show the power and hitting ability of a future big leaguer.
This year, he’s exceeded any and all expectations after a midseason trade to the Yankees. He hit 14 home runs for the Yankees in just 39 regular season games, which was one more than his entire Missouri State team hit in 2013.
But he’s not the only survivor. While Voit was finding the ball wouldn’t carry in Springfield, Ryan O’Hearn was seeing similar results in Huntsville, Texas, at Sam Houston State. O'Hearn, like Voit, was a slugger who couldn’t hit the ball out of the park. He hit one home run as a sophomore in 2013 before improving his total to eight home runs in 2014, when the Bearkats hit 36 home runs as a team.
As soon as O’Hearn became a pro, he found the new environment much more suited to his style. He hit 13 home runs in his first half-season of pro ball, which was two more than he hit in three seasons at Sam Houston State combined. He’s hit at least 20 home runs in every season as a pro, and he hit 12 in just 149 at-bats with the Royals this year.
Meanwhile, Max Muncy hit a Baylor freshman record 11 home runs in 2010, the year before the bat standards changed. Instead of trying to build on those numbers, he was forced to try to hang on. Muncy hit just seven home runs as a junior, and as a first baseman with solid but unspectacular numbers, he slid to the fifth round of the 2012 draft. Muncy hit 25 home runs in his first pro season, which was just two fewer than he hit in his three years at Baylor combined. Now, he's one of MLB's breakout stars of 2018, which included an appearance in this year's Home Run Derby at Nationals Park.
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Voit, O’Hearn and Muncy are all survivors. They managed to make enough adjustments and tweaks to be modestly productive in a time when the game they played seemed stacked against them. They managed to show enough to get to pro ball, where they found themselves in a game that fit them.
And there was quite the payoff. Now they are playing in the major leagues at one of the best times possible for players of their ilk. They are sluggers whose value is largely tied to their ability to hit home runs in an era when the ball flies, fences are short and strikeouts are seen as a modest price to pay for power. Put them in 1965 or 1985 and their careers could have been much different at a time when the ball didn’t carry, parks were cavernous and strikeouts were stigmatized.
We can’t forget that environments help determine who is a star and who can’t play. Vince Coleman was a household name and two-time All-Star in the 1980s, when speed was greatly appreciated and the value of on-base percentage wasn’t fully understood. Nowadays, he’d have to work to keep a regular job.
There’s no reason to begrudge Voit or Muncy their moment in the sun. They are survivors who persevered. But as we watch Voit and Muncy in the playoffs, I can’t help but wonder about which players didn’t survive college baseball’s dead-ball era.
Voit, Muncy and O’Hearn hit enough to still play everyday and get noticed. Assuredly, there were players elsewhere who found themselves on college baseball benches for good reason — if everyone is struggling to hit the ball over the outfielder’s heads, a one-dimensional slugger could easily find himself benched behind a hitter who controls the bat better and has more defensive skills. But if they had just gotten into an environment more suited to their talents, some of them could have succeeded.
But we’ll never know. Not everyone survives.