Last year, DJ LeMahieu set a career high with 15 home runs. In events entirely fitting of 2019, he’s already well past that with 24 homers and still has another month to go. So what’s going on?
The cop out answer is to just say ‘the ball’ since that’s the answer to almost every dinger-related question in 2019. That may well be the answer, but let’s dig and see what we can find.
Given the improvements from Mike Tauchman, Cameron Maybin, Gio Urshela, and Luke Voit, there’s evidence that the Yankees’ coaching staff does something to get more out of hitters. Have they done this with LeMahieu in any way we can detect from the outside? In terms of results, the only difference we can really see is a slight increase in launch angle. That sits at 7.2 this season, up from 5.7 last year. But that’s still a relatively low launch angle, especially when it comes to a home run hitter. For comparison, Aaron Judge’s average launch angle is about 10 and Gary Sanchez’s is about 14.
DJLM is also hitting the ball about as far as he did in 2018. This year, his average batted ball distance is 162 feet, compared to 163 feet last year. His average home run distance–387–is noticeably shorter than last year’s 399 (we’ll revisit this later). His average exit velocities–91.1 in 2018; 91.8 in 2019–are also dead even. So in terms of what we see when the ball comes off the bat, it’s hard to see any big changes that either DJ or the coaching staff has made. But what about the process?
What a player swings at can have an effect on his results. Swing at strikes–good! Swing at balls–bad! So what’s up with LeMahieu’s swings? He’s had more of them this year. His overall swing percentage is up from 41.7% in 2018 to 45.5% this year. This change stems in part from an increased swing percentage on pitches in the zone. That number is at 64.4 this year, as compared to 59.2 last year. Additionally, his swings on what Statcast labels as ‘meatballs’ are up, too, from 64.1% in 2018 to 71.1% in 2019.
Here we have our first potential answer to the increase in LeMahieu’s homers. While he’s not necessarily hitting the ball any harder or farther than before, he’s swinging at more pitches in the zone and more meatballs. More in-zone and meatball swings could definitely lead to an increase in home runs.
A thought I had when I first, uh, thought of this post was that perhaps DJLM was taking advantage of his reputation. He’s not known as a power hitter, so maybe there are certain pitches or locations he’s ambushing when a pitcher leaves one there, thinking the worst that could happen is a single. There seems to be some evidence of that.
Last year, LeMahieu hit 11 home runs on fastballs; this year, he’s already got 9. But the real uptick is homers on non-fastballs. He’s hit 9 on breaking pitches this year, which almost matches his totals from 2016-2018 combined (10). His 5 homers on offspeed pitches perfectly match his totals from 2015-2018 combined. Perhaps he’s looking for those pitches in certain counts and is doing more damage to them than before. What about the locations? Let’s take a look.
First, we have LeMahieu’s homers by zone in 2018:
We see something we’d expect to see of a right handed hitter: homers on balls on the inner part of the plate and over the middle. Let’s look at 2019 now.
While there isn’t as much red on the inside part of the plate, there’s a lot of it right down the middle. Compared to last year, DJ is hammering pitches right down the middle and sending them over the fences. Whether by luck or (bad) design, pitchers are paying for throwing down the middle to a guy who, heretofore, hadn’t hit for much power. Good on LeMahieu for making them pay.
Finally, let’s go to the place we knew this would end up: Yankee Stadium. One of the reasons, the Yankees went after LeMahieu is they recognized he had an opposite field approach. Any hitter, lefty or righty, who tends towards right field in Yankee Stadium is likely to have success. In terms of home runs, the short porch and right center field (where he hit his walk off yesterday) are there for the taking. Yankee Stadium is also, obviously, smaller than Coors Field. It takes less distance (remember from before?) to hit a homer there than it does in Coors, regardless of direction.
More than he did at Coors last year, DJ is taking advantage of his home park for home runs. He has 17 at home this year. In 2018, he had just 4 in Coors and 11 on the road. His HR/FB% at home last year? 5.8. His HR/FB% at home this year? 26.2%.
We have a few possible reasons why DJ LeMahieu is hitting more home runs this year (setting the ball aside for now). He’s got a slightly higher launch angle; he’s swinging at more pitches in the zone and more meatballs; he’s hitting more non-fastballs out of the park; he’s homering on more middle-middle pitches; and he’s taking advantage of his home park.
As is usually the case with baseball, there’s a multifaceted answer. But regardless of the nuance of that answer, we’re enjoying a great season by LeMahieu and he’s more than helped carry this team through its glut of injuries and trials, tribulations, and all that other narrative good stuff. Given what I’d said about this signing in the offseason, I’m more than surprised by his performance. That homers have been a part of that is even more surprising and more rewarding.