DJ LeMahieu has been great, but is he MVP-worthy?

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Since 2012, the field has only lost the American League Most Valuable Player Award to Mike Trout twice. That pretty surprising for someone who is always deservedly the odds-on favorite. This year, Trout’s putting together another MVP-caliber campaign, but there’s always a chance someone from the field overtakes him. Judging by Yankee Stadium’s “M-V-P” chants, some Yankees fans think DJ LeMahieu should win it over the Angels’ superstar.

If Trout’s not the victor, well, there better be a darn good reason. It took an incredible, dare I say Trout-like season from Mookie Betts to win last year. A year before that, only an injury prevented Trout from taking home the prize. Years earlier, Miguel Cabrera’s Triple Crown beat out Trout (though that might not have been a “darn good reason”). In any case, it’s safe to say that there needs to be some sort of extraordinary circumstance for the league’s best player not to win. LeMahieu has been nothing short of fantastic for the Yankees, but the home crowd’s chants look premature.

First and foremost, it’s not just Trout and LeMahieu battling it out it out. The AL field provides LeMahieu with plenty of company, and it’s no certainty that he’s the best of that pack. Here’s where he ranks against other AL position players per WAR:

The top two at each site are Trout and Alex Bregman. Depending on your preferred version, LeMahieu is between 1.5 and 2.0 WAR behind the Astros’ third baseman, with a number of names in between. That’s no knock against LeMahieu, though. Just to be in the top ten is confirmation (that we didn’t necessarily need) that he’s been terrific for the Yankees this season.

Now, WAR isn’t the end all be all, but it’s a great starting point and the best all-encapsulating stat available. It’s popular to lambaste it, especially when it comes to MVP discussion and Trout. If we haven’t heard it already this year, we’re certain to hear the “but Trout’s team won’t make the playoffs” line. Everyone’s entitled to their own opinion, but the fact is that Trout isn’t the one filling out the rest of the Angels roster. It’s not his fault the rest of his team is mediocre. Anyway, I don’t want to sidetrack this post with that argument, but you can gather probably how I feel about it.

Based on WAR alone, LeMahieu looks like a down-ballot MVP candidate. Again, that’s awesome and way better than anyone could have possibly foreseen. Still, is there any way we can move him up a few notches? After all, the players in the non-Trout and non-Bregman division are pretty tightly bunched. Let’s look at some situational and win probability stats to see where LeMahieu stands against other MVP hopefuls. Perhaps that’ll allow us to mentally adjust where he stands.

One statistic where LeMahieu shines is Run Expectancy, or RE24. In simple terms, this stat basically asks: based on the situation (i.e. runners on base and outs), how many runs should be expected to score in this at-bat, and how many did the hitter deliver? Since LeMahieu is an RBI machine, it shouldn’t shock you that he’s been quite successful per this metric. Per Fangraphs, only Trout is ahead of the Yankees’ infielder in Run Expectancy Wins. That certainly helps LeMahieu’s case, but it obviously doesn’t let him leapfrog Trout.

One thing RE24 doesn’t do is consider the leverage of a situation. A bases loaded, zero out situation in a 15-0 game is no different than a 1-1 game in the eighth inning. So, how does LeMahieu stack up in clutch situations? Let’s take a look at a few different stats:

  • Win Probability Added (WPA): 9th (Trout is first)
  • WPA/LI: 7th (Trout is first)
  • Clutch: 19th (Trout is 58th!)

All told, LeMahieu still lags behind here. There’s no question that he’s been fantastic in big spots, as these stats confirm, but Trout and others still have the advantage. The one metric where things get a little more interesting is Clutch, where I was somewhat surprised to see Trout so far behind. In any case, there are still others ahead of LeMahieu in WAR that also exceed his Clutch. Mookie Betts, Matt Chapman, and Xander Bogaerts all have more WAR and a higher Clutch than LeMahieu. Additionally, Michael Brantley, who’s just 0.3 Fangraphs WAR behind LeMahieu also beats the Yankee in Clutch.

Admittedly, those stats I just cited aren’t easy to understand at first glance. So, let’s also take a look at a few splits that are simpler:

These are just a few I cherry-picked and found interesting. Batting average is elementary, but it certainly is important with runners aboard and in tight games. Clearly, LeMahieu has excelled under those circumstances this year. When it comes to overall hitting in high leverage, he’s still very good, but not the cream of the crop.

At the end of the day, we can finagle leaderboards to try and make a better case for LeMahieu. But, there doesn’t appear to be enough under the hood to make him the favorite for the award. There’s far too much to overcome in order to beat Trout, but if you want to use the situational numbers to give LeMahieu a boost, have at it. I can definitely see the case to push LeMahieu up to the top-5 in the voting, but I don’t think it’s possible to go much further.

How my opinion compares to the voters’ thoughts is a different story. There’s always a chance that someone throws LeMahieu a first place vote. Last year, JD Martinez received a first place vote even though his own teammate, Betts, was far more deserving (and won the award). No matter how the voting turns out, LeMahieu has proved to be a brilliant addition to this club. He may not be the league MVP, but he’s certainly the team’s MVP.


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1 Comment

  1. Wire Fan

    One of the issues with WAR in this case is that DJ takes a positional hit when he plays 1st base. In theory, a player’s defense improves when moving to an easier position, but if you already play above average to elite defense at the better position, it doesn’t magically improve to beyond elite when moving to a lesser position, especially at 1st base. DJ is probably a +10 defender at 2nd, but that doesn’t translate to a +25 defender at 1st… So he takes a WAR hit when he plays there – because there is a 15 run positional difference (on a full year basis) when he plays there

    His WAR is probably understated by about 0.5 WAR (maybe more?) due to him playing some first base and learning 3rd base on the fly – at both positions he is roughly an average defender in terms of the defensive stats. If he was simply a gold glove 2nd baseman all year his WAR would be higher.

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