Room For Improvement: DJ LeMahieu

Embed from Getty Images

Let’s start with the obvious – DJ LeMahieu has proven himself through his two years with the Yankees as a hyper-elite player. In 195 games since he was signed to a two-year, $24 million dollar contract in early 2019, “The Machine” has put up a 145 OPS+ (raw OPS of .922), including a .364 batting average in the shortened 2020 season, which earned him the second outright batting title of his career.  He finished fourth in American League MVP voting in 2019 and third in 2020.  He’s put up a total of 8.5 fWAR in his Yankees career, averaging slightly under 7.1 fWAR per 162 games. Further, LeMahieu possesses a versatility that is usually reserved for journeyman backups with a fraction of his resume, playing first, second, and third base proficiently.

It is therefore difficult to conclude that LeMahieu, freshly signed to a 6-year, $90 million deal that will keep him in pinstripes through his age-37 season, has a whole lot of “room for improvement” going into 2021.  The key for him is avoiding regression, and retaining the incredible contact and all-field skill that has defined his Yankees career thus far.

Probably the most glaring room for regression based on LeMahieu’s 2019 and 2020 stat line lies in his BABIP – on balls he hit in play, LeMahieu has gotten on base at a .354 clip over the past two seasons, including a .370 BABIP in 2020.  Conversely, the MLB average BABIP in 2020 was .292, and .298 in 2019.  Based on this alone, it could be concluded that LeMahieu’s production is driven in at least some small part by luck, as balls he makes contact with tend to result in hits at a much higher rate than average.

However, it isn’t at all clear that LeMahieu’s BABIP success is unsustainable.  Throughout his career, his BABIP has been notably high – only in 2018, the “down year” that led to his first contract with the Yankees, was he under .300, and in 2016, the year he won his first batting title, his BABIP was an eye-popping .388.  LeMahieu appears to have elite bat control and hits to all fields, making it difficult for opposing defenses to guard against him.  The spray chart below, courtesy of FanGraphs, indicates that he has line drive power to every part of the ballpark, especially opposite field power. “Hit ‘em where they ain’t,” as Hall of Famer Willie Keeler famously advised aspiring hitters, seems to be something of a mantra for the Yankees infielder.

LeMahieu has also had the lowest strikeout rate on the team among regular players over the past two seasons. In a lineup heavy on power but heavy on strikeouts, LeMahieu’s rate was a mere 9.7% in 2020 (compared to a team rate of 21.7% and a league average of 23.4%). Since his debut in 2011, strikeout rates across the majors have increased drastically, up nearly 5% from 2011’s 18.6%, but LeMahieu’s rates have stayed consistently above average and have been below 15% each of the past five seasons.  If history is any guide, LeMahieu may not repeat his sub-10% K rate performance of 2020, but there’s no reason to think he won’t play to his high-contact, low-strikeout profile.

So I suppose, if he really wanted to go for an overachiever title, he could add a few walks to his previous totals, which are basically in line with league averages. Overall, though, the premise of “room for improvement” for LeMahieu seems a bit silly.  He could hit .365.  He could finish first instead of third in the MVP balloting.  At a certain point, “improvement” from a season like DJ LeMahieu had in 2020 is just luck and nitpicking. The Yankees have gotten more than they paid for in The Machine, and, if he continues to stay healthy, his player profile should translate into many more fruitful seasons in pinstripes.

Advertisements

Previous

On Kevin Mather: A Matter of Systems and Institutions

Next

Catchers: Sánchez seeks rebound, Higashioka’s second look, prospects, and more [2021 Season Preview]

5 Comments

  1. Welcome Ana, a women’s perspective is sometimes clearer to understand. I’m not big on Sabermetrics because I don’t know what the abbreviations stand for and usually skip over them. Now I know what BABIP is.
    When I saw your name, I smiled and said “about time”.
    Looking forward to your articles.

  2. MikeD

    Didn’t realize the new writers had arrived. I’m sure Randy, Derek, Bobby and Matt will welcome the help. And to think, Mike A. managed to crank out never-ending material all by himself, well in the later years that is. He was our own Machine.

    Nice entry, Ana. Looking forward to more.

    Improving DJ? Not easy to do!

  3. John

    Welcome aboard, Ana, and thanks for in-depth analysis on DJ! We look forward to more of your writing and analysis!

  4. Mungo

    Welcome aboard, Ana, and an excellent debut. Looking forward to even more analytically driven articles.

    As you noted, I wouldn’t be concerned about DJ’s higher BABiP. I’ve compared him over the years to another DJ who hit line drives with regularity to RF. Jeter always ran BABiPs higher than league average throughout a 20-year career, with with a 350 BABiP. Just like there are pitchers who are FIP busters, such as Mariano, Jeter was a BABiP buster, and LeMahieu’s entire career points to a similar profile, backed up by his hard-hit rate. In fact, we have a clear indicator as to why his last year in Colorado was down. He hit into bad luck based on his profile. I’m sure the Yankees front office noted that before signing him.

    One item of concern that I did write in Derek’s article on Gary. I didn’t realize there was already an article here on LeMahieu. Of all the hitters that might be “hurt” by a less juiced ball, DJ is one of them. He has had a great knack for launching balls just over the RF wall. If he loses a few feet, it’s not inconceivable he could lose a few HRs, maybe even quite a few HRs. If so, hopefully those balls don’t land gently into the RFers glove. Yankee Stadium — all versions — reduces doubles, triples and BA on balls to RF. While the short RF giveth to certain hitters, it can also taketh since there’s shorter ground for the RFer to cover and less opportunities for doubles. Think of home many times we see balls crushed that bounce off the RF wall where the batter–even fast runners–stay planted at 1B. Virtually every other park those are doubles. If so, hopefully DJLM’s BA stays high (it will), but the lost HRs turn into doubles.

    BTW Might make for an interesting article from one of the team here on which Yankees might potentially be most impacted by a slightly less jumpy ball.

  5. mikenyc2007

    nice article – im wondering about the potential regression in his performance with the new ball cutting down on his HR power, and if he loses some distance on his opposite-field flyballs

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén