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.