Welcome to our first annual Season in Review series. Over the coming weeks and months, we’ll recap the Yankees’ 2019 campaign. And, at the end of each post, we’ll denote whether each player met, exceeded, or fell short of preseason expectations. Today, we start with DJ LeMahieu.
The Yankees signed a free agent infielder last offseason, just not the one who everyone expected or wanted. Manny Machado was the target, but instead, the Yankees seemingly settled for DJ LeMahieu. Little did anyone know that LeMahieu would be better than Machado in 2019. I, like many others, couldn’t be happier to have been wrong about the LeMahieu signing.
That’s right, the guy who wasn’t even in the Yankees’ Opening Day lineup and appeared to be destined for a super-utility role wound up being the Yankees’ most productive player this season. He started at second base in the All-Star Game and set career highs in all sorts of statistics — old school and new. From WAR to RBIs to wRC+, LeMahieu was a force all season long.
LeMahieu was so terrific that he’s going to get some down-ballot MVP votes. Yes, the “M-V-P” chants were out and about in the Bronx late this season, but that was more a result of LeMahieu’s knack for the big hit. He led the league in batting average with runners in scoring position, after all. Hey, losing out on the MVP to Mike Trout or Alex Bregman this year isn’t too shabby.
What Coors Field hangover?
Rockies hitters are notorious for struggling away from their home ballpark. LeMahieu, who called Coors Field home from 2012 through 2018, was no different:
- Home: .329/.386/.447 (96 wRC+)
- Away: .267/.314/.367 (84 wRC+)
And thus was born the fear that LeMahieu would be terrible with the Yankees. It’s a common concern for any Colorado player joining a new club, of course.
So much for that. Here’s how LeMahieu performed in the Bronx and away from home in 2019:
- Home: .338/.392/.585 (157 wRC+)
- Away: .318/.359/.459 (116 wRC+)
LeMahieu was good everywhere and perhaps this shouldn’t have been a surprise. Other hitters who have left the Rockies have done just fine (think Matt Holliday, as one example). Plus, while with Colorado, LeMahieu had strong Statcast numbers that theoretically could play anywhere. In 2018, his exit velocity and hard hit percentage were in the 88th and 79th percentile in all of baseball. Yep, those carried over to the Bronx:
LeMahieu really raked at Yankee Stadium, particularly in terms of power. He hit 19 of his career high 26 home runs in the Bronx. That short porch sure helped:
So there you have it. LeMahieu, like other ex-Rockies, found no issue adjusting to a new home in New York. It turns out he’s a perfect match for Yankee Stadium while no longer experiencing the dreaded road effect Rockies’ hitters face.
The ultimate super-utility player
The Yankees have tried to find players to fill LeMahieu’s role in the past. Think Neil Walker and Ronald Torreyes as examples. Both did commendable work in pinstripes, but moreso as role players. Which was fine! It’s nice to have a solid player who can play multiple positions off the bench while also starting a few games each week, as necessary. But LeMahieu was a completely different animal. Or should we say: a completely different Machine.
LeMahieu’s superlative 2019 put the “super” in super-utility player. He appeared in 145 games and was one of the few to not spend any time on the injured list this season. And, even though he hadn’t played a position other than second base since 2015, he seamlessly fit in at both corner infield spots this year. He played 40, 75, and 52 games at first, second, and third base, respectively.
To top it off, he played strong defense at each spot. He may not win his third straight Gold Glove because he wasn’t locked into one position all season, but it was no matter. He was quite reliable out there, aside from Game 4 of the ALCS.
Nearly a postseason hero
Not many Yankees hit well this postseason, but LeMahieu was an exception. Not only did he consistently produce in both the ALDS and ALCS, but he delivered a number of big hits as well.
LeMahieu announced himself right away with two big hits in Game 1 of the ALDS. With the Yankees up 5-4 in the bottom of the sixth, LeMahieu launched a solo homer to give the Yankees some cushion. Later, he delivered the hit that broke it open:
After the LeMahieu and the Yankees took care of business against Minnesota, it was off to Houston where DJ continued his hot hitting. He hit safely in all six ALCS games, though his two biggest moments were in the last two games of the series.
In Game 5, the Yankees were down 1-0 after a half inning. Not ideal with Justin Verlander on the mound in an elimination game. That was no matter for LeMahieu, who answered the bell to lead off the bottom half of the first:
And in Game 6, as Steven excellently documented, LeMahieu hit one of the biggest home runs in franchise history. Unfortunately, it’ll be (mostly) forgotten. Here it is one more time:
The Yankees had their backs to the wall: down two runs with two outs to go in the season, LeMahieu wasn’t ready for the team’s playoff run to be over. He battled and tied it up on the tenth pitch of the at bat.
All told, LeMahieu finished the postseason with a .325/.386/.625 batting line with three homers and seven RBIs in 44 plate appearances. There’s a very strong chance that he’d have won the ALCS MVP award had the Yankees came back to defeat the Astros for the pennant.
Barring something unforeseen, LeMahieu will be in the Opening Day lineup in 2020. What position he plays is uncertain, but he’ll probably be the team’s leadoff hitter nonetheless. My guess is that he becomes the Bombers’ everyday second baseman as Gleyber Torres slides over to shortstop and Didi Gregorius departs via free agency.
I wouldn’t count on LeMahieu repeating his 2019 season in 2020. That would be pretty difficult to do, you know. LeMahieu just had the best season of his career as a 31 year-old and it’s probable that he regresses a little bit. He’ll still be a really good player, no question, but probably not a 5 to 6 WAR player as he was this season. Aside from some typical regression, who knows what ball will be used in 2020 (lol). Like everyone else, he certainly benefited from the juiced ball to some extent this regular season. Although, the de-juiced ball didn’t hurt him in October.
One more important note: LeMahieu will be in the second and final year of the contract he signed with the Yankees back in January. Considering that the Yankees were LeMahieu’s top choice last winter, one would think that next year won’t be his final in pinstripes in spite of his expiring contract.
The Verdict: Exceeded Expectations
This is pretty noncontroversial, no? Any time a player has a career year he’s almost certain to have beaten expectations. But in case you need data to back that up, look no further than a couple of preseason projections. ZiPS had LeMahieu as a 93 OPS+ and 2.2 WAR player. PECOTA was actually pretty optimistic, calling for 3.9 WARP and a 110 DRC+. In any event, LeMahieu toppled those forecasts with ease.