Today marks the beginning of our 2020 Season in Review series. Like last offseason’s series, we’ll reflect on the year that was for the Yankees. We begin with DJ LeMahieu.
It’s pretty difficult to imagine where the Yankees would’ve been these last two years without DJ LeMahieu. And to think: his signing was a headscratcher prior to the 2019 season. Now, LeMahieu has wrapped up two spectacular seasons in pinstripes and has been the team’s most valuable player during that run. His free agency is going to be a hot topic in the coming weeks, but for the time being, let’s look back on LeMahieu’s fantastic 2020 campaign.
Another career year at the plate
Small sample size, I know, but LeMahieu’s batting line absolutely jumps off the page when you see it. .364/.421/.590 with 10 homers in 216 plate appearances? Just remarkable. Last year was supposed to be his career year, but instead, the infielder topped it with an even better output in a shortened 2020 campaign.
LeMahieu already has one accolade to his name for his 2020 performance: the MLB batting champ. Juan Soto, who hit .351, was the next closest hitter. LeMahieu’s the first player to win the batting title in both the AL and NL, by the way. And with award season coming next month, the infielder could add some more hardware to his mantle. He’s one of the finalists for the Hank Aaron Award, which is given to the league’s best hitter. LeMahieu’s also likely to earn some MVP votes after a fourth-place finish last season.
He may not win the MVP award, but LeMahieu seems like a pretty decent bet to win the Hank Aaron Award. The other finalists are José Abreu, José Ramírez, Mike Trout, Nelson Cruz, Brandon Lowe, and Teoscar Hernández. He’s got all of them beat in wRC+ (177, next closest is Abreu at 167) and OPS+ (Cruz, 169), to cherry-pick a couple of favorable leaderboard rankings.
As undeniably great of a season as LeMahieu had, I must admit I was surprised to see him take a step back in some of his underlying numbers. The 32 year-old was better last year in a number of categories, including xwOBA and hard hit percentage.
|xBA (percentile)||0.319 (99th)||0.315 (97th)|
|xwOBA (percentile)||0.384 (90th)||0.356 (83rd)|
|Exit Velocity (percentile)||91.9 (92nd)||91.3 (86th)|
|Hard Hit % (percentile)||48.5 (94th)||46.5 (82nd)|
|Barrel % (percentile)||7.5 (46th)||2.9 (9th)|
Even so, it’s not like his batted ball metrics were bad by any stretch of the imagination. I mean, it’s pretty hard to luck your way into a .364/.421/.590 batting line. Maybe he had a fortunate bounce here and there, but at the same time, I can also point to LeMahieu’s improved plate discipline as a factor.
LeMahieu struck out at the lowest clip of his career, and was second-lowest in MLB this season to Tommy La Stella (5.3 percent). That’ll help the ol’ batting average, though it’s not like LeMahieu wasn’t an elite contact hitter already. So, how’d DJLM get better? Primarily by cutting down on his chase rate. Last year was something of an outlier for him, in fact. He went after 27.1 percent of pitches out of the zone in 2019 after never posting a mark above 23.3 percent beforehand. This year, he dropped that back down to 23.6 percent.
In short, LeMahieu did more with less this season. He balanced out Statcast-related regression with fewer strikeouts. With a small sample size year and maybe a little luck sprinkled in, LeMahieu was able to blow away some of his previous career bests. It can’t get any better than this, right? Yet, we asked ourselves that very same question a year ago.
Nitpicking his defense
The Yankees’ defense was pretty bad as a whole this season. Even LeMahieu, who deservedly has three gold gloves to his name, wasn’t immune from some poor play in the field this year. He made six errors, four of the throwing variety, after making just eight all of last season. Now, I know using errors as a proxy for fielding skill is old-hand, but advanced metrics also looked at LeMahieu’s glovework poorly in 2020.
LeMahieu went from the 86th percentile in Statcast’s Outs Above Average metric to 20th this season, a huge drop. UZR and DRS, flawed as they may be, also depicted a step back. Even though that’s what the numbers say, does it really feel like LeMahieu’s defensive skillset took a step back? I say no.
It would be one thing if we noticed something like LeMahieu’s range worsen. But I just don’t think that was the case this season. In fact, I actually think the accumulation of errors really tells the story here. For whatever reason, LeMahieu botched a handful of routine plays that simply seemed very unlike him.
Those three errors in the video just seem very unlike the LeMahieu we’ve seen previously. These are physical mistakes that don’t indicate some sort of skillset decline in his range or arm strength. I’d bet things would’ve evened out over a full 162.
Remember how DJ LeMahieu almost rescued the Yankees from postseason defeat last year? It may be forgotten by now, but his homer off Roberto Osuna was one of the biggest hits in recent postseason history for the Bombers. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough. This year, unfortunately, LeMahieu didn’t follow things up with as good of an October as last year.
The second baseman got off to a nice start in the Wild Card Series against Cleveland, including this game-winning hit in the Game 2 clincher:
He even got off to a good start in the ALDS vs. the Rays, leading off the series with a single and scoring the first run. But after Game 1, it was mostly downhill for the Yankees’ leadoff hitter.
In Games 2 through 5, LeMahieu hit .235/.263/.235 in 19 plate appearances. He did deliver a run scoring knock in Game 2’s 9th inning attempted comeback that fell short, but otherwise, was pretty quiet. He wasn’t alone, of course. Outside of Giancarlo Stanton, the bats couldn’t muster much.
Free agency. LeMahieu will file after the World Series and will be one of this class’s top players available. The Yankees are undoubtedly going to hand him the $18.9 million qualifying offer, though one would assume he declines. How much LeMahieu gets on the open market is pretty murky following a season of owners complaining about decreased revenue. In a normal offseason, LeMahieu’s a $100 million player after what we’ve seen since 2019. He might still get that this season, but it’s sounding like the Yankees may try to draw a hard line.
It should go without saying, but the Yankees should run it back with LeMahieu. I was really confident in that being a certainty just a few weeks ago, but I must admit that some doubts are creeping in. From Hal Steinbrenner’s gripes about no fans in the seats to the leaks to the media about payroll decreases, life without LeMahieu is seeming more and more plausible in 2021. Cross your fingers.