No one expected DJ LeMahieu to repeat his 2020 performance in 2021. At the same time, no one expected LeMahieu to go from a 177 wRC+ in 2020 to a 100 wRC+ this season. Regression was coming to some extent, particularly after a shortened 60-game season, but LeMahieu didn’t resemble anything of his former self for the Yankees this year. His downturn was one of the many reasons that the Bronx Bombers didn’t live up to their moniker all season long.
Now, it’s not like LeMahieu had a bad season. A .268/.349/.362 (100 wRC+) batting line, good defense, and 2.4 fWAR is a tick above average as a whole. Yet, that’s not the performance the Yankees anticipated when they re-signed him to a six year, $90 million contract prior to the season. Surely there were a few more seasons in store where he’d fight for the batting title and be one of the top hitters in the league.
It’s possible that this season will prove to be an anomaly. After all, we learned about LeMahieu’s sports hernia, which required surgery, toward the end of the regular season. Time will tell on that front, but for now, let’s take a look at what went wrong for LeMahieu this season.
Pitches Down the Middle
There are plenty of metrics that one doesn’t want to rank at or near the bottom of on a leaderboard. LeMahieu had the misfortune of being at the bottom of run value against pitches over the middle of the plate, per Statcast. LeMahieu recorded a -33 run value against pitches classified in the “heart” of the zone, tied for worst in the majors. Not only was it tied for the worst in the majors this year, but it’s also the worst of the pitch tracking era.
From memory, it does seem like LeMahieu missed a lot of good pitches to hit this year. So did a lot of other Yankees, but let’s not get sidetracked here. LeMahieu recorded +16 and -1 run values against heart pitches in 2019 and 2020, respectively, and never posted a value worse than -10 in a single season. Where did -33 come from? It’s hard to fathom and understand.
None of these numbers are trending in the right direction, and even if he got a bit unlucky in terms of actual vs. expected wOBA, it’s not like his xwOBA was any good. LeMahieu’s taking more grooved pitches, swinging through them more often, and not hitting them as hard as he used to either.
Let’s drill into LeMahieu’s contact quality against pitches in these locations a bit more. Take a look at the two radial charts below:
I wish there was a way to convert this comparison into a heat map rather than a chart, but I do think you can get a sense of what’s wrong here. If you swipe between the two charts, I think you will notice that the 2019-2020 image has a larger concentration of dots in the ideal range (i.e. darker shades of green…or is that teal?). In the 2021 image, it appears that there’s a wider distribution of launch angles. Look at the amount of dots there were virtually hit straight down (i.e. closer to -90 degrees) or straight up. In the prior two years, LeMahieu hardly ever popped up or chopped pitches in this zone.
My guess is that there was a mechanical and/or timing issue at play here that LeMahieu struggled to resolve all year. Otherwise, I’m not sure how else to explain his struggles against middle-middle pitches. Something had to be off to result in such a downturn against very hittable pitches. And hey, maybe it could be injury-related to a degree, which certainly would affect his swing.
The deadened baseball
There has been plenty of talk about physical changes to the baseball used in regular season games over the past few years. In particular, we know that the 2019 ball, AKA the rocket ball, was a culprit. The league has tried to tidy up the manufacturing and maintenance processes. This year, the league planned to lighten the ball, which would allow for slightly shorter fly ball distances. Here’s how flight distances shook out for the league and LeMahieu this year:
The leaguewide dip from 2020 to 2021 isn’t massive, but it’s pretty stark for LeMahieu. Maybe the change in baseball disproportionately affects hitters like LeMahieu, who weren’t exactly hitting moonshots in the first place. I don’t know. In any event, the ball changes certainly hurt LeMahieu to some extent. Hits like the one in the video below could have been homers last year or in 2019, for instance:
Tough one. With results like that, it’s no wonder Aaron Boone opined that LeMahieu was affected by the ball this season.
Just take a look at some of these forthcoming charts, which include only batted balls classified as “barrels” or “solid contact” by Statcast. First, those specified contact qualities in all parks:
And now, just for LeMahieu’s games played at Yankee Stadium.
What’s that, 14 outs at the warning track or at the wall in the Bronx alone? He clearly had better fortune in the past two years at home, and these totals (at all ballparks) indicate similarly better results in prior years with different baseballs:
|Year||% Solid + Barrels||wOBA||xwOBA||Avg. EV||Avg. LA||Avg. Distance|
Now, it’s not great that a lower rate of batted balls are either solidly struck or barrels compared to prior years. But even so, the results on these hits are really unfavorable. There may be a tad of bad luck involved if we are to believe the actual vs. expected wOBA difference. Yet, it really looks like the average distance is a bigger issue, and that could simply be a product of the physical baseball.
A couple of injuries
Brian Cashman told the media that LeMahieu had core surgery to address the sports hernia he was dealing with at the end of the season. It’s not clear if this injury was something LeMahieu dealt with for an extended period this year, but it was bad enough by the end of the schedule that the team had no choice but to put him on the injured list, which forced him to miss the Wild Card game. He’ll be ready for spring training, at least.
If LeMahieu was playing through pain/soreness for a longer period of time, it would definitely explain some of the trouble he had at the plate this season. In any event, the hernia wasn’t the lone malady LeMahieu dealt with in 2021. He also had a triceps strain that he gutted out for some portion of the regular season. Remember Rougned Odor playing third base for stretches instead of DJ? There was concern about the triceps injury affecting LeMahieu’s throwing across the diamond.
I imagine that the right triceps strain also hindered LeMahieu’s offense. That’s the strong arm/hand for his right-handed swing, you know. It wouldn’t surprise me one bit if that sapped some of his power during the year. LeMahieu did wind up playing at the hot corner extensively again by September, so it must have resolved by then. Of course, that’s when the hernia came to light.
It’s pretty clear that LeMahieu’s struggles against middle-middle pitches and the deadened ball hurt the infielder’s offensive production this year. Injuries almost certainly played a part as well, though there’s no way to quantify it. If anything, it’s somewhat reassuring that health issues could have hurt LeMahieu’s hitting, rather than a degradation of true talent level.
Getting healthy will be LeMahieu’s top priority this winter. He’s in the midst of an eight week rehabilitation process following the aforementioned core surgery. All indications are that he will be ready to go for a normal spring training routine.
LeMahieu is 33 years-old and entering the second year of a contract that takes him through his 38th birthday. The age-based decline years are coming, if not already arrived. I’m optimistic that 2022 will be better than this season, though. I mean, how could it not? I’m not saying he’ll hit for power like he did in 2019 or 2020, but I don’t think the days of being a high-contact .300 hitter are over.
It’s not clear what position LeMahieu will primarily play in 2022. It all depends on what the Yankees do with the rest of the infield. Will they trade Gleyber Torres, Gio Urshela, and/or Luke Voit? Will they sign a first baseman? The one thing we do know is that the team will address the shortstop position, but that doesn’t exactly affect LeMahieu’s status on the 2022 team. In all likelihood, DJ will take over one of the other three vacated spots depending on the front office’s winter activity.