The decline of DJ LeMahieu [2021 Season Review]

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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.

YearSwing%Whiff%wOBAxwOBAEVLA
201969.18.5.450.46695.79
202067.66.6.419.39294.56
202165.09.6.275.33594.18
League xwOBA on “Heart” pitches was .364 in 2021.

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:

YearMLBLeMahieu
2019279287
2020269271
2021266261
Average feet traveled on FB/LD/PU

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:

Barrels & Solid Contact Spray Chart (2021)

And now, just for LeMahieu’s games played at Yankee Stadium.

Barrels & Solid Contact at Yankee Stadium only (2021).

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 + BarrelswOBAxwOBAAvg. EVAvg. LAAvg. Distance
201914.3.9371.008102.424364
202012.01.177.75999.226351
202110.6.585.769101.423350

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.

What’s next

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.

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12 Comments

  1. dasit

    seems like roster construction plans were contingent on torres being able to handle shortstop. torres locked into second base and djlm signed long-term is a mess

  2. MikeD

    LeMahieu’s season is the type of season/player I seek out in my fantasy drafts. I normally don’t intersect real baseball with fantasy baseball, but there’s a reason here. DJLM has a number of the characteristics that will cause him to be drafted lower, or cost less in an auction, yet a year on he’ll probably have delivered significant value…for the real team and the fantasy team.

    Injuries — I’ve heard more than a few GMs and former players say that when a player with an established baseline has a significant down year, it’s almost always due to injury. While discussing DJLM’s surgery the other day, Cashman basically said we know why he had an off year. He wasn’t battling this (and other) injuries for just a couple weeks. The Yankees are never forthcoming with injuries (they shouldn’t be), and DJ is almost definitely someone who wouldn’t blame a down year on not being at 100%.

    BABiP — This DJ is very similar to the Yankees other DJ. DJ LeMahieu and Jeter are similar type hitters, scorching the opposite field with line drives. Players like that sport higher-than-usual BABiP’s. Jeter’s career BABiP was around .350, which is very high. LeMahieu’s is traditionally in the high range too, .325-.355 range. The year before he signed with the Yankees, he had the lowest BABiP of his career at .298. A rebound was expected, and a rebound occurred with a .349 and then a .370 BABiP. In 2021, it regressed to the second-lowest of his career at .301. Expect a rebound to a more normal BABiP based on DJ LeMahieu’s established levels.

    Injuries and some randomness were the two likely drivers of DJ’s off season. Seems like a decent bet to post a .280/.300 season with 15-18 HRs. We won’t get the best-case scenario we saw in the shortened 2020 when everything went right, but we should get better than 2021 when everything went wrong.

  3. Lots of data in this article and that’s good, but one way to look at DJL is to consider his OPS plus over the 11 years he has been playing. In 8 of the seasons is has been below 100, arguable the average line. The outliers are the season in Colorado when he won the NL batting title, and his first season in NY. I personally put zero weight on his 50 game stats in 2020 when the opposition was limited. Perhaps the problem is the Yankees signed on for a guy whose career has been average.

    • Troy

      This. Exactly what I have been saying since the contract was signed. He had 1 1/3 great seasons but other than that he is an average player. He played exactly how he should have been expected to.

  4. Anthony Rizzeddardo

    Never shoulda given him that big contract, Derek. Once players get that money they get fat and happy, also known as Gary Sanchez syndrome. DJ had no incentive to play better this year and what I saw was a player who was just going through the motions. Next Spring I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw him 30 pounds heavier. You can make all the excuses you want, well the ball was different, well he had an upset stomach at the end of the season, I don’t wanna hear it. The dead ball didn’t affect Judge and Stanton’s numbers. You didn’t hear Justin Turner complaining about an injury yesterday as he limped off the field giving everything he had to his ballclub. This contract is an albatross and I fear it’ll be the new Ellsbury around our necks for the next 5 years. One thing is for sure, they need a true lead off hitter and maybe they can hide DJ in the 7-9 spots and if that doesn’t work he can pick up a broom and sweep sunflower seeds off the dugout floor to earn his keep.

    • Such a load of crap, go eat 10 more Calzones for lunch, you fat f**k

    • I want to believe that this post is meant to be funny, but I suspect it’s not. So sad.

      • dasit

        it’s meant to be funny. eddard is not for everyone but personally i enjoy the schtick

        • MikeD

          The fact that anyone who has been here at V314, or goes back to RAB, takes his posts seriously speaks poorly of the poster. It’s always been shtick. I do believe it’s Eddard himself who often responds to his own posts when it’s a name we don’t recognize as a way to make himself appear even more out there.

        • It’s not meant to be funny, it’s meant to troll the fair weather fans who change their minds every day.

          The difference between this blog, with its limited comments and RAB, is that there aren’t many (if any) of those on this blog so his crap is completely misdirected PLUS we all know (if you paid any attention at RAB over the years) who’s behind the posts. If I was wrong about this the owners of this blog would have already told me to ‘knock it off’, wouldn’t they?

    • Broussard Yankee

      I agree that this contract will inevitably be an albatross. But, I think that Hicks’ contract is the next Ellsbury contract. I think that, after Cashman signs a real SS, and Urshela returns to 3B and Torres stays at 2B, DJLM becomes what they originally signed him for in 2019, that is a high profile infield utility player.

      • DZB

        The difference is that the Hicks and even the DJ contracts are not that huge on an AAV basis. So they are not like what Ellsbury got. Plus, those contracts seemed like reasonable value given the players, whereas Ellsbury’s contract seemed like a bad overpay the moment it was signed.

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