2020 Season Preview: DJ LeMahieu
Every day, Start Spreading the News will be previewing a Yankee every day at 4:00 PM. We began our series on Monday with a look at Gary Sanchez, Tuesday with Miguel Andujar, and yesterday with Aroldis Chapman.
Today we will be looking at the Yankees Utility player turned Second Baseman: DJ LeMahieu.
Overview of his (Yankee) Career:
After a first MLB appearance over 37 games with the Chicago Cubs in 2011, DJ LeMahieu was then added as part of a trade with OF Tyler Covin (who last played in 2014) for 3B Ian Stewart (who last played in 2014) and RHP Casey Weathers (who never made the MLB and last played in 2017). At the time of the trade, LeMahieu was worth no more than a quick paragraph by Chicago Cubs ESPN Beat Writer Bruce Levine, stating:
“LeMahieu was drafted by the Cubs in the second round in 2009. He hit .250 with no home runs and four RBIs in 37 games last season.”
It is interesting reading through trade threads like that and imagining what “throw-in” players are going to become stand-out players in the future who we are just not acknowledging.
Regardless, DJ LeMahieu then spent time at both the Triple-A and MLB levels over the next two seasons, solidifying his starting role at second base with the Colorado Rockies in 2013. In 2014, DJ LeMahieu first showed off his defense, winning his first Gold Glove award (of 3 so far), yet with a 75 OPS+ his bat was very disappointing. This started to change in 2015, as DJ made his first All-Star Game (of 3 so far) where he took a step back on defense, but did increase his bat near league average with an OPS+ of 97.
2016 was DJ LeMahieu’s first break-out season as he hit to an OPS+ of 126 combined with a triple-slash of .348/.416/.495 combined with 5.3 bWAR (4.4 fWAR). Again, he failed to show huge defensive prowess, nor did he made the All-Star Game, but he did finish 15th in the NL MVP voting, the first MVP votes he received in his career.
His next two seasons in 2017 and 2018 were both very good again, hitting to 3.2 and 2.5 bWAR (2.0 and 2.1 fWAR) respectively as he won another 2 Gold Glove awards and made another All-Star Game (2017). Yet, many people were expecting that 2016 was a season far in the past as DJ LeMahieu reached free agency.
On January 11th, the New York Yankees and LeMahieu agreed on a 2-Year, $24 million deal for DJ to become the main utility player with taking time at 1B, 2B, and 3B as they awaited the return of SS Didi Gregorius from Tommy John surgery. Then, DJ LeMahieu exploded with his career-best season in 2019.
At this moment, the Yankees and DJ LeMahieu are set to enter Year-2 of that contract, and while there have yet to be discussions about an extension taking place to keep the Second Baseman with the team past 2020, LeMahieu has expressed his interest in staying with the Yankees either via an extension or a new deal after the season.
In his career, DJ LeMahieu has been very healthy, only ending up on the IL 3 times since signing with the Cubs in 2009, with all three of those times occurring in 2018. With the Yankees, he has yet to end up on the injured list.
His first 2018 injury placed him on the 10-Day IL, which came on April 28th with a right hamstring strain that kept him sidelined until he could first return on May 8th.
A little less than a week after that, DJ then sprained his left thumb with sent him back to the 10-Day IL and kept him out of action until June 1st.
Then, towards the end of July (on the 21st) DJ LeMahieu was sent on his 3rd and final trip to the IL with a left oblique strain that kept him off the roster until August 2nd.
The Numbers (2019):
In 2019, DJ LeMahieu had by far and away his best season in his career. This outstanding season led to a Top-2 ranking by both MLB.com’s The Shredder and SSTN’s The Determinator, which can be seen here.
This was largely in part to his massive increase in barrel%, especially amongst off-speed and breaking pitches. Barrel% is an all-encompassing advanced metric that shows how often a player hits a ball with an exit velocity (EV) of at least 98 MPH with associated launch angles (LA). See the chart to the right to see how this changes up to a maximum EV of 116 MPH and LA range from 8° to 50°.
(*Note: That chart may not be perfectly accurate, yet follows the 2-3° increase as would bring it from the range at 98 MPH to 116 MPH.)
BARREL% PROGRESSION, MADE IN MICROSOFT EXCEL
In the chart below, there is significant change between DJ LeMahieu’s approach in 2018 and 2019, especially in terms of how he was able to barrel offspeed (Spliters, Change-Ups, Forkballs, Screwballs) and breaking (Sliders, Curveballs, Knuckleballs) pitches. This included an increase of 6.3% (2% to 8.3%) and 4.9% (3.5% to 8.4%) respectively. He also saw a minor increase in his barrels of fastballs (4-Seam, 2-Seam, Cutters, Sinkers) from 6.5% to 6.9%. This led to an overall barrel% of 7.5% which ranked him 55th overall in the MLB in 2019.
DJ LEMAHIEU, BARREL% BY YEAR, COURTESY OF BASEBALL SAVANT & MLB.COM
However, looking only at barrel% alone is not going to make up for such an increase in DJ LeMahieu’s gameplay in 2019. Instead, looking at that in addition to his Top-10% finishes in Exit Velocity (8%) at 91.7 MPH, a XBA (1%) of .322, a XWOBA (10%) of .379, and a Hard Hit% (10%) at 47.2%.
When looking more at the traditional statistics, these advanced metrics show when it comes to his great OPS+ of 136 along with a triple-slash of .327/.375/.518 (.893 OPS) along with 26 HR’s, 102 RBI’s, and a 5.9 bWAR (5.4 fWAR).
This helped bring DJ LeMahieu to his 3rd All-Star Game, first career Silver Slugger (at 2B), and a 42% vote share of the 2019 AL MVP award.
I highly recommend checking out DJ LeMahieu’s Baseball Savant page, which you can find here.
DJ LEMAHIEU 2019 MLB RANKINGS, COURTESY OF BASEBALL SAVANT: MLB.COM
The Projections (2020):
Given how good he was in 2019, what have the numbers been looking like for DJ LeMahieu as we head into the 2020 season? Let’s take a look:
DJ LEMAHIEU 2020 PROJECTIONS, COURTESY OF BASEBALLREFERENCE.COM
DJ LEMAHIEU 2020 PROJECTIONS, COURTESY OF FANGRAPHS.COM
DJ LEMAHIEU 2020 PROJECTIONS, COURTESY OF FANGRAPHS.COM
It seems as though Baseball Reference (BR) does expect a moderate decrease to DJ LeMahieu’s stats in 2020, but nothing that seems incredibly out-of-line with his career norms. A projected triple-slash of .297/.350/.459 shows a dip in BA and OBP but still an increase to his SLG (.302/.354/.423). Given his number of PA’s and AB’s BR looks for DJ to play in about 130 games (like in 2018), of which 160 hits and 18 HR’s would be a great season to see from the 2B.
Fangraphs was projecting that DJ LeMahieu was going to get more game action than BR, but still kept in line with what they would be expecting. Overall across the 4 projection systems, comes out a triple-slash of about .291/.346/.441 with an average of about 171 Hits, 18 HR’s, and an fWAR of 3.5.
In his career, DJ LeMahieu has been very much an up-and-down player who seems to have a focus on defense, offense, or both depending on the season.
In 2016 and 2019, DJ LeMahieu showed what he can be at his best with being at the top of the game as an offensive player while also producing very well on defense. The thing to wonder however is if 2020 will be going the way of 2017 where he produced about half as much value, or if he’ll more gradually fall from what looks to be his obvious career-season.
Truly, only time will tell, but I think his playing in the Bronx around a very formidable line-up will help to slow his growth as he has the likes of Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, Gleyber Torres, and Gary Sanchez all who look to be batting right after him.