A Look at D.J. LeMahieu’s Improvements With the Yankees and What That Might Mean for His Future Performance
by Chris O’Connor
November 24, 2020
D.J. LeMahieu was signed by the Yankees to a 2-year, $24 million contract after the 2018 season. It was mostly looked at as a depth move. At the time many fans frustrated were with the team’s lack of pursuit of a young available superstar such as Manny Machado or Bryce Harper.
To that point in his career, D.J. LeMahieu was a slightly above average player. Though he won a batting title in 2016, people generally looked at his home/road splits and saw a player who would fade once he left the hitter-friendly confines of Coors Field in Colorado. Even the Yankees did not seem to have really high expectations for LeMahieu – on Opening Day in 2019, Gleyber Torres got the start at second and Troy Tulowitzki (remember him?) was the starting shortstop.
Of course, Yankees fans know what happened next. LeMahieu exploded out of the gate with the Yankees, finishing with back-to-back Top-4 MVP finishes in his two years with the team. He earned the nickname “The Machine.”
I decided to see if his improvements at the plate been fluky or do they look sustainable moving forward? Let’s take a look at the stats:
One of my favorite ways to evaluate a hitter and determine whether or not his success is sustainable is plate discipline. Plate discipline has proven to be very sustainable from season to season and the ability to control the strike zone, work counts, and get on base is so revealing in my eyes of who is a great hitter and who may have just gotten lucky.
D.J. LeMahieu’s strikeout rate has decreased from 14.1% in his final year in Colorado to 13.7% in 2019 to 9.7% in 2020. At the same time, his walk rate has increased from 6.4% to 7.0% to 8.3%. This is obviously great news for his future – he is striking out less and walking more, which shows his improved plate discipline. How is he doing this? Simply put, he has been swinging a lot more since coming to the Yankees. His swing rate steadied at around 41% throughout his time in Colorado. In his two seasons with the Yankees it has been around 45%, so he is clearly adopting a more aggressive approach. The amazing thing here is despite swinging more, he is still walking more often. His improved selective discipline at the plate is very impressive and bodes well for his future performance.
While LeMahieu’s knowledge of the strike zone has been demonstrated in his time with the Yankees, his actual quality of contact paints an interesting picture. His exit velocity has stayed consistent from his time in Colorado but his hard hit percentage has increased from 41.4% and 43.2% in 2017 and 2018 to 48.5% and 45.7% with the Yankees. This is a good increase but not necessarily the amount one would expect from a guy who has made such significant improvements in his batting line during that time.
Similarly, LeMahieu’s expected batting average (based on quality of contact) has not really changed much from his time with the Rockies.
Where I think his improvements really lie is how much more often he goes to the opposite field. His opposite field percentage has increased from nearly 29% in 2018 to 33.7% in 2019 and over 43% in 2020. Some guys are just such great hitters that by using the whole field and finding holes in the defense, they can continue to outperform their expected stats. Tony Gwynn is the first name that comes to mind in this regard. Many of these statistics are used to determine if a hitter was getting lucky, but I really think it is a skill for the best contact hitters to find holes in the defense. In today’s era of lower batting averages (due to factors such as higher velocity pitching, shifting, improved defenses, focus on home runs with no regard for strikeouts) having the ability to use the whole field is incredibly valuable since pitchers can’t pitch to a certain spot and defenses can not shift to favorable locations.
The one thing I worry about with D.J. LeMahieu is despite the fact that his improvements do not seem fluky, I always wonder how long a guy who was only slightly above average for many years can continue to sustain MVP-caliber play (like Ryan Tannehil of the Tennessee Titans).
LeMahieu is 32 years old and will turn 33 next July. He thus would seem to be just past his physical prime and though his smarts at the plate will not go away, his quick hands might slow down over time. I do think that LeMahieu can continue to outperform his expected batted ball profile because I think that a select few great hitters simply have that ability. However, because his improvements were so drastic without much significant change in his batted ball profile, it would be reasonable to expect his slash line to fall a bit in the future. Steamer projects a .293/.351/.448 line for LeMahieu in 2021, and I think that sounds about right.
But are those numbers that worth the $20 million a year for the next 4 or 5 years that LeMahieu will receive in the open market? It will certainly be if he can maintain his 2019 and 2020 production. If not, and with many guys due for extensions in the coming few years, the Yankees might need to make some tough decisions.
*All stats courtesy of Fangraphs and Baseball Savant