By Chris O’Connor
June 18, 2022
It is no secret that the Yankees have gotten off to a blistering start this season: at 48-16. At the time I wrote this, they were off to their best 60-game start since 1998 (when they were 46-14) and they had the American League’s best record by 7.5 games. With the dominance of the pitching staff, the blistering start by Aaron Judge, the power resurgence of Gleyber Torres, and surprising contributions from the likes of Jose Trevino and Matt Carpenter, not much has gone wrong for the Yankees in 2022.
One name that has flown under the radar: D.J. LeMahieu. Despite struggling throughout the first year of a six-year, $90 million deal that was signed ahead of the 2021 season, I have hardly heard any LeMahieu talk at all over the course of this season. Has he bounced back? Let’s take a look.
On the whole, LeMahieu has actually been much better than I thought: he has played in 51 of 60 games and ranks third on the Yankees (and 37th among all position-players) with 1.6 fWAR. On the surface, his production is remarkably similar to last season. His walk rate and strikeout rates are 10.6% and 13.8%, respectively; last season those numbers were 10.8% and 13.8%. He is currently slashing .262/.349/.403; last year it was .268/.349/.362.
The key difference, however, is his performance relative to the rest of the league. Offense is down this season, so despite the similar slash lines, his WRC+ of 120 is well ahead of last year’s 100. His various plate discipline metrics (chase rate, contact rate, swing rate, etc.) are mostly unchanged from last year, as is his batted ball profile (similar groundball-flyball ratio and launch angle) and hard hit rates. It is actually pretty remarkable how similar D.J. LeMahieu has hit compared to last season, but again, because league wide offense is down across the board, the production that he has provided becomes more valuable.
From a defensive standpoint, LeMahieu’s versatility provides incredible value for a Yankees team that prioritizes the occasional rest day and has five infielders for four spots. He has started six games at 1st base, fourteen at 2nd base, and 25 at 3rd base. Defensive versatility is one thing, but the ability to play all of those positions well is a different story. And while defensive metrics are not particularly reliable in small samples, they are universal in their praise for D.J.’s defense this season. He has 1 defensive run saved in 48 innings at 1st base after having 0 in 321 innings last season; he has 1 DRS in 130 innings at 2nd after having -2 in 663 innings last season; and he has 4 DRS in 225 innings at 3rd after having -1 in 299 innings last season. His Outs Above Average are improved at the three positions over last year as well; on the whole, he ranks in the 93rd percentile in OAA after ranking in the 63rd percentile last year.
While his production is not quite at the MVP-level that it was when he slashed .336/.386/.536 with 36 homers in 195 games across 2019-2020, he is not actually being paid like an MVP. His average annual value on his six-year deal is $15 million. According to Fangraphs, teams paid about $8.5 million for 1.0 fWAR in free agency last season; across the last five seasons, the average is about $8.1 millon. D.J. LeMahieu is on pace for 4.3 fWAR this season; using that $8.1 million average, if he keeps up his current production, he would be worth about $34.8 million this season. Even last season, when he really struggled to meet expectations, he was worth 2.0 fWAR; that would equate to about $16.2 million in total value. The Yankees structured his contract so that it has a relatively low AAV, but the tradeoff is that they had to sign him through his age-37 season. The Yankees structured Aaron Hicks’ contract in a similar way, but unlike Hicks, LeMahieu has been very durable over his career; he has played in at least 145 games in all but one year since 2013 (excluding the pandemic-shortened 2020).
While the MVP-level 2019-2020 may have been unsustainable, D.J. LeMahieu brings versatility to the defense, a contact-hitting, above-average bat that diversifies the lineup approach, and underrated (or underappreciated) durability to a team that has struggled with injuries in recent years. His game-tying, two-run homer in the ninth inning of Game 6 of the 2019 ALCS gets overlooked because of what happened next, but he has consistently come through in big moments since joining the Yankees. I can’t wait to see what other magic LeMahieu can conjure up in 2022 and beyond.