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If It’s Only Going To Be D.J., Then It Should Be No to D.J.

by Paul Semendinger

December 15, 2020


(Note – This post grew out of a discussion I was having in the comments section a few days ago. I decided that my thoughts needed to be developed further.)

There was a time when the Yankees (for good or bad – and that’s not the discussion point here) were willing to seemingly invest whatever was necessary to build the best team possible each season. The ultimate goal was winning. Each year the Yankees were big players in almost every big name free agent. They were also willing partners in big trade deals. Fans heard nothing about luxury caps, tight budgets, and the like. The only message the fans heard from the organization was that the goal was to win World Championships. Period.

Did the Yankees win every year in those days? No. Certainly not. But it was clear that the goal of the Yankees was to win, as often as they could. And always.

For good, or for bad, those days are gone now. Fans now hear about the budget and about financial losses. For years and years and years a main talking point from the organization was getting under the luxury tax. We can debate that approach another day. That’s not the point of this article, except to say that the Yankees’ days of big spending, of seemingly spending whatever it takes to win, are over. It is also clear that that is certainly not the approach the Yankees are public taking to this off-season.

What the Yankees are saying this year is that they have one main target – D.J. LeMahieu and that if they re-sign him, that will be the big move they make this off-season. It’s D.J. and only D.J.

If that is the case, if the Yankees are going all-in on D.J. LeMahieu at the expense of any other big deals – at the expense of addressing the needs for starting pitching, relief pitching, and finding a way to better balance the lineup, then they should let D.J. LeMahieu walk. If D.J. LeMahieu’s signing is going to break the bank, bringing him back will not be worth it.

If it’s only going to be D.J., then it should be no to D.J.

D.J. LeMahieu is a very good player. Even more, he is an excellent player. He’s been a great Yankee for two seasons. There is nothing not to like and appreciate about D.J. LeMahieu’s performance as a Yankee. It’s been great fun watching him. This is not a post that say that D.J. LeMahieu hasn’t been great. He has. But, he is not a top-of-the-market free agent superstar player. And, from all indications, D.J. LeMahieu wants superstar money and superstar years.

This is why I have said from the start that the Yankees should not re-sign him.

D.J. LeMahieu is coming off his two best years. The Yankees got the best he has to give. He’s been great. It’s been a joy watching him. But the Yankees already got the best he has to offer. In looking at his career totals, there is no reason, other than hope, to expect that he will continue to produce at the elite level he has given the Yankees the last two seasons. That player isn’t the player D.J. LeMahieu was throughout his career prior to coming to the Bronx.

What also has to be taken into account is the fact that LeMahieu, as great as he has been, has not even been great for two full seasons. He played a full season in 2019, but in 2020, he only played in 50 games (or 30.8% of a regular season). D.J. LeMahieu has been great, but he’s only been great for about a season and a third. It has not even been two full years. It’s been 1.3 years.

The season before he came to the Yankees, D.J. LeMahieu was a solid, but not spectacular, player for Colorado. That season, 2018, he set his career high in home runs for a season with… 15. That was only the second time in his career that he hit over ten homers in a season. (Once before, in 2016, he hit eleven home runs.)

Then D.J. came to the Yankees and hit 26 home runs in 2019. He was on pace for that many, and more, in 2020. These last two season, he was hitting for more power than he ever did before. Can the Yankees expect that he is this type of a power hitter going forward, or should they expect a regression to the mean – to his career norms accumulated not over 1.3 seasons, but over the previous five seasons? Which is more likely?

Leaving home runs aside, let’s look at batting average. It is in this area that LeMahieu has really stood out as a Yankee. Again, he has performed well above and beyond his career norms. When D.J. LeMahieu batted .364 in 2020, that represented the highest batting average he ever totaled for a season. We just saw the best he has ever produced. Is it likely that he will continue to hit at that rate going forward? Or is it more likely that he regresses back to his (very good, but not superstar level) career norms? The answer is, of course, obvious.

The season before he came to the Yankees, D.J. LeMahieu hit a whopping .276.

Let me ask the obvious question. If D.J. LeMahieu bats exactly as he did in 2018 (.276 with 15 home runs) is that the type of player who is worth the kind of money he is asking for? Again, the answer is obvious. It’s a clear no. It’s abundantly clear – absolutely not.

We can look at all of D.J. LeMahieu’s career numbers this way.

Before coming to the Yankees, LeMahieu had an On-Base Percentage of .375 or better in a season only once.

As a Yankee, LeMahieu has had a Slugging Percentage over .500 both seasons. That’s great! How many times did he slug over .500 for the Rockies? Never.

We know, over the history of the game, and after watching thousands of players ourselves, that over time players regress to their career norms. The Yankees got superstar-type performance out of D.J. LeMahieu in 2019 and 2020. That’s great. He has been great. They should not, and cannot, expect that type of performance to continue. To expect a player to continually outperform his career norms is a fool’s errand.

This is especially true because D.J. LeMahieu is at the age when players begin to decline. He’s at that exact point. He will turn 33 in the summer. If the Yankees sign LeMahieu for four years, they will be paying for his declining years. This is readily apparent.

In addition, I did a study of the best second basemen over the last fifty years to see how they aged. The majority hit the wall right about the age LeMahieu is now. (Even ones like Joe Morgan who just won MVPs.) To be worth the huge expenditure (especially at the expense of any other improvements) DJ LeMahieu would have to continue to play at a rate well beyond his own career norms and the performances of other great players at his position. That’s just not likely or logical to expect.

A second study also showed that even elite defenders at second base did not maintain that level of great play through their mid-30’s.

None of this is to say that LeMahieu isn’t a very good player. He is. Is he worth all of the money the Yankees look to invest in building their team for 2021? No. Absolutely not. The Yankees have far too many needs to go all-in on D.J. LeMahieu at the expense of addressing any of the other areas that need attention.

There is an argument that if LeMahieu does not age well at second base, that he can shift from second base to first base in the last years of the contract. This is also poor thinking. If he is signed, the Yankees should be paying LeMahieu with the expectation that he’d be an elite second baseman, not an aging first baseman. Further, the fact is, D.J. LeMahieu does not hit with enough power to be a viable first baseman. Nor will his defense be that amazing over there. The only second baseman I know, in history, who transferred to first base in his 30s was Rod Carew who went from a +dWAR player at second to a -dWAR player at first. The Yankees should not be investing their resources in D.J. LeMahieu if they do not he can be an elite second baseman over the entirety of his contract.

Outside of all of the above, a contract for D.J. LeMahieu will force the Yankees to keep Gleyber Torres at shortstop (rather than second base) which also hurts the team in the long and short term. Keeping Torres at shortstop prevents the Yankees from being players in the Francisco Lindor sweepstakes – or the sweepstakes of any of the star shortstops who will be free agents at the end of the 2021 season. By retaining D.J. LeMahieu, the Yankees have to play their youngest star at a position where he will provide the team with less value.

In addition, I believe it is abundantly clear that over the next four (or five) years that Francisco Lindor (as an example, but there are other shortstops who should be available) will out perform D.J. LeMahieu. Having a very good shortstop teaming with Gleyber Torres at second base will be a whole lot more valuable to the Yankees than having D.J. LeMahieu at second base and Torres at short. That also seems abundantly clear.

Re-signing D.J. LeMahieu is short-sighted. It’s an emotional move. This is the exact type of move that teams should not make. Or, said more clearly, this is the exact type of move that teams operating on a tight budget should not make. If they sign him, the Yankees will be paying the 2021-2024 (or 2025) D.J. LeMahieu for his 2019 and 2020 performance. That just does not make good business sense. He will not be that player going forward.

Baseball-Reference projects LeMahieu to bat .297 in 2021. They are projecting 20 home runs from him with a triple slash of .352/.475/.827. Is that the elite performance the Yankees will be paying for?

D.J. LeMahieu was a great Yankee. He projects to be a very good player going forward. He does not project to be elite. In order to be worth the contract he is hoping for, he would need to be elite.

It’s time for the Yankees to thanks D.J. LeMahieu for his great work and to invest the money they have in addressing the other necessary areas of the roster. If he were part of the solution for 2021 and beyond, it could be worth bringing D.J. LeMahieu back. If he is the only solution for 2021 and beyond, it’s just not a good investment of the Yankees’ limited resources. Teams working on a tight budget simply should not invest in a second baseman going into and through his declining years.


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