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  • E.J. Fagan

Managing DJ LeMahieu's Decline

by EJ Fagan

January 2024

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NOTE: The following comes from EJ Fagan's substack page and is shared with permission.


Please check out EJ's substack page for more great articles.

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It hasn’t gone well since DJ LeMahieu signed a 6 year, $90 million contract with the Yankees after the 2020 season. LeMahieu was coming off 3rd and 4th place MVP voting years, so I had no objections to the contract at the time. Even if he started to lose a step, LeMahieu had a lot of room to fall and still be worth his reasonable $15 million salary.


But the decline came faster than expected. LeMahieu hit .258/.345/.375 from 2021-2023. He mostly stayed on the field, playing 150, 125 and 136 games, but was hobbled by nagging injuries. He’s managed to play solid defense and provide roughly average defense during that time, but overall the result has been disappointing.


With the back half of the contract still remaining, we need to ask ourselves what to expect out of LeMahieu. He’s set to play third base in 2024, possibly leading off against lefties.


Let’s take stock. First, here is LeMahieu’s Statcast page. It’s not pretty:



After years of being one of the best contact hitters in baseball, LeMahieu started to strikeout out a ton. His characteristic Gold Glove defense took a hit, although we should note that most of that decline was entirely due to a -3 OAA score at first base and 0 at second. LeMahieu still graded as a strong defender at third base.


So what happened? When LeMahieu made contact, he was pretty much the same hitter as 2021-2022, when he hit .265/.353/.368. The difference was strikeout rate. Here is LeMahieu’s K% since 2021:



There’s not a lot of good to see here. LeMahieu spent much of the 2023 season as a strikeout machine. For about a much-talked-about month in July, he and Sean Casey got his old swing back working. But, like a lot of Yankee hitters, it all fell apart in September. LeMahieu didn’t quite revert back to his first half 25-30% strikeout rate, but was not nearly his old self.


The strikeout rate mirrors his wOBA:


LeMahieu was a very bad hitter in the first half, particularly in June. He hit just .172/.225/.310 in that month, and .220/.385/.357 overall before the All Star Break. After the break, he hit a much stronger .273/.377/.432. LeMahieu was downright awesome from the break until the end of August, hitting .294/.403/.476 from July 14th to August 31st, before a solid but disappointing .245/.343/.372 September.


So what should we expect from LeMahieu in 2024? I’m cautiously optimistic. LeMahieu still has the talent to be a great hitter. Even in 2022, LeMahieu was hitting .290/.394/.428 on August 1st before the Yankees made the baffling decision to keep playing him after the toe injury.


LeMahieu’s sudden rise in strikeouts in 2023 was odd. So odd that I’m willing to attribute it to Dillon Lawson doing something cataclysmically wrong. LeMahieu was very vocal about how much better he was working with Sean Casey. It could also be caused by an injury, but we’ve heard no reporting there so far, unlike the 2021 and 2022 seasons.


However, I want to temper expectations a bit. LeMahieu is never going to be a power hitter again. His 2018-2020 dominance coincided with the juiced ball. He hasn’t hit for significant power before or since, even in Coors Field. If LeMahieu slugs .400, I’d be thrilled.


Furthermore, LeMahieu is officially old. He turns 36 in July. We’re long past the point where you should expect him to play 150 healthy games. The Yankees don’t have a lot of great options at third base other than LeMahieu next year. Cabrera or Peraza are set to back him up right now. It will be tough to find LeMahieu rest days unless one of them starts to hit, but I hope the Yankees do. With Juan Soto, the Yankees don’t need LeMahieu to be their second best hitter. They can afford to play without him twice a week.


I think the best case scenario for him is something like his August 2022 performance: .290/.380/.400. Combine that with above average defense at third and LeMahieu could still be an elite player and leadoff hitter. Even if he settles into his 2021-2022 average, something like .270/.350/.370, LeMahieu could finish out his contract in the 2-3 WAR range.

That’s pretty good! Unlike Stanton, LeMahieu’s modest contract allows him to decline a bit and still be worth it. He doesn’t have to anchor a team’s lineup. LeMachine isn’t broken, just a little old and worn.

3 Comments


fuster
Jan 28

at this point, not all that much certainty concerning DJ


more than capable of playing good D at 3B, more than capable of producing a high OBP and providing value


more than likely to benefit from some rest days

...but the rest day thing was mentioned from the onset of his Yankee tenure


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Alan B.
Alan B.
Jan 28

I know what the numbers say. What they tell me he may be only able to play 123 games at a high level rather than in 155 games Afar as last season, his split season. Do I believe being the 1B the last 2 months helped him to say healthier? Yes I do. Do I honestly believe he was really healthy at the start of 2023? Absolutely not! Just look at the piece that Ron Darling did on MLBN's MLB Central show on June 18th. It showed everything I was talking about - taking way to many close pitches, or flailing on the badly because either his foot was not fully healed or, mentally he just never trusted …

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Melfman1
Melfman1
Jan 28

Good article. I thought he looked much more comfortable at the plate in the second half, more like the DJ of old. I don’t think we’ll ever see another .327 season (let alone .367), but .260-.280 would still be a big improvement. Especially if the rumors are true that Boone is considering batting him leadoff to an extent this year.


The good news is that after this year, the team is only on the hook for $30 million over his final 2 years. No buy out or additional option years.


Based on the average cost of WAR per year (around $7.5 million for a player in the 1-2 WAR range), DJ has been worth just a bit over the $45…

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