How the Yankees can get the most out of DJ LeMahieu in 2023

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The Yankees have a few position battles worth following this upcoming season, and with all the chatter around the young guys, DJ LeMahieu has slipped through the cracks.

LeMahieu is a key contributor on this team, and assuming he’s healthy, he should see the field as much as possible. He will be turning 35 during the 2023 season, but if the team properly manages him, he can carve out a huge role. There’s no denying his importance in both the field and batter’s box, and if we have learned anything about DJ, he’s going to get back on track.

DJ LeMahieu had unrealistic expectations following the COVID season:

Let’s take the 2021 season to start. Coming into ’21, everyone had unreasonably high expectations for DJ, in part because of his 2020 season that was otherworldly but also because it seemed as if the Yankees had tapped into something that DJ hadn’t been able to do before.

However, if you were to look at LeMahieu’s batted-ball profile on BaseballSavant, one would see that DJ’s 2020 season is the biggest anomaly of them all. For starters, he didn’t elevate the ball virtually whatsoever, as his 2.3-degree Launch Angle indicates. He also found the Sweet Spot on the bat less than he ever had before, with a 29.7% Sweet Spot %. Additionally, his xSLG was .460, which is a far cry from the .590 SLG he posted that year.

The 2020 shortened season felt like nothing more than a fever dream at times, and because of all the contributing circumstances, many don’t even count it as a “real” season. His 177 wRC+ and 1.010 OPS were never going to be repeatable, but his 2019 line of .327/.375/.518 seemed like it could be within reach for someone with his skill set.

That season he posted a 136 wRC+ en route to a 5.8 fWAR season, which saw him get paid by the organization. DJ clearly has the abilities to be an elite hitter still, and if not for a recurring and nagging foot injury over the last two years, he likely would have four-consecutive .300+ batting seasons.

His patience and discipline make him who he is, but the second half of ’22, he was clearly hurt:

I’m not one to flaunt Batting Average around, but when DJ’s batted-ball profile and swing tendencies look as great as they do, it’s a very telling stat. He chases very few bad pitches, as his 24% Chase Rate since joining NYY would indicate, and when he does, he still makes contact 74% of the time on pitches that he’s chasing. His Swinging Strike % is a miniscule 5.2% since arriving in New York, and that is weighed down by the 6.6% clip he posted in his breakout ’19 campaign. Other players that post a sub-5% SwSt% are the likes of Steven Kwan, Luis Arraez, IKF, and Myles Straw. None of those guys have any real pop in their bat, which is what makes DJ so much more valuable as a contact hitter than them.

LeMahieu’s 2021 season was a lost cause, as because of injury, he was unable to get that same oomph in his swing like he had the two years before. An excruciatingly painful sports hernia had been making life difficult for the sure-fire infielder, and in 2022, as we all know, a right toe injury ended his season just as it was heating up. DJ was on pace to garner MVP votes for his ’22 campaign, as before August, he was putting up elite numbers across the board:

2022 thru 7/312022 after 8/1
BB/K Ratio1.080.60
Contact %88.0%85.7%
DJ’s 2022 season splits, courtesy of Fangraphs

As you can see, it was a complete flip of the switch for DJ when he was forced to play through the toe injury. The final portion of the season was a complete lost cause, and though his Contact % didn’t dip drastically, every other statistic did. He lost the power and speed he was able to showcase at the plate, and his defense was also slightly impacted. If not for the injury, I would feel extremely confident in saying that LeMahieu would’ve been the team’s second-best player — not counting pitchers. His HH% fell off a cliff, and the elite patience he was showing at the plate (with an astounding 1.08 BB/K Ratio) was almost halved. This upcoming year should see the return of DJ, with health on his side.

DJ’s role seems obvious, but let’s give JD his flower(s)

Now, figuring out a role for DJ seems far easier than it really may be. Assuming he is healthy come Spring Training, I would 100% give him the reins to third base, and I’d make sure that he sees time at both 2B and 1B to give Rizzo some off-days this upcoming season. Sadly, as of this current moment, Josh Donaldson still holds a roster spot and has been talked about as if he is a Knight in shining armor. However, Donaldson’s only saving grace was his work defensively on the hot corner, and unfortunately for him, that’s where DJ showed out.

LeMahieu posted 8 DRS to pair with 4 OAA over his 385.2 innings at 3B this season. He was electric and seemed to have found his home in the infield. His defense took a big step forward, and if not for his injury, I remain convinced that he could’ve easily taken over full-time duties at third.

Donaldson posted 8 DRS of his own to go with 7 OAA at third but did so in 902.2 innings there defensively. DJ was better at every facet of the game offensively than JD, and even with less than half of the time accumulated at the hot corner, was practically just as effective. DJ should be the team’s Opening Day third baseman, no if’s-and’s-or-but’s about it, thus caving the path for the kids in the middle infield.

I remain one that believes Torres will be dealt this offseason, though I still believe he shouldn’t just be dumped somewhere. Gleyber is a very solid 2B who just had his best defensive season to date, and I wouldn’t be so quick to dump him — especially considering Volpe just got promoted to AAA at the very end of last season. If Gleyber is to stay, DJ should still see some time at 2B, but his job he did at 3B defensively leads me to believe that that’s where the organization wants him to play primarily.

DJ will be a key contributor for this team’s success next season, and hopefully, he is given every chance to play. He isn’t one of the young guys that should be rotating in, and we saw how dominant he is when healthy. During the first half of ’22, DJ posted a better BB% (13.6%) than he did K% (12.6%), indicating that he was seeing the ball exceptionally well. To doubt DJ is to doubt death, to doubt taxes, to doubt life itself… look for LeMachine to bounce back and silence the critics.

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