When DJ LeMahieu signed a two-year deal worth $24,000,000 at the beginning of 2019 with the New York Yankees, there was a strong belief that the Yankees were set in the IF, and that DJ LeMahieu was more of an unnecessary utility signing than anything else. Especially coming at 12MM annually, people were wondering if DJ was worth his price tag.
Before last year, DJ was a solid player with the Rockies, but nowhere near the player, he became last season. The 2019 season LeMahieu was unstoppable for the New York Yankees and by far the most consistent player. He’s consistently great performances earned him a place on the 2019 All-MLB first team. DJ was praised by Boone and his teammates for his work ethic and devotion to getting better, as well as being a team-first guy.
DJ LeMahieu made a living off of being able to make excellent contact, and pair that with solid defense as well. From the years 2015-2018 with the Rockies, LeMahieu had built quite the resume before joining the Yankees. He accumulated 10.4 fWAR over those seasons (AVG of 2.6 per), and never batted below .275. His K% was one of the best in all of baseball, as aside from 2015, he never struck out more than 14% of the time — for comparison, fellow contact-driven 2B, and the once extraordinarily elite, Jose Altuve across that same span (’16-’18), was barely higher at roughly 12.5%. With DJ, everyone knew what was expected from him, each year. The expectations were high-end contact, low launch angles and lack of power, and not a ton of speed to pair with that either. He was a one or two tool player, where he was able to hit for average and play solid defense. Not to say people didn’t view DJ as a good baseball player, as he was, but nobody saw his 2019 level of production coming. His 2019 season would shatter the idea that DJ was just a “good” baseball player, as he improved in virtually every single category.
The Leadoff Machine
DJ LeMahieu’s role and having him bat leadoff almost exclusively played a massive part in the Yankees’ success this last year. While his bat was more than impactful, as he ended up OPS’ing .893, what made DJ so valuable was that he didn’t swing at bad pitches, and he excelled at getting on base and setting the table. Of his 539 AB’s when batting leadoff, DJ was able to tally 175 Hits, 98 Runs, and also posted a 2 to 1 K/BB ratio (83 K’s to 41 BB’s). While the baseline and traditional stats are starting to become things of the past, DJ LeMahieu is starting to adapt and prove he’s not just a traditionally good baseball player, but now that he is one that the numbers back up as well.
For the longest time, RBI’s and Runs were thought to be some of the most crucial marks to what makes a player great. New York Yankee legends Mark Teixeira, Jason Giambi, and Alex Rodriguez — to name a few — were all players that were consistently expected to produce 100+ Run and RBI seasons, in their sleep. For DJ LeMahieu, the thought of ever putting together a 100+ Run AND RBI season was blasphemous. He always was able to get on base and cross the plate (85 Runs per season since 2015), but the RBI’s never came for him, despite being on a talented Rockies team (never accounted for more than 70). With that being said, DJ being able to cross the plate 100 times and account for another 100 off his bat isn’t what makes him a good baseball player. In the traditional sense, as DJ had thrived on for his entire career, it did.
The thought of having a 100 R / 100 RBI talent back in the mid-2000s was great. Now, however, there’s far less emphasis on the RBI’s themselves as there is on the numbers behind those RBI’s — advanced metrics, situational hitting instances, LU stacking, and more. If you say DJ LeMahieu and manage to knock in 92 RBI’s from the leadoff spot, that does speak bounds to your ability to get on base and make excellent contact, but it also speaks to how the bottom of the LU was able to get on base as well.
DJ’s numbers behind the scenes
I’m not trying to discredit those that can drive in 100+ of each consistently, as it is a major facet of baseball, and ultimately the goal is to win by scoring more runs. However, when evaluating individual players, using RBI’s and Runs to make-or-break a player is entirely unfair because of how much of a team-oriented stat they both are. With that being said, looking at DJ LeMahieu’s launch angles and exit velocities as well, show that there’s a very high chance he repeats 2020 with both 100+ in each of those two categories. He took a massive leap forward in 2019, and I believe that his improvement across the board with his swing approach and overall batted ball profile, was the main reason for the jump in RBI’s and Runs. When the New York Yankees signed him, it makes one ask if Cashman and the team were on to something, and that they believed they could successfully pull off the ‘Brandon Drury Witch Project’ — were adjusting a player’s launch angle and approach ever-so-slightly would result in a massive improvement across the board — and if that’s the case, boy did it pay off. (info via BaseballSavant):
|YEAR||Launch Angle||Barrel %||Average Exit Velocity||xSLG||Hard Hit %|
As you can see from the table above, 2019 was a career year for LeMahieu. His 2019, and career-high Exit Velocity of 91.7 mph was less than two percent lower than that of renown slugger, Joey Gallo (93.0 mph). The xSLG of .529, another career-high, was higher than fellow teammate and FREAK in the gym, Luke Voit (.528). The point is that while LeMahieu has always been able to hit the ball well, the difference was a few minor tweaks that he had never really shown consistently with the Rockies. His frame never paired with his output, as he stands a sturdy 6’4, weighing 205, making people believe that there was more in the tank in terms of power production. While he showed that he was seemingly entering the prime of his power career before joining the New York Yankees — in 2018 he hit 15 HR across 128 games with COL — everyone had assumed DJ LeMahieu would continue his career as a 15-20 HR high-end potential player. His track record backed that up, and nobody questioned it. For that reason, as well as his age and the fact he played in Coors — which is thought to affect a hitter because of the high-atmosphere — led to him sitting on the market for longer than he would have thought, and falling right into the Yankees’ lap.
The 2019 season saw DJ club a career-high 26 HR’s and pair that with a career-high in doubles as well, at 33. He proved the doubters wrong, with a little bit of help from juiced balls, and a lot of help from an improvement in launch angle, and general hitting and swing mechanics. Words cannot describe how important DJ LeMahieu was to the New York Yankees in 2019, and if he can even put together 80% of his 2019, I’ll be ecstatic with that production. The numbers are all in DJ’s favor, as it seems with his age and experience he is beginning to mature and find his swing and power spark. Pair that with his humble personality and team-first mindset, and he will once again be one of the pieces that hold this team together. His ability to play anywhere in the infield, and play each position well, is what makes him one of the most versatile players in the league. DJ will likely see reps next season at first, second, and third base — and even more likely that he continues his dominant 2019 year.
Look for DJ to come out firing on all cylinders come 2020, and further reinstate his deserving place on the All-MLB team.