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The once and future DJ LeMahieu

Why might the Yankees feel some optimism about their newest infielder?

DJ LeMahieu of the Colorado Rockies hits a double in the first inning against the Chicago Cubs during the National League Wild Card Game at Wrigley Field on October 2, 2018. Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

My immediate reaction to the DJ LeMahieu signing was less than positive. I still don’t get the idea of paying someone $24 million for one good season and a bunch of nothing, especially when there were much better options available. But with the hindsight of 48 hours, I thought about re-evaluating my take a little. LeMahieu might be overpaid relative to past performance, but what about his future?

That’s every batted ball LeMahieu hit last year, superimposed over Yankee Stadium. That’s relatively interesting, but for a moment I want to disregard hit type. The difference between a double and a triple often has more to do with the fielders and the ballpark than the hitter, so let’s just look at batted ball types, again from 2018:

And from 2017:

Now THIS is interesting. LeMahieu has become the latest in a long line of players who have focused on hitting balls hard, and in the air.

He has always been a guy that makes good contact, staying over 41% in hard hit rate every year for which we have Statcast data. That ranks him in the top quarter of all of baseball. He’s also always been a guy that’s hit the ball on the ground, consistently ranking in the lower ten percent of baseball in average launch angle. This means he’s heavily dependent on batted ball luck; and indeed his only above-average season at the plate so far saw him post a ludicrous .388 BABIP.

For proof:

Again, look at this most recent season. It’s the first time that BABIP doesn’t actually track wOBA, as the former decreases at a greater rate than the latter. That’s the value of getting the ball in the air.

We saw this a lot with the 2018 NL MVP Christian Yelich. Coming into last year, Yelich was a guy who hit the ball hard but on the ground too much to fully live up to his potential. Then, he was able to get the ball off the ground more, and the results were obvious:

DJ’s kind of like this. His groundball rate has fallen three consecutive years, and in 2018, he was able to delay his decline to some extent by being more productive with each ball in play:

He’s still getting worse, but you can start to see between the distribution of ground balls and the way he hits that there might be something of real interest here.

Going to right field is obviously a big plus as well. The Yankees have happened upon one right-handed hitter with power the other way in the form of Luke Voit:

That black X marks when Voit became an every day player for the Yankees, and from then on his overall production tracks his ability to go to right field almost perfectly. You can see the above plot, those first two ones of LeMahieu overlaid with YSIII, and it’s certainly possible that he’s on the verge of a similar kind of breakout.

It’s more common than ever for players to make significant, analytics-driven changes to their games. Yelich, Justin Turner, J.D. Martinez and Josh Donaldson, among others, all went from various levels of average-to-worse to MVP-caliber hitters by changing their swings, lifting the ball in the air and worrying less about quantity of contact, and more about quality.

On the Yankees, they have three of these guys in Aaron Hicks, Didi Gregorius and Aaron Judge. All three have become fly ball hitters, relying on uppercut swings to loft the ball and do damage in the small ballparks of the AL East. If LeMahieu is going to turn his career around, there are worse voices in the clubhouse for him to lean on.

Overall, I’m still skeptical LeMahieu gets much better. There aren’t many players who actually improve once they leave Coors Field, and there are also few players who become notably better in their 30s. The reason why someone like Justin Turner is so remarkable is because he bucks the trend of decline, he’s the outlier. Time will tell if LeMahieu is too, but at least you can squint to see some potential that getting the ball off the ground could unlock.