Determining the Most Valuable Player on the Yankees’ roster may not be an easy task, given the fantastic season that Gleyber Torres had and the impressive numbers that Aaron Judge put up despite missing many games.
On the pitching side, James Paxton and Masahiro Tanaka each surpassed 3.0 fWAR and Domingo German started the season on fire. However, nobody had the consistently great performance of one of most underrated and off-the-radar offseason acquisitions in the big leagues: DJ LeMahieu.
Initially seen as a jack-of-all-trades infield acquisition whose role and position weren’t set in stone, the former Colorado Rockie ended up being a fantastic addition to an already formidable lineup.
The team’s WAR leader
LeMahieu’s 5.4 fWAR led the team by a sizable margin over Judge’s 4.6 and Torres’ 3.6 marks. His contributions on offense (29.2 batting runs) were considerable, and he was also a positive with the glove (2.8 fielding runs) despite the image he may have projected in the American League Championship Series, most specifically in Game Four.
LeMahieu’s at-bat against Astros closer Roberto Osuna is the perfect definition of him as a batter: an incredibly tough out who can lay off the garbage and foul off non-ideal offerings in the zone in his quest for the perfect pitch to drive. Against Houston’s most effective reliever in the biggest of spots, he saw ten pitches and hit a 3-2 fastball to the right field seats for a game-tying home run in the top of the ninth.
While he and the Yankees didn’t achieve the ultimate goal, his regular season was something to behold. LeMahieu’s 136 wRC+ was the 21st best mark in the big leagues and the second in the team after Aaron Judge’s 141. The outfielder, by the way, would be in serious consideration for the Yankees’ MVP recognition had he not lost a sizable portion of the year because of injury. He did, and therefore, the distinction goes to LeMahieu.
The talented LeMahieu was ranked 16th in strikeout percentage among 135 qualifiers with a sterling 13.7 mark, per FanGraphs data. His contact percentage was an impressive 85.5%, the 14th best mark in the bigs. His swinging strike percentage (SwStrk%) was a minuscule 6.6, the tenth lowest number among qualifiers.
Hitting the ball hard and to all fields
DJ LeMahieu is a unique hitter that is equally adept at pulling the ball (which he did at a 27.9 rate) or going the other way (33.7 percent). However, the majority of his connections were to the center of the field (38.5 percent). In other words, he uses all fields, which makes him virtually impossible to shift against. In fact, he wasn’t shifted on in the year, not once.
His contact-oriented approach fits nicely with the Yankees’ power-heavy lineup, and the best part of it all was that he added some home runs himself. He hit a total of 26, the fifth-highest in the team, surpassing his career-high of 15 set last year. Of course, the “juiced” ball may have had a role in the surge, but he also hit the ball hard. Very hard.
According to the always handy Statcast data, DJ LeMahieu was in the 92nd percentile in average exit velocity (91.7 MPH), 90th percentile in hard-hit rate (47.2), 91st percentile in xwOBA (.377), 88th percentile in xSLG (.507), and led the league in xBA (.318). In other words, he tore the cover off the ball like never before.
His hitting prowess was evident in the American League’s batting title race, in which he finished second behind Tim Anderson with a .327 average. His 197 hits were only bested by Whit Merrifield (206) and Rafael Devers (201) in the majors.
One of the most impressive feats of LeMahieu’s season was his effectiveness against all types of pitches. He was equally good against fastballs (.324 xBA and .498 xSLG), breaking balls (.302 xBA and .510 xSLG), and offspeed offerings (.345 xBA and .544 xSLG).
The Yankees were fortunate enough to witness Torres’ rise to stardom, hitting 38 homers and pacing the team in several offensive categories. They also had Judge’s power bat and excellent defense in right field. However, neither of them was the consistently excellent offensive force that LeMahieu was, and the numbers back that up. He led the ball club with his 29.2 batting runs, surpassing Judge’s 23.7 and Torres’ 18.7, and he also bested the latter in defensive contributions.
Truth be told, Torres and Judge are positioned to be the best candidates for the Yankees’ MVP distinction in the next few years. However, 2019 belonged to DJ LeMahieu, and his overall excellence was driven by his elite bat.