DJ LeMahieu had a world-class season for the Yankees in 2019. He finished with an exemplary .327/.375/.518 triple-slash, placed second in the American League in average and third in hits, accumulated over 100 RBI and played top-notch defense all over the diamond. Oh, and he was originally supposed to be a super-utility, bench player before the season.
Sure sounds like an MVP candidate, doesn’t it? Not according to the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, who declined to name LeMahieu a finalist for American League MVP, instead choosing Mike Trout, Alex Bregman and Marcus Semien for the honor.
I’m not here to argue any of these players’ merits, and especially not Trout’s or Bregman’s. Choosing Semien over LeMahieu as the third candidate just doesn’t add up though.
Full disclaimer here: LeMahieu was never going to win the award, and Semien has no chance either. This is a two-man race between Trout and Bregman, and honestly, it’s probably Trout’s award to lose. That’s a different debate though.
All year long, media members both local and national spoke and wrote about LeMahieu’s MVP candidacy, and almost universally believed that he would be a nominee for the award. I don’t remember hearing much buzz about Semien. A lot of this is due to the New York media, as compared to more small-market Oakland, but there’s a point to be made here. I’d be willing to bet that a majority of MLB fans nationwide expected LeMahieu to be an MVP finalist, yet here we are.
Let’s compare their numbers. LeMahieu has more hits, a higher average, and more RBI than Semien. Semien has more home runs, runs scored and extra-base hits than LeMahieu. Interestingly, Semien’s WAR (7.6) is two wins higher than LeMahieu’s (5.4), but I honestly cannot figure out why – their numbers are similar across the board.
To the passing eye, it looks like LeMahieu had the better contact numbers and Semien had better power stats. OPS and wRC+ are two of the great equalizers in evaluating hitting talent, and LeMahieu and Semien are just about deadlocked. The players have virtually equal OPS’s (LeMahieu had an .893 OPS, while Semien had an .892 OPS) and wRC+’s (LeMahieu had a 136 wRC+, Semien had a 137 wRC+).
By comparing their stats, it’s clear that Semien had an awesome year – it’s basically equal to LeMahieu’s, which was one of the best Yankees seasons of this decade. Still, I can’t see how Semien is more valuable than LeMahieu, which is what the BBWAA is telling us. The analytics give Semien an advantage in defense, but I’m not so sure about that, either.
First of all, LeMahieu’s defensive stats are skewed because he spent time at three positions in 2019. Semien spent his full season at shortstop, where he saved five runs and made 12 errors. Meanwhile, LeMahieu played first, second and third base, and combined to save seven runs and made only 8 errors. Despite spending much of the season at unfamiliar positions, LeMahieu was still more sure-handed than Semien in the field.
Semien does have a significantly higher UZR, but it’s not like LeMahieu’s range is a negative, either. I can’t speak for Oakland fans on Semien’s defense, but there’s no way that anybody who watched LeMahieu all season can say that he’s only worth 2.8 units above average defensively, which is where FanGraphs valued him at.
At the end of the day, neither LeMahieu nor Semien were going to win this award anyway. However, I can’t figure out what else LeMahieu had to do this year to garner an MVP nomination. He’ll certainly get several votes as a write-in candidate after a fantastic season, but there’s just something off about LeMahieu, one of the the three best players in the American League this season, not making the podium as an MVP candidate.