I’m a finance guy in real life. Most of my job involves assessing the risk of a client or prospect looking for investment, and comparing that against the risk appetite my company tolerates. Naturally, assessing risk has become the lens through which I view baseball too.
This leads me to DJ LeMahieu. He has stabilized the Yankees’ batting order and infield defense, with a sterling glove and a solid 116 wRC+ season. Perhaps most importantly, LeMahieu has played in 30 of the team’s 35 games, giving the Yankees a reliable cog in the lineup while they weather the barrage of injuries.
When the Yankees signed LeMahieu, the question was whether he would be able to adjust coming off two sub-par offensive seasons in Colorado. There wasn’t much financial risk to the deal — even if he flames out, the Yankees are on the hook for just $12 million this year and next. The deal did carry a fair amount of performance risk, though, because the Yankees bet on a change in LeMahieu’s profile. For our sake, we’ll define performance risk as the relative risk of unsustainable, or “streaky” production.
At first glance, this is his first good offensive season since 2016, so that’s good, right? I’m certainly not going to complain about production at the top of the lineup, but I am going to point out that LeMahieu’s production is perhaps not as stable as it could be.
Here’s why I say that. LeMahieu, more than anyone else on the Yankees, relies on running a high batting average on balls in play to be productive. That’s been clear over his whole career, and equally true in 2019:
All players are influenced by their BABIP to certain degrees; despite the panic about Three True Outcome baseball, a ball in play is by far the most likely outcome of any random plate appearance. Still, LeMahieu’s particular reliance on BABIP fuels his risk profile, and indicates that he hasn’t made the changes the Yankees were probably hoping for when they signed him.
LeMahieu’s quality of contact played a big part in why the Yankees wanted him in the first place; he placedin the top quintile in hard hit rate in 2018, which Statcast defines as the percentage of batted balls hit 95 mph or harder. In 2019, his average exit velocity is actually up about a mile per hour, and he’s actually in the top 10% of baseball in hard hit rate. That’s really encouraging!
Again, though, we’re talking about performance risk, or the likelihood that LeMahieu’s performance is stable. He doesn’t make the most encouraging type of contact to suggest that, despite the high quality:
One can see that he is still killing a lot of worms, even as his batted balls are well hit. A hard grounder is just more likely to be converted to an out than a hard fly ball. Exit velocity can help a lot, but in the era of shifts and more efficient defending, LeMahieu is going to be a fairly streaky hitter. So much of his production is tied up in whether or not that groundball snuck through the infield that it’s harder to project his performance than someone like Aaron Judge.
The last bit of performance risk comes in plate discipline:
The 2016 campaign was LeMahieu’s best season; he was legitimately one of the best hitters in baseball with a 130 wRC+. He rode a .388 BABIP that season, a career high, but he also walked almost as often as he struck out, a key element in establishing an offensive floor. He hasn’t come close to that since. Of the 11 players with at least 50 plate appearances for the Yankees this year, LeMahieu’s walk rate ranks eighth.
What this means more than anything else is LeMahieu is dependent on his batted balls finding space in the field. Unfortunately he’s not particularly fast either, meaning he’s reliant on “true” base hits and less on simply putting the ball in play and busting down the line.
There have been really positive takeaways from LeMahieu’s first month in the Bronx. His defense yields a highlight pretty well every game, and his bat has done a lot to boost a lineup that’s been full of as many Triple-A hitters as MLB hitters. That bat just carries an awful lot of performance risk, and it shouldn’t surprise us if we see some nasty cold stretches from LeMahieu when those batted balls fail to drop in.