One of the first things most people notice about DJ LeMahieu is the lack of holes in his game. That’s why LeMahieu has given pitchers headaches all season, and why he currently owns a team-leading .316 batting average. LeMahieu also has the lowest strikeout rate on the team. Only Gio Urshela makes less soft contact on batted balls and only Cameron Maybin hits the ball the other way more frequently. The bottom line is, LeMahieu hits the ball frequently, hits the ball hard, and sprays it all over the yard. That poses the question opposing pitchers have had to ask constantly this year: how do you get this guy out?
So far this season, opposing teams have approached LeMahieu with a strategy to pound him inside with lefties and get him to chase low and away with righties.
He’s batting .365 against lefties and .305 against righties, so neither strategy has given him fits, but righties have had a bit more success. Against righties, LeMahieu hits the ball the other way 5% more often than he does against lefties and makes more soft contact (6.6% more), reflecting the success some pitchers have had getting him to chase low and away to induce weaker contact.
LeMahieu’s exit velocity is significantly lower when he’s forced to reach low and away against righties and it’s the only zone where he’s really susceptible to swing and miss. His whiff rate vs righties on pitches outside the strike zone low and away is 51%, compared to his overall 14% whiff%. If you’re going to get LeMahieu to swing and miss you better get him to chase, especially if you’re a left-hander. Against left-handed pitchers, LeMahieu only has three misses in the zone all season, all on pitches low and in. Against both lefties and righties, LeMahieu’s making contact on 94.5% of pitches in the zone, even better than his 93% career average.
The key to getting LeMahieu out is getting him to chase for weak contact, and this season he’s more of a free swinger than usual. He’s swinging at 31.6% of pitches outside the strike-zone, which is the most he’s chased since the 2013 season. Interestingly, he’s swinging significantly more at pitches in the zone this season as well, so it seems the Yankees’ plan for LeMahieu is centered around a more aggressive approach. Opponents are counteracting this approach by throwing LeMahieu more breaking balls than ever before.
His .252 xBA against breaking balls is significantly lower than his .312 xBA against fastballs, so the approach is working to an extent, per Statcast. However, LeMahieu posted a .320 xBA on breaking balls in 2017 and .296 in 2016, so it’s hardly a glaring weakness in his offensive profile. It’s entirely possible that his attempt to pull the ball more over the past two seasons has made him a bit more susceptible to breaking balls.
Want some strange advice as a pitcher facing the Yankees second baseman this season? Don’t throw the first two pitches anywhere close. LeMahieu is batting only .167 through 2-0 counts this season. While this isn’t actually good advice, there’s something to be said for LeMahieu’s struggles in hitter’s counts. He’s slugging .200 through 3-1 counts this season, and .692 through 3-2 counts. If LeMahieu can take advantage of better counts in the second half, there’s plenty of room for even more improvement.
The bottom line is that you really have to locate breaking balls low and away or low and in against LeMahieu or he’s going to get good wood on it. Pitchers have tried to do this all season, but if you miss one spot he’s going to put it in play, and often with authority. You can get LeMahieu to chase about as much as the average MLB hitter, but he’s going to connect far more often than not. It’s a matter of inducing weak contact as much as possible and hoping he doesn’t find a hole. With a .346 BABIP so far in 2019, this has been no easy task, and the Yankees have to be thrilled to have a player like that in their lineup.