It is safe to say that DJ LeMahieu has exceeded all expectations that were set before the season about his performance. While he was a highly-regarded contact hitter with a versatile glove, even the Yankees are (pleasantly) surprised by the infielder’s overall offensive prowess. He started the season without a clear path to consistent playing time, and now, several months later, DJ LeMahieu is the team leader in WAR, by a comfortable margin, with a career-high 4.8.
So, what changed for a player that used to put up good, but not great offensive outputs in the past? His previous personal best in wRC+ was 130 (in 2016,) and it was the only time he finished above 100 (that being the cutoff for above or below average.) And while that 130 figure was impressive, it was mostly fueled by a .348 batting average. He had modest power (11 home runs and .148 of isolated power,) to put it mildly.
Now, the infielder has turned into quite the offensive weapon in his first season with the Bronx Bombers. His triple-slash line is currently at a very impressive .332/.380/.534, he has surpassed his career-high in homers (15, in 2018) with 24 so far, and there is still nearly a month left of the regular season. His wRC+ is standing at a shiny 139.
Basically, LeMahieu has understood that in order to be successful in this era, lifting the ball a little more would be beneficial for him. Per data from Statcast, he has been incrementing his launch angle, little by little, starting in 2017.
Here are his numbers in that particular department since 2017:
2017: 2.8 degrees
2018: 5.7 degrees
2019: 7.0 degrees
Now, to the purpose of the article: DJ LeMahieu could inflict even more damage if he were to increase his launch angle even further. While achieving an improvement from 2.8 to 7.0 degrees in a span of two years is quite the accomplishment (no, it is not as easy as it looks,) DJLM is still hitting tons of balls on the ground.
In fact, before Tuesday’s game, he has hit 1.81 grounders for every fly ball, with 49.2 percent of his batted balls going in the dirt. He has a fly ball percentage of 27.2 while hitting liners at a 23.6 rate.
This is a hypothetical exercise. DJ LeMahieu is a successful major leaguer and a highly dangerous batter while hitting almost half of his batted balls on the ground. But isn’t it fun to imagine the type of hitter he could, theoretically, be if his average launch angle were to increase just a little bit?
LeMahieu is the type of hitter that could achieve incredible numbers if that was the case because, in 2019, he is punishing the ball.
The infielder is currently in the league’s 92nd percentile when it comes to average exit velocity (91.8 MPH,) 92nd percentile in hard-hit rate (47.7 percent,) 90th percentile in xwOBA (.379,) 99th percentile in xBA (.318,) and 88th percentile in xSLG (.511.)
Consider this, as well: on grounders, LeMahieu is hitting for a .300 average with no home runs (obviously, he can’t hit the ball out of the park if he doesn’t elevate it and no, he doesn’t have any inside-the-park homers,) .350 with 22 round-trippers on fly balls, and .631 with two taters on line-drives.
Those numbers on liners and flies are mind-boggling. Of course, liners are harder to field than fly balls (they include pop-ups, which are pretty much guaranteed outs) and that’s why they have such a high expected batting average.
As the batting average and the power numbers indicate, LeMahieu’s line could look even sexier than it does now if he didn’t hit so many worm-killers. However, it is much easier to write it than to actually do it, and maybe LeMahieu would lose his timing and balance if he tried to tinker with what’s working.
Swing change or not, there is no denying that DJ LeMahieu has been, by a significant margin, the best overall player for the New York Yankees in 2019. However, isn’t it fun to imagine him mashing with a higher average launch angle?