It was a confusing time when the Yankees signed DJ LeMahieu to a two-year, $24 million contract in January 2019 despite a lack of a definitive path to playing time. In fact, I remember preferring at the time the Yankees to spend the money on Jed Lowrie, who went to the Mets for two years and $20 million.
Decisions like this are a good reminder why many of us are not in charge of player personnel.
While Lowrie went on to record a grand total of eight hitless plate appearances as a Met, LeMahieu became the Yankees’ most valuable player in both of his seasons in pinstripes. In an MLB season marked by adversity, uncertainty and inconsistency, it should come as no surprise that LeMahieu was as rock-steady as ever.
LeMahieu won the batting title, hitting an incredible .364 while notching 71 hits in 50 games. He also showed off his power again, finishing second on the team in doubles and home runs with 10 each. His overall offensive contributions resulted in an outstanding .364/.421/.590 triple slash, 1.011 OPS, 177 OPS+ and 2.5 WAR. All of these figures led the team, except for his .590 slugging, which was second to Luke Voit.
In a year where Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton and Gleyber Torres missed time and Gary Sánchez was never right, LeMahieu’s contributions were at times all that kept the team’s offense afloat. And that brief stretch where he was on the injured list and the team ran out a middle infield of Tyler Wade and Thairo Estrada? Let’s not talk about that part of the season again.
LeMahieu also showed his value on defense. Although his metrics dipped a bit from 2019, he is a capable fielder at first, second or third base. His versatility enabled the Yankees to make substitutions as the game dictated, and on a team with a number of shaky fielders, LeMahieu was one of the few players fans could feel confident about with a ball hit his way.
Part of LeMahieu’s value to the Yankees is that he is the best of both worlds at the plate. He can be that all-important contact hitter (his 9.7 percent strikeout rate was second-best in all of baseball), but he can also hit for power and drive in runs. He sprays the ball all over the diamond, and knows how to take advantage of Yankee Stadium’s unique dimensions. Typically, contact hitters provide little power, but LeMahieu is such a rare exception, he’s really like the prototypical hitter you’d find in a baseball textbook.
For all those reasons, LeMahieu was the most valuable Yankee again in 2020. Now, he will hit free agency this winter, and amid rumors of the Yankees trying to cut payroll and suggestions that the team should get more “balanced,” there exists a doomsday scenario in which the team lets its best hitter leave the team in the interest of saving money. Quite simply, the Yankees cannot let this happen. The contract that LeMahieu signs may look bad in the final year or two of the deal as he hits his mid-30s, but the value that he can provide in the first two or three years is so hard to find and so elite, that it is worth the cost.
DJ LeMahieu is one of Brian Cashman’s all-time wins as a general manager. The Yankees identified a player that could help them in all facets of the game, trusted their gut even as fan reaction was negative, and came out with two of the best individual seasons of any Yankee in the last several years. LeMahieu also grew into a clubhouse leadership role, and the idea of him leaving for another team is one that should scare Yankees fans. Gerrit Cole was dominant at times, Luke Voit showed his power and Gio Urshela sure was clutch, but there was no player more valuable to the 2020 Yankees than DJ LeMahieu.