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Yankees Potential Free Agent Target: DJ LeMahieu

So much of this offseason hinges on where the Machine lands.

Division Series - New York Yankees v Tampa Bay Rays - Game Five Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

I wanted to be the one to write the DJ LeMahieu free agent target post largely because I was very, very wrong about him when the Yankees signed him ahead of the 2019 season. I didn’t really get the appeal of LeMahieu in a starting role, and figured that maybe he’d fit in as a bench piece. Yeah, about that....

All LeMahieu’s done since coming to the Bronx is crush opposing pitching to the tune of a 145 OPS+, finish fourth and third in AL MVP voting, and play in 88 percent of the team’s possible games, which is a crucial and valuable thing on a Yankee team perennially ravaged by injury. He’s a free agent who will be 33 in July, and this is his one shot at a big contract. We all know what DJ’s résumé is; the only questions about him focus on what he’s worth, how long he should be worth it, and who else might be bidding.

When you sign a free agent, you’re not paying for what he’s done; you’re paying for what you think he will do — this is one of the great revolutions brought about by analytics, a better understanding of the aging curve, better projections, etc. Steamer and ZiPS projects LeMahieu to be somewhat above average in 2021 and 2022, about a 110 wRC+ and worth three and a half wins. You’d be forgiven for thinking that is a very conservative projection, but LeMahieu’s future performance is really a function of the sustainability of his contact profile, plus where he plays.

DJ’s max exit velocity isn’t much to talk about — 111.1 mph in 2019 and 109.5 in 2020 are perfectly good totals, but far from the eye-popping numbers we see from Aaron Judge or Giancarlo Stanton. In fact, LeMahieu’s max exit velo in 2020 was 141st in baseball, in between Alec Bohm and Aaron Hicks, neither of whom will contend for nine-figure free agency deals. Yet despite pedestrian max output, DJ’s hard hit rate, xwOBA and average exit velocity are all in the top quartile in baseball. Why?

In a word: narrowness. If you remember my post on Gary Sánchez yesterday, you’ll remember I showed these same histograms of Sánchez’s exit velocity from 2019 and 2020. One of the reasons Gary’s 2020 was so bad was because his contact was so volatile - he had a jagged histogram, with a bunch of 110 mph batted balls, and a bunch around 70 mph. LeMahieu is his exact opposite — his batted balls fall into a tighter band of outcomes. He doesn’t reach the pure power of someone like Judge, true, but is about 12% more likely than Judge to hit the ball at least 95 mph.

DJ LeMahieu is, in a way, the ultimate high-floor player. His strikeout rate is the seventh-lowest in baseball over the past two years, and this ability to generate good contact on every single swing means more and more of his at bats end in a high-probability outcome. But why was he so much better in New York than in Colorado? Power.

LeMahieu’s exit velo metric barely moved, especially between 2018 and 2020, and he didn’t sacrifice contact for power — he struck out less often in the latter year. What changed was the ballpark he was playing in.

Over the past two years, LeMahieu’s had 16 opposite-field home runs at Yankee Stadium. Here’s what they look like:

LeMahieu has become an MVP-caliber hitter because he hits line drives to right field, and in Yankee Stadium, those are more likely to become home runs than any other park in baseball. In fact, let’s move these same balls to a more neutral stadium — over the last three years, Miller Park in Milwaukee has been the most neutral stadium in baseball, for example:

At least four and potentially as many as six of these home runs are outs in a neutral park. If you change four of the homers into outs, LeMahieu’s OPS over the past two years drops from .912 to .900. You can do this with his opposite-field doubles, too — hard grounders down the line stay as extra-base hits, sure, but the ones in the gap become easier and easier to catch in less-hitter-friendly parks. Away from Yankee Stadium, DJ’s impressive contact becomes emptier since several of his extra-base hits turn into either outs or singles.

All of this actually works to the Yankees’ advantage, since the case gets made that LeMahieu is more valuable to the Yankees than any other team. If his home runs become outs playing in Milwaukee, Toronto, or Texas, those teams are less incentivized to get into a bidding war over him.

Projecting LeMahieu is then difficult because of a combination of his age, the impact of Yankee Stadium, and his particular contact profile. Slap hitters don’t age well — sorry Ichiro — but DJ’s not a slap hitter; he’s more of a punch hitter. Publicly available Statcast data doesn’t go back far enough for us to observe how similar hitters from earlier eras saw their contact rates change as they aged, and even possible contemporaries like Joe Mauer had externalities hasten their decline.

So much of the Yankee offseason relies on what happens with DJ LeMahieu. He’s been the team’s best player for two years, and unlike a lot of guys that we claim to be built for Yankee Stadium, he actually appear to be built for Yankee Stadium. His age means he’s not getting a decade-long contract, and rumors abound say he’s really trying to max out at half that. The Yankees have a spot for him, but so does almost every other team in baseball.