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DJ LeMahieu, Gio Urshela and the peculiar phenomena of career years

Two key cogs of the Yankees hit new peaks of performance in 2019. Does that mean they’re doomed to regress in 2020?

MLB: New York Yankees at Cleveland Indians Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

What springs to mind when someone mentions a baseball player is coming off a career year? It’s kind of a funny term. When you’re in the midst of a season – “This guy’s having a career year!” – it’s music to the ears. Base hits drop in, fly balls clear the fence, parking spots magically appear on busy Manhattan streets. It’s a charmed life.

After it’s over, the term can carry a sort of grim foreboding. “Good luck doing THAT again” is the unspoken doubt weighing down its mention. There’s a reason it’s called a career year! They aren’t expected to continue happening. When they do, those journeys often end in Cooperstown, but not everyone is Hall of Fame-bound.

As spring Training gets underway and we speed toward a highly anticipated 2020 season, two players are of particular interest: DJ LeMahieu and Gio Urshela. Of course, the 2019 squad wouldn’t have reached the heights it did – during a year infamously beset by injuries – if not for both LeMahieu and Urshela. Donning pinstripes for the first time, each seized the moment and vastly outperformed expectations.

They had career years.

Now, if we were doing a staged reading of this article, spooky organ music would have started playing right about now, signaling doom for both. But let’s examine the career years of each player, their prospects for regression, and see if the music cue is warranted.

LeMahieu slashed .327/.375/.518, hit 26 home runs (smashing his previous career best of 15), drove in 102 runs (eclipsing his former high-water mark of 66), posted a career-high 136 wRC+, and generated 6.0 bWAR. He was an All-Star, Silver Slugger, and finished 4th in MVP voting, all while rotating between multiple infield positions. It was unequivocally a career year, approached only by the 2016 season with the Colorado Rockies in which he won a batting title.

DJ LeMahieu, 2015-2019

2015 620 6 85 61 0.087 0.362 0.301 0.358 0.388 91 2.4
2016 635 11 104 66 0.147 0.388 0.348 0.416 0.495 130 5.3
2017 682 8 95 64 0.099 0.351 0.310 0.374 0.409 94 2.8
2018 581 15 90 62 0.152 0.298 0.276 0.321 0.428 87 3.0
2019 655 26 109 102 0.191 0.349 0.327 0.375 0.518 136 6.0
Fangraphs, Baseball-Reference

How did he follow up that year? After posting a wRC+ of 130 in 2016, that mark sank to below-average levels of 94 and 87 in the next two years, respectively. His bWAR dipped from an All-Star caliber 5.3 in 2016 to merely solid/good levels of 2.8 and 3.0 in 2017 and 2018.

If his 2019 performance could be largely chalked up to the random clustering of good luck, then it’s fair to question whether a similar correction is on its way this season. However, while some amount of regression is to be expected, there’s reason to hope LeMahieu can hold on to a good chunk of the gains he made last year.

A closer look at his plate discipline and batted ball profiles, courtesy of Baseball Savant, shows LeMahieu’s success was very much the product of intention, of a player changing his approach to dramatic effect.

As Aaron Esposito noted last month, LeMahieu became a far more aggressive hitter in 2019. After posting swing rates of 41.7%, 41.3%, and 41.7% the previous three years, that number jumped to 45.6%. He swung at more pitches in the strike zone – 64.3% compared to 59.2% in 2018. He swung at more pitches out of the strike zone ­– 27.3% compared to 23.2% the previous year. He loved to swing! Those gains were accompanied by increases in average launch angle, hard-hit rate and barrel percentage. He swung the bat more, hit the ball harder when he did swing, and put the ball in the air more often. It sure seems like all that was part of a conscious effort to tweak his offensive game and make his own luck.

The one area of concern might be the huge jump he saw in his home run/fly ball rate. Nearly 1 in 5 fly balls he hit ­– 19.3% – left the yard, dwarfing his previous career high of 11.1%. It’s not an egregiously high number, ranking 44th among 135 qualified hitters, and it’s surely propped up by the short right field porch in Yankee Stadium. If there’s a single number to expect regression on, this may be it. However, the LeMahieu we saw in 2019 was simply a different player to the previous iterations and that should instill confidence in fans.

Urshela, on the other hand, is slightly more difficult to analyze, because his track record is essentially nonexistent. In 499 plate appearances prior to becoming a Yankee, spread out over the previous three seasons and split between Cleveland and Toronto, Urshela slashed a paltry .225/.273/.315. His season in the Bronx came out of nowhere – .314/.355/.534, 132 wRC+ and a 3.4 bWAR.

And yet his Statcast data, courtesy of Baseball Savant, suggests he was no fluke. Measured against league average, his 90.5 mph average exit velocity was 3 ticks better; his 13.6 degree launch angle nearly 2.5 degrees higher; and his 40.6% hard hit rate more than 6 points to the good. He earned his results, likewise seemingly propelled by changes to his approach entering the season, as manager Aaron Boone explained in May.

Urshela is also, of course, buoyed by his defensive superiority to potential replacement Miguel Andujar. He’d have to regress significantly – maybe not quite to his pre-2019 levels of offensive production, but close – for the Yankees to entrust the full-time third base job to the defensively challenged Andujar (I love you Miggy, but it’s true). If that were to happen, at least the Yankees have Andujar, a Rookie of the Year runner-up, to fall back on.

So do the Yankees have two important cogs coming off career years? Absolutely. Is it fair to expect some regression? Sure. Let’s hold off on cranking up the organ just yet though.