In a Yankees season that was full of pleasant surprises last year, DJ LeMahieu has to rank near or at the top. Signed to a two-year, $24 million deal last offseason after posting an 87 wRC+ in 2018, his second straight below-average season, LeMahieu brought with him concerns about his bat, which many assumed would regress even further after losing the luxury of playing 81 games at Coors Field.
As we know, we were all wrong. Very wrong. LeMahieu put up what was easily the most valuable season of his career, heard his name in the MVP discussion and was the most consistent Yankee of 2019. Now, we arrive at a big question: can he do it again?
2019 Stats: 655 PA, .327/.375/.518, 26 HR, 102 RBI, 136 OPS+, 13.7 K%, 7.0 BB%, 6.0 WAR
2020 FanGraphs Depth Chart Projections: 665 PA, .289/.345/.438, 18 HR, 75 RBI, 108 wRC+, 14.5 K%, 7.5 BB%, 3.5 fWAR
Right off the bat, it looks like FanGraphs’ projections are indeed expecting LeMahieu to make a return back towards earth in 2020. Steamer projects 3.3 fWAR, and ZiPS 3.6, making all three projections a solid two wins less than what he did in 2019. Of course, LeMahieu was projected at 1.9 WAR last year. At age 31, LeMahieu shouldn’t see too drastic of a decline due to age this season, so can he be the productive machine he was during his first year in pinstripes, and how exactly did he pull it off in the first place?
It’s interesting to look at LeMahieu’s numbers after leaving Coors Field. His exit velocity only went up from 91.1 to 91.7 in 2019, while his strikeout and walk rates experienced similar, minor changes from 2018. Yet his xSLG skyrocketed from .424 to .529, and his BABIP from .298 to .349. The big difference, at least at first glance? LeMahieu became a machine at squaring up the ball. He posted a career-high barrel percentage of 7.5 last season, just two years after finishing with a lowly mark of 1.9. His hard hit percentage also climbed to 47.2, good for the top ten percent in all of baseball, and his best since winning the batting title in 2016. He also increased his launch angle by a full degree, further continuing a trend since the 2017 season, as LeMahieu has continued to get balls further off the ground and increase his hit probability.
LeMahieu also made an apparently valuable tweak in 2019, closing off his stance just a bit and bumping up his oppo percentage by five percent. It was the bizarro version of Aaron Judge when he opened his stance a bit in 2017, but like Judge, LeMahieu saw a drastic improvement in his power numbers.
Yankees hitting coach Marcus Thames told Lemahieu when he arrived in the Bronx last offseason to just be the best version of himself, and use that contact swing to center and right field instead of being hyper-focused on increasing his pull percentage and launch angle, which the Rockies wanted from LeMahieu in 2018.
What Thames did ask of LeMahieu was to be more aggressive early in counts, and LeMahieu responded with his highest first pitch swing percentage since 2015, jumping on fastballs early in the count like he did in Game One of the ALDS, when he crushed a first-pitch fastball for a solo home run. By closing off that stance a bit and staying within his trademark tendency to use the whole field, LeMahieu thrived and feasted on the short porch at Yankee Stadium.
So, how much of LeMahieu’s 2019 season was a fluke, and how much was a direct result of a tweaked approach? LeMahieu will turn 32 this season, so if it’s the latter, he still has another year or so to potentially maintain his 2019 levels of production. Even a slight dropoff would be considered a victory for the Yanks. Either way, LeMahieu’s contact ability and versatility in the infield will make him a valuable piece for the Yankees in 2020, even if he can’t replicate what was a career season.