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The troubling case of DJ LeMahieu

Should the Yankees have seen their team MVP’s regression coming?

Cleveland Indians v New York Yankees Photo by Adam Hunger/Getty Images

Last winter when the Yankees and DJ LeMahieu put pen to paper to keep the second baseman in pinstripes for six more years, it felt like the no-brainer decision of the offseason. He was coming off two straight top-four MVP finishes as well as the AL batting title in 2020. However, one season in and the six-year, $90 million contract is already beginning to look bad.

LeMahieu took a massive step back at the plate in 2021. After slashing .336/.386/.536 with 36 home runs, 129 RBIs, a 146 wRC+, and 7.9 fWAR in 195 games between 2019 and 2020, he regressed to a player who more closely resembled the Rockies version of DJ LeMahieu. His 2021 triple slash line of .268/.349/.362 was actually worse than the .299/.352/.408 he managed in seven years in Colorado, though his 100 wRC+ and 2.3 fWAR/650 are slight improvements over his Rockies marks of 91 wRC+ and 2.0 fWAR/650.

One of the narratives that no doubt influenced the Yankees’ decision to retain LeMahieu was his ability to produce in run-scoring and other high leverage situations. In his first two seasons in pinstripes, LeMahieu carried a 164 wRC+ with runners in scoring position — almost becoming a “better hitter” in those spots — while his 121 wRC+ in more general high-leverage situations was still well above average. Fast-forward to 2021, where his 92 wRC+ with runners in scoring position and 98 wRC+ in high-leverage means that he actually got slightly worse in those crucial spots.

Plenty of fans would argue that 2021 was just a down year for LeMahieu, and that the past couple seasons represented a large enough sample to be representative of his true talent level. I’m not so optimistic. There were several worrying signs — even during his torrid 2019-20 stretch — that such a level of production was unsustainable and that this seemingly new and improved version of DJ LeMahieu was illusory.

For starters, LeMahieu was the luckiest player in baseball in 2020. The 68-point gap between his wOBA (.429) and expected wOBA (.361) was the largest such chasm among qualified hitters. His .370 BABIP in 2020 was 36 points higher than his career average at the time, and that was destined to regress. In 2019, he hit nine more home runs than was expected per Statcast’s expected home run metric, which was the fourth-largest delta in baseball. All of this is to say, it was unreasonable to expect LeMahieu to maintain the power output and general production of 2019-20, and the Yankees should have seen it coming.

There were also signs in the batted-ball department from 2020 that hinted at his future depreciation. His barrel rate dropped to 2.9 percent from 7.5 percent in 2019, mostly thanks to a drop in average launch angle from 6.5 degrees to only 2.3 degrees. In addition, his sweet spot rate fell 5.5 points while his hard hit rate declined by 2.6 points. In other words, even though his top level stats improved, his quality of contact — which is far more predictive of future performance — took a nosedive.

Of course, we have to mention how the juiced baseball inflated LeMahieu’s numbers and thus, his apparent value. LeMahieu was one of the biggest beneficiaries of the juiced ball, slugging 36 home runs between 2019-20 after managing only 49 over the previous seven years in the thin air of Coors Field. Indeed, the minute they de-juiced the baseball, his effectiveness suffered. His average exit velocity fell a mph while balls batted between eight and 32 degrees (the “sweet spot” as Statcast likes to call it) traveled 16 feet fewer on average. So, groundballs that might’ve been hit hard enough to get past infielders were instead gobbled up and line drives that might’ve been off the wall were instead caught at the warning track.

Putting aside the numbers for a moment, there were certain aspects of the Yankees’ roster construction that made LeMahieu’s re-signing a questionable decision. For example, Yankees GM Brian Cashman’s comments that Gleyber Torres was better suited for second base than shortstop meant that signing LeMahieu to be the full-time second baseman forced Torres into his worse position at short. With the Torres experiment at short seemingly over, the Yankees are forced to name him the full-time second baseman. But wait, where does that leave LeMahieu?

My colleague Jesse detailed this very case earlier in the week, with a possible solution being to name LeMahieu as the full-time first baseman. As he rightly pointed out, one should have no appetite for such a move. His .094 ISO and 100 wRC+ would rank him dead last and 23rd respectively among MLB first basemen. There is simply zero justification to have a player with zero pop playing the traditionally power-rich first base, especially while being paid like one.

So, the more we look at it, the less the LeMahieu re-signing makes sense given the constraints of the Yankees’ situation. In signing him, the Yankees essentially set their middle infield in stone, preemptively removing themselves from the running for the star-studded shortstop free agency class of 2022. It shoehorned Torres into playing a position beyond his capabilities, only for the team to admit a year later the error in their ways. Now, they are back to needing a shortstop (preferably from that aforementioned class) and are stuck with a near-34 LeMahieu with five years left on his contract and no sure spot around the diamond. Thus they’ve created a rigid situation out of which it is hard to see the Yankees extricating themselves.

The Yankees are in quite a pickle heading into this offseason. Thanks to LeMahieu regressing to an exactly league-average hitter, the Yankees no longer have a “set it and forget it” option to pencil into the leadoff spot of the lineup. His contract and Torres’ defensive woes create a ton of inflexibility in the infield. And the worst part is, none of this comes as some great surprise. Hindsight is 20/20, but one didn’t need glasses to read the writing on the wall.