My unprofessional sociology opinion is that Yankees’ fans seem to focus on topics that carry wide ranges of opinions and much disagreement. Yet one item I can safely say everyone around the Yankees, both within the organization and among fans agrees upon, is that DJ LeMahieu’s 2021 season was a disappointing one. At a cursory glance, the discussion may appear to be simple, but there are some perspectives and issues that make grading his performance a bit more complex.
2021 Stats: 150 G, 679 PA, .268/.349/.362 BA/OBP/SLG, 100 wRC+, 2.4 fWAR
2022 Contract Status: Signed through 2026, $15 million annually.
Unfortunately, that’s the end of simplicity for today, because even the experts had difficulty grading DJ’s performance this season. His 2.4 fWAR lies in between a very wide range of value metrics, as Baseball-Reference gave him a 1.5 bWAR for the season, and Baseball Prospectus graded him with almost twice as much value with a 2.9 WARP.
When we break down the parts that make up the whole, there’s somewhat less disagreement about his offensive performance (although far from a consensus), as all three systems rank him in the neighborhood of league average as a hitter in 2021: wRC+ had LeMahieu at 100, OPS+ at 97, and DRC+ at 106.
The only area of true consensus with regards to DJ’s 2021 performance is that he had a pretty good season with the glove, rebounding nicely from an uncharacteristically poor season in 2020. Baseball Savant ranked him in the 61st percentile in Outs Above Average overall, Baseball Prospectus graded him at 3.1 Fielding Runs Above Average, which is exactly what FanGraphs’ comprehensive defensive grading metric gave him as well.
One of the problems with evaluating DJ’s season is that he plays three infield positions, which of course is valuable, but as a second baseman by design, he might produce more value playing there exclusively. To that end, let’s see how his production stacked up against different groups of players in 2021.
Last season, 73 players logged 80 or more games playing first, second, and/or third base. Among that group of 73, DJ finished 54th in bWAR. That of course comes with the very big caveat that 69 of the 73 players played predominantly only one of those positions, and of the remaining four only San Diego’s Jake Cronenworth and DJ played three positions on a semi-regular basis. When we combine that with what the numbers tell us above (Baseball-Reference was a little harsher on DJ than other grading systems) it would be fair to say his production was closer to the middle of the pack.
Since LeMahieu is a second baseman by trade, what if we compare his performance to second basemen only? 22 players logged at least 80 games last season as a second baseman, and DJ’s bWAR was 17th highest among that group. We still need to note that 20 of the 22 played second base in more than two-thirds of their games (DJ and Cronenworth being the exceptions who moved around the infield.) Once again, with the added context, DJ’s production was likely closer to the middle of the pack.
From a more subjective standpoint, there are two other issues that make grading any player’s performance a challenge that looms large in DJ’s case: The first is our level of expectation of the player. LeMahieu was coming off a monster year and a half in which he was one of the best infielders in baseball, garnering MVP votes in both 2019 and 2020. If you’re judging his 2021 to that standard, then this past season was obviously a massive disappointment. Yet the reality is that DJ’s 2021 season with the bat was eerily close to his career norm:
DJ’s career vs. 2021
Although LeMahieu has had several very good years in his career and a few not so good, on average, he gave us very close to what we could have reasonably expected.
Secondly, we all know LeMahieu’s health was a problem this season. He dealt with a triceps issue that limited his ability to play third base for part of the year. We learned at the end of the season he was suffering from a sports hernia that eventually required surgery. We’ll never know the extent to which it affected him, but it’s rare for an injury of that nature to go from zero to ten on the problem scale (ten being, “Wow, we need to operate…”). It’s more likely it was an ailment that gradually became more problematic.
With some (not all) complexities, caveats, and contextual factors included, DJ’s PSA grade of C- would be tough to quibble with. Even his staunchest supporters and apologists would have to agree that his 2021 season performance was somewhere around average, which was disappointing to most fans. The exact level of disappointment is based upon or our own personal level of expectations for the player.
Regardless, assuming he’ll be 100 percent healthy by spring training – all expectations are that he will be – with the injury bug presumably being behind him, we have reason for optimism heading into 2022.