The Yankees have boasted a potent offense for several consecutive seasons now. Since 2019, though, the unit has been led by an unlikely player. When DJ LeMahieu signed with the Bombers before the 2019 season, he was coming off a .276/.321/.428 season with 15 homers and 90 RBI in Colorado. The penalty for playing in Coors Field left him with a mediocre 87 wRC+.
Fast forward two years, and LeMahieu has been the Yankees’ leader in fWAR in both 2019 (5.3) and 2020 (2.5) even though he missed some games in both campaigns. Since coming to the Yankees, he put up consecutive career-highs in wRC+, with 135 in 2019 and 176 last season. He led MLB in batting average in 2020, with a .364, and slugged 10 home runs in 50 games.
Yet, it’s unfair to expect LeMahieu to repeat that kind of production in 2021, for a variety of reasons.
This doesn’t mean he won’t be a good player. If you ask me, I think LeMahieu will still be a well above-average piece in a championship-caliber team. I just don’t see how he can finish a 162-game season with a +170 wRC+ and 25+ homers while running a 2.68 GB/FB ratio.
LeMahieu has always been a ground ball hitter. During his first eight seasons, between the Chicago Cubs and the Rockies, the lowest GB/FB ratio he had was 2.22 in 2016, and he almost hit three grounders per every fly ball as recently as 2017 (2.82.) During his last season in Colorado, he started lifting the ball more and had a 1.68 GB/FB, and it was 1.91 in his first campaign in pinstripes. That year, 2019, was his best from an offensive standpoint if we don’t count 2020’s 60-game season.
If we do count it (we should, but with a grain of salt because of sample size noise) we need to take the good and the bad. LeMahieu was a force, with a .364/.421/.590 line, but he also did this with a 56.6 groundball percentage, the highest mark of his career since his rookie season in 2011.
For LeMahieu to hit so many grounders is just not ideal. Yes, he hit them hard (he was 15th among qualified hitters in average exit velocity in ground balls) but it has been proven time and time again that liners and flies lead to much better outcomes. LeMahieu, at his best, is a line-drive hitter. He does have some power (86th percentile in average exit velocity, 81st percentile in hard-hit rate), which is why he will remain a good hitter, but his best years are probably behind him.
And he surely doesn’t have the power to maintain a 27.0 HR/FB ratio, which is what he had in 2020. With the “dejuiced” ball in place for the 2021 campaign, he may even have a hard time replicating the 19.3 HR/FB mark he had two years ago. Consider the fact that despite his 10 homers, LeMahieu ranked 140th out of 142 qualified hitters in average home run distance, with 361 feet. He may lose quite a few dingers in 2021.
Don’t get me wrong. I love LeMahieu. I think he is, on the field, a silent assassin that murders baseballs and can be a force near the top of any lineup with that elite contact ability. But I don’t see how he can remain a 135+ wRC+ hitter with the new ball, another year under his belt, and a +55.0 GB%. We should also take into account the fact that while he had a .422 weighted On Base Average (wOBA) in 2020, it came with a .355 expected weighted On Base Average (xwOBA), mainly because the calculation of xwOBA on contact, xwOBAcon, uses launch angle as one of its elements.
Yankees fans should consider a 115-125 wRC+ type of season a success from LeMahieu. That is still above-average production. Of course, there is always the potential that he goes off again and this post is rendered moot (I wouldn’t even complain) but for now, some regression is to be expected.