DJ LeMahieu, like many Yankees, has fallen short of expectations thus far in 2021. Despite the three major WAR metrics rating him as somewhere between a solid everyday player and a good everyday player despite his slow start, that’s well below the standard to which Yankee fans have become accustomed since his arrival in 2019. Of course, two Silver Slugger awards and two top-four MVP finishes in two seasons set the bar pretty high.
There’s been much hand-wringing about what’s “wrong” with DJ, and what needs to change or be fixed for him to return to the savage in the box he’s been in pinstripes, so there’s no need to ask and try to answer that question again. The question I’d rather ask is, “Is the 2021 version of DJ, the ‘real’ DJ?” Perhaps Yankee fans should temper their expectations and consider that the guy who was impersonating Rogers Hornsby last season was the aberration. Furthermore, if that is indeed the case, the 2021 version of DJ will do just fine, because he’s a pretty good player.
LeMahieu debuted in 2011 and became a regular player in 2013, but for today’s purposes, let’s look at his performance starting in 2015, when he became an All-Star for the first time, through 2018, his last season in Colorado, compared to his 2021 start.
DJ OPS+, wRC+
As you can see, his numbers are not drastically lower in 2021, and when this season’s significantly smaller sample size is considered, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect his numbers to return to what was normal, or better. If you’re curious, I’m sticking with OPS+ and wRC+ because they both use 100 as league average, they account for both park factors (which is very important when Coors Field and Yankee Stadium are involved) and the run-scoring environment league-wide.
However, when we dig a little deeper, we find that his 2021 performance may not even be worse – in fact, he may be better so far in 2021 than he was from 2015-2018 when we throw DRC+ into the equation.
The differences between OPS+ (Baseball-Reference), wRC+ (Fangraphs), and DRC+ (Baseball Prospectus) are far too expansive to cover here. For the purposes of this discussion, all you need to know is that like the other “plus” stats, DRC+ uses 100 as league average and adjusts for parks and season to season run environments. However, OPS+ and wRC+ are largely based on outcomes; DRC+ considers further underlying factors the other two do not.
More importantly, be aware that although OPS+ and wRC+ are calculated differently, their end results are usually the very similar (a player with an OPS+ of 113 will have a wRC+ of close to 113, if not 113 exactly.) DRC+ numbers often vary from the former two, and generally are more reflective of players’ past true performance and predictive of future performance. I urge you to go to Baseball-Reference, Fangraphs, and Baseball Prospectus if you’re interested in how each is calculated, but Rob Mains of BP wrote a great article about the practical differences earlier this year. For today, remember more “reflective” and “predictive”.
LeMahieu’s 2021 DRC+ is currently 107. That’s 7 percent better than the league average and it’s 12.5 points better than the average of his current OPS+ and wRC+. It’s also better than his OPS+ and wRC+ from 2015-2018. Despite the drop-off from his previous Yankee numbers, he still may be better than his Colorado days.
Does this tell us anything about how he’ll fare through the rest of 2021 and beyond? Probably. One of the strengths of DRC+ is that when it’s higher than OPS+/wRC+, the latter metrics usually rise, as the player is performing better than outcomes and results would indicate. When DRC+ is lower than OPS+/wRC+, the latter metrics usually fall, as the outcomes may be better than what the player is actually doing in the batters’ box.
A perfect example is DJ’s 2020 season:
An enormous factor in those by far career-high numbers is the small sample size of the 2020 season, obviously. Given his past performances and recent performances, there’s nothing to suggest that DJ could have sustained that level of production over a 162 game season. A sky-high BABIP and a HR/FB ratio that was also a career-best by far were very unlikely to last.
What we can take from the above, as I’m sure you saw, is that the DRC+ is significantly lower than the OPS+/wRC+. In fact, the drop-off between his DRC+ and OPS+/wRC+ average was the third-highest in the league last season, suggesting a precipitous return to earth was predictable.
Is the 2021 version of DJ the real DJ? Alternating big offensive seasons with not-so-big ones hasn’t been unusual in his career. That said, there’s more evidence to suggest that what we’re seeing from him now is more likely to be close to his baseline ongoing. The evidence also suggests that he may be playing better than we realize and improvement in some surface numbers is coming as well. In other words, a player who can play three infield positions and will hit at a modestly better than league average level is a regression we’ll take each day of the week and twice on Sunday.