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Does DJ LeMahieu need to swing more frequently in 2022?

Low overall swing rates coincided with LeMahieu’s worst season since coming to New York. Does he need to be more aggressive?

MLB: New York Yankees at Boston Red Sox Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

After a relatively unproductive 2021 season, DJ LeMahieu has understandably been the focus of quite a bit of offseason attention here at Pinstripe Alley. I’ve previously discussed how he shouldn’t be a serious candidate for the Yankees’ full-time first baseman gig, Peter took a pros and cons approach to his future outlook, and Jon graded his season.

At the beginning of February, Esteban wrote an article about what he expects Dillon Lawson, the Yankees’ new hitting coach, to work on with each player in the lineup. He focused on LeMahieu’s swing/take profile on Baseball Savant and how DJ, perhaps hindered by his sports hernia, was unable to do damage on pitches in the heart of the zone.

Today, I’m returning to LeMahieu’s performance once more by looking at his plate discipline numbers to see what they tell us about his lost season. Before we dive into the data, I want to preemptively add the caveat (or reminder) that LeMahieu dealt with nagging injuries throughout the year, the effect of which cannot be discounted when looking at the numbers I outline below.

The hard numbers for LeMahieu in 2021 were pretty ugly. In his first two seasons in New York, he slashed .336/.386/.536 with 36 home runs, 129 RBI, a 7.3-percent walk rate, 12.7-percent strikeout rate, .388 wOBA, and 146 wRC+ in 195 games. He was good for 7.9 fWAR. Last year, however, was a different story entirely. In 150 games, LeMahieu slashed .268/.349/.362 with 10 home runs, 57 RBI, a 10.8-percent walk rate, 13.8-percent strikeout rate, .315 wOBA, and 100 wRC+. He still posted a modest 2.4 fWAR, but his offensive production was way down compared to his previous two seasons in pinstripes.

Despite LeMahieu’s exactly league average offensive production, Statcast indicated that he still had a fairly solid season.

Baseball Savant

I mean, for a guy who was league average, that’s a decent amount of red. So what gives?

To anyone watching, one would think it’d be safe to assume that groundballs were his biggest issue last season. I can only speak from my experience, but it seemed like every time he was in the batter’s box, the result was a slow roller on the infield. Would it surprise you as much as it surprised me to learn that his groundball rate of 52 percent was actually lower than it was during his MVP-runner-up 2020 season (57.1 percent)? In fact, it was just slightly above the rate he posted in his similarly sensational 2019 (49.7 percent).

The eye test has failed me once again.

After being completely perplexed, I came across his plate discipline numbers on Baseball Savant, and something started to click. In 2021, LeMahieu saw 2,660 total pitches. Of those pitches, 50.6 percent of them were in the strike zone. For a little added context, the league average was 48.5 percent. Here’s what his swing data looks like:

DJ LeMahieu’s Plate Discipline Stats

Zone Swing % Zone Contact % Chase % Chase Contact % Edge % 1st Pitch Swing % Swing % Whiff %
Zone Swing % Zone Contact % Chase % Chase Contact % Edge % 1st Pitch Swing % Swing % Whiff %
61.8 90.2 20.5 71.9 41.4 21.4 41.4 14.4
Baseball Savant

On their own, these numbers don’t mean a whole lot, so let’s review the data from each season he’s been in New York, with percent change included.

DJ LeMahieu Yankee Plate Discipline Data

Data Pitches Zone % Zone Swing % Zone Contact % Chase % Chase Contact % Edge % 1st Pitch Swing % Swing % Whiff %
Data Pitches Zone % Zone Swing % Zone Contact % Chase % Chase Contact % Edge % 1st Pitch Swing % Swing % Whiff %
2019 2463 49.3 64.3 89.4 27.1 71.6 42 20.6 45.6 16
2020 829 50.3 64 92.9 24 77.8 43.1 25.5 44.1 11.2
Percent Change 1% -0.3% 3.5% -3.1% 6.2% 1.1% 4.9% -1.5% -4.8%
2021 2660 50.6 61.8 90.2 20.5 71.9 41.4 21.4 41.4 14.4
Percent Change -0.3% -2.2% -2.7% -3.5% -5.9% -1.7% -4.1% -2.7% 3.2%

As seen above, there was a noticeable drop-off in both LeMahieu’s swing percentage at pitches in the zone and the rate at which he made contact on those swings. A difference of two percentage points might not seem like a lot at face value, but over the course of a season, those differences add up.

An area of confusion in this profile is LeMahieu’s discipline on pitches outside of the zone. While it should be a good thing that he got his walk rate up to a career-high number in 2021 and chased pitches at the lowest clip of his career, the dip in contact on chased pitches from 2020 to 2021 is quite noticeable and seems to have had an effect on his overall production.

While these rates — that is, zone swing/contact percentages and chase swing/contact percentages, respectively — have the potential to spark some overall statistical suppression (and likely did, as evidenced by his .301 BABIP, which was much lower than his career mark of .340), I don’t think they can be considered the root cause of LeMahieu’s issues last season. The majority of his plate discipline percentages were pretty much in line with the marks he set in 2019, a campaign in which he slashed .327/.375/.518 with a .375 wOBA, .349 BABIP, and 136 wRC+.

There is one worrisome stat, however, that sticks out like a sore thumb to me: swing percentage. DJ LeMahieu saw the most pitches in the strike zone that he’s seen as a member of the Yankees, but only offered at 41.4 percent of them, which, coincidentally, is the lowest rate of his career. Now, I know that correlation does not always equal causation, but the truth is that LeMahieu is one of the best pure contact hitters in baseball. While he doesn’t barrel up a ton of balls or hit them particularly hard, his bat-to-ball skills are uncanny, as evidenced by the fact that his career average contact rates on pitches inside and outside the zone are 90.3 percent (league average: 82 percent) and 72.7 percent (league average: 58.5 percent), respectively. It’s safe to say that you want a guy with those numbers swinging as much as he can.

For whatever reason, good things happen when LeMahieu swings the bat. Last year, perhaps due to nagging injuries or even a philosophical change at the plate, LeMahieu ditched the aggressive approach that made him such a tremendous hitter in his first two seasons in New York. In 2022, he needs to make a concerted effort to swing the bat as often as possible. If he does, he might be able to regain the form that made him a star.