To say that the 2021 season was rough for DJ LeMahieu would be an understatement. After posting a .893 OPS in 2019 and a 1.011 mark in the shortened 2020 campaign, he fell flat on his face with a .711 OPS in 2021, the first season of a six-year, $90 million contract. He slashed .268/.349/.362, with the power he flashed a year prior having evaporated.
A minor stomach bug, a triceps problem, and most notably, a sports hernia that required surgery in the offseason affected him last year. Be that as it may, he regressed, and he knows he is capable of much more. The question is, at 33, will he be able to rebound?
2021 Stats: 679 PA, .268/.349/.362, 10 HR, 57 RBI, 13.8 K%, 10.8 BB%, 100 wRC+, 2.4 WAR
2022 FanGraphs Depth Charts Projection: 392 PA, .283/.348/.410, 9 HR, 39 RBI, 13.8 K%, 8.8 BB%, 110 wRC+, 1.9 WAR
LeMahieu said in February that he is fully recovered from his October core muscle repair surgery. He has been hitting all winter, and looks eager to regain the level that captivated Yankees fans in 2019 and 2020.
He’s currently slated to play all over the infield except for shortstop, which is not a problem for him. His defensive versatility remains a plus for a roster that at times has felt clunkily assembled in recent years. But of course, the main storyline that everyone will be following for LeMahieu will be his performance at the plate. He remains an important part of the Yankees’ offense, and any kind of bounce back would be huge for their fortunes.
Initially, barring injuries between now and Opening Day, there may not actual be a pure starting role availbale for him. Anthony Rizzo and Josh Donaldson will start at the infield corners, Isiah Kiner-Falefa is the most capable shortstop on the roster, and Gleyber Torres is likely to be the starting second baseman. Aaron Judge, Aaron Hicks, and Joey Gallo will play in the outfield, with Giancarlo Stanton being penciled as the usual DH.
Here’s the Yankees projected lineup as of now pic.twitter.com/xej8MBHn6S— Talkin' Yanks (@TalkinYanks) March 16, 2022
However, injuries will happen at some point. Rotations will take place. And LeMahieu will replace the first Yankee to get hurt this year. He may not approach 700 plate appearances, but he will get his fair share, just not all at one position.
For years, or at least during his first two seasons with the Yankees, LeMahieu outperformed his expected weighted on-base average, or xwOBA, thanks to some luck. LeMahieu had better a wOBA than xwOBA in 2019 and 2020, but in 2021, his fortunes reversed, and was a tad unlucky (a .315 wOBA compared to a .339 xwOBA). A .339 xwOBA is a decline from his peak, but that level of production would still make him a very useful offensive contributor.
LeMahieu’s 90.6 mph average exit velocity wasn’t bad, but it was his lowest mark since 2017. His hard-hit rate declined for a third straight season, and he barreled just 3.7 percent of his batted balls, enough to finish in the 12th percentile. He would do well to reverse those declines.
His power, which earned him consecutive .500+ slugging seasons in 2019 and 2020, disappeared last year, and it goes well beyond his less-than-ideal GB/FB ratio. He went from posting a 19.3 percent HR/FB ratio (home run to fly ball ratio) in 2019 to a 27 percent figure in 2020… to a 7.7 percent mark in 2021. Of course, he overachieved in the pandemic season, but one would expect the number to stabilize at a number a little bit higher than 7.7 percent this campaign.
If he truly is fully healthy entering the year, the Yankees should be reasonable hopeful for a better 2022 from LeMahieu. A wRC+ figure around 110-115 (he finished at 100 wRC+ in 2021, a league average hitter), seems like a fine target. We know LeMahieu can be an above-average hitter, but we also know he will turn 34 during the year. He is probably not the same batter who slashed .327/.375/.518 three years ago, but he also isn’t a .362-slugging guy. The Yankees should temper expectations somewhat, but he should be better in 2022.