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DJ LeMahieu isn’t hitting offspeed pitches, or his lofty expectations

Once a strength, the infielder has had trouble hitting non-fastballs, and hasn’t quite hit the way he made us expect him to.

MLB: New York Yankees at Detroit Tigers Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Our collective expectations for DJ LeMahieu may be a bit skewed. We saw what is likely the very best of him during his first two seasons in New York. He set extremely high standards, especially in departments in which he hadn’t delivered much in his career. 2019 and 2020 saw LeMahieu make massive jumps in regard to his power numbers, and as a result, his overall offensive performance. For the most part, he has always been at least good, and there’s no reason to think that won’t continue. But, it may be unfair to expect top three MVP finishes or slugging percentages close to .600. Whether it’s due to changes in approach by opposing pitchers or himself, LeMahieu has lacked recently in some of the new strengths he found when first wearing pinstripes, such as pounding offspeed pitches and hitting for legitimate power.

Upon his arrival in the Bronx, DJ LeMahieu quickly became a different animal from the one he was in Colorado. Over the course of the 2019 and 2020 season, the Yankees’ infielder put up the 10th best wRC+ in the sport at 146. A very impressive number, and a surprising one considering his mark of 90 throughout his career up to that point. In particular, LeMahieu began to hit non-fastballs on par with the most talented players in the game.

Among those to have seen at least 1,000 such pitches over that two year stretch, LeMahieu had the fifth-best wOBA against breaking and offspeed pitches with a mark of .375. He sat below just Mike Trout, Christian Yelich, Juan Soto, and Ronald Acuña Jr. on the leaderboard. Things have not quite been the same since then, in that realm or related ones. In that same category, wOBA against breaking and offspeed pitches, LeMahieu has a figure of just .281 from the beginning of last season to now.

There could be a few things that have led to this, whether it be through self-imposed adjustments, or ones opposing pitchers have made toward him. For one, and in line with changes his Yankee teammates have made, LeMahieu is swinging more than usual, and subsequently whiffing and chasing more often as a consequence. This bears true when looking at his performance facing non-fastballs as well.

So far in 2022, LeMahieu is whiffing on offspeed pitches more than ever:

And chasing breaking balls at a higher rate than usual as well:

It would be unfair to blame the entirety of his regression on this change, but it certainly seems to have played a role. Hitting these pitches was a significant part of his two successful first seasons with the Yankees. This is particularly the case relative to his power, he slugged .546 against non-fastballs in 2019 and 2020, compared to a .352 mark in the two seasons since then. And of course, this power was a significant factor that led to his breakout.

There is a good chance that we saw the best LeMahieu has to offer in 2019 and 2020, and they were tremendous highs, but they also likely set expectations that will be hard for him to reach again. However, it is still important to note that LeMahieu has never been bad, and likely won’t be for a while. He has still been a very solid contributor at the plate this year as well, regardless of the changes detailed above. But I also think it would be somewhat unreasonable to expect any replication of his first two seasons in the Bronx.

This is particularly the case in regard to his power. As noted, his ability to crush offspeed pitches has dropped off considerably, not to mention the fact that he’s experiencing his lowest average exit velocity and hard hit rate since his his arrival in 2019.

LeMahieu has reverted closer to who he was earlier in his career, rather than being an MVP candidate. This is not some awful thing, he was and still is a good and valuable player. But his power has dropped off quite a bit, especially on pitches he used to crush. Expecting it to all come back may be unreasonable, but the outcome likely, as always, lies somewhere in the middle. Whether or not this trend continues for LeMahieu will be seen as the season goes on, but as concerning as it may be, he is still very valuable, just not quite what he was a few seasons ago.