DJ LeMahieu is one of the most valuable infielders in baseball again. After an average 2.0 fWAR performance in 2021, he has already blown past that production with 3.7 fWAR through 447 plate appearances. With a 139 wRC+, he is hovering right around his production from his first season in the Bronx, though it looks just a little different than it did back in 2019.
There is no question DJ was hurt last year. His lateral movement on defense was compromised at every position, and he was unable to get pitches in the middle of the plate off the ground. He was making contact even deeper than he usually does, and that’s not great for a hitter with elevated groundball rates to start. The performance of LeMahieu’s particular swing can almost entirely be explained by the health. I’m not too interested in his mechanical refinements for this piece, since they’re so wrapped up in just staying healthy. What’s more interesting is his improvement in plate discipline.
We all know LeMahieu to be a hard-contact savant with a knack for keeping his strikeout numbers extremely low and spraying hits from line to line. This season, that has continued. However, there is one thing that has creeped up to a career high in the second consecutive season. His BB% is up to 13.6 percent. For the first time in his career, he is walking more than striking out. He has hovered milestone that mark while in New York, but it’s the first time he has reached it.
His patience has been interesting to watch. If you weren’t paying attention, you might even question it. Even in advantage counts, he has so many auto takes. His at-bat against Adam Wainwright was a perfect example. 2-1, 1-0, 2-0, those have all become counts in which DJ ups his patience and really challenges pitchers to find the zone. To be honest, this was all anecdotal by watching DJ almost every single night, but when I searched Baseball Savant for most takes in advantage counts in 2022, the Yankees infielder was second on the list! Even more interesting, the only hitter with more takes while ahead in the count was the uber-patient Juan Soto.
That really puts things into perspective. DJ is living by forcing pitchers to beat him. That doesn’t work for all hitters, since you want to be aggressive on most pitches in the middle of the zone, but when you have such an accurate barrel in different parts of the zone, as DJ does, it works out perfectly. Swing malleability and variance pair very well with hyper patience.
The most important takeaway from this slider is DJ’s swing percentage on pitches in the heart of the zone from 2021 to 2022 (65 percent to 57 percent). If we look a little more granular, we can see his Meatball Swing % from 69.2 last year to 59.6 this year, a career low. You would think that a hitter who was feeling healthy and like himself for the first time in over a year would be excited to hit hit hit, but DJ has taken the approach to not press and let his pitch come to him. Lucky for him, he can handle many types of pitches.
A few weeks ago, he was asked what it’s like hitting in front of Aaron Judge as he makes his way through historic stretches. Meredith Marakovits hinted that he may be getting more pitches to hit because of it, but DJ countered. He said sometimes, when pitchers are trying so hard to do something, they end up doing the opposite. I’m inclined to believe him. His 82nd percentile chase rate combined with extreme patience in the zone has led to him being near the top of the league in walk rate. At the age of 34, he has reached his peak plate discipline, and it could be argued the way he is having success this year is more sustainable than his power surges in 2019 and 2020. In other words, I don’t think he is going to slow down anytime soon.