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How hurt is DJ LeMahieu?

His struggles in recent weeks are reminiscent of his down year in 2021.

New York Yankees v New York Mets Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

The Yankees are in the midst of a miserable second half, going 14-23 since the All-Star break. And while they managed to stave off complete disaster with a recent five-game winning streak, the Bombers have fallen right back into the abyss, losing three in a row to the A’s, A’s and finally the Angels last night scoring a grand total of six runs across those losses. Indeed, it’s been the offense (or lack thereof) that’s to blame, with the bats managing less than four runs per game over the last month-and-a-half. A significant part of this offensive slippage has been the play of one of the stars of the first half, DJ LeMahieu.

Through the first week of August, LeMahieu was one of the most productive hitters in the Yankees lineup, collecting multi-hit games like the machine of 2019 and 2020. His 144 wRC+ entering play on August 9th placed him in the top-20 leaguewide. Then came reports of a toe injury in the middle of the month that cost him four games and seemingly robbed him of any punch at the plate since.

After he sat out the Yankees’ 3-0 loss at Fenway on August 14th, it was revealed that he had been dealing with a toe/foot issue for around five days. That coincides with the apparent start of his latest slump — since August 9th against the Mariners, LeMahieu is slashing .161/.186/.161 with a -4 wRC+. And the scary part is this isn’t the first time we’ve seen LeMahieu’s production plummet while trying to play through an injury.

LeMahieu suffered through a season-long slump last year relative to his first two seasons in pinstripes, and only after the season was it revealed that he was playing through a sports hernia for most of the campaign. Over the winter, I investigated the ways his swing could have been impacted by that injury, and now I wonder if the same is happening as he tries to compensate for the bothersome toe.

It’s the right foot that’s giving him problems. Much of one’s power comes from pushing off the back leg, so when that goes, so does the pop. Similarly, the back foot is the first point of energy transfer from the ground to the body, so if that gets interrupted, it can jam up the entire downstream kinematic chain. Let’s take a look at some of his swings from earlier in the year and see if we can spot a difference in this period that he’s been hobbled.

First, I’d like to look at what I like to consider LeMahieu’s bread-and-butter swings — those against fastballs up and away where he’s able to go with the pitch and drive it to right. Take this double versus the Red Sox on July 17th:

It’s that classic, hitting the ball from whence it came, and LeMahieu has himself an easy two-bagger. Notice the way he’s able to drive off his back leg, letting his base provide the power.

Contrast that with this foul ball against the Athletics on August 26th:

There’s very little drive off the back foot. Instead, this swing is almost all arms and upper body as if his lower half is getting stuck in place.

Next we have the aspect that makes LeMahieu so fun to watch hit, at least in my opinion. It’s his ability to stay inside a middle to middle-in pitch and drive it with authority to the opposite field not unlike the classic Jeter swing. Granted, the swing mechanics between the two are quite different, but the principle is still the same. For example, take this double against the Mariners on August 2nd:

The strong push-off on his backside allows LeMahieu to clear his hips and lower half so that he is able to keep the barrel of the bat inside the pitch and drive it to right-center. The clearing of the front side thanks to the drive off the backside is what makes this swing possible.

It’s glaring, then, to see him struggle against similar pitches in recent weeks, including this weak groundout against the Red Sox on August 12th:

Because the drive off his back foot isn’t as robust, he’s late clearing his front side. The chain of movement gets jammed up and he isn’t able to execute a full turn by the point of contact, and he is only able to roll over the ball as he lacks the room to pull his hands in and stay with an inside-out approach.

The Yankees need a healthy DJ LeMahieu firing on all cylinders if they are to turn their second half around and make a deep postseason push. He is the table-setter for the lineup, and as he showed pre-injury, he is still a lot closer to the 2019-20 version of DJ when healthy than he is to the 2021 version that tried to play through an injury. Perhaps that is why it may be best for the Yankees to fully rehab his current ailments — we’ve seen just in the last year how much a difference health makes at the plate for LeMahieu.