After a down 2021, DJ LeMahieu seemed to have recaptured his All-Star form through the first half of ‘22. He walked more than he struck out, slashing .279/.383/.403 for a 133 wRC+. But the rest of the way, he limped to an 87 wRC+, with both his strikeout and walk rates trending in the wrong direction. A toe fracture was to blame, and for the veteran entering his age-34 season, hopes weren’t high for a rebound.
LeMahieu got off to a good enough start in 2023, mashing 10 extra-base hits in March/April. But a strikeout rate nearly double his career average warned of what was to come. The utilityman managed just 12 more extra-base hits up to the All-Star break, and a still-elevated strikeout rate dropped his post-April first-half wRC+ to 61. Even a second-half wRC+ of 128 wasn’t enough to keep him from slipping to the realms of mediocrity.
2022 Statistics: 136 games, 562 PA, .243/.327/.390, 101 wRC+, 1.1 fWAR
2023 Contract Status: Entering fourth year of six-year, $90-million contract
In 2023, aside from that solid March/April, LeMahieu got off on the wrong foot, literally. After a frustratingly lengthy recovery from his previous fracture, LeMahieu dealt with some more minor injuries early on, though Aaron Boone insisted that the veteran’s foot was healthy. But his struggles continued into the summer, and LeMahieu himself spoke frankly about his difficulties. His exasperation was evident as he described having to tinker with his swing more than he ever had before in his professional career.
Whether Boone ultimately made the right adjustments, Sean Casey’s arrival changed things, or LeMahieu reintroduced his trademark zen mindset, something clicked in mid-July (around game 80):
Personally, I’m partial to the zen explanation, because underlying LeMahieu’s overall offense improvement was a wholesale shift in his swing decisions:
In other words, he simply began swinging at better pitches to hit. How did he accomplish this? Surprisingly, by swinging at fewer pitches overall. Generally, swinging less helps players home in on better pitches. Specifically for LeMahieu, his 2023 season was a tug-of-war with pitchers, and swinging less was the right choice for him at the time.
Essentially, when LeMahieu was struggling, pitchers challenged him more often. Thereafter, he continued to struggle even as he saw more strikes, which only seemed to add to his frustration. Naturally, his swing rate went up during this time, but his swing decisions were poor. As his swing decisions worsened, pitchers started to try and get him to chase again, no longer challenging him in the zone. But he was able to counter by laying off more pitches, and that’s when his resurgence began.
Whether this is sustainable is another question entirely; pitchers started to challenge LeMahieu again in September, prompting another swing rate increase and wRC+ decrease. But at least this time, the veteran’s wRC+ dropoff wasn’t as large despite more swings, as his September/October wRC+ of 104 remained above average. That’s likely because, with the zen mindset prompted by his July/August renaissance, his swing decisions remained well above average.
Yet, his upside — i.e., even with above-average swing decisions — seems capped when pitchers are throwing him in the zone more often. Not to mention, his overall upside is limited given his declining defense. Still, his experience at multiple positions means he’ll likely continue to be useful for his versatility, if nothing else, into the twilight of his career. And, especially if he can reverse his strikeout rate trend as he did in the second half, his offensive floor is at least higher than the likes of Giancarlo Stanton.