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25 Most Surprising Seasons in Yankees History: 2019 DJ LeMahieu

Signed as a utilityman, DJ LeMahieu pleasantly surprised fans with a team-leading 2019 campaign.

New York Yankees v Texas Rangers
Sure-handed DJ LeMahieu has had an extremely inconsistent bat throughout his career. But is this just the mark of a constant willingness to adjust?
Photo by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images

DJ LeMahieu has continuously evolved throughout his career — the only way to define him is simply as a chameleon. Initially a light-hitting, glove-first second baseman with the Cubs, he transformed into an on-base machine with the Rockies, winning the batting title in 2016. That year, he ran a .416 OBP, sandwiched between two more seasons with OBPs over .350. The bottom half of that sandwich, 2017, is when he really came into his own on defense, notching his first of two consecutive gold gloves at second base.

After 2018, a down year with the bat, LeMahieu signed on to be a utilityman with the Yankees. That’s when his most impressive evolution to date occurred: In 2019, he exemplified the rare instance of a hitter developing more power after leaving Coors.

2019 Statistics: 145 games, 655 plate appearances, 26 home runs, 109 runs, 102 RBIs, 33 doubles, .327/.375/.518 triple slash, 136 wRC+, 5.8 fWAR, 5.6 bWAR.

A California native, LeMahieu attended Louisiana State University, where he starred as a shortstop and slashed .337/.386/.457 as a true freshman. In his sophomore year, he navigated a midseason move to second base — the type of transition that has come to characterize his Yankees tenure — while slashing .350/.419/.482 and being named to the College World Series all-tournament team.

Despite being moved off of short, LeMahieu’s star shone brightly when the Cubs made him their second-round pick that summer, in 2009. Yet, he ended up continuously ceding the spotlight to his first-round counterpart Brett Jackson, who ultimately had far less success in the majors, throughout the duo’s time in the minors. While Jackson headlined the FanGraphs list of Cubs prospects after the 2010 season and ranked second after 2011, LeMahieu was nowhere to be found. Baseball America at least ranked him 10th and 13th, but Jackson still easily bested him with back-to-back second-place finishes in these rankings.

Perhaps reading too much into the rankings, the Cubs dealt LeMahieu to the Rockies in a package for backup catcher Ian Stewart, who was coming off of a measly 11 wRC+ in 136 plate appearances. The Rockies preceded to throw LeMahieu into the fire pretty much from the get-go, and he went on to start the vast majority of games at the keystone in Colorado for the next seven years.

During his first three seasons in Colorado, LeMahieu showcased his defensive acumen, accruing the fourth-most defensive runs saved (DRS) and fifth-best ultimate zone rating (UZR) among second basemen in that span. However, he slashed a mediocre .278/.317/.366, leading to a paltry 70 wRC+ (30 percent worse than league average) due to the metric’s park adjustment.

But something changed in 2015. He upped his wRC+ to a palatable 91, posting easily a career-high walk rate and on-base percentage while keeping his strikeouts right around the same level. Although he ran a high BABIP at .362, Statcast’s xWOBA metric indicated that this was due to a higher quality of contact rather than luck. Interestingly, his line-drive rate was only his second-highest mark, and his hard-hit rate stood right around his career average. Rather, the biggest change seemed to be a drop in pull percentage, nearly seven points down from the previous year. While this rate has drifted upwards in recent years as LeMahieu has grown more into his power, it still stands below league average and his opposite-field singles have come to typify him as a hitter.

Colorado Rockies v Arizona Diamondbacks Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The next season, LeMahieu fully broke out, dropping a 130 wRC+ and a .348/.416/.495 slash like he was still playing college ball. He also reached double-digit homers for the first time, with 11 dingers. The previous year, LeMahieu had become a much more selective hitter, dropping his swing rate over five percent to 43.5. In 2016, his breakout season, he spit on even more pitches, swinging only 41.9 percent of the time. Waiting for his pitch drastically improved his contact rate, which jumped over five percent to 90.1, good for fourth among 146 qualified hitters. He also maintained his increased line-drive rate and lowered pull rate while drastically upping his hard-hit rate.

In 2017, pitchers caught on and fortunes ran low, and though LeMahieu kept his pull rate low too, his line-drive and hard-hit rates dropped precipitously. He still managed an 89.3 percent contact rate, but with lower-quality contact, his wRC+ dropped to 94. He abandoned his low-pull approach in 2018 and his contact rate dropped further, leading to an 87 wRC+.

Then LeMahieu became a free agent. The Yankees signed him to a two-year, $24 million contract to be their utilityman on the strength of his defense; despite his diminishing offense, he had led all second basemen in DRS and was the runner-up in UZR over the past two seasons. The Yanks figured his glove could play pretty much anywhere on an infield that already featured Luke Voit, Gleyber Torres, Didi Gregorius, and Miguel Andújar.

Not only were they right about that, as LeMahieu has posted average-to-excellent marks at first, second, and third in his time in the Bronx (according to DRS, UZR, and Outs Above Average), but his bat has played too.

The first thing the Yankees did to make this happen in 2019 was to decide that LeMahieu had become too selective. They upped his swing rate to 45.4 percent, his highest mark since 2014. Naturally, some of these swings came on bad pitches, so LeMahieu’s contact rate sank to 85.6 percent, his worst since 2015.

LeMahieu’s called-strike rate also dropped to 19 percent, his lowest since 2014. But that wasn’t why the Yankees wanted him to swing more; they did because he was making the best contact of his career. His hard-hit rate of 47.6 percent nearly matched his 2016 number (47.7), but he easily bested his barrel rate from 2016, 7 percent to just 4.1.

The other side of this change was that LeMahieu simply wasn’t getting as many pitches to hit. It’s hard to tell what came first, his increase in chase rate or the decrease in opposing pitcher zone rate. Or better yet, whether both of these changes were brought about because teams finally realized that he was crushing fastballs. Either way, one thing was clear: LeMahieu got back to hitting offspeed pitches extremely well as a counter.

LeMahieu easily led the Yankees in fWAR and propelled them to 103 wins that year, tying the team’s highest total in the 2000s. Though they fell to their playoff-nemesis Astros in the ALCS (despite the second baseman’s best efforts), LeMahieu was still rewarded with an All-Star appearance, a Silver Slugger at second base, and a fourth-place MVP finish. He largely maintained his approach in 2020 but ran his contact rate back up to 89.9 percent, leading to an outstanding 177 wRC+, another Silver Slugger, and a third-place MVP finish. He parlayed this performance into a six-year $90 million deal to stay in New York.

While injuries have hampered the jack-of-all-trades’ bat over the first two seasons of that contract, he fought through them enough last year to be a very deserving recipient of the AL’s first-ever utility Gold Glove award. Reports have indicated that LeMahieu arrived in camp fully healthy this spring, so hopefully he can bounce back with the bat even as he approaches his 35th birthday. Pitchers have upped their zone rates against him again due to their knowledge of his injuries, so perhaps that’s something he can take advantage of as he returns to hitting baseballs with more authority.

No matter what though, the two-year deal that the Yankees initially gave to LeMahieu will go down in history as one of their wisest moves. His 2019 was simply incredible.