Perhaps the most encouraging development through the first three weeks of the season has been DJ LeMahieu’s return to form. Last year, I wondered just how much the toe injury was responsible for the drop off in production. Well, it appears we have our answer: a lot.
Through the first four months of the season, LeMahieu was well on his way to another stellar offensive campaign for the Yankees. He was slashing .290/.393/.434 with 12 home runs and a 143 wRC+, and generally impacting the baseball in a manner we had grown accustomed to over the previous three campaigns. But then came a nagging injury to the first and second toes on his right foot — the push off foot. Without a stable platform to push off and supply power up the kinetic chain, his production cratered. He batted .149/.206/.149 without another long ball and a 3 wRC+. The injury situation culminated with his being left off the postseason roster.
It’s no surprise then that a significant amount of anxious attention has been paid to how LeMahieu has looked in the early going. I have to imagine that all concerned parties like what they’ve seen thus far.
Through 12 games totaling 51 plate appearances, LeMahieu is hitting .283/.353/.543 with a pair of home runs and 147 wRC+. Even more impressively, he sits in the 99th percentile in hard hit rate (64.5 percent) and 96th percentile in average exit velocity (95.3 mph), marks he’s never achieved across a full season. With the steepest launch angle of his career (8.7 degrees), he has shaved about 10 points off his groundball rate, with half of those getting turned into line drives and the other half into fly balls. As a result, LeMahieu is sporting the best barrel rate of his career (9.7 percent), almost double his barrel rate in his Yankees career.
However, as I’ve said in the past, I’m more interested in process than results in the first month of the season. Indeed, it does appear that an improved process (namely, being healthy) underlies the impressive numbers he has put up. To me, it appears LeMahieu is able to push off his back foot with substantially more force than he was after getting injured last year.
First, let’s take a look at a swing from shortly after he got injured:
Compare that with a swing from this season:
I’ve selected out portions during his load and at the point of contact to highlight the healthier cuts LeMahieu is able to take this year relative to post-injury last season. First we’ll start with the load. It’s subtle, but there’s differences between the movements he makes.
In the swing from 2022, you can see how his lower-half stays relatively static. To compensate for this lack of mobility in his base, he bends forward at the waist and twists a bit toward the catcher — he still has to store potential energy to power his swing, he just isn’t able to access his legs to do so.
Contrast that with his load from this season. See how he’s able to sink into his hips and really sit weight onto his back foot? He can access so much more of his power now that his base is firmly connected to the ground, and that begins with an effective load.
Now we can get into the part that really has me excited, the push off. LeMahieu at times in the latter half of the 2022 campaign was virtually incapable of pushing off his back foot. Here you can see he’s almost falling backwards at the point of contact as if the injured right foot is giving way.
That’s no longer the case in 2023. He firmly plants his back foot, and it remains a sturdy beam of support throughout the swing. You can also see the effect that having a healthy base can have further up the chain of movement. His posture from the belt up just looks far more sound, and is in line and in phase with his lower-half, whereas in the preceding screenshot, his top-half almost crumples in on itself.
This is obviously good news for the Yankees, but it takes on even more significance now that Giancarlo Stanton is expected to miss four to six weeks with a Grade 2 hamstring strain. Replacing his production in the lineup is nigh-on impossible, which is why they need the remaining healthy hitters to pick up the slack in his absence.
There’s also the worry of what will happen when Josh Donaldson returns from his own injury later this week. Yesterday, Brendan Kuty of The Athletic reported that Donaldson is expected to return to the big league club as early as Wednesday. What’s more, Aaron Boone confirmed that Donaldson would resume duty as the starting third baseman upon his return. This despite his putrid start to the season — 2-for-16 with a 28 wRC+ and 35 percent strikeout rate.
LeMahieu has been serving as more or less the full-time third baseman in his absence, notably without any drop off in defense (LeMahieu is tied for third among qualified third baseman with +2 Statcast Outs Above Average). Normally, I would advocate keeping Donaldson on the bench if his return represented a threat to LeMahieu’s game time. However, as we have seen over the last few seasons, even with a fully healthy infield the Yankees have no issues finding LeMahieu everyday playing time as he shuffles around the infield to facilitate various rest schedules.
It’s early days yet, but there’s no doubting that 2023 DJ LeMahieu looks far more comfortable in the box than the injured version from the second half of 2022. He’s impacting the baseball like he did in 2019 and 2020, better even, and that starts with a healthy base. Just like the skyscrapers that tower over the city in which he plays, every structure needs a stable foundation, and LeMahieu certainly appears to be back to standing upon one.