The Yankees were trailing 4-5 in the bottom of the seventh Monday night, but they had a rally in their bones. After a favorable call, Gleyber Torres was ahead in the count against newly-minted Baltimore bullpen ace Yennier Cano, and he punched a grounder hard up the middle for a single. Aaron Judge moved him over with a groundout, and though Torres had a good jump on a bloop Anthony Rizzo single, the Yankees held him at third. And that’s when DJ LeMahieu strode up to the plate.
Why would the Yankees hold Torres at third when their best attempt at driving him in was going to be a squeeze play? Well, LeMahieu apparently chose to bunt on his own, so those two decisions weren’t necessarily connected, but Aaron Boone also didn’t take issue with the third baseman’s choice. Regardless, the play resulted in the Orioles nailing Torres at home and wasting LeMahieu’s at-bat.
While that decision was inexcusable, there might be an explanation for it. Cano is elite, yes, but LeMahieu’s recent struggles were as much a factor as the hurler’s recent dominance. Consider the following:
LeMahieu started this season off on a tear, hitting the ball harder than ever and in the air at an above-average (for him) rate after his contact quality collapsed late last year due to a nagging toe injury. The dashed lines represent his averages over the past three years; more often than not, when LeMahieu starts burning worms, a corresponding decrease in Hard% (FanGraphs’ version) will follow.
Last year, the third baseman’s Hard% began to crater in early August, right around when he said the discomfort in his toes had returned. His groundball rate also remained elevated during the Hard% descent. This year, LeMahieu’s Hard% peaked, and his groundball rate reached its nadir on April 18th, a few days after LeMahieu returned from a bout of quad tightness.
The Yankees didn’t say which leg was bothering him, or if it was both legs, but Aaron Boone made it clear that the latest injury had nothing to do with the toe issues — those remain fully healed. To check in on this claim, I took a look at the most obvious sign his toe was bothering him last year. Peter Brody, when examining LeMahieu’s hot start, noted that his back leg — home to the injured toes — was slipping behind his front leg last year just after the point of contact like so:
It’s likely that LeMahieu was having trouble keeping his weight on that back foot throughout his swing. Early on this season, as Brody noted, that back foot wasn’t slipping anymore. But has that been the case recently? Incidentally, the Yankees faced Bradish at home again on Monday night, so I took a look at another LeMahieu foul off of a similarly-located pitch from the right-hander:
It seems he’s been able to keep that foot more firmly planted even as of late. At the same time, he isn’t quite getting his hips rotated to the same extent at that point in his swing. Below left is LeMahieu from earlier this season, prior to the quad issue; below right is from that same swing against Bradish Monday night:
On Monday, that left leg locked up without fully rotating. It’s a minor difference, to be sure; this could all just be part of LeMahieu’s age-related decline — he is turning 35 this summer — as the league grows reaccustomed to a healthier version of him. But part of the reason for the age-related decline is more bumps and bruises, so if it isn’t the quad issue, it could be something else. The good news is, in recent days, that Hard% has been trending up again. I don’t expect it to reach the early-season peak again, but LeMahieu going forward should still be more productive than he’s been in recent weeks even if he isn’t the player he once was.