clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

It’s time to adjust expectations for DJ LeMahieu

For the first time in his New York tenure, DJ LeMahieu needs to improve just to be a league-average hitter at this point

MLB: Game Two-Chicago White Sox at New York Yankees Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

A lot of managing and building a winning ball club comes down to understanding not only the roster you are working with, but also the high and low-end outcomes for each specific player, When you understand the range of outcomes for your players, you can better understand the range for your roster, and how you may need to address potential holes as the season progresses.

There are many examples to this. The front office should hardly be surprised Giancarlo Stanton and Luis Severino had to miss a good chunk of time with injuries. Aaron Boone is hardly shocked Gleyber Torres is in the middle of another streaky season, or that Josh Donaldson had to hit the IL. They also had be prepared for the possibility that even the most polished of prospects may hit a wall in their first exposure to the big leagues, like Anthony Volpe has.

All in all, there is just a very long process that teams go through before they make their projections for any given year. However, even with that being said, situations are fluid, and players evolve, and decline, with time, and the organization and fan base may be forced to acknowledge a new reality when it comes to individual players.

DJ LeMahieu might be in the middle of this process. He might even be done with it, and all that’s left is for everyone to understand his new level of play, and properly adjust expectations towards going forward.

Before he came over to the Yankees, LeMahieu spent seven seasons with the Colorado Rockies as a contact-first bat with a batting average hovering around .300, and virtually no real pop in his bat. 2016 was by all accounts an outlier year, in which he nearly hit .350, and had his sole season with an OPS+ above league average (128). LeMahieu hit .299 throughout his Rockies tenure, with a 93 OPS+.

After a long career with Coors Field as his home, LeMahieu signed with the Yankees, and experienced a late breakout, with back-to-back seasons finishing in the top-five for the American League MVP award. Out of nowhere, LeMahieu 26 bombs in 2019, more than he had in the previous two years combined, and an OPS near .900, thanks to a career-high in slugging percentage (.518).

2020 was even more impressive, with LeMahieu winning the batting title (.364), becoming only the second player ever to win a batting crown in both leagues, all while slugging a whopping 10 bombs in 50 games.

After those two years, making any sort of predictions LeMahieu’s future with the Yankees was incredibly difficult. Was he simply a new player following his move to the Bronx (and departure from Coors), or was he bound to regress towards the player he had been for the first seven years of his career?

All of that came with a trip to free agency, followed by a big six-year deal from the Yankees to come back in 2021. And since then, the wheels have come off, with LeMahieu slashing .260/.343/.373 across 335 games, and nearly 1,500 plate appearances.

The first two seasons of that period were directly affected by injuries. DJ played through a core injury through much of 2021, one that required surgery after the season. In 2022, LeMahieu looked strong again for much of the season, slashing .284/.387/.425 before injuring his foot. That ailment torpedoed LeMahieu’s ability to drive the ball, and his numbers followed. Even with all that, LeMahieu was still a valuable contributor in aggregate, producing over five WAR in 270 games. The key, though, was that LeMahieu still looked very good when at health, suggesting high-end outcomes were still on the table for him even as he aged, if he could just stay healthy.

However, in 2023, LeMahieu has been healthy, entering play on Sunday with 60 games and zero known major injuries under his belt, and the numbers are quite poor, with a slugging percentage under .400, and an OBP under .300. At this point, it feels like the time to admit, and acknowledge that not only is the LeMahieu of early days in pinstripes not making another appearance, but that even expecting the LeMahieu of 2021-22 might be a bit of a stretch, which is not really something you want to hear for someone on the books for over $45 million across the next three seasons after this one.

With all of that being said, there are a few things that DJ can, and ought to work on, to improve his numbers. Through 60 games, LeMahieu is striking out a whopping 26.3 percent of the time, which would basically double his number from last season (13.1), and also be well above his career average (14.9). The issue has been that LeMahieu has a called strike percentage of 24.3, which ranks in the top percentile of the entire league, and even for a guy who takes more strikes than usual, would be a career-high.

Understanding LeMahieu is being particularly passive at the plate, pitchers are feeding him strikes, with a zone percentage of 52.8, ranking in the 99th percentile in the sport. LeMahieu’s contact rate is down, particularly in pitches outside the zone, as he currently sits below 60 percent, when he was in the 70s for the past three years, dating back to 2020. If pitches are pouring pitches over the plate to LeMahieu, knowing he’s passive, he can adjust by attacking more in the zone. Of course, it would also help to curtail chases on pitches out of the zone. It’s easier said than done, but a refined plate approach could help LeMahieu get the most out of his twilight years.

If he can do that, LeMahieu could get his batting line back to or above average, which, combined with his versatile defense, would make him quite a useful player. But failing that, he’s looking more and more like a second-division starter. It might be time we adjust our expectations to reflect that.