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Plate discipline is at the heart of DJ LeMahieu’s slump

The Yankees’ infielder has struck out 35 percent of the time in June, and has worked walks at a disappointing 2.5 percent rate.

MLB: Texas Rangers at New York Yankees Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

DJ LeMahieu has done a lot for the Yankees through the years. He was magnificent in 2019 with the ‘juiced’ ball, and won a batting title in 2020, the pandemic season. Injuries reduced him to a league-average hitter in 2021 (100 wRC+) but he rebounded in 2022 with a 116 wRC+, 2.9 fWAR and a Gold Glove for his efforts as a utility player.

The 2023 version of LeMahieu, however, has been ugly. He has hit .228/.286/.382 with seven home runs and a 84 wRC+. If you want a more traditional measure, his OPS before Friday’s game was .668. Not good at all.

As Estevão Maximo recently explained, Yankees fans will probably need to lower their expectations regarding LeMahieu and just hope he could be a league-average hitter from this point forward. For the first time in his tenure in New York, LeMaheiu has been both healthy and ineffective.

Since the calendar turned to May, the versatile infielder has struggled mightily. His wRC+ in March/April was a solid 113, but it collapsed to 79 in May and is at a putrid 25 in June so far. Since June 3, LeMahieu has hit a meager .154/.175/.308. His OPS for the month is .483. This year, he hasn’t been the player he once was, but it’s been particularly tough to watch over the last few weeks.

A big driver of LeMahieu’s nosedive is his plate discipline. He used to be very difficult to strike out (15 percent strikeout rate for his career), but this year, that number has gone up to 27 percent.

What’s happened is that LeMahieu’s plate decisions have been downright horrific in June. He has earned an incredibly low 2.5 percent walk rate and has struck out at an alarmingly high 35.0 percent rate. Basically, he is showing Franchy Cordero plate discipline numbers, without the raw or game power.

It does seem like he is anxious at the plate, expanding the zone much more than he usually does. In June, he is sporting an elevated 37.3 percent O-Swing rate (percentage of swings at pitches outside of the strike zone), as opposed to 27.6 percent for his career.

When you swing so much at pitches that are not in the strike zone, you risk incurring in two capital sins of hitting: whiffing and making soft contact. That has been part of what has been ailing LeMahieu in June, to be specific. Perhaps the anxiety of an extended slump has made him go hunt bad pitches he used to take.

He has also been swinging and missing more. Over the course of his solid career, he has a 5.7 percent swinging strike rate per FanGraphs. The number has gone up to 8.0 percent this season and 9.7 percent in June. Those numbers are still better than league average, but a far cry from LeMahieu’s career norms.

He spoke with Bryan Hoch about his struggles this year:

He has also had some issues hitting high velocity this year. For example, this is a recent at-bat against Bryan Woo of the Seattle Mariners:

Of course, that pitch is not easy to hit, but it’s obviously not the only example. Going “up and hitting” might work for a while, but there comes a time in a batter’s career in which he is required to make a few adjustments to keep succeeding.

Perhaps LeMahieu, 34, will never return to the level he showed in 2019 and 2020. After all, those were atypical seasons for obvious reasons, and age eventually catches up to everybody. But maybe he can find a way to return to the level he showed last year.

On Friday, he punished a ball for a double, for instance. It could be the start of something good, or at least help him regain some confidence. If the Yanks could help him get back on track and at least return league-average offensive stats from now on (or slightly above), that would probably be an acceptable outcome for team and fans.

It all starts with his plate discipline, though: not swinging at balls and taking advantage of hittable pitches would be a crucial first step.