Full disclosure: I didn’t care much for the DJ LeMahieu signing. I thought that the Yankees were clinging to the false hope that LeMahieu would recapture his 2016 NL batting champion form, and that LeMahieu would produce at a level similar to his 2018 (86 wRC+, 2.0 fWAR). Serviceable, but meh.
There’s still time for my prediction to come true, but so far LeMahieu has been far from meh. The three-time Gold Glove second baseman has hit .309/.364/.426 over 18 games and 77 plate appearances, good for a 115 wRC+. While LeMahieu has yet to find his power stroke — he hit 15 homers last year, but this season he has only one — he’s more than made up for that with his consistent supply of hits.
Now, for the million dollar question: will LeMahieu continue to produce? At first glance, his numbers seem to suggest no. Most damning is his .339 BABIP, which usually is the mark of either a lucky player whose flares keep on finding outfield grass, or a speedster who’s able to beat out infield singles like it’s nothing. Considering that LeMahieu’s average sprint speed is a bit slower than the MLB average, the former scenario seems more likely. This would make him a prime candidate for regression going forward.
A closer look reveals a more encouraging picture. LeMahieu’s batted ball quality and spray chart tendencies suggest that he may very well be able to maintain his high BABIP, thus keeping his batting average well over .300 throughout the season.
The first thing to note about LeMahieu’s profile is that he generates surprisingly high exit velocity numbers. While his career slash line of .298/.351/.406 paints the picture of a slap hitter, the erstwhile Colorado Rockie has posted average exit velocity marks above 90 MPH for three of the past four years. In 2018, LeMahieu’s 91.1 MPH mark placed him 52nd in MLB, sandwiched between Mike Trout and Joc Petersen. LeMahieu may have the slash line of a singles hitter, but he has the exit velocity of a slugger.
Although exit velocity is much maligned by baseball traditionalists, hitting the ball harder has a positive effect on one of the most loved traditional stats in baseball - batting average. According to Joe Posnanski, batting average climbs dramatically for every extra mile added to one’s exit velocity above 92 MPH; from .261 at 92. then to .286 at 93, then .311 at 94, and so on and so forth. It makes sense - well struck balls are harder to field, and thus more likely to touch fair ground. LeMahieu generates good exit velocity, so it’s not surprising that his BABIP is high; skill, not just luck, is involved here, suggesting that regression might not set on so severely.
In addition, LeMahieu has long made a name for himself as an all-fields hitter. Since his debut in 2011, only two hitters in baseball have hit a higher percentage of their batted balls (35.1%) to the opposite field - Adam Eaton and Mallex Smith, neither of whom have played as long as LeMahieu has. Such a batted ball profile renders shifts meaningless, forcing defenders to remain in their natural positions and rely on their pure reactions. Coupled with the exit velocity that LeMahieu generates, it’s no wonder his batting average is usually high - he’s just difficult to defend against.
All in all, the numbers under the hood for LeMahieu look encouraging. While his BABIP is considerably high, it’s also driven by repeatable skills - hitting the ball hard and hitting them all over the field - rather than pure dumb luck. As the Yankees continue to await the returns of their regular offensive pieces, fans can probably count on LeMahieu to provide hits by the dozen, helping the offense and the team stay afloat.