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DJ LeMahieu, Gio Urshela, and the Yankees’ emphasis on exit velocity

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DJ LeMahieu and Gio Urshela might seem like outliers in the Yankees lineup, but a closer look suggests that they fit right in with their organizational philosophy.

Seattle Mariners v New York Yankees Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Death, taxes, and Yankee fans complaining about “too many darn homers,” “winning the wrong way,” and “too much swinging for the fences and not enough situational hitting.” The first two truths of life remain at large, but the third has been subdued quite a bit thanks to the Yankees’ recent stellar play. In particular, clutch hitting performances from DJ LeMahieu and Gio Urshela, currently the top two players on the team in terms of both batting average and fWAR, have seemingly answered the prayers of fans dissatisfied with the Yankees’ usual three-true-outcome approach.

However, it would be a mistake to assume just from the performances of LeMahieu and Urshela that the Yankees’ offense has transformed themselves into a high-contact, spray-hitting unit. On the whole, as PSA’s resident Canadian Josh succinctly pointed out earlier this month, the Yankees’ offensive profile remains similar to last years’; walks, strikeouts, and power. Josh argued that the front office, far from contemplating a change in philosophy, actually still favors the three-true-outcome approach, and that they actively seek out players who either already fit that mold or can be coached into doing so.

I agree with Josh that the Yankees haven’t really changed their offensive approach, but I also disagree with the notion that said approach is limited to three-true-outcomes or bust. After all, if homers, walks, and strikeouts are all that the Yankees preach, why did they go out and sign DJ LeMahieu of all people (career .108 ISO, 7.3% walk rate, 15.1% strikeout rate) to a two-year contract? And why are they sticking with Gio Urshela, owner of a career .295 OBP and .346 slugging percentage, at third base even now that Andujar has returned?

The reason that Brian Cashman sought DJ LeMahieu’s services despite his decidedly anti-TTO ways is simple - LeMahieu consistently generates good exit velocity. As I noted in an earlier LeMahieu post, the two-time All Star has posted an average exit velocity above 90 MPH in three of his past four seasons, and in the other year (2018) he posted an 88.8 MPH mark, still comfortably above league average.

Contrary to its tendency among the general public to be associated with power, exit velocity isn’t just about trying to hit homers. Indeed, at its core, exit velocity is about getting hits, period. Hard-hit balls are more difficult to field and thus are more likely to find open space. Sure, bloops and seeing-eye grounders exist, but they’re the exception, not the rule. Generally speaking, the harder a given ball is struck, the likelier it is to go for a hit.

Exit velocity has been one of Cashman’s favorite evaluation tools. The statistic was a key factor in many acquisitions like last year’s Luke Voit trade, the Matt Holliday signing in the 2016-17 offseason, and even as early as the mid-2014 swap for Chase Headley. Seen in this light, the acquisition of DJ LeMahieu is an affirmation rather than a departure from the Yankees’ organizational philosophy.

Cashman lends more importance to exit velocity than whether players fit the three-true-outcome mold. It’s easy to conflate one with the other, because good three-true-outcome types do often generate elite exit velocities in practice; such players wouldn’t be viable big leaguers if they didn’t hit the snot out of the ball when they do make contact, given that they swing and miss a ton. However, not all players who generate good exit velocity numbers strike out or walk all that often, DJ LeMahieu being one such exception. That the Yankees chose LeMahieu to fortify their infield despite his anti-TTO approach proves that the front office values exit velocity readings over adherence to the TTO model in their player evaluation process.

The same, to a lesser extent, can be said about the Yankees’ utilization of Gio Urshela. The similarly anti-TTO third baseman is setting a career high in average exit velocity this year, with a 90.2 MPH mark. There is more to Urshela’s magical run than randomness and luck; his expected batting average (.342) and wOBA (.393), both derived from his batted ball and plate discipline data, suggest that Urshela has actually earned his results. That, along with Andujar’s struggles, is why Urshela has earned the third base job for the time being.

DJ LeMahieu and Gio Urshela are the latest success stories for the Yankees’ player evaluation department. At first, they may not seem like the Yankees’ “type,” but that’s only if you conceive of that “type” as high-walk, high-strikeout, high-power sluggers. In truth, if the Yankees can be said to have a “type,” the most important criteria for them seems to be exit velocity. In practice, that’s led to the Yankees acquiring and developing many TTO types, as such players usually excel at hitting the ball hard. However, there are also hitters who are able to make tons of contact without skimping on exit velocity, like LeMahieu and Urshela. The Yankees trusted in their exit velocity numbers despite their low walk rates and below average power, and they’re reaping the benefits now. Never let it be said again that the Yankees rely too much on analytics; DJ LeMahieu and Gio Urshela are here because of it.