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DJ LeMahieu’s career year should continue into the second half

The Yankees’ unlikely MVP shows no signs of slowing down in the second half.

MLB: New York Yankees at Tampa Bay Rays Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports

Holy cow, DJ LeMahieu. Fresh off his third All-Star Game appearance, the versatile infielder owns a slash line of .330/.376/.507, good for a wRC+ of 132. In a year where the Yankees have been forced to make do without many of its regulars in the lineup, LeMahieu has been consistently great.

Yet, it’s worthwhile to ask whether LeMahieu’s performance is sustainable or not. Prior to this season, LeMahieu has posted offensive numbers of this caliber only once—back in 2016, when he slashed .348/.416/.495 for a 130 wRC+. Outside of that, he’s been an average to below average hitter, depending on how much stock you take in the park factors included within wRC+. Either way, this year is clearly a high point of LeMahieu’s career.

The thing about high points, whether in baseball or in life in general, is that they tend to be fleeting. Rare are the Mike Trouts or the Nolan Arenados of the world, players who can pump out year after year of MVP or All Star-worthy production. LeMahieu himself should know this; it took him two years of being essentially a league-average player to return to All-Star form. There’s plenty of baseball yet to be played. Who’s to say second-half LeMahieu looks a lot more like a passable, but humdrum regular, as he was in 2017 and 2018, instead of a core piece of the lineup?

It’s impossible to be 100% sure that LeMahieu will continue hitting as well as he is now in the second half. Slumps happen, fatigue will start to set in, and baseball will certainly do baseball stuff to our fragile psyches. Yet there’s evidence that suggests that LeMahieu’s stellar first half was more signal than noise, and that he has a good chance of continuing his hot hitting into the second half of the year.

For starters, it’s not like LeMahieu’s breakout was totally unforeseen. Even before this season, he was always known for hitting the ball hard, as he posted average exit velocity marks over 90 MPH in 2015, 2016, and 2018. What had kept LeMahieu from completely harnessing that power was his tendency to hit balls on the ground, as his groundball rate was upwards of 50 percent every year for the first seven seasons of his career. The power upside always existed; all LeMahieu needed to do was hit more balls in the air.

LeMahieu knew this and decided to improve his pull-side power by moving his point of contact forward in 2018. That resulted in career-high marks in homers (15) and fly ball percent (29.5%), but also his lowest batting average (.276) and wRC+ (86) since 2014, partly due to injuries to his thumb and oblique.

This year, however, LeMahieu has perfected his new approach. Combine that with his improved health, and it’s showing in the numbers. His current fly-ball rate of 26.6% represents the second-highest mark of his career, and he’s on pace to hit a new personal best in homers, with 12 on the season already.

LeMahieu has not only improved his power output; he’s also done it without sacrificing what made him good in the first place. Despite trying to make contact out in front, LeMahieu isn’t whiffing any more that he used to, as his swinging-strike rate (6.2%) and strikeout rate (14.3%) are both well within career norms. LeMahieu has maintained his strong bat-to-ball skills while upping his slugging abilities, elegantly sidestepping the trade-off between contact and power with which so manny hitters struggle.

All in all, LeMahieu’s 2019 looks like the culmination of a conscious change in approach rather than a random career year. By focusing on making more contact out in front, LeMahieu has unlocked his power potential while retaining his bat-to-ball skills. So far, there’s nothing to suggest that any sort of cliff is looming before LeMahieu. He has my vote of confidence to continue his hot hitting in the second half.