DJ Lemahieu: The Unexpected MVP of the Yankees

When DJ LeMahieu signed his two year, 24-million-dollar deal with the Yankees, there were mixed reactions. Some thought that since he was a man without a position (the Yankees already had Didi Gregorius, Gleyber Torres, Troy Tulowitzki, Miguel Andujar, Luke Voit, and Greg Bird), he wasn’t worth the money. Others preferred the Yankees would have gone after Manny Machado instead. LeMahieu was soon inserted into the starting lineup and became a fan favorite almost immediately. He had such a good year in 2019 that he ended up finishing fourth in the AL MLB voting, and led the Yankees in both bWAR and fWAR. The thing that stood out to most Yankees fans though, was LeMahieu’s unbelievable consistency.  

The recent Yankee lineups have been known to include a lot of guys who hit bombs, but also tend to whiff, chase, and strike out a lot. When the Yankees signed LeMahieu he was pretty much the opposite. Over the course of his career, he has been significantly below league average in whiff rate, chase rate, strikeout percentage. The way he put the ball in play he was also very unique for them. For one, he has always sprayed the ball all over the field. In every season of his career, he has hit the ball up the middle, and to the opposite field more than the league average. He also has tended to keep his launch angle lower than most of the Yankees which has led to significantly lower fly ball, and popup rates. Because of that, pitchers need to have a much different approach for him, compared to the rest of the Yankee lineup, but the right approach has been very hard to find.

What makes LeMahieu so hard to pitch to is he doesn’t have any glaring weaknesses. Unlike some of his teammates, there isn’t really a pitch that he is more susceptible to. His expected batting averages on each of the different pitch groups were all above .300, his expected slugging percentages were all above .520, and his worst, yes worst, expected wOBA was .366. LeMahieu also pounds the ball in any part of the strike zone. His lowest expected wOBA was .327 on pitches up and away, and he only had one zone where average exit velocity was below 91 miles per hour.

He was also great on pitches that weren’t in the strike zone. Statcast estimates that on chase and waste pitches, the two areas farthest from the strike zone, he added 31 runs relative to a league average player. It makes a pitcher’s job that much harder to do when there aren’t any specific pitches, or spots that you can go to and comfortably get him out. 

LeMahieu admitted that the Yankees gave him more freedom to swing and miss, which in turn allowed him to let it loose a bit more often. His solid contact percentage, and barrel percentage were 6.8 and 7.5 respectively, which were the highest marks of his career, and above league average. The uptick in those percentages helped lead to career high power numbers. He hit 26 home runs (only two of which were Yankee stadium porch jobs in right field), eleven higher than his previous career high, and his slugging percentage broke .500 for the first time.

A three-time gold glove winner with the Rockies, LeMahieu’s defense was also extremely useful to the Yankees. Last year, they had 29 different players spend time on the injured list, which set a major league record. LeMahieu was able to spend a considerable amount of time at both first base, second base, and third base. To make it even better, he was able to contribute four outs above average, which was the most of any Yankee infielder. His versatility allowed them to call up, and bring in a bunch of different infielders, such as Gio Urshela and Edwin Encarnacion.

In 2020, a season more chaotic and uncertain than ever before, LeMahieu has been a cool, calm, collected, and confident force for the Yankees. He is the 97th percentile in expected batting average, 98th percentile in strikeout percentage, and in the 99th percentile in whiff percentage. Combine that with him having an expected wOBA above .400 and a chance to finish the season with his batting average over .400, and you have a guy who as LeMahieu himself says “could really impact winning”.

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