Opinion

D.J LeMahieu Had a Bad 2021 Season, But There’s Plenty of Room for Optimism

Yankees hitters across the board, save Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge, underperformed at the plate in 2021. In fact if someone told you prior to the season that players like DJ LeMahieu, Gleyber Torres and Gio Urshela would perform like they did, you’d be shocked. 

Yet at the same time, the poor results of this season may not have to lend itself to as much panic and worry as one would think. I see this as partially the case with DJ LeMahieu.

Let’s get this out of the way first: 

LeMahieu’s 2019 slash line: .327/.375/.518

LeMahieu’s 2020 slash line: .364/.421/.590

LeMahieu’s 2021 slash line: .268/.349/.362

It’s in plain sight that LeMahieu’s numbers took a gargantuan step back in 2021. And there’s some more to be concerned about outside of a simple slash line. His xwOBA, which sat in the .360 range in 2019 and 2020, was .338 in 2021. 

Moreover, LeMahieu hit ten home runs in 150 games played this season, while hitting ten home runs in 50 games played in the 2020 Covid shortened season. He went from a well above league average hitter in 2019 (136 WRC+) and 2020 (177 wRC+) to a perfectly average one in 2021 (100wRC+). 

But I’m here to tell you it’s not that bad. Well, maybe not. But it’s not as bad as it looks. We regarded D.J LeMahieu as really good last season, and not even close to the same player this season. But some underlying things would beg to differ. 

Barrel Rate and Contact Quality 

Let’s take a look at barrels. LeMahieu’s barrel % sat at 2.9% in 2020, that was good for the bottom 10% in all of baseball. This season, though, we actually saw his barrel rate tick a bit higher to 3.7%. We can naturally say the same thing for sweet spot %. In 2020, it was 29.7% and in 2021 it was 33.3%. So he was actually barelling the ball more often

There’s also not a significant difference between LeMaheiu’s hard hit rate from 2020 to 2021. In 2020 it was 45.7% (good for 80th percentile), and in 2021 it was 43.5% (good for 70th percentile). A dip? Sure. But not a significant one. 

DJ also elevated the ball more in 2021. Even though he was aptly nicknamed DJ LeGroundball this season, his 51.6 % ground ball rate this season was significantly lower than his 57.1% ground ball rate last season. He did hit flyballs at the highest rate he has in the past three seasons, while losing a couple percentage points on line drive %. But a lot of that is just noise as they can vary ever so slightly, as they do with DJ, on a season to season basis. 

Plate Discipline

D.J LeMahieu was one of the best hitters at not striking out back in 2020, he had just a 9.7% K%. He was again pretty good at not striking out in 2021 with a 13.8% K% (good for the top 10% in MLB).

He also drew walks at a higher percentage in 2021 than in 2020, with a 8.3% BB% in 2020 compared to 10.8% in 2021. 

LeMahieu also chased a smaller percentage of the time in 2021 than in 2020 and 2019. His chase % in 2019 was 27.1%, 24% in 2020 and 20.5 % in 2021. As for his whiffs, there was a slight uptick in this season compared to last, 11.2% in 2020 and 14.4% in 2021, but neither are higher than his 2019 whiff rate of 16%.  

Pitch Types

One thing we haven’t looked at yet is if LeMahieu struggled more or less against certain pitches year to year. 

Year Pitch Type wOBA  xwOBA 
2020 Fastballs .456 .388
2020 Breaking  .364 .317
2020 Offspeed .476 .346
2021 Fastballs  .334 .352
2021 Breaking .319 .327
2021 Offspeed  .202 .300

A couple of things jump out here. First is that he over-performed against breaking balls in 2020 (.364 wOBA vs. .317 expected). In fact, he actually hit breaking balls better (according to xwOBA) in 2021 with a .327 xwOBA. 

Secondly, his prowess against fastballs did not change as much as one would expect. Sure, he had a .456 wOBA against fastballs in 2020, but he also had a .388 expected wOBA that season. Comparing that to 2021, where his xwOBA is .352, it’s not like he fell off a cliff against heaters. 

Where he did actually get worse was on off-speed pitches, most notably on changeups. In 2019, LeMahieu had a run value against changeups of 14. That fell to 1 in 2020 and then all the way to -6 in 2021. His hard hit rate against changeups fell by 10 percentage points from 2020 to 2021 as well. We saw a handful of moments this season where DJ would roll over the outside changeup. 

A few examples below: 

https://baseballsavant.mlb.com/sporty-videos?playId=7d141d85-192e-456e-a4db-5509c2106488

https://baseballsavant.mlb.com/sporty-videos?playId=62183ce4-1b09-42bf-8694-acd5090ebf8f

https://baseballsavant.mlb.com/sporty-videos?playId=402486b6-0122-4e4f-8d5d-38fbef85ae6e

https://baseballsavant.mlb.com/sporty-videos?playId=e072b7d6-929a-41ac-ab4f-42e3be9cb361

LeMahieu also struggled against Sinkers in 2021, with a -4 Run Value on the pitch this season compared to a Run Value of 3 on the pitch last season. While I am not entirely sure what to make of this, my hunch is that he’s just not getting as lucky as he was the previous two seasons. I think we can attribute a lot of his poor results this year to mostly that, batted ball luck. There is nothing significant enough to suggest any differences that aren’t just noise. He really was not that different of a hitter, regardless of what the eye test might say. Him being worse against changeups and sinkers is not necessarily indicative of much, so we can’t predict much as a result. 

Why I’m Optimistic: 

So while DJ did have a poor season results wise, there seems to be plenty of room for optimism. I think we can make a similar case for DJ LeMahieu that I’ve made in the past for Gleyber Torres. 

DJ LeMahieu is not as good as he was in 2019 and 2020, but he’s not as bad as he was in 2021. He’s somewhere right in the middle. After all, he held a BABIP of .349 in 2019 and .370 in 2021.   

While a .300 BABIP is around ‘average’, DJ LeMahieu has historically been a high BABIP player. It’s not as though his contact quality has fallen off a cliff, and there seems to be at least some evidence that the more deadened baseball this season hurt his overall power numbers. A lot of his home runs were porch jobs, anyway. 

At the end of last season, Yankees fans were begging the front office to hand LeMahieu a blank check. Yet there was (almost literally) no chance he was going to replicate what he did in 2019 and 2020. However, 2021 was a bit of an over correction, he isn’t this bad of a player. We can expect an improved season for LeMahieu offensively in 2022, I know I am. 

 

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