DJ LeMahieu - Is He Worth It?
Even the grumpiest of Yankees fans fell in love with DJ LeMahieu last year. The Silver Slugger second basemen finished 3rd in MVP voting last year, just behind Jose Abreu and Jose Rameriez with the slash line of .364(League Leader)/.421/.590 and an OPS+ of 177.
LeMahieu was signed by the Yankees in 2019 from the Colorado Rockies. The Rockies decided to sign Daniel Murphy over re-signing LeMahieu, and the Yanks swooped in. At the time, the signing for the Yankees seemed unnecessary with the talent that already existed in their infield. They already had Gleyber Torres, Didi Gregorius, Miguel Andujar, Gio Urshella, and a slightly used Troy Tulowitzki on their roster. The move turned out to be the best one, considering the multitude of injuries that 2019 Yankees team faced. DJ's first year in the Bronx produced a slash line of .324/.375/.518 with 26 homers and 102 RBIs. He also seemed to be the only healthy Yankee that year playing 145 games.
2020 was the end of his two year, $24 million contract, in which he outperformed. Now, LeMahieu and the Yankees are in a stare down to sign the All Star caliber second basemen to a contract. DJ is seeking a 5 year, $100 million contract to stay in New York, but according to recent sources, the Yankees and LeMahieu are more than $25 million apart. Should the Yankees re-sign DJ? Let's look at the stats:
How Does DJ Compare To Other Second Basemen?
LeMahieu's standard statistics were eye-popping. Let's look at the last five years of his career to see where they stacked up to previous years:
The main diss on DJ's stats through his whole career is that he plays in hitter friendly parks. What the advanced statistics told us (until this year) was that LeMahieu performs the same home versus away. DJ had a career high batting average, OBP, slugging, and OPS last year, and at the second base position, that offensive impact is multiplied.
Here's how DJ stacked up against the top ten qualified second basemen from 2020 sorted by OPS:
As you can see by OPS standards, LeMahieu had the best season overall at the plate, leading in BA, OBP, SLG, OPS. This should have Yankees fans yelling at ownership to resign DJ no matter the cost, but hold on.
For his whole career, DJ has been known as the high batting average player, one that always puts the ball in play. As we've learned with the rise of advanced statistics, this may not be the most efficient hitter. LeMahieu's success comes from hitting grounders up the middle for base hits. For his career, 31% of his hits come from up the middle. I can find a lot of statistics to back this groundball for base hit approach that DJ has, but the biggest indicator is his launch angle. The MLB average on Launch Angle is 11.9 degrees. DJ's last year? 2.3. He's practically hitting the ball on the ground in almost every at bat. His career LA is 4.8 degrees. Here's a fun one for me to look at. Here's the comparison of LeMahieu's ground ball percentage compared to Joey Gallo's (you thought you couldn't get through one of these without a chart, you are sorely mistaken):
With this low LA, one would expect other lacking Statcast categories. Enter in Barrel%. Out of all of the qualified batters, DJ ranked 10th worst in Barrel%, making perfect contact on 2.9% of his contacted balls. He also topped the ball 42.3% of the time, which would rank 9th. He's also slowing down. At 32, this shouldn't be a surprise. Last year, he was in the 31st percentile in sprint speed, compared to 47th the year before. He's getting to the point where he may not be able to leg out those singles or turn them into doubles. His defense also took a hit, dropping from 86th percentile in Outs Above Average to the 20th percentile. One last Statcast negative was his actual slugging to his expected slugging. He lead the league this past year with a .128 difference (.590 to .462). His buddy in center field Brett Gardner felt this. In 2019, Gardy also lead the league with an actual to expected slugging discrepancy, and had a severe drop off in statistics this past year.
Here are some player comparisons from Statcast, which compile all of their advanced metrics and compare them to other players in the league:
Isiah Kiner-Falefa - 58 games .280/.329/.370
Ramiel Tapia - 51 games .321/.362/.402
David Fletcher - 49 games .319/.376/.425
Kolten Wong - 53 games .265/.350/.326
Miguel Rojas - 40 games .304/.392/.496
Nico Hoerner - 48 games .222/.312/.571
Jose Iglesias - 39 games .373/.400/.556
Isan Diaz - 7 games .182/.182/.364
The above players have a similar batting profile to DJ's, meaning stats like Launch Angle and Exit Velocity. Would you sign any of these players to a 5 year, $100 million contract?
What confuses me the most out of all of these categories is his Exit Velo. He ranked 24th out of all qualified hitters last year, at 91.3mph. What this means to me is that DJ is scorching balls back up the middle of the field. Why wouldn't teams shift on this kind of batter profile? Typically, you see a shortstop practically stand behind second base but with LeMahieu they can't. What's the reasoning for this? It's not because LeMahieu sprays the field, it's because there are always runners in scoring position. Last year, the Yankees were in the middle of the pack as a team with RISP with a batting average of .256. LeMahieu's batting average in 37 pate appearances last year was .364. The middle infielders can't sit behind second base with a runner on second because they'll just steal third with no one holding them on. If you want LeMahieu to be the ultimate bat on your team, you need to have players get on base in front of him.
With all of these factors in mind, is DJ worth the 5 year $100 million deal that he is asking for? Looking at his position, there are would be only two second basemen that would be making more: Jose Altuve and Robinson Cano. Altuve has been the pinnacle of success for a second basement, although this past year was a rocky one. Cano, well.....he's suspended again for PED's. To justify this from strictly the second basemen standpoint, It's safe to say that LeMahieu would be worth it at this point if those players are the barometer that you are going after. There are other players out there that are younger that won't be moving any time soon that make a lot less (Albies and Lowe), but in terms of free agent signings, this would make the most sense. Out of all infielders, with that contract mentioned above, LeMahieu would be the 10th highest paid in terms of average annual salary behind the likes of Anthony Rendon, Nolan Arenado, Manny Machado, and Joey Votto.
LeMahieu is coming off a career year, and he may be the best available free agent other than J.T. Realmuto. Out of all of the second basemen last year, he ranked first in most major statistical categories. He does hit the ball on the ground a lot, especially in the new era of "Launch Angle is king", but as long as he's on a team that provides him with runners in scoring position, DJ will succeed as a middle of the lineup hitter. His Exit Velocity numbers are increasing which could project him to an elevated launch angle with some sort of power resurgence later in his career. Ultimately, the secret to succeed in sports is it's not about what you do on the field. Sure, the statistics help you succeed but what's important is team morale and chemistry. DJ is a leader in that clubhouse, as Aaron Judge has said. Although the stats may regress next year, I think it would be wise to resign DJ for what he wants.