Yankees infielder D.J. LeMahieu soared through baseball’s ranks through a stellar 2019. But is he “The Machine” to stay?
The 2020-21 offseason was a tough one for Yankee fans. Beloved players Brett Gardner and D.J. LeMahieu made clear their particular investment in returning to New York, yet in both their cases, the Yankees waited until the eleventh hour to bring them back.
For Gardner, this made sense. He’s a 37-year-old and coming off an inconsistent season. On top of that, his signing makes him one of the more overqualified bench players in the game.
The Yankees’ hesitation to bring back LeMahieu, however, caused more head scratching. The second baseman has quietly became New York’s most consistent star. Furthermore, when the Yankees allegedly made no efforts to sign Didi Gregorius a year ago, one had to assume it was because the team was committed to a middle-infield future of LeMahieu and Gleyber Torres.
So what could explain the Yankees’ stalled pursuit of their standout? He didn’t seem to be demanding big money by baseball standards, nor a contract that dragged into his forties.
The 2021 Yankees front office is an austere one, but even so, wouldn’t re-signing LeMahieu be a no brainer?
The one explanation I can muster is that someone in the front office feared he was a one-year wonder. Anyone who has followed baseball for a number of years will know what I mean: that player whose talent spikes to tantalizing levels for exactly one season.
And no doubt some front-office personnel are haunted by memories of these years coming right as players hit free agency: think Javy Lopez in 2003, Erik Bédard in 2007 and Zack Cozart in 2017.
I realize it’s a stretch to call LeMahieu a one-year wonder: his 2020 60-game performance was even better than his strong 2019, and the theoretical intangibles are off the charts. But if you put yourself in the shoes of the most paranoid executive, you’ll realize that 60 games does not exactly constitute a season. As shown by Phil Hughes in 2010, Luis Severino in 2018 and Gary Sánchez in 2019, it is perfectly plausible for a player to have a strong few months and then completely fall off of the map.
Would LeMahieu’s power be sustainable as he aged? Would the value in his bat still remain if his doubles turned to singles? Would the natural order of things eliminate his “clutchness” moving forward?
Let me be clear, I don’t suspect D.J. LeMahieu will end up a one-year wonder. Then again, do we ever see it coming?
Below are three case studies of one-year wonder seasons, each of which offers a little insight into daunting challenging of staying elite in professional baseball, and provides a possible worry New York could’ve held in the LeMahieu chase.
Is there any chance Yankees 2B DJ LeMahieu is a one-year wonder?
A.J. Pollock – 2015
In 2015, 11 position players topped Fangraphs’ 6 WAR mark. Most of them were household names, with the list running from Andrew McCutchen at the bottom to Bryce Harper at the top. Tied for sixth on that list, however, was previously unknown Diamondbacks Outfielder A.J. Pollock, who posted a WAR of 6.8 (D.J. LeMahieu’s 2019 WAR was a “mere” 5.3).
Pollock couldn’t do a thing wrong in 2015. He batted a career-best .315 with an OBP of .367. He hit 20 home runs. He was also strong with his glove and on the base paths.
Since 2015, Pollock has not been the same player. He lost most of 2016 to injury and hasn’t surpassed 113 games played since. His batting averages have all remained below .280 and his OBPs haven’t topped .330.
So why did A.J. Pollock end up a one-year wonder? His case might be one of self-fulfilling prophecy: he didn’t believe in himself, and the doubt won out.
In the years since 2015, Pollock has seemingly tried to become a slugger. His strikeout totals have gone up along with his isolated power and launch angle. While I can only speculate, it seems some coach must have told him that his ground-ball dependent 2015 season, in which he posted a .340 batting average on balls in play, was unsustainable. To stay a star, Pollock would have to swing like a star.
But was this the right advice for Pollock? He hit 20 home runs and slugged .498 in 2015 without subscribing to the launch angle revolution. And in his bid to become Barry Bonds, Pollock has become the opposite: his walk rate has stagnated while his strikeout rate has ballooned.
Jacoby Ellsbury – 2011
Jacoby Ellsbury was an exciting free agent pickup when the Yankees acquired him in the 2013-14 offseason, but he was also somewhat of a one-year wonder.
Ellsbury had built up a big name through contributing to a Boston World Series win as a speedy rookie, and posting a strong (4.6 WAR) season in Boston’s subsequent 2013 championship. But his reputation was disproportionately owed to the 2011 season in which he batted .321 (his career average is .284) and hit 32 home runs (he has only reached double digits on one other occasion, 16 in 2014).
It was tempting at the time to chalk up Ellsbury’s power surge to his playing in Fenway, and hitting balls over the tall, but shallow Green Monster. Yet in practice, that’s not what was happening. Ellsbury’s home runs in 2011 primarily went to right field, something that theoretically should have made him even more of a slugging threat when he moved to Yankee stadium.
Yet Ellsbury was never a slugger again. In fact, his overall contribution in New York was decidedly average. The explanation for this may be more obvious than it seems. Ellsbury cruelly fell out of favor with Yankee fans when injuries decimated the second half of his contract. Those injuries may have begun to take their toll on Ellsbury far earlier than Yankee fans appreciate.
In 2013, Ellsbury’s second-best season, FanGraphs’ Dan Farnsworth noted that in Ellsbury’s 2011 campaign, his home run stroke was bolstered by the stability of his front (right) leg, something he lacked in the nine-homer 2013 campaign. Ellsbury would go on to foul a ball off of his right foot in 2013 and sprain his right knee. An oblique strain and plantar fasciitis also took their toll on the right side of his body.
At 27, Ellsbury was able to apply parts of four years of baseball experience in order to learn how to be a power hitter. But sports ultimately come down to one’s physical abilities. And after 2011, the right side of Ellsbury’s body simply didn’t allow him to be that slugger again.
Derek Jeter – 2009 (?!)
On a macro level, Derek Jeter is not a one hit wonder. A Hall of Famer and 14-time All-Star (most of those deserved), his career towers above those of Pollock, Ellsbury, and for now, LeMahieu.
Jeter’s celebrity owes itself to his objective strengths: plate discipline, hitting for average (with some power), and offering some speed on the base paths. His cool-headedness and commitment to running out ground balls also helped
But Jeter’s reputation also owes itself to a skill that he didn’t necessarily have: defense. For years, Jeter’s try-hard attitude, jumping throws and diving catches concealed the fact that his defensive range was actually below average for his position.
But it wasn’t just casual fans who fell for the hype. As Ben Lindbergh explains, the then 33-year-old Jeter was surprised when Brian Cashman drew his attention to his defensive limitations. But Jeter took the criticism well, and by 2009 had begun to establish himself as a strong defender. 2009 was one of the best years of his career, with Jeter posting a 6.7 WAR. It may not have been one of a kind for Jeter overall, but it was in the sense that a big part of it was his defensive contribution.
Unfortunately, in 2010, Jeter was hit with the winds of father time. His offense took a hit, as did his newly acquired defensive skill. Jeter was once again a liability in the defensive runs saved category, and would never post a positive defensive runs saved total again.
One-year wonder seasons will continue to be a part of baseball, and the above stories show just how. Cases like Jeter’s show that in the short span of a baseball career, it is very possible for a player to do the work to acquire a skill only for age to swiftly rip it away. Cases like Ellsbury’s show how hindsight can allow us to reevaluate a once mysteriously uneven career.
Of my three examples, A.J. Pollock is the truest one-year wonder. He became a star in the fourth year of his career, and seemingly unsure of what got him there, made adjustments that hindered, or at very least didn’t resuscitate, his performance.
D.J. LeMahieu does not appear to have a latent bodily vulnerability as Ellsbury did. And unlike Jeter, his newly acquired skill is with his bat, not his glove, a strength that shouldn’t age out as quickly.
Let’s be clear: Yankee fans should be glad their team brought back the player known as “The Machine.” But we’ll need to hope that our high-tech star isn’t built with the programmed obsolescence of a cell phone.