Compared to his first two campaigns with the New York Yankees, DJ LeMahieu has struggled at the plate this season. A .268 average and a .717 OPS are significant departures from a player who has gotten MVP votes the last two years.
In fact, it’s gotten so bad, that there have even been calls to move LeMahieu out of the leadoff spot, a stance that would have been ludicrous before this season began.
A recent Fangraphs article looked into exactly what has gone differently for LeMahieu at the plate in 2021. They came up with an interesting theory that has less to do with LeMahieu, and more the perfect storm of an MLB equipment change.
The juiced ball that has coincided with inflated home run totals over the last few seasons seems to have gone by the wayside in 2021. For the Aaron Judges and Giancarlo Stantons of the sport, the extra distance afforded by the ball was unnecessary. However, for players like LeMahieu, who don’t hit the ball incredibly hard and scrape the wall with home runs, the loss of a few feet of distance can be debilitating.
Take his first at-bat against Baltimore on Saturday. LeMahieu hit a ball hard the opposite way that off the bat looked to be trouble. Instead, it died at the warning track for an easy out.
How many times have we seen this in 2021?
Would that ball have gone out with the juiced ball? It’s impossible to say, yet undoubtedly a big reason LeMahieu secured a six-year, $90 million contract this season was due to his vastly improved home run totals since moving to Yankee Stadium. It’s rare to have a player move from a home run haven like Coors Field to a new team and see power numbers increase. For LeMahieu, the combination of the short porch in right at Yankee Stadium and his opposite field, line drive approach was a match made in heaven.
Even with the decreased power numbers, it was expected LeMahieu would be a lock to hit .300 right? Unfortunately, the extra outs on fly balls that had been doubles or home runs last season have also contributed to the drag on his overall average. During his stellar 2019 and 2020 campaigns, LeMahieu had BABIPs of .349 and .370 BABIP, respectively. This season that number has fallen to a mediocre .300.
Some of this may just be poor luck. LeMahieu’s underlying metrics have not changed much from his career norms. In fact, he’s improved his plate discipline this year which has fueled a noticeable increase in walk rate.
LeMahieu has perhaps been burdened with unfair expectations by the fanbase. This season has been incredibly similar to his final year in Colorado in 2018. Going forward, the version of LeMahieu that seems most likely to settle in over the rest of his contract is a hybrid between his unbelievable 2019 and his disappointing 2021. His average should rebound next year, however, the power may have been a mirage. After all, his defensive versatility is also a big part of his game that goes wildly overlooked.
As long as DJ can play a solid second base while providing some balance to a lineup that’s been contact-challenged at times, he should still be a valuable player for the Yankees over the next five years.