How New York Yankees can improve DJ LeMahieu’s offense in 2022

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - AUGUST 30: DJ LeMahieu #26 of the New York Yankees in action against the New York Mets at Yankee Stadium on August 30, 2020 in New York City. The Yankees defeated the Mets 8-7. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - AUGUST 30: DJ LeMahieu #26 of the New York Yankees in action against the New York Mets at Yankee Stadium on August 30, 2020 in New York City. The Yankees defeated the Mets 8-7. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images) /

While we are all hoping that the New York Yankees will acquire outstanding new players to fill critical holes in their roster during this offseason, we shouldn’t forget that the club has several players who underperformed last year. Improving their output in 2022 must be a high priority as well.

These players are already under contract, so it would be advantageous for manager Aaron Boone and his newly restructured coaching staff to find ways to put players in the best position to succeed. It’ll help save the team money and get this roster back on track where it belongs.

DJ LeMahieu should be at the top of the list. During his first two years with the Bombers in 2019 and 2020, LeMachine produced slash lines of .327/.375/.518 and .364/.421/.590, respectively.

As a reward for his excellent play, he received a six-year contract worth $90 million beginning in 2021. Analysts were impressed with his hitting and ability to play multiple positions in the infield. As most Yankee fans would agree, the team thrives when DJ mashes.

Unfortunately, LeMahieu struggled at the plate during the first half of the 2021 season. Yankee fans wondered whether this was due to a severe injury. (He did have a low-level groin strain in late July and eventually had to undergo season-ending surgery to address a sports hernia) Or maybe infield shifts by other clubs were preventing him from finding holes. While he played better during the second half of the season, his final numbers were way down from the two previous years.

By the end of the 2021 season, he only managed to slash .268/.349/.362. Not great. So, what could have caused his decline at the plate this past season? Perhaps it was his injury, but it’s unclear how long that truly may have affected him. Additionally, opposing teams have been using shifts against him since he joined the Bombers. As a contact hitter who typically sprays the ball to all fields, shifts had never bothered him before.

A compelling explanation as to why DJ LeMahieu underperformed in 2021

After closely studying his offensive history, we found a compelling reason why LeMahieu struggled at the plate in 2021. Thankfully, the problem is correctable and can return DJ back to his old former self in the batter’s box, which would be a real shot in the arm for the Bombers.

If one looks closely at both his batting and fielding records together, it appears that LeMahieu has greater offensive production during a season when he’s playing his primary position of second base rather than bouncing around the infield as a utility defender.

LeMahieu played one year (his first in the big leagues) with the Chicago Cubs (2011), seven years with the Colorado Rockies (2012-2018), and three years with the Yanks (2019-2021). During his time in the major leagues, there have been seasons where he was primarily tasked with full-time duties at second base and others where he logged reps at first, second and third.

Based on analysis of the data over time, there’s a moderate to strong relationship between the extent to which he has played different positions and his production level in the batter’s box in a given year.

More specifically, between 2015 and 2018, he played second base 100% of the time. Offensively, he produced WAR/OPS+ stats of 1.8/92, 5.3/128, 3.4/93, and 2.9/88, respectively. Similarly, in 2012 with the Rockies, he played second base 91% of the time and generated a WAR and OPS+ of 1.4 and 88.

Additionally, during the shortened pandemic 2020 season with the Yanks, he played second base a large majority of the time (71%) and achieved a WAR and OPS+ of 3.1 and 178.

In contrast, in 2011 with the Cubs, he occupied second base 53%, third base 41%, and first base 6% of the time and produced disappointing WAR/OPS+ numbers of -0.2/50. Similarly, in 2021 with the Bombers, he played second base 52%, first base 25%, and third base 23%. This past season he only hit .268, the third-lowest batting average of his career.

Two implications of LeMahieu playing multiple positions for both him and the Yankees

First, based on this analysis, the Yanks are far better off having the veteran play a single position nearly all the time than having him play multiple large percentages of time. As we know, baseball players (like most athletes) prefer routines and derive confidence and comfort from repetition.

By playing second base day in and day out, DJ can more effectively focus on his hitting. As he ages, that’s probably best, too, because his effectiveness at less familiar positions won’t be as strong. The Bombers would be better off offensively if they adhered to this philosophy. The Yanks should find a good utility infielder to play that role on the club.

But our recommendation creates a problem. Boone decided to move Gleyber Torres from shortstop to second base at the end of this past season. Now the club has two second basemen. This complication can be resolved if the Yanks trade Torres for another player who can fill a hole in the lineup and on the field (e.g., catcher, center field, first base, shortstop, starting pitcher, etc.).

Whether the Bombers will be willing and able to make such a move during this offseason remains to be seen, but we sure hope there’s some sort of consistency on the defensive end for LeMahieu or else we could be looking at another down year from an offensive standpoint.