When DJ LeMahieu became a free agent following the 2020 season, many Yankees fans wanted to give him a blank check. Some fans now want LeMahieu designated for assignment two and a half seasons later.
In 195 games with the Yankees after signing a two-year, $24 million contract before the 2019 season, LeMahieu was among the most valuable players in Major League Baseball. In that time span, LeMahieu’s 8.2 FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement (fWAR) was the eighth-most among all position players.
Coming off the best two-year stretch of his career, LeMahieu hit free agency at the perfect time. On the other hand, the Yankees had a difficult decision to make. The team wanted to bring LeMahieu back, but they didn’t want to overpay him for what he had done compared to what he was likely to do. Ultimately, the two sides agreed on a six-year, $90 million contract to bring LeMahieu back to the Bronx.
In the first three years of his new contract, LeMahieu has been disappointing. LeMahieu struggled through 2021 injured, but he rebounded in 2022 – but still came nowhere near matching the level of his play from 2019-2020 – only for injuries to again cause him to miss most of the final month of the regular season and postseason.
Seemingly healthy in 2023, LeMahieu is having by far the worst season of his Yankees career. Slashing a bleak .234/.299/.388 (90 wRC+), LeMahieu is looking like a shell of the player the Yankees signed him to be (and, naturally, is leading off Friday night against Boston). Here are the key reasons why the veteran is struggling so much in 2023.
Troubles inside and outside of the strike zone
Throughout his career, one constant in LeMahieu’s game has been that he makes a lot of contact and rarely strikes out. However, LeMahieu’s 80.3 contact% is the lowest of his career, while his 27.1 K% is the highest of his career.
A big reason for LeMahieu’s struggles in both areas has been his inability to hit pitches outside of the strike zone. Although LeMahieu’s O-Swing% (percentage of swings at pitches outside the zone) is in line with his career average (27.0% in 2023, compared to 27.5% career average), his O-Contact% (percentage of pitches on which contact was made outside the zone) is 60.2%, a career low and 18.0% lower than it was from 2019-2022.
As a result of struggling to make contact on pitches outside the zone, LeMahieu is starting to bury himself into deep counts, which especially hurts, considering he takes so many called strikes.
LeMahieu’s 23.6 CStr% (called strike percentage) is the second highest among all qualified position players. When combining his abundance of called strikes and his career-worst O-contact%, LeMahieu has fallen behind in more counts than he’s been ahead in.
In 112 of his plate appearances, LeMahieu has fallen behind 0-1, whereas he’s gotten ahead in the count 1-0 in only 87 plate appearances. In 43 plate appearances, LeMahieu has fallen behind 0-2, and has only gotten ahead in the count 2-0 in 27 plate appearances. In 64 plate appearances, LeMahieu has fallen behind 1-2; he's been ahead in the count 2-1 in 41 plate appearances.
When LeMahieu goes down in the count 0-1, he has a 79 wRC+. When he goes down in the count 0-2, he has a -49 wRC+. When behind 1-2, he has an 84 wRC+.
When LeMahieu has gotten ahead in counts, that’s where he’s had most of his success. However, by looking at so many strikes and struggling to make contact when he swings at pitches outside the zone, LeMahieu has rarely been able to get ahead in counts, where he does most of his damage.
Even when LeMahieu is at his best, he hits a lot of ground balls. However, when he’s not at his best and he’s still near the top of the league leaderboard in GB%, that’s when a problem arises.
While he’s struggling at the plate, LeMahieu has still hit the ball relatively well. LeMahieu’s 7.0 Barrel% is in the 42nd percentile, but it’s the second highest barrel rate of his career. Additionally, LeMahieu’s 91.0 average exit velocity is in the 75th percentile, and it’s just under his 91.7 EV from 2019-2020. His 77.0 hard hit% is in the 77th percentile, his best mark since 2019.
Although he’s hitting the ball hard, he’s pounding it into the ground. LeMahieu’s 53.9 GB% is the sixth-most among all qualified position players, limiting his damage to mostly singles if he doesn’t ground out.
LeMahieu has proven he can be successful even when he consistently hits the ball on the ground, but he’s made up for that deficiency in the past by having elite plate discipline and still effectively hitting for a high average. However, with his unusually bad plate discipline and .234 batting average (the worst of his career), LeMahieu might have to consider changing his approach at the plate to try and lift the ball more often.