As absurd as it is given that he plays in the same league as a healthy Mike Trout, the MVP chants have started for DJ LeMahieu. While the American League MVP award is a long shot for LeMahieu, he has almost certainly locked up MVP of the 2019 New York Yankees. He’s accumulated a team-high 4.7 bWAR, good for tenth among all position players in Major League Baseball. He has a .381 wOBA, 139 wRC+, and .195 ISO and is slashing .336/.383/.531 with forty-six extra-base hits, including eighteen homers. His wRC+, ISO (a batter’s slugging percentage minus his batting average, eliminating the effect of singles, which makes ISO less susceptible to variations in luck than slugging percentage), and slugging percentage all would be career highs if the season ended today, and his wOBA, batting average, and on-base percentage would be second-best to the marks he put up in 2016 when he won the National League batting title. His wOBA ranks him twenty-fourth among all 146 qualified hitters in 2019, and his wRC+ is twenty-first.
Needless to say, LeMahieu has wildly outpaced any and all expectations set when the thirty-one year old signed a two-year, $24 million contract with the Yankees in the offseason. Dan Szymborski‘s ZiPS projection system, available at FanGraphs, projected DJ for 2.6 WAR in 139 games, a .316 wOBA, .120 ISO, .274/.332/.393 slash line, and thirty-nine extra-base hits, with only twelve home runs. Baseball Prospectus’ 90th percentile outcome (the top ten percent of projected outcomes for the 2019 season) projected LeMahieu for a .312/.384/.437 slash line and sixteen extra-base hits with four home runs in just 225 plate appearances. The Baseball Prospectus projections show not only that DJ is exceeding even the most optimistic of projections but also that his role on this Yankees team was expected to be much more supporting than starring when the season began. You can’t really blame the projections for being so modest given how his 2019 stats compare with his past performance since 2015.
So many offensive breakouts in recent years have followed the same narrative: changes to swing mechanics that result in both lifting and pulling the ball more often, unlocking latent offensive potential. LeMahieu is the type of player that makes swing doctors salivate. He’s always possessed well above average exit velocity coupled with elite contact ability. Below are his exit velocities and rankings among hitters with at least 100 batted ball events as well as his strikeout rates and rankings among qualified hitters since 2015.
|Season||Exit Velocity||EV Ranking||K%||K% Ranking|
|2015||90.0 mph||65th of 392||17.3%||66th of 143|
|2016||90.4 mph||59th of 391||12.6%||21st of 146|
|2017||88.8 mph||87th of 387||13.2%||20th of 144|
|2018||91.1 mph||37th of 390||14.1%||23rd of 140|
|2019||91.7 mph||26th of 346||13.6%||20th of 146|
In addition to his exit velocities and bat control, LeMahieu has always hit too many ground balls and pulled the ball too infrequently. A swing change doesn’t appear to be what has fueled DJ LeMahieu’s breakout, however. Here he is on the Colorado Rockies in 2018.
And here’s what he’s looked like with the Yankees in 2019.
It does look like LeMahieu has quieted his leg kick and is slightly more closed in his stance, which might be helping him make solid contact more consistently, but there doesn’t appear to be any major swing overhaul for LeMahieu in 2019. His batted ball profile seems to confirm that he hasn’t altered his swing much.
LeMahieu has been hitting significantly more fly balls in 2018 and 2019 than he did from 2015 through 2017, but his fly ball rate has actually decreased from 2018 to 2019. DJ’s also become less of an extreme opposite field hitter the last two seasons but has regressed somewhat from 2018 this season, which might not be such a bad idea at Yankee Stadium. As Travis Sawchik first noted, the changes from 2015-2017 to what we’ve seen in 2018-2019 have been the result of a concerted effort from LeMahieu to modify his swing and are likely responsible for his elevated slugging percentages and ISOs in 2018 and 2019. But the question remains: why has LeMahieu had so much more success in 2019 than in 2018 despite seeing some regression on what has typically been the path towards offensive revolutions?
LeMahieu is swinging at better pitches more often in 2019. For starters, DJ is swinging at more pitches in general: his 46.2% swing rate represents a 4.5% increase over his 2018 rate and the highest of his career since 2014. That increase in overall swing rate has come with an increase in chase rate from 26.0% to 30.0% (another since-2014 high), but his strikeout rate has actually decreased from 2018. Additionally, his swing rate at pitches within the strike zone has increased even more dramatically from 60.1% to 67.2%, also good for his highest rate since 2014.
As you’ve probably intuited, not all pitches thrown in the strike zone are created equally, and just swinging at strikes isn’t enough. It helps to swing at the right strikes. LeMahieu has improved in that regard as well. Here’s the heat map of pitches he swung at in 2018.
And his corresponding 2019 heat map below.
The 2019 heat map shows that LeMahieu has been swinging more frequently in the strike zone generally and much more frequently middle-middle, middle-in, and middle-up than in 2018. To hammer the point home further, below are 2018 and 2019 heat maps of LeMahieu’s swings against four-seam fastballs, which he’s been thrown 42.0% of the time in 2019.
According to Pitch Info’s pitch values per 100 times thrown, LeMahieu has had more success against four-seamers in 2019 than in any other season of his career with the exception of 2016, and it’s more of the same: more swings middle-middle, more swings middle-up, and more swings middle-in. DJ’s traditionally done more damage against pitches middle-middle and middle-up throughout his career. Below is another heat map showing his ISO per balls-in-play based on pitch location since the start of the 2015 season.
LeMahieu’s been attacking those middle-middle and middle-up zones accordingly in 2019.
Pitch Info’s pitch values also show that LeMahieu has been punishing sliders in 2019, which he’s seeing 19.6% of the time. His 1.59 runs created per 100 sliders seen ranks him twentieth among all 146 qualified hitters against sliders so far in 2019. Once again, the heat maps tell the story.
Yes, LeMahieu’s chasing a good amount of sliders down and on the inner part of the plate in 2019, but he’s also been ultra-aggressive on hanging sliders over the heart of the plate and up in the zone.
To put it simply, LeMahieu is swinging more often at more pitches in his wheelhouse in 2019. That change has allowed him to hit the ball harder more frequently. His 46.9% hard-hit rate is a 3.9% increase over his 2018 rate, the second-highest of his career (after his 47.5% mark in 2016), and in the 90th percentile of all qualified hitters according to Statcast. That his hard-hit rate seems to be driven by a positive adjustment in pitch selection makes his surge in overall offensive production appear sustainable, and the Statcast numbers don’t disagree: his .381 wOBA is just a tad above his .374 xwOBA in 2019.
As The Athletic’s Eno Sarris reported, in 2019, player development from the minor leagues to the majors is the name of the game in Major League Baseball. This season, the Yankees have suffered what would have been an insurmountable number of injuries for most teams. DJ LeMahieu was an afterthought when he signed with the Yankees in January and as he watched Opening Day from the bench in March. By embracing a more aggressive approach, LeMahieu has become a feared all-around hitter and the center of a core of unforeseen contributors that have the Yankees tied for the American League’s best record. Sometimes, pitch selection can make all the difference.