The Yankees signed a free agent infielder to a multi-year contract this past offseason. It was not the free agent infielder most expected or hoped, however. Rather than spend big on Manny Machado, the Yankees instead scooped up longtime Rockies second baseman DJ LeMahieu. He received a two-year contract worth $24M total.
“He’s always shown the ability to play all four infield positions,” said special assistant Jim Hendry, who drafted LeMahieu when he was with the Cubs, to Dan Martin a few weeks ago. “And we have a lot of guys that can hit the ball out of the ballpark, but that comes with strikeouts. He’s gonna make contact and be a winning player for us.”
LeMahieu turns 31 in July and he’s coming off a .276/.321/.428 (86 wRC+) batting line last season with his third Gold Glove in the last five years. The Gold Gloves are deserved too. His +18 DRS was second to Kolten Wong (+19 DRS) at second base last year, and, over the last five years, his +48 DRS is second only to Ian Kinsler (+67 DRS).
The Yankees are not getting 2018 LeMahieu or 2014-18 LeMahieu, however. They’re getting 2019 LeMahieu and, barring a trade or release, 2020 LeMahieu as well. Taking a relatively light hitting infielder out of Coors Field is a risky move, but the Yankees are all-in. Let’s preview LeMahieu’s season.
How much offense should we expect?
We know five things about LeMahieu as a hitter. One, he’s a ground ball guy (career 53.8%). Two, he’s more likely to go the other way to right field than pull the ball to left (35.0% to 25.0%). Three, he’s been more effective at Coors Field than everywhere else (96 wRC+ vs. 84 wRC+). Four, his contact rate on pitches in the zone is elite (92.6%). And five, he’s a sneaky good exit velocity guy.
Like every other Rockies hitter, LeMahieu has benefited from playing in Coors Field. He’s just benefited in a different way than, say, Nolan Arenado or Brad Hawpe or Vinny Castilla. LeMahieu’s not a home run guy. He sprays the ball around and took advantage of that huge Coors Field outfield, the second most spacious in baseball. There’s a reason LeMahieu has a career .374 BABIP at Coors Field and a career .310 BABIP everywhere else.
The issue with Coors Field is not necessarily Coors Field itself. It’s what happens when hitters leave Coors Field and go out on the road. There’s evidence of a Coors Field hangover effect, meaning Rockies players are unfairly dinged when they leave altitude. Remember when Adam Ottavino said he’s looking forward to leaving Coors Field and gaining consistent break on his pitches? That works the other way too. LeMahieu will see consistent break now.
Although he’s a right-handed hitter with a tendency to hit the ball to right field, LeMahieu’s not a great candidate to take advantage of the short porch because he hits so many balls on the ground. His walk rate has more or less been average over the years despite a very low chase rate (26.1% since 2015) because he puts the ball in play easily. It’s good LeMahieu knows a ball from a strike. It’s just that well-above-average chase rate only equals an average number of walks.
Only some power and only some walks means LeMahieu’s offensive value is tied tightly to his batting average, which is risky. Risky probably isn’t the right word. Susceptible to big year-to-year swings is more like it. Three years ago LeMahieu hit .348. Last year he hit .276. Sure, his true talent level changed some across three years because he aged, but 72 points of batting average? Walks and power help stabilize things and LeMahieu doesn’t really offer them.
As for his contact rate, that’s nice, though the idea he solves any strikeout concerns is a real stretch. For starters, the Yankees don’t strike out as much as everyone seems to think. Their team 22.7% strikeout rate was almost exactly league average (22.3%) last year. (The difference was roughly 25 strikeouts across the 162-game season.) Having one or two strikeout prone hitters like Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton doesn’t make the entire team strikeout prone. Whatever. This narrative isn’t going away.
Anyway, LeMahieu makes a lot of contact and doesn’t strike out much, but even if you believe strikeouts are this team’s fatal flaw, LeMahieu is only one player, and no one player can fix any team’s flaw. Also, if LeMahieu is suddenly a true talent .270-ish hitter with not much power, how much is that extra contact really helping? Point is, LeMahieu not striking out much is welcome, but the idea that he’s exactly what the Yankees need because they strikeout a lot is … woof. No.
My hope is LeMahieu can be a league average hitter now that he’s free from the Coors Field hangover. League average for a hitter with this profile in Yankee Stadium means something like .280/.330/.400. Nothing exciting about it, and it would assuredly make LeMahieu no better than the seventh or eighth best hitter on the team, but that’s okay. They can’t all be middle of the order thumpers. League average is a modest and reasonable goal.
A super utility infielder
“I was told to bring a lot of gloves,” LeMahieu quipped during his introductory conference call. The Yankees intend to use LeMahieu has a super utility infielder, meaning someone who plays regularly but at different positions. Second base one day, third base the next, first base the day after that, so on and so forth. It’s a great idea, especially with Troy Tulowitzki needing regular rest, though it’s not as easy as it sounds. We’ve seen other players struggle with it.
LeMahieu is a career second baseman, so it’s no surprise he’s spent more time at third base (25 innings) than second (22 innings) this spring. He knows second base. Third base is the one he has to learn. And, coincidentally enough, LeMahieu is playing first base for the first time in today’s Grapefruit League game. He played a little first and third in the past. The Yankees want to make it a weekly thing and LeMahieu’s on board. He knew what he was getting into.
“This is really how I came up to the Majors,” LeMahieu said to Kristie Ackert earlier this week. “I played different positions, and then second base opened up so I kind of stuck there. When this opportunity to come to the Yankees opened up for me, it was what I wanted … Because it’s the Yankees.”
Granted, we haven’t seen him much at third base this spring, but LeMahieu has looked fine there in his limited looks. He has the hands and arm for it. I’m not worried about him catching and throwing the ball. The adjustment will come on those quick reactions — there’s a reason it’s called the hot corner! — and plays when the ball isn’t hit to him. Where does he go on cutoff plays, things like that. That’s usually where the lack of experience shows up.
I expect LeMahieu to be perfectly fine at first and third bases. His inexperience will show up at times and that’s to be expected. Otherwise I think he’ll handle both positions well. The question is how much will he play? Aaron Boone says the Yankees plan to play LeMahieu pretty much every day, but these super utility things are always better as an idea than in reality. My guess is this will be more of a play it by ear situation initially.
“(LeMahieu) allows us to really have a ten, eleven-man rotation for nine spots,” said Boone to Brendan Kuty last month. “It keeps everyone, we believe, playing regularly, but also able to keep guys fresh, hopefully more healthy over the long haul and a guy or two on the bench every night that’s a really good player.”
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The LeMahieu signing is the kinda move hardcore statheads call savvy because he has untapped potential (woo exit velocity!) but leaves most others shrugging their shoulders. Especially when the Yankees passed on Machado to sign LeMahieu. Of course it’s not that simple — they’re not in the same stratosphere contract-wise — but that’s how many fans will see it, that the Yankees passed on Machado to sign LeMahieu.
For all intents and purposes, the Yankees signed LeMahieu to be Tulowitzki insurance, and to be a better version of Neil Walker. LeMahieu’s a much better defender than Walker — or at least he is at second base (first and third bases remain to be seen) — and he theoretically offers more offensive upside because he makes more contact and has shown better exit velocity. I feel like there are only two possible outcomes here: LeMahieu is unexpectedly great and looks like a steal, or he’s terrible and everyone hates him. No middle ground.