Written by: John Storey
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Two years ago when the New York Yankees signed DJ LeMahieu, they likely didn’t know they were adding the heartbeat of their lineup. Just before that, LeMahieu was entering free agency with the Coors Field monkey on his back. Having spent five of his six years in Major League Baseball playing his home games in Colorado’s elevation no one knew what to expect from him at sea level.
The discussion is not restricted to DJ. It’s the same controversy that forced Larry Walker to wait 10 years before 75% of Hall of Fame voters would agree to send him to Cooperstown. However, LeMahieu is a unique case. It’s easy to understand how Coors Field caters to fly ball, home run hitters, but it’s critical to remember that it also hosts more singles, doubles and triples than other ballparks. The run environment is elevated across the board.
Given this, it’s easy to expect fewer hits from LeMahieu outside of Colorado, even if those hits weren’t long, majestic home runs. His consistently high exit velocity’s benefits were multiplied in the thin Colorado air. After arriving in the Big Apple, he was unable to produce the same batted ball distance as he had in Colorado. This should come as no surprise.
Despite this, LeMahieu not only continued to succeed but flourished. This suggests LeMahieu changed and succeeded in New York differently than he did in Colorado. However, it’s difficult to find where that change is. During his first season in pinstripes, both his launch angle and exit velocity were nearly identical to the previous season in Colorado. He did post a career-low ground ball rate in 2019, at 49.7% – however that was only seven-tenths removed from his rate in 2018. He also bounced back to match his career-high ground ball rate in 2020. Even without the numbers, it’s easy to classify DJ LeMahieu as a player from whom both teams and fans anticipate very little change.
So what gives? What changed? Consider this: DJ LeMahieu’s success isn’t correlated to his batted ball metrics the way most players’ success is. Instead of smoking 100+ mile per hour bombs deep into the night, LeMahieu provides frequent, consistent contact that has a really good chance at falling for a hit. The key difference between the two is the productivity that those types of batted balls produce. We’re all familiar with today’s prototypical hitter. Major league teams clamour over hitters who can achieve more total bases. That, after the 2018 season, left DJ LeMahieu ousted.
It’s LeMahieu’s lack of power in combination with what many assumed to be inflated numbers in Colorado that likely deterred teams. But now, we can see that’s not at all the case. DJ LeMahieu was getting it done in another way. A much more traditional way. He makes successful contact and lots of it.
Across his career (since 2011) LeMahieu ranks 37th in contact on pitches inside the strikezone. He’s connected with 92.8% of inside offerings. Limiting the sample to players with at least 2,000 plate appearances over that span (a conservative, 200 per season) LeMahieu jumps to 21st. He’s putting the ball in play a lot.
DJ’s ability to hit anything is leveraged by the results he’s collected on contact. Consider weak contact. In the Statcast Era, Yoan Moncada is the first player to appear twice on the weak contact leaderboards. Two of his seasons (2018 and 2019) rank in the top 10. Rafael Devers has two seasons ranking in the top 19 (2019, 2020) and finally, LeMahieu has two in the top 21 (2015, 2018). That’s only slightly impressive. What’s much more impressive is that LeMahieu is the first to achieve three seasons on the leaderboards (his third season ranks 28th). He’s also the first to four (93rd). And the first to five (123rd). Once DJ has five seasons ranked in weak contact we have to look 14 rows lower to find Nolan Arenado. At this point, Nolan is the first player to have a third season ranked who’s name is not DJ LeMahieu.
All that’s to say that a very small portion of LeMahieu’s plate appearances is wasted. Insisting that DJ is a contact-oriented player may seem counterintuitive given that he ranked 37th (87th percentile) in exit velocity in 2020 – he fits the mould of a home run hitter. However, a mean can be inflated by reducing the frequency of small numbers as easily as it can be inflated by increasing the frequency of large numbers. In this case, LeMahieu is improving his exit velocity by reducing the number of weak batted balls he hits. Maximum exit velocity is another way to communicate this. In 2020, DJ’s hardest-hit ball was 109.5 miles per hour. He ranks 146th in maximum exit velocity. A far cry from the rank of 37 he held in average exit velocity.
In the StatCast era, since 2015, DJ LeMahieu has the 124th fewest batted balls under 65 miles per hour out of 1,346 players. Just 0.7% of pitches he’s seen in the last six seasons have been hit at an exit velocity less than 65 miles per hour, where the median was 1.1%.
He’s not just hitting the ball well hypothetically, he’s achieving results. That’s why he ranks ninth in BABIP since his debut. Obviously, that’s a value that was enhanced by Coors Field. But the frequency that it is relevant is not.
As important as the magnitude of BABIP is, if walks and strikeouts consume 75% of a player’s plate appearances, his BABIP means much less. This is another domain DJ LeMahieu excels in. He puts the ball in play at a lofty rate. So let’s look at those eight players beating out LeMahieu for the BABIP crown and the rate they put the ball in play:
|Player:||BABIP||% of PAs Resulting in a Ball in Play:|
LeMahieu is putting far more balls in play than any of the other bidders for the highest BABIP. Only 48 players among the 316 players with 2,000 plate appearances since 2011 do so more often. As an aside, Ben Revere (85.63%), Omar Infante (82.34%) and Andrelton Simmons (82.34%) are the leaders, while Chris Carter (48.07%), Adam Dunn (46.44%) and Miguel Sano (44.68%) are three players who put the ball in play the least. Multiplying each player’s BABIP by the frequency they put the ball in play produces the following:
The list is a mixed bag. Nearly all of them are ideal leadoff hitters. But what separates the best of these players from the worst? The best can sustain enough power to compliment their prolific ability to collect “cheap” hits. These are the individuals who compute as valuable according to modern baseball metrics. They provide a layer of blubber beyond piles of singles. As he begins to offer more extra-base power, DJ LeMahieu has attained the “universally valuable” threshold.
All that extra-base power is coming exclusively from home runs. Since arriving in New York, LeMahieu has at the very least doubled his home run production, tripled it, from a certain point of view. All while he’s maintained a relatively constant number of singles, doubles and triples. Figuring out why DJ LeMahieu is suddenly hitting all these home runs is not easy. The attributes of the batted balls LeMahieu has hit, including average batted-ball distance, have changed very little if at all.
What has changed? DJ LeMahieu played 81 games in Yankee Stadium. Hitters pull ground balls. They also pull home runs. However, when it comes to fly balls, MLB hitters are most likely to hit to their opposite field. MLB hit 38.7% of their fly balls in 2020 to the opposite field. DJ LeMahieu, is far from an exception. Across his career, he’s hit 50.6% of his fly balls into right field. In 2020 he did so at the lucrative rate of 70.3%. (For reference, his 2019 rate was 52.6%.) That leads all players in 2020 for opposite-field fly ball rate among those who hit at least 20 such batted balls. Among players with at least 100 since the beginning of LeMahieu’s career in 2011, he ranks 32nd (of over 1,700 qualifiers).
So, for a guy like DJ, having the foul pole in your opposite field 36 feet closer to home plate in half your games is a nice cheat code. Of course, balls go a lot farther in Coors than they do Yankee stadium. How much farther? In the StatCast era, an average of 5.93%. So, effectively, the foul pole is roughly 34 feet closer. For DJ LeMahieu, that’s huge.
During his time in Coors Field since 2015, LeMahieu has hit 83 non-home run balls farther than 316 feet to right field (the Coors Field equivalent, best case – foul pole – distance to hit a home run in New York). Because this is the best-case scenario, LeMahieu is not gaining 20 home runs each season he plays in New York instead of Colorado between 2015 and 2018. But he is netting a solid number. Below is the spray chart of those 83 batted balls overlaid Yankee Stadium. Decide for yourself how many would have gone out. I count 40 at the very least. That brings LeMahieu very close to his current home run rate in New York – a positive indicator.
There’s one final way to verify the validity of these assumptions and bring this full circle. A player who has such a high number of volatile home runs, or, in other words, would substantially benefit or suffer from a change in the size of their home ballpark would also have a very low average home run distance. Well, in 2020, DJ LeMahieu had the 11th lowest average home run distance across the league. His average home run of 361 feet ranked the shortest among players who hit more than 3 home runs. Moreover, a home run hitter extinguished by short home run distances would expect to see a high number of their home runs hit to the opposite field (As the league pulls home runs, but hits fly balls to the opposite field). LeMahieu hit seven of his ten home runs in 2020 to the opposite field, and 13 of 26 in 2019 (a combined rate of 56% in New York). In Colorado, he hit just 20.41% of his home runs to the opposite field. Arriving in New York has unlocked DJ’s power. So, LeMahieu doesn’t just fit the mould of a home run hitter – he is one. A wall-scraping home run hitter.
DJ LeMahieu did not break out in New York. He’s been a great player all his career. Coors Field suppressed everyone’s opinion of the infielder. Now, with his second shot at free agency, teams have a second chance to acquire top talent. You’re not betting on two superb seasons – you’re betting on a career’s worth.
All data sourced from fangraphs.com, baseball-reference.com and baseballsavant.mlb.com.