Two weeks ago the Yankees made their most surprising offseason addition. They inked free agent infielder DJ LeMahieu to a two-year contract worth $24M, and I call it surprising because it came out of nowhere. There were no rumors connecting the Yankees to LeMahieu leading up to the deal. It was a regular old Friday, then bam, the Yankees had a deal with LeMahieu. Came out of nowhere.
The Yankees intend to use LeMahieu as a super utility infielder — “I was told to bring a lot of gloves,” he said during his introductory conference call — which is fine, I guess. My preference would be Gleyber Torres at shortstop and LeMahieu at second base full-time, but the Yankees are committed to giving Troy Tulowitzki a chance to play short, so it is what it is. LeMahieu will be a utility guy.
Although he’s been a full-time second baseman his entire career, my guess is LeMahieu will be more than fine at third base and good enough at first base. He has some experience at first and third, so they won’t be completely new to him. He’s a great second baseman though. That is his best position on the field. “(I’m) pretty comfortable playing multiple positions,” LeMahieu added.
We have a pretty good idea what LeMahieu will do defensively. He’ll be great at second and probably good enough at first and third. What he’ll do offensively is much less clear. Coors Field creates some questions. The numbers:
LeMahieu at home, 2018: .317/.360/.433 (85 wRC+)
LeMahieu on the road, 2018: .229/.277/.422 (85 wRC+)
LeMahieu at Coors Field, career: .329/.386/.447 (96 wRC+)
LeMahieu outside Coors Field, career: .267/.314/.367 (84 wRC+)
Pretty significant difference! There’s no doubt Coors Field boosted LeMahieu’s offensive numbers. That is the case for every Rockies player. That said, Coors Field park factors are wonky, and there is evidence of a Coors Field hangover effect. Pinning down someone’s true talent level when they play at altitude is awfully tough.
Generally speaking, Rockies players tend to perform better than expected at home and worse than expected on the road. Taking LeMahieu’s numbers outside Coors Field and declaring that the real him is overly simplistic and unfair, if not lazy. The truth is somewhere between the home and road stats. Where exactly in the middle? Let’s try to figure it out. Here’s what we know about LeMahieu.
1. He hits the ball really hard. And this isn’t something you can fake. Here is LeMahieu’s Statcast profile. He is in the 88th percentile in exit velocity and the 78th percentile in hard contact, leading to a high expected batting average (xBA).
Coors Field does not boost exit velocity. A 95 mph line drive will travel farther in Coors Field than it will at sea level because the thin air provides less resistance, but Coors Field doesn’t turn a 95 mph line drive into a 98.5 mph line drive or whatever. Exit velocity is unchanged. To wit:
LeMahieu at home, 2018: 90.8 mph average exit velocity
LeMahieu on the road, 2018: 91.4 mph
LeMahieu at home, 2015-18: 90.3 mph
LeMahieu on the road, 2015-18: 89.8 mph
Coors Field can turn a .280 hitter into a .300 hitter, and a 25-homer guy into a 32-homer guy. It won’t turn an average exit velocity guy into Aaron Judge. A player’s strength and bat speed is what it is. It doesn’t change ballpark to ballpark. LeMahieu hit the ball hard everywhere he played, and unless he gets hurt or loses bat speed to age-related decline, he should continue to hit the ball going forward.
2. He hits the ball on the ground a lot. All that hard contact has not translated into extra-base hits and power because LeMahieu puts the ball on the ground often. His 49.6% ground ball rate last year was a) 22nd highest among the 140 hitters with enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title, and b) his lowest as a big leaguer. LeMahieu’s career ground ball rate is 53.8%.
There was a period last season where it appeared LeMahieu was making a conscious effort to hit the ball in the air, but it did not last. By the end of the season his ground ball rate was right back where it normally sits. Check it out:
Hitting a lot of ground balls is not automatically a bad thing. Not when you have above-average exit velocity like LeMahieu. Ground balls do put a ceiling on a player’s offensive output though. Ground balls don’t go for extra-base hits often and they never go over the fence. That’s why, despite playing in Coors Field, LeMahieu has never bested a .160 ISO. Only once has he managed a .430 SLG.
At this point, at age 30 and with more than six years in the big leagues, I reckon LeMahieu has tried to hit more balls in the air at some point. The Rockies are not the most analytically inclined organization but they’re not stupid. They know hitting the ball in the air is a good thing, especially at Coors Field. I’m sure LeMahieu and the Rockies have tried lowering his ground ball rate already. It’s not easy, and, if they did try it, it didn’t work.
Because he doesn’t hit the ball in the air often, it seems to me LeMahieu’s offense is less reliant on Coors Field than the typical Rockies hitter. Balls hit on the ground don’t benefit from reduced air resistance. It’s just a ground ball. In theory, LeMahieu’s offense should carry over well to Yankee Stadium. A ground ball is a ground ball is a ground ball. As long as the hard hit rate stays strong, LeMahieu’s production may not suffer much with the ballpark change.
3. His plate discipline is very good. Better than I realized. Last year’s 6.4% walk rate and his career 7.3% walk rate do not stand out. At all. Both are below the 8.5% league average. Walks are not the goal of plate discipline, however. They’re a byproduct. The goal of plate discipline is swinging at strikes and taking balls, and getting into good hitter’s counts. Getting hittable pitches, basically.
Last year LeMahieu posted a 25.4% chase rate, which was 32nd lowest among those 140 qualified hitters. He chased pitches out of the zone at a similar rate as plate discipline extraordinaires Brett Gardner (23.5%) and Paul Goldschmidt (26.0%). When LeMahieu stopped chasing pitches a few years ago, his offensive production ticked up. That is not a coincidence.
LeMahieu may not draw many walks, but he knows a ball from a strike, and that is pretty important. Not many hitters can succeed while swinging at bad pitches consistently. Guys like Vlad Guerrero and Jose Altuve are special for a reason. LeMahieu won’t get himself out by chasing pitches out of the zone.
4. He makes a lot of contact. The Yankees are loaded with monster hitters who hit for power and, in some cases, swing and miss quite a bit. Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton are awesome. They will strike out though. LeMahieu struck out in 14.1% of his plate appearances last year, well below the 22.3% league average. He also doesn’t miss pitches in the strike zone. Here is the zone contact rate leaderboard for the last two seasons:
- Michael Brantley: 96.7%
- Jose Peraza: 94.1%
- DJ LeMahieu: 93.6%
- Denard Span: 93.6%
- Joe Mauer: 93.4%
LeMahieu doesn’t chase out of the zone, and when he does swing at pitches in the zone, he rarely misses. Put it all together and you have a hitter who knows a ball from a strike, doesn’t miss when he swings at pitches in the zone, and produces above-average exit velocities when he puts the ball in play. Too bad he puts the ball on the ground so often. LeMahieu has the profile of a hitter who could do a lot of damage with a little more launch angle.
* * *
There have been shockingly few hitters within the last five years who played everyday for the Rockies, changed teams in the offseason, then played everyday for another team. Dexter Fowler and Corey Dickerson. That’s pretty much it. Guys like Daniel Descalso and Nick Hundley are part-time players, and Matt Holliday missed a ton of time with the Yankees. Both Fowler and Dickerson predictably saw their performances dip after leaving Coors Field:
Dickerson’s last two years with Rockies: .309/.354/.556
Dickerson’s first two years after Rockies: .265/.310/.480
Fowler’s last two years with Rockies: .282/.379/.442
Fowler’s first two years after Rockies: .261/.358/.406
Here’s the thing: Dickerson and Fowler are very different hitters than LeMahieu. They both put the ball in the air a ton. Fowler’s career ground ball rate is 42.3%. Dickerson’s is 38.7%. They put the ball in the air and let it carry at Coors Field. LeMahieu did not do that. Also, Dickerson and Fowler swung and missed more often than LeMahieu. Looking at previous Rockies hitters who left Coors Field doesn’t help us much.
We know LeMahieu produces higher than average exit velocities and ground ball rates. He doesn’t chase out of the zone and he doesn’t swing and miss in the zone, which contributes to the above-average exit velocity. He’s not lunging at pitches. He’s squaring them up. Since Statcast became a thing in 2015, LeMahieu has hit more total ground balls with an exit velocity of 90 mph or better than anyone in baseball. The leaderboard:
- DJ LeMahieu: 562 grounders at 90 mph or better
- Nick Markakis: 539
- Christian Yelich: 530
- Eric Hosmer: 517
- Jean Segura: 489
Over the last four seasons grounders with an exit velocity of at least 90 mph have produced a .406 AVG and a .036 ISO league-wide. For LeMahieu, it’s a .409 AVG and a .021 ISO. There’s no Coors Field boost there and why would there be? The thin air doesn’t have much effect on ground balls because … wait for it … they’re not hit in the air.
It seems to me LeMahieu has a batted ball profile that travels well. Despite being a right-handed hitter who goes the other way often, LeMahieu doesn’t figure to benefit much from the Yankee Stadium short porch because he’s a ground ball guy. He also doesn’t figure to lose much when he leaves Coors Field because he didn’t use the thin air and the extra carry as often as he probably would’ve liked.
Now, that all said, LeMahieu’s numbers were better at Coors Fields than on the road, and substantially so. That’s because he did hit some balls in the air, of course, and also because there is some evidence Rockies hitters take a hit offensively when they leave altitude. Because the seams on a pitched ball interact with the air differently at altitude than they do at sea level, Rockies hitters see one set of breaking balls at home and another on the road, often in back-to-back series, and that can be tough.
LeMahieu’s expected batting average and actual batting average have been quite high in recent years because of those well-struck ground balls. They tend to go for base hits unless they’re hit right at someone. I expect there to be some performance decline because LeMahieu did hit some balls in the air and did benefit somewhat from Coors Field. I think the performance dip will be smaller than you might expect because he doesn’t rely on fly balls. Those well-struck grounders will still go for base hits in Yankee Stadium just like they did in Colorado.