We are all pretty familiar with DJ LeMahieu’s story over the past few seasons. He came into this season looking like his 2016 breakout was a fluke, hitting .294/.350/.418 over his final two seasons with the Rockies.
He had only a .123 ISO playing half his games at Coors Field, and the park factors used in wRC+ rated his bat as below average at 91. Even though great defense at second base made him an overall above average player, the 30-year old had to settle for a two-year, $24 million from the Yankees. He then became a top-ten position player in the AL, hitting .327/.375/.518 with a career high 26 HR and 6.0 WAR.
If LeMahieu were to miss all of next season, this signing would still add up to a steal for the Yankees. Who can say if the front office expected him to play this well, but Ken Rosenthal reported that the team was very high on him this past offseason. According to his reporting, the Yankees viewed LeMahieu as the second best free agent available behind only Manny Machado. That implies that they liked him even more than Bryce Harper!
Rosenthal further reported that the Yankees believed LeMahieu to be under-valued offensively. Of course New York’s front office was not going to elaborate on that publicly, but I am sure it left many very curious as to what they meant by that statement. With the rise of Statcast and the presence of dedicated, highly talented analytics groups, teams have access to advanced metrics that go beyond anything available in the public domain. It would be great to see what exactly the Yankees were looking at to lead them to conclude that LeMahieu’s bat was underrated, but they will never tell, of course.
That does not mean that this not-so-smart blogger can’t try and figure it out, though!
Seeing as how LeMahieu was coming from Colorado, I went straight to the park factors first, especially since I have heard rumblings over the years that park factors over correct for Coors Field. Sabermetric sites such as FanGraphs are completely upfront about the shortcomings of park factors. They ignore handedness effects and they only adjust for run scoring. In other words, parks will affect singles, doubles, triples, and home runs differently, but it was impossible to know how... until Statcast came along.
It is my understanding that Baseball Reference and FanGraphs do not park adjust their plus stats, minus stats, or WAR values for how parks affect handedness and different types of hits, because it is very difficult to do so. However, Baseball Prospectus does do this through their DRA and DRC+ stats. LeMahieu has a 100 DRC+ over his last two seasons with the Rockies, which is significantly better than how wRC+ evaluates him. For the record, this season he has a 136 wRC+ and a 128 DRC+.
Here’s the thing about LeMahieu though, he is a great contact hitter who puts the ball on the ground and hits lots of singles. The thin air of Coors Field is not going to help much with that kind of hitter. Park factors that only adjust for run scoring environments are going to underrate a groundball hitter who does not hit for much power in an extreme hitters park. If you go to this DRC+ Run Values chart and filter for LeMahieu, you will see that each year he gets a lot of his offensive value from singles and not striking out.
I am wondering if this is what the Yankees were thinking. Get the undervalued hitter, and leverage his great contact skills by getting him to be more aggressive with pitches in the zone, which he has done.
While I would like think there is merit to this argument, there is a significant caveat: I would be surprised if the Yankees were the only team that were aware of how traditional park factors underrate LaMahieu, so one has to wonder what else they knew. It is not like a lot of teams were beating down LaMahieu’s door to sign him, or else he would have gotten a lot more than $24 million. Also, I doubt the Yankees expected this much out of him, and he is likely to see some regression next year. Regardless, they deserve a ton of credit for outsmarting everyone and getting a player that has been so important for them this season.
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Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.