DJ LeMahieu is an enigma. During his time on the Rockies, LeMahieu was the archetypal Coors Field batting champion: a singles and doubles hitter that thrived in the thin air and wide open spaces, but wilted when he came down from elevation. At Coors, he maintained an .834 OPS, but on the road he managed only .681. It was easy to dismiss him as a subpar hitter but evaluating him got more complicated the closer you looked.
Sure, LeMahieu only produced a 96 wRC+ at home during his time in Colorado, but as a team, the Rockies have never put up a wRC+ above 100. That shouldn’t be possible. The 2001 Rockies were credited with a 95 wRC+ despite ranking fifth in position player fWAR. Could it have been that wRC+ was simply dinging the Rockies and LeMahieu too hard for playing at altitude? Then there’s the Coors Field hangover effect which may or may not exist. LeMahieu might have had a more difficult time hitting on the road because constantly changing altitudes was wreaking havoc on his body.
When LeMahieu signed with the Yankees ahead of the 2019 season, it was fair to be skeptical and fair to be cautiously optimistic. It wasn’t fair to predict that LeMahieu was going to slash .336/.386/.536 for a 146 wRC+ while wearing pinstripes, but that’s exactly what he did. LeMahieu didn’t prove his detractors right by turning into a pumpkin, and he didn’t prove his defenders right by quietly continuing to be a good all-fields hitter. LeMahieu became even better.
In 2019, LeMahieu posted career highs* in home runs (26), ISO (.191), slugging (.518), wRC+ (136), and fWAR (5.4). LeMahieu, however, continued his extreme home/road splits. At Yankee Stadium, he hit for a .441 wOBA and 1.063 OPS, but on the road, that fell to a respectable .339 wOBA and .793 OPS. For all the talk of Coors Field buoying his numbers, Yankee Stadium might be an even better fit for LeMahieu’s set of skills.
*In 2020, his ISO, slugging, and wRC+ were better, but I’m not counting it as a full season.
The Dodgers’ motto “Barrels are overrated” is supposed to be tongue-in-cheek joke—something they say to each other when they get a hit on a jamshot—but LeMahieu shows there’s some truth in that. In 2020, LeMahieu ranked in the 86th percentile in exit velocity, 81st in hard hit percentage, 82nd in xwOBA, but only 9th in barrel percentage. In the Statcast era, LeMahieu has only had a barrel rate above league average once, and that was in 2019. Even then, he only ranked in the 46th percentile.
That might explain why in his entire Rockies career, he never hit more than 15 home runs in a season and only cracked double-digits twice. In Colorado, LeMahieu’s HR/FB percentage was a mere 7.6 percent. As a Yankee, that went up to 20.9 percent. LeMahieu didn’t join the fly ball revolution, unless you count a 2.5 point gain in fly ball percentage as a revolution.
There’s no better place to play for a right-handed hitter who thrives at hitting to the opposite field. Since 2015, Yankee Stadium has the second-highest wOBA-xwOBA for righties hitting to the opposite field at .072 with Minute Maid Park, the next closest field, at .039. Since New Yankee Stadium opened in 2009, there have been 122 more opposite field home runs hit by right-handed hitters there than at any other ballpark.
Of LeMahieu’s 36 home runs between 2019 and 2020, 16 of them were hit to the opposite field at Yankee Stadium. His xwOBA on all balls hit to the opposite field at Yankee Stadium as a Yankee was .423. In LeMahieu’s final three seasons in Colorado, he hit just five of his 34 homers to the opposite field at home. His xwOBA on balls hit to the opposite field then wasn’t much lower at .407. The discrepancy in home run totals can at least be partially explained by dimensions. Right field in Coors is 350 feet down the line and the out-of-town scoreboard is 16 feet-6 inches tall. Right field in Yankee Stadium is 314 feet down the line, and the wall is half as tall. As a line drive hitter, LeMahieu wasn’t going to get the same sort of elevation-aided carry on balls in the air, and he was going to have a tougher time clearing the fence.
Does any of this mean that LeMahieu’s success is only because of the ballpark? No. Of course, not all of LeMahieu’s batted balls go to the opposite field, and Yankee Stadium plays more neutrally for right-handed pull hitters. The stadium with the highest benefit for right-handed, opposite field hitters was Coors Field, LeMahieu’s former home, and he didn’t put up superstar numbers then.
Still, when we look at LeMahieu’s feats as a Yankee and say, “Wow, I guess it wasn’t all Coors,” we’re ignoring that his new home is also helping him quite a bit. The question of “How good a hitter is DJ LeMahieu?” is far more complicated than it needs to be. 2019 and 2020 weren’t mirages, but I think it’s fair to temper expectations a bit if he goes to a park that isn’t built specifically for him.
While we can debate how much the parks help him or how much advanced metrics undervalue him, three things are certain: LeMahieu hits the ball hard, he hits to all fields, and he doesn’t strike out a lot. That will play anywhere. Throw in that he’s an excellent defender, and it becomes clear that he’s the best middle infielder on the market.
Kenny Kelly is the managing editor of Beyond the Box Score.