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Can DJ LeMahieu stave off regression?

After a shockingly good 2019, one wonders if he can follow that up in 2020.

MLB: ALCS-New York Yankees at Houston Astros Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

In the same year that DRC+ was created, no hitter embodied the ethos of said metric more than DJ LeMahieu. While we ourselves pondered that the new metric that gave LeMahieu a little more slack than wRC+ was worth a look, I don’t think anyone, even Brian Cashman, expected he would have had as good a season as he actually did.

LeMahieu after all was said and done had hit .327/.375/.518 over 145 games, and this was after people like myself wondered after he was signed whether he could even get at-bats. Injuries to the likes of Didi Gregorius, Miguel Andujar, and Luke Voit basically guaranteed he would get starts around the infield.

His triple slash was incredibly similar to his monster 2016 year, which many thought of as a Coors Field aberration, when it was a mirrored .348/.416/.495 performance (with even less power, somehow). The key to that season, just like this one, was effectively hitting against off-speed and breaking pitches, where he has struggled in other, more inconsistent seasons.

It’s fair to question, then, whether he is just as likely to regress to “normal” in 2020 based on past instances of this; sure, we may have dispelled the Coors myth due to his singles-hitting nature (again, there’s the increase in power to also be explained) and the hangover effect the park may entail, but that isn’t really evidence that his 2019 performance is something replicable. Steamer, for example, thinks he will hit .285/.345/.434 in 2020.

One of things that makes LeMahieu strange as a hitter is that most of his offensive value, in fact, comes from pitches out of the zone and essentially wastes most pitches actually in the strike zone. In 2018, for example, he really never swung at hanging sliders, curves, and changes:

In 2019, he feasted on them:

At the same time he is still swinging at something like 20% of pitches in the very top and bottom of that zone, consistently. The result is a player that had this swing profile in 2018...

...and this profile in 2019:

A swing of 30 runs is very literally a three-win swing. Thanks to Statcast, we can say pretty definitively that, ceteris paribus, LeMahieu is more like a two-win player without that skill alone. Pretty wild.

It’s not like pitchers aren’t somewhat learning. In the first half it wasn’t uncommon for a pitcher to literally drop one in for a strike:

That practice essentially ended in the second half:

There’s reason to believe pitchers will get even more fine with him as time goes on; that at least held within last year itself. But considering LeMahieu’s main skill is hitting pitches out of the zone, there are diminishing returns to how much pitchers can just drop a breaking ball in the dirt or try to beat him with a fastball up high. The only way to win is to paint the black, meaning there’s reason to believe he can still keep them between a rock and a hard place in 2020.

One major difference in a slightly negative way is defense, where he took a ding from previous years. Based on Statcast’s new OAA we know by both stats and the eye test that he is still an elite defensive second baseman as of 2018:

The problem, obviously, was that because of the Yankees’ many injuries he had to jump around to various positions, making his clear advantage in that big red zone less relied upon in his reps:

It’s still pretty remarkable that he was a league average first baseman, and he made some good plays to his left as a third baseman, but he simply wasn’t cut out for the hot corner; with both Gio Urshela and Andujar, as well as Gleyber Torres nabbing shortstop, it seems he should move back to full-timer. That difference between utility man and second baseman cost him something like eight outs.

This entire recipe sums up to LeMahieu not regressing, which is hard to believe. If he has essentially unlocked his offense via attacking pitches within the zone, and the look on the horizon is that he will be able to get more reps at the position he’s best at... that would make him one of the more valuable players in the league. Those are the kind of players a team would want to extend, I would think.