DJ LeMahieu is a player that has fascinated me for years. From his rookie year to 2018, LeMahieu had exactly one year where he was an above average hitter according to wRC+. He was the prototypical Coors Field batting champion, a player who had a lot of singles fall in when he was slashing balls into the wide open spaces of his home field, but he would wilt on the road.
As he entered free agency, Baseball Prospectus rolled out DRC+ which originally labeled LeMahieu as an above average hitter, and reminded us that wRC+ generally underrates the Rockies. As a team, Colorado has never had a wRC+ above 100. Seems a little strange, right?
Since then, DRC+ has been recalibrated and its measure of LeMahieu in his final years with the Rockies has come down a bit; LeMahieu’s DRC+ had one of the greatest standard deviations of qualified hitters at first. After LeMahieu’s first two year in New York, BP’s stat appeared to be right that we were undervaluing LeMahieu and overvaluing the effect that Coors was having on his numbers. In his first year in pinstripes, LeMahieu posted career highs in homers, ISO, slugging, fWAR, barrel rate, and wRC+.
LeMahieu was absolutely better in 2019, but he was also fortunate. Yankee Stadium was the perfect place for LeMahieu to have a season like he did. As a low launch angle guy who mostly hits the ball to right field, Coors’ high wall and large dimensions would have actually kept more balls in the yard than Yankee Stadium.
Baseball Savant keeps track of expected home runs by park, and in 2019, LeMahieu would have hit 30 home runs if he played every game at Yankee Stadium. At Coors? He only would have hit 9. That doesn’t account for environmental effects like temperature, wind, and elevation, so take that with a grain of salt, but there were only three other stadiums where LeMahieu was expected to hit 25 or more.
LeMahieu followed up 2019 with an even better performance in the shortened 2020 season, but since then, LeMahieu has looked more like his old self. Through 57 games, LeMahieu is hitting .256/.335/.326 for a .297 wOBA. Once again, wRC+ and DRC+ disagree on how good he’s been exactly. His wRC+ is 90 but his DRC+ is a more palatable 103.
If LeMahieu was better and lucky in 2019, in 2021, he’s been worse and unlucky. His xwOBA of .331 is over 30 points higher than his actual wOBA, but it’s also more than 30 points lower than it was in the previous two seasons. His BABIP is a career-low .306 (line drives and Coors are a heck of a combination), but he’s also putting fewer balls in play by way of striking out a higher clip than he has since 2014. His wOBA on hard-hit balls (95+ mph) is nearly 100 points lower than it’s been in any other year of the Statcast era, but his hard-hit rate is also lower its lowest since 2016.
LeMahieu Hard Hit Results
As the season goes on, LeMahieu should have more hard-hit balls find grass or the seats. It’s unusual for a player who consistently hits smokes the ball and to all fields to have this kind of poor luck for an entire year. When every team is deploying hyper-specific defensive alignments for every hitter, LeMahieu is the sort that should be affected the least.
None of which is to say there isn’t more he could be doing to help his cause. LeMahieu used to feast on fastballs, but he’s having a harder time catching up to high heat than ever before. In the last two seasons, LeMahieu didn’t falter against fastballs of 95 mph or more, putting up a .398 wOBA on such pitches in 2019 and a .391 mark in 2020. In 2021, LeMahieu has only managed a .254 wOBA against elite velocity.
LeMahieu has maintained his solid discipline, so he’s not chasing fastballs out of the zone, but if they’re around the plate, he’s been overmatched so far. Narrowing it down to hard fastballs in what Baseball Savant calls the Heart and Shadow parts of the zone, LeMahieu has only mustered a .207 wOBA against fastballs. This is after posting a .410 and .374 wOBA against the same types of pitches in 2019 and 2020 respectively. If a pitcher can throw gas, they can just challenge LeMahieu over the plate and get away with it when before they would have been punished.
Against all pitches in the heart of the zone, LeMahieu is a career-low -11.8 runs worse than average. That’s partially because some of his hard-hit balls have found gloves, but again, he’s hitting the ball with less authority.
Whether LeMahieu can return to his MVP-caliber form remains to be seen. It’s only been two months, and it’s not as if he’s been outright bad. DRC+ still says he’s a smidge above average! Then again, wRC+ says he’s 10 percent worse than the mean and we can no longer blame its hatred of Coors. In a way, we’re back to where we were in 2018, and perhaps, so too is DJ LeMahieu.
Kenny Kelly is the managing editor of Beyond the Box Score.