Expectations for DJ LeMahieu had never been higher. LeMahieu entered his third season with the New York Yankees after signing a six-year $90 million contract in the offseason while the Yankees entered the 2021 season with sights set on another World Series.
Yet as April closed, neither LeMahieu nor his team had come close to meeting these expectations. At 12-14 the Yankees are sharing the basement of the AL East with the Baltimore Orioles and scored the eighth fewest runs during the first month of the season—and it’s hard not to pin part of those struggles on their leadoff hitter.
LeMahieu slashed .271/.358/.354 during the first month of the season, an auspicious start after winning Silver Sluggers in his first two years in pinstripes. Could it be complacency after signing a new contract? Or is there some sort of disconnect occurring between what DJ is seeing and how his body reacts?
In his 1949 book, The Concept of Mind, British philosopher Gilbert Rye coins the phrase “ghost in the machine” while describing mind-body dualism—the view that mental and physical activity occurs simultaneously but separately. The phrase found purchase in science fiction especially, often in this context referring to an artificial intelligence overriding its programming.
How does DJ LeMahieu feel about his potential 2020 batting accolade?
"I kind of view it more as a distraction." pic.twitter.com/WrcZusq53b
— YES Network (@YESNetwork) September 21, 2020
DJ “The Machine” LeMahieu is programmed to pepper line drives across the field, but something is interrupting his hitting protocol. LeGhost is sabotaging LeMachine, at least LeMahieu believes so:
“It just seems like we’re putting a lot of pressure on ourselves — probably too much pressure on ourselves,” he said following an April 18th loss to Tampa, per the New York Post. “Nothing relaxes you more than results. You can say, ‘Don’t worry about the results, worry about how you go about it.’ That’s all good until you face a bunch of adversity and you try even harder to get results.”
Unfortunately, despite his nickname, the Yankees can’t just turn LeMahieu off, and then back on again. DJ is going to have to look into his programming and make some changes to his code.
The numbers indicate that LeMahieu isn’t only experiencing bad luck, his xBA has dropped below the elite level of his Yankees fans grew accustomed to. During his first season in The Bronx, DJ’s .309 xBA was top 2% in baseball, last year it was .308–– still good for top 4% in the league. This year through April it’s .298, and one contributing factor is a major uptick in strikeouts.
Last year LeMahieu’s K% was 9.7%, the fourth-best in baseball at a time when batters are striking out more and more. Looking at the rest of his career since Statcast was introduced in 2015, this number seems unsustainable, but the 14.7% he currently sits at is still a fair bit above his career average of 13.9%.
Per the breakdown at Baseball Savant, LeMahieu is seeing more breaking balls than ever, 27.1% of all pitches thrown, and the most offspeed pitches, 10.9%, since his rookie season with the Chicago Cubs. Subsequently, he’s seeing fewer fastballs than at any other point in his career and needs to adjust.
Offspeed pitches have particularly confounded LeMahieu, he’s whiffing on an eye-popping 28.6% of changeups he swings at. A far cry from the 13.2% last year, and nearly double his previous career-high of 15.4% in 2017.
LeMahieu is also whiffing on more breaking balls than last season––21.1%, up from 2020’s 12.7%––however, this year’s rate through April is more in line with his career numbers, so had DJ played around 150 games last season as opposed to 50 in a shortened season, then it’s possible that his whiff rate would have risen to closer to 20%.
It’s not surprising LeMahieu has seen more offspeed and breaking stuff with how poorly he’s adjusted to this change, but what is surprising is his relative success on fastballs. He may be batting .261 and slugging .326 on heaters, but his .349 xBA, .483 xSLG, and .420 xwOBA are all increases from last season.
LeMahieu’s approach has always been to hit to all fields. Prior to this season, he had never pulled more than 25% of hit batted balls––and drove 43.4% of them to right field during last year’s shortened season. This April, he’s pulled a career-high 27.5% of his batted balls, he’s looking for the fastball, and when he’s not getting it he’s unable to stay back.
In fact, he has only two opposite-field hits––both singles––that did not come off of a fastball this April.
LeMahieu’s inability to take the ball to the opposite field has only been exacerbated by another uncharacteristic shortcoming, his line drive percentage is down to 26.3% from his career average of 29.7%. Pitches inside have been particularly hard for LeMahieu to handle thus far, rather than keeping his hands back and fighting these pitches off to right, he’s been rolling over them––and the result is he’s already grounded into as many double plays as he did last year.
If LeMahieu is able to adjust, perhaps sit back and look for more offspeed and breaking pitches, then we’ll likely see his spay chart start to resemble seasons past. As he does, he’ll fall behind on some fastballs, but with as well as he’s been hitting those some regression is already likely. Plus luck says some of those expected hits on fastballs should turn into actual hits at some point so catching up with the fastball shouldn’t be his focus at this time.
Clearly aware of his and the team’s struggles, LeMahieu told reporters that he felt they were close to a breakthrough about two weeks ago. “I feel like our mistakes and some of our losses right now are pretty glaring, but that’s baseball,” he said after an April 14 loss to the Toronto Blue Jays. “Just like me at the plate, I know our team’s gonna start clicking here real soon. And hopefully sooner rather than later. I know we’re real close.”
LeMahieu may have been right, the Yankees took three games of four in Cleveland, before splitting a four-game series in Baltimore and routing Detroit 10-0 in The Bronx to end the first month of the season. Similarly, he’s six for his last 16, dating back to their second game in Baltimore. The quality of the opposition aside, LeMachine has shown signs that he’s pulling out of this slump. Over the course of the last four games, he’s has taken inside pitches to all three fields for hits.
Even the most reliable machines could use a tune-up from time to time, get the ghost inside on the right page, and the machine will follow. Like Yogi Berra said, “Baseball is 90 percent mental. The other half is physical.”
Photo by Cody Glenn/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Justin Paradis (@JustParaDesigns on Twitter)