When a hitter leaves the Colorado Rockies for a different team, the first reaction by some is to mention that hitter’s numbers away from the bandbox known as Coors Field. When they mention those numbers, they are usually substantially worse than their numbers at Coors Field. Things were no different when DJ LeMahieu signed with the New York Yankees as a free agent this past offseason.
At the time of the signing, Manny Machado was still a free agent with interested suitors starting to disappear, and it looked like one of his top suitors, the Yankees, were bowing out of the hunt. Fans and reporters were quick to bring up that LeMahieu hit .317/.360/.433 at home in Colorado in 2018 while posting a .229/.277/.422 away from Colorado. While it is easy to cite that slash line and believe it’s more representative of who LeMahieu is as a hitter, it is just inaccurate. Most hitters have worse offensive numbers on the road, and Rockies players usually have it worse. Some may be familiar with a term called “The Coors Field Hangover,” which suggests that Coors Field is such an extreme outlier in Major League Baseball that it takes Rockies players longer to get used to hitting outside of it. Combined with the fact that the Rockies play a lot of their road games in the pitcher-friendly parks of Dodger Stadium, Oracle Park and Petco Park, we have a pretty good explanation for why Rockies hitters perform substantially worse on the road.
Hitters are supposed to get better when they sign with the Rockies, which is a primary reason why there was so much excitement about Daniel Murphy this season, but DJ LeMahieu has been the opposite. It is rare to see a 30-year old player improve as much as LeMahieu has, and it is rarer to see a hitter have their best season after leaving Colorado. One look at LeMahieu’s stats for this season should help bust any myths about whether all Colorado players are simply “products of Coors Field.” Sure, some exist, and there maybe should always be skepticism about evaluating hitters who play most of their games at Coors Field, but I definitely don’t think it is wise to include DJ LeMahieu among them. Let’s take a look at him.
Hit the Ball Hard and Good Things Happen
DJ LeMahieu has a unique set of skills that put him in a good position to be successful. Among those skills is that he consistently hits the ball hard. Since 2015, LeMahieu’s hard-hit rate of 43.4% is well above the 34.3% league average, and this year is no different. His hard-hit rate of 47.3% and average exit velocity of 91.5 miles-per-hour are both in the 87th percentile of all Major League hitters. That hard-hit rate of 47.3% is the highest it’s been for LeMahieu since 2016, the year he won the batting title.
Another skill that drives LeMahieu’s success is that he’s a spray hitter. So much so that he has been shifted against exactly zero times in 2019. There are only three other hitters with at least 250 plate appearances who can claim that oddity: Ian Desmond, Mallex Smith and Miguel Rojas. Statcast shift data is available going back to 2016. LeMahieu has seen only one shift in that span, and it happened in 2016. Being such a good spray hitter as well as being among the top in hard-hit rate usually leads to good success. Finding a comparison for LeMahieu is tough, but in terms of spray profile, I think I found two in Yandy Diaz and Elvis Andrus. Both Diaz and Andrus share a similar spray chart to LeMahieu, but what gives LeMahieu and Diaz an advantage over Andrus is how frequently they hit the ball hard. Here is a table comparing the three:
|Player||Pull %||Straight %||Oppo %||Hard-Hit %||Launch Angle||Exit Velocity||wOBA|
While Andrus is having a nice bounce-back season this year, I think everyone would prefer to have LeMahieu or Diaz over him. LeMahieu and Diaz are two of only a few hitters who go to the opposite field more than they pull the ball, and they both hit the ball hard, which puts them in a better position to succeed than a hitter like Andrus. This makes it hard for opposing teams to position themselves in more favorable spots, as both hitters like to hit the ball all over the field. In short, this table helps show that being a hard-hitting spray hitter leads to good results.
Weakness into Strength
We’ve established that LeMahieu has a unique combination of being a spray hitter who hits the ball hard. He’s been mostly the same type of hitter for his entire career, with a reputation for being able to hit the ball to all fields and not swing-and-miss a lot, but LeMahieu has improved his game since coming to New York. 2018 was a somewhat down season for LeMahieu, and one of the biggest reasons why was his performance on breaking balls and offspeed pitches. Here is a look at his performance on those pitches in 2018 and 2019:
|Pitch Type||Pitch %||Swing %||SLG||wOBA||xwOBA|
In 2018 he had a wOBA and xwOBA of .254 on breaking balls and a wOBA and xwOBA of .275 and .273 respectively on offspeed pitches, which is not very good. I’d say he has improved in 2019, with huge gains in slugging, wOBA and xwOBA. All told, he has a wOBA of .391 on breaking and offspeed pitches, which puts him 10th of all hitters who have seen at least 250 breaking and offspeed pitches. He has seen a 131 point increase on his wOBA on those pitches, the second-best improvement among qualified hitters from 2018 and one of only eight hitters who have a wOBA increase of over 100 points (other notables include Cody Bellinger, Tim Anderson, Ketel Marte and Carlos Santana). His average exit velocity on breaking balls has increased from 87 miles-per-hour to 90, which goes along with his hard-hitting profile as discussed earlier. Another notable thing to take away is that LeMahieu is swinging at breaking balls at such an increased rate. He has usually been pretty conservative when it comes to swing frequency, but that has seemed to change this year. One look at his swing percentages since 2012 will show that:
LeMahieu is swinging at breaking balls at his highest rate since 2013 while taking a more patient approach to offspeed pitches. Despite swinging more at breaking pitches, LeMahieu hasn’t seen an increased amount of swinging strikes, with a whiff rate of 21.2%, down from his 23.4% mark from a year ago. His ability to hit the ball hard also helps him with breaking pitches, as his 90.1 average exit velocity on breaking balls is well above the league average of 86.7 MPH. Knowing that breaking balls were LeMahieu’s biggest weakness from last season, with a slugging percentage of .350 and a wOBA of only .254, this adjustment seems to have helped LeMahieu improve in 2019.
Not much was probably expected from DJ LeMahieu in 2019. He was coming off his weakest offensive season since 2015, and the Yankees signed LeMahieu to be an “everyday-utility player,” probably hoping for good defense at a handful of positions and maybe a league-average batting line. Instead, LeMahieu has been one of the biggest surprises this season and become one of the most indispensable forces in an elite Yankees lineup with his unique batting profile that’s hard to defend against. Though hitters aren’t usually expected to get better once they leave Colorado, LeMahieu has made improvements on breaking balls and is on pace to have his best season as a 30-year old veteran.
Featured Image courtesy of Cody Glenn/Icon Sportswire.