Yankees sign DJ LeMahieu for Bargain Price
Jack Curry of YES Network is reporting that the Yankees have inked former Rockies 2B DJ LeMahieu to a two-year contract in the range of $24 million. The Yankees, who already have Gleyber Torres and Troy Tulowitzki earmarked for the middle-infield while Didi Gregorius recovers from Tommy John surgery, are also rumored to be in hot pursuit of 3B/SS Manny Machado. The inclusion of right-handed LeMahieu into the fold makes for a potentially crowded infield situation heading into 2019. However, given the two-year contract, it’s clear that the Yankees brass views LeMahieu as a valuable commodity both in the near and medium term.
The 30-year old LeMahieu profiles as a high-contact, high-batting average hitter. Throughout his seven MLB seasons, LeMahieu has amassed a .298/.350 /.406 batting line with an impressive 15.2% career strikeout rate. LeMahieu’s inclination for contact has come at the cost of power, as his career .108 ISO and 49 HRs in 955 games portends.
Outside of an outlier 2016 season that saw LeMahieu win the MLB batting title with a .348 average, his recent performance has been fairly consistent—annually producing an OPS around .749 to .783 with a 2.0 WAR. Given his roughly average OPS, much of LeMahieu’s value comes from his defensive exploits, with his 19.3 UZR rating since 2016 ranking third among MLB second baseman. Assuming that LeMahieu can maintain this type of production over the next two years, he’ll likely provide the Yankees with significant surplus value over the $24 million contract cost.
But there are some potential risk factors. The first is playing time. LeMahieu earned 2.0 WAR by averaging over 600 plate appearances per season and taking full infield reps with Colorado. Currently, some combination of Luke Voit and Greg Bird appear locked in at first base, while impressive second-year players Torres and Miguel Andujar will own the keystone and the hot corner respectively. Moreover, Tulowitzki is allegedly healthy and poised to open the season as the starting shortstop while Gregorius completes his comeback from Tommy John surgery.
As it stands, LeMahieu doesn’t seem to have a starting role, and he will likely operate as a bit of a swingman throughout the infield to rest regulars and play matchups. He also might serve as a late-inning replacement for the defensively questionable Torres and Andujar if the Yankees have a lead. Another potential scenario involves if the 34-year old Tulowitzki proves brittle or ineffective, allowing Torres to hop over to his natural position at short and subsequently give LeMahieu free reign at second. While projecting playing time is difficult at this stage, it’s hard to see LeMahieu amassing more than 450 plate appearances in 2019, which will lower his ability to contribute. However, the Yankees will still likely extract value from the contract.
A second risk factor involves LeMahieu’s true offensive ability. To this point, he’s had the benefit of playing half his games at Coors Field, a park that due to its elevation and thin air, inflates offensive production by more than 30% from league average. While all Rockies players benefit from the Coors effect, LeMahieu seems to have benefited disproportionately, with a career Coors OPS of .835 compared to .673 on the road. For some perspective, that .150+ OPS differential is akin to the difference between Andrew Benintendi and Tim Anderson as hitters. Interestingly, Coors does not seem to increase LeMahieu’s power much, but rather improves his batting average significantly (.330 at home compared to .264 on the road).
LeMahieu is moving to Yankee Stadium, a ballpark that is also favorable to hitters, but about 50% less so than Coors in aggregate. It wouldn’t be surprising if the .750-ish OPS LeMahieu has been sporting in recent years declines to the low .700s as a result of the Coors exit. However, there are some aspects to Yankee Stadium that might be more favorable to LeMahieu than people realize at first blush.
LeMahieu decreased his ground-ball rate to a career-low 49.6% last season, which helped propel him to a career-best home run mark of 15. While one could argue that a contact hitter like LeMahieu might be better off sticking to line drives and ground balls, the move to Yankee stadium makes this an intriguing development, since LeMahieu hits a large percentage of his balls in the air to right and right center. Fortunately, Yankee Stadium’s short porch in right is one of the most favorable areas in baseball for home runs.
The chart above overlays LeMahieu’s Coors Field fly balls and line drives from 2018 onto Yankee Stadium. LeMahieu only hit four home runs on these 116 batted balls last season. However, that figure would have been much higher if he played his home games in Yankee Stadium. I’ll start by caveating that this isn’t an exact science, and the distances on some of LeMahieu’s flies in Coors were probably exaggerated because of the thin air. Additionally, just because a ball appears like it would have been over the wall doesn’t mean it would have been. However, based on the 22 fly outs and doubles that look like they landed over the wall on the chart, I feel confident in projecting that LeMahieu would have added another eight to 10 home runs by playing in this hypothetical universe.
LeMahieu’s batted ball profile was assuredly a factor in the Yankees decision to sign him. If you view LeMahieu as a 20-25 home run hitter instead of 10-15, his production and his price point go up significantly. The Yankees and their analytics team were smart to identify a significant arbitrage opportunity from this differential. How this power increase will balance with a likely batting average decrease by moving away from Coors will be interesting to track, but I suspect LeMahieu’s production will end up neutral or even slightly better as a result of the ballpark shift. Given that, along with LeMahieu’s defensive ability, it’s difficult to find fault in this signing.
(Photo by Leslie Plaza Johnson/Icon Sportswire)