DJ LeMahieu Has Been Highway Robbery for the New York Yankees

DJ LeMahieu has won a batting title, is a perennial All-Star and Gold Glove Award recipient, and one of the best middle infielders of his generation. Yet, he signed just a two-year, $24 million deal with the New York Yankees in the offseason, and they’re reaping the benefits to an absurd extent.

LeMahieu went into the regular season with an uncertain role. With (from left to right) Miguel Andujar, Troy Tulowitzki, Gleyber Torres, and Greg Bird — with Luke Voit serving as the designated hitter and platooning with Bird at first base — as the Yankees starting infield, there wasn’t a consistent everyday role available for LeMahieu. Then injuries struck the Yankees at a level deemed impossible.

Andujar, Tulowitzki, Bird, Giancarlo Stanton, Gary Sanchez, and Aaron Judge were all placed on the injured list within a month, and the Yankees were already without Luis Severino, Didi Gregorius, Aaron Hicks (who has returned, but missed the first month and a half of the season), and Dellin Betances. Injuries to the first three aforementioned players opened the door for LeMahieu to play every day, and he has been a vital component to the Yankees’ remarkable 38-20 start, which has them in first place in the American League East.

At the plate, he’s raking. Hitting .311 while totaling over twice as many hits as strikeouts (65:31) and 34 RBIs, he has been a machine in manager Aaron Boone‘s lineup. Meanwhile, he owns career highs in average exit velocity (91.5 percent), barrel percentage (5.5), and hard-hit percentage (47.5).

DJ LeMahieu has been a savior for the @Yankees in 2019 after signing such an affordable contract in January. @RPStratakos writes on how the infielder has been an absolute steal for New York.Click To Tweet

LeMahieu is one of the best pure hitters in Major League Baseball. He hits for contact, is difficult to strikeout, and puts the ball in play at a high rate. He can be a threat at the top of a lineup given his knack for getting on base, but can also be a force in the heart of an order given how his plate approach results in line drive contact, which moves runners across the basepaths.

Concurrently, he has been lethal in the field.

LeMahieu remains a vacuum at second base, fields balls in the hole with ease, and has a great arm. But those attributes aren’t the biggest story of his defensive play this season. While second base is his primary position, LeMahieu has played 16 games at third base and three at first. Boone is playing him all over the infield given the injuries that have presented themselves, and LeMahieu is unfazed.

How in the world did this dude sign for $12 million a season and have to wait until January to do so? Two horrifically bad notions surrounding his game: his discouraging 2018 campaign was more so who he was and him being a beneficiary of the ballpark he played 81 games in per season.

Last season was a down year for LeMahieu at the plate. He hit just .276 in the regular season and .200 in the postseason. He wasn’t swinging and missing at a disturbing rate, he was simply not getting on base at the level the Colorado Rockies (with whom he played from 2012-18) were accustomed to; the contact was there, the results weren’t. Having the worst season of your prime come right before you hit the open market is far from ideal.

But we’re going to base a career .299 hitter and the 2016 batting champion on one uncharacteristic season?

It’s no secret that Coors Field is a pitcher’s nightmare given the altitude, but that affects home runs, not pure contact. Sure, LeMahieu was a much better hitter at home than on the road, but his production this season proves that was merely a bizarre coincidence.

Let’s take a look at the production other teams are receiving from second basemen they signed to hefty contracts in the offseason.

Jed Lowrie, who signed a two-year, $20 million deal with the New York Mets, is yet to appear in a game this season due to a knee injury. Brian Dozier, who signed a one-year, $9 million deal with the Washington Nationals, is hitting .223. Daniel Murphy, who signed a two-year, $24 million with the Rockies — essentially replacing LeMahieu — has driven in an impressive 28 runs despite missing time due to a finger injury, but is also hitting a career-worse .241.

Ian Kinsler, who signed a two-year, $8 million deal with the San Diego Padres, is hitting a career-worse .193. Josh Harrison, who signed a one-year, $2 million deal with the Detroit Tigers, is hitting a career-worse .176.

Jonathan Schoop (.260 batting average, 11 home runs, 31 RBIs) and Mike Moustakas (.268 batting average, 16 home runs, 37 RBIs) have certainly played into their contracts (one-year, $7.5 million deal with the Minnesota Twins; one-year, $10 million deal with the Milwaukee Brewers), but LeMahieu has meant more to his team and produced at a more consistent level than the two.

LeMahieu has come up with pivotal hits, walk-off hits, and is forcing opposing teams’ hand. He leads the Yankees in batting average and hits despite being third in at-bats, and his versatility has been vital in the field. Sanchez has regained his old ways at the plate, Torres has been a steady force, Voit has been a source of power, and Clint Frazier has been a shot in the arm offensively, but LeMahieu has been the Yankees’ Most Valuable Player. It’s mind-boggling to think they signed him to be a utility player and that no one forked over a larger, or more appealing contract for his services.

LeMahieu signing with the Yankees was once one of the most puzzling transactions of the offseason. Now it’s the steal of the offseason and total highway robbery.

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