Last August, DJ LeMahieu was in the midst of the worst season of his big-league career, and Gio Urshela was playing in Triple A. So it makes sense that they’ve been irreplaceable figures to the 82-42 New York Yankees this season, right?
With an insane amount of injuries to his starting lineup early in the season, manager Aaron Boone had to get creative with his depth chart; then LeMahieu and Urshela made people forget about the players they were replacing. Furthermore, the two infielders have completely transformed the Yankees lineup.
The Yankees signed LeMahieu to a two-year, $24 million deal in the offseason to be a fifth infielder. From the moment the contract was made public to the outset of the regular season, this was viewed as a puzzling transaction. Why would the Yankees sign one of the best second basemen in Major League Baseball to be a reserve? Why would LeMahieu agree to these terms?
Well, injuries to Didi Gregorius (who was already recovering from an elbow injury before the regular season) and Miguel Andujar opened the door for LeMahieu to start on a consistent basis, and the veteran shut the door behind him.
Hitting .337, slugging .532, sporting a .918 OPS, and totaling 19 home runs and 81 RBIs, he has been one of the most productive hitters in baseball. By the way, the last four statistics are career highs for LeMahieu. Meanwhile, he’s not just making considerable soft contact; he’s crushing pitches. LeMahieu’s 91.8 percent average exit velocity ranks in the top eight percent in the sport. Oh, he has also totaled just 66 strikeouts.
LeMahieu is a line-drive hitter. He hits the ball to all fields, is difficult to strikeout, and with his contact approach comes power — as this season exemplifies.
But he has also been a godsend in the field for the Yankees. While he’s an elite defensive second baseman, LeMahieu has played three different positions for an extended amount of time this season. Playing 62 games at second base, 37 at third, and 25 at first, he has been a versatile specimen.
For the longest time, LeMahieu was regarded as an elite all-around second baseman. Then after hitting .276 in a walk year with the Colorado Rockies, people began to categorize him as a beneficiary of playing in Coors Field. Yeah, they nailed that one because LeMahieu is really struggling to hit under the bright lights of New York City, right?
Unless you lived in the Cleveland area, there was a strong chance you didn’t know who Gio Urshela was before this season, which is understandable. If you were a reserve for an infield made up of Francisco Lindor, Jose Ramirez, Carlos Santana, and Jason Kipnis, you’d be an unknown too. But with a banged-up roster looking for a jolt, Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman decided to give Urshela a shot — even though he appeared in just 19 games for the Toronto Blue Jays in 2018.
At first, Urshela shattered expectations and was splendid, but it didn’t seem like it would last. Then it did, and he has been one of the best third basemen in baseball this season.
Hitting .342, slugging .587, sporting a .970 OPS, and totaling 18 home runs and 66 RBIs, he has been a force to be reckoned with in the batter’s box. He has also totaled just 59 strikeouts. What’s even more impressive is how this production doesn’t come from one brief stretch, rather he has been hitting at this level since being incorporated into the starting lineup.
Concurrently, Urshela’s defense is as impressive as his offense. He fluently fields and executes groundballs down the line and from his barehand and has a cannon for an arm. He has a case for winning a Gold Glove. Try to find an American League third baseman who has been better from all aspects of the game than Urshela this season; you won’t.
But here’s the most absurd element of his 2019 success: He’s under team control through 2023.
LeMahieu and Urshela’s success is bigger than them; it has changed the dynamic of the Yankees offense.
From 2017-18, the core of Gregorius, Gleyber Torres (last season), Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez, Gleyber Torres, and Brett Gardner, among others, have been criticized for being too home run-or-bust at the plate. It has some merit to it. They totaled an enormous amount of strikeouts, were predictable, and they had little to no prolific, or highly productive players hitting for both contact and power. In each of the last two postseasons, the Yankees lost to strikeout pitching. In 2017 it was to the Houston Astros in Minute Maid Park, and last season it was to the Boston Red Sox.
Now the Yankees have balance. LeMahieu typically sets the table for Judge, or whoever’s hitting second in the order, and he puts the ball in play nearly every at-bat. Urshela can hit anywhere in the order, he ropes extra-base hits, and is a middle-of-the-order hitter who doesn’t look to hit home runs. They each put the ball in play and swing for contact, not power. To have two players doing as such while hitting over .330 is rare, and it’s the driving force of the Yankees offense.
Starting pitching will be the Yankees’ October kryptonite, but their resiliency and fundamental offensive changes this season are extremely impressive. Remove LeMahieu and Urshela from the story, and there’s no story; they are the story.