Yankees MVP DJ LeMahieu Is the Hitting Rebel Turning His Back on MLB's HR Era

Joe LemireContributor IAugust 7, 2019

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - AUGUST 03: DJ LeMahieu #26 of the New York Yankees hits a two run home run in the fourth inning against the Boston Red Sox during game one of a double header at Yankee Stadium on August 03, 2019 in the Bronx borough of New York City. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

His earliest public scouting report, written at the end of his junior year of high school, said he "produces easy power" and "is an offensive monster waiting to happen." A year later, Baseball America noted the young infielder from Michigan's "calling card is his power potential."

While DJ LeMahieu never fulfilled those lofty power predictions, he did become a "savage" at the plate. And now, in his ninth big league season—armed with three Gold Gloves, three All-Star appearances, and one National League batting title—the Yankees' utility infielder is having his best year yet despite shunning expectations that a big-framed, hard-hitting batter needs to produce lofty home run totals to succeed.

With a .302 career batting average (eighth-best among active major leaguers), the 6'4", 215-pound LeMahieu is the baseball rebel rejecting the launch-angle-crazed, homer-obsessed modern game. His steady yet seemingly antiquated line-drive swing has put him in position to become the first player in major league history to win a batting titles in both leagues—and maybe even play his way into the MVP vote. His .336 batting average leads the American League, while his 18 homers and .534 slugging percentage are career highs.

"I think, to hit for power, you have to be a good hitter," LeMahieu said. "You don't see too many guys that hit for a ton of homers that are bad hitters. So, for me, just being a good hitter, having competitive at-bats, I think the power comes naturally—at least that's what I hope for. But first and foremost, I want to be a good hitter, and I want to be a competitive guy in the box that pitchers don't want to face."

After being overlooked in free agency last winter, LeMahieu signed a two-year, $24 million contract with the Yankees, who had no outward need for another infielder. He didn't start on Opening Day but has rarely missed a game since, other than a recent four-game absence with a groin strain. And though LeMahieu's first two starts came in the No. 9 slot, he is now firmly entrenched as the leadoff hitter for one of the most feared offenses in the game.

Former Rockies teammate Mike Dunn, who previously faced LeMahieu as a Marlins reliever, claimed that unlike power hitters who tend to have a hole somewhere in their swing, LeMahieu never did.

"It's like, 'get your single, and get out of the way,'" Dunn said. "He's one of the tougher guys to game-plan for."

The scouts early in LeMahieu's career may have been off on their predictions that he would be a traditional power hitter, but they were right in assessing his underlying skillthat he hits the ball really hard.

His average exit velocity in 2019 is 91.7 miles per hour, 10th-best in the AL, according to Statcast. And while that has helped him set a new career high in home runs, he has only a 7.1-degree average launch angle, far shy of the 12.1 MLB standard this season.

That approach has worked before.

In 2016, when he won the NL batting crown with a .348 average, LeMahieu registered an exit velocity of 95 mph or higher 231 times. That was good for fifth-most in the majors, trailing only Miguel Cabrera, Robinson Cano, Mookie Betts and Albert Pujols. LeMahieu's average launch angle, however, was only 4.8 degrees—well below the 10.8-degree MLB average that season and the 12.1 mark of the four power hitters preceding him on that list. Each of those four players hit more than 30 home runs that season, compared to LeMahieu's 11.

DJ LeMahieu hasn't generated the home run numbers of MLB's most prolific sluggers, but some underlying statistics show that he hits the ball harder than almost anyone in the game.
DJ LeMahieu hasn't generated the home run numbers of MLB's most prolific sluggers, but some underlying statistics show that he hits the ball harder than almost anyone in the game.Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

"He loves to hit, man," said Rockies assistant hitting coach Jeff Salazar, who worked with LeMahieu in 2017 and 2018. "He loves to hit hard line drives, and that's what he does. There's this era of 'launch angle' and 'put the ball in the air.' He does have the exit velo to probably benefit from that, but at what cost? Is he getting too far away from what makes him great and his comfort zone? Because [what he's doing] seems to work pretty well, right?"

Twice in his big league careerduring his first years with the Rockies and again in 2018LeMahieu has toyed with hitting for more power. From 2012 to 2014, he had a pronounced front leg kick, but after batting only .267 in 2014, he abandoned it.

"I had a leg kick, more just to get better timing and try to generate some more power," he said. "It just ended up becoming—well, I guess it just wasn't working very well."

Rockies star third baseman Nolan Arenado, his former teammate and occasional offseason hitting partner, added more context.

"He tried lifting it a little bit because he was struggling a little bit," Arenado said. "He was trying to figure out power, and he didn't like it. He figured out that 'I'm a line-drive hitter and I'm just going to be who I am, and that's it.'"

During the winter leading into the 2015 season, LeMahieu was introduced to an Atlanta-area hitting instructor named Casey Smith, a former Padres minor leaguer. Smith worked with LeMahieu to scrap the leg kick as part of an overall effort to be more consistent at the plate. LeMahieu batted over .300 for the first time that season and reached his first All-Star Game before winning the NL batting title the following year.

"The biggest thing with him is his hand-eye coordination is on a different level," Smith said. "His ability to square up a baseball—regardless of pitch location or timing—is something like I've never seen."

For his part, LeMahieu said he doesn't spend much time thinking about detailed mechanics. Instead, he prepares to face opposing pitchers while being mindful of a few timing checkpoints.

"He has the mechanical side," LeMahieu said of Smith. "I have the mental side. Together, we make a pretty good team that way."

Salazar called LeMahieu the "ultimate teammate" for his willingness to hit behind the runner and sacrifice personal production in favor of situational hitting. Noting the infielder's uncanny knack for driving pitches to the opposite field, Salazar would see how often LeMahieu would hit even the pitches on his hands to right field.

LeMahieu's hitting coach at LSU, Javi Sanchez, shared a similar observation about his batting practice. As he threw pitches from behind the L-screen, Sanchez would make a mental note of where an imaginary defense would be playing, and no one tallied more would-be base hits than LeMahieu.

"He's very fundamentally sound," Arenado said. "In B.P., he's not trying to hit homers. He's trying to hit the ball the other way and line drives. If you're going to watch B.P., watch DJ LeMahieu's B.P., because he's going to teach you some things."

Nearly all big leaguers have more hits and better success when pulling the ball, but LeMahieu is one of the outliers. He has more than twice as many hits to right field than left and a higher OPS.

But this is the modern era, where no tendency goes unchecked.

In 2017, teams like the Diamondbacks and Padres started pulling their center fielder into the right-center gap and their left fielder to nearly straightaway center, challenging LeMahieu to pull the ball down the line. Only then would he bemoan his lack of pull hitting, to which Salazar would respond, "Just be you, dude."

LeMahieu slugged a then career-high 15 homers for the Rockies in 2018 but saw his batting average dip to .276, the lowest mark in his last four years in Colorado.
LeMahieu slugged a then career-high 15 homers for the Rockies in 2018 but saw his batting average dip to .276, the lowest mark in his last four years in Colorado.Eric Risberg/Associated Press/Associated Press

That didn't stop others from trying to change LeMahieu's ways. Around this time, the Rockies shared research with him about some of the benefits of elevating the ball more. In 2018, he hit a career-high 15 homers but batted only .276.

"Not to change anything, but definitely feeding me information about launch angle," LeMahieu said. "'Hey, you hit the ball hard, but if you just got the ball in the air this much more, you'd hit for this much more power.' Stuff like that, and it wasn't [to] 'change anything.' It was just, 'Here it is, do what you want with it'—which, it's accurate. But for me, I'm just trying to hit the ball hard. Hitting's hard enough."

While acknowledging how hard it was to ignore what could happen if LeMahieu's average launch angle rose even three or four degrees, Salazar noted the "give and take" of wanting to maximize his player's production.

"He's got some thump," Salazar said. "But I had heard early on in his career, they had tried to get him to pull the ball more and to display some of that [power]. And it maybe in some way ended up being counterproductive—asking him to cheat a little more or get open or get more out in front, which would maybe leave him vulnerable to some other pitches.

Yankees hitting coach Marcus Thames said the organization's primary offensive philosophy is to control the strike zone, which LeMahieu does.

"His swing plays," Thames said. "You don't want to touch his swing."

In that New York lineup, hitting in front of Aaron Judge and with sluggers like Gary Sanchez and Gleyber Torres not far behind, there's less demand for LeMahieu's power.

"It's been an ongoing battle with him—not a battle, but it's like, everybody in the game is saying, 'You're a big, strong guy; you need to hit homers.'" Smith said. "The game itself is saying you've got to hit balls out of the ballpark. And DJ can. DJ has crazy power. But what happens is, when he tries to force that, it's just out of his comfort zone.

"He can hit homers, but he just doesn't feel like he's a consistent hitter [when he tries]. I think knowing who you are and trusting who you are is more important than doing what other people tell you what they think you should do."

LeMahieu's emergence as an elite hitter almost didn't happen. His trade from the Cubs to the Rockies after the 2011 season polarized the Colorado front office.

Then-Rockies general manager Dan O'Dowd had made a due-diligence call to Jim Hendry, an executive whose baseball opinion he respected and the man who had been the Cubs' GM when the franchise drafted LeMahieu. He told O'Dowd, "If you have a chance to acquire DJ, you should do that at all costs." (Hendry is now a Yankees adviser.)

"I will tell you, there was much consternation [about] that trade," O'Dowd said. "In fact, it was probably the only trade I ever made with the Rockies where I absolutely had no internal support to make that deal whatsoever. Because we were trading a former [first-round] pick in Ian Stewart, who had huge upside, for a guy whom our scouts believed to be a good major league player but not an elite player."

O'Dowd said his philosophy in Colorado was to prioritize elite pitch recognition and bat-to-ball skills, believing the power would follow a good approach.

The Yankees have been careful not to try to adjust LeMahieu's swing, an effort that has seen the nine-year veteran lead the majors in hitting while adding a career-high 17 home runs.
The Yankees have been careful not to try to adjust LeMahieu's swing, an effort that has seen the nine-year veteran lead the majors in hitting while adding a career-high 17 home runs.Kathy Willens/Associated Press

The power never did come around, as LeMahieu hit only 49 homers in seven seasons with the Rockies, but no one in Colorado kept the offense moving more consistently. Over his last four seasons there, he hit .309 and averaged nearly 175 hits per season.

When LeMahieu hit free agency last winter, though, his market appeared to be hindered by offseason chatter that his production was a Coors Field creation. And while he has hit 60 points higher at home than on the road across his career, his home run production is split almost evenly. That hasn't hurt in homer-friendly Yankee Stadium, where LeMahieu has clocked 13 of his 17 homers this season.

"In my opinion, Yankee Stadium is more friendly for who he is as a hitter than Coors Field is—regardless of what everybody said about the Coors Field metrics," Smith said. "Yankee Stadium has a shorter right field porch with a short fence. It's not tall. So a line-drive double at Coors is a home run at Yankee Stadium."

Speak to LeMahieu's hitting coaches over the years—from LSU, the Rockies, the Yankees, and his offseason trainer—and they all echo similar refrains that he stays within himself and doesn't try to do too much.

"Whether the guy was 0-for-4 or 4-for-4, he was the same guy—[put] the helmet inside the cubbie, batting gloves inside the helmet, walk to the end of the dugout, get a sip of water," Sanchez said. "He takes the emotion out of it. He plays with a very slow heartbeat.

"I feel like the guy can roll out of bed and hit .340 with crust in his eyes."

In conversation, LeMahieu is soft-spoken and mild-mannered, much as he was when Yankees manager Aaron Boone went on his epic, expletive-laden tirade toward rookie home-plate umpire Brennan Miller about his hitters being "savages in the box." LeMahieu hardly looked the part, standing quietly at the plate following the mildest of rebukes: "Brennan, that's so far outside."

Those who know him see another side. Boone has said that on the field, LeMahieu is trying "to rip your heart out."

Added Smith: "He's very quiet, but he's one of the fiercest competitors I have ever seen in my entire life."

Yankees outfielder Mike Tauchman, who played with LeMahieu in Colorado, said: "He's probably the most competitively confident hitter I've ever played with. And what I mean by that is—a lot of hitters, I think, their day is dictated by how their swing feels from a mechanics standpoint or how their body feels or what-have-you.

"From my perception, with DJ, it's: 'This is what I have today, I think it's better than what the guy has on the mound—no matter what it is—and I'm going to go out there and just battle the whole day.'"

All statistics via MLB.com, Baseball Reference or FanGraphs, unless otherwise noted.