DJ, I have some questions…

I remain one of the dwindling numbers of baseball fans who refuse to believe that D.J. Lemahieu turned into Rogers Hornsby one winter night during this past off-season.

There will be a regression to the mean.  Water seeks its own level.  Small sample size, blah, blah, blah…

You’ve heard them all.  If you’ve been within earshot of me since April, you’ve heard me say it pretty much every time D.J. comes to the plate.  Which of course, is largely the reason he’s leading the American League in hitting.  You’re welcome, Yankee fans.

It’s just not possible for a player who, for five seasons out of a six-season stretch, had a below league average wRC+ to suddenly have a better wRC+ than J.D. Martinez, Anthony Rizzo, and Matt Chapman.  It’s just not possible for a player who spent over 2,000 plate appearances proving that he can’t hit outside of Denver to have a higher SLG% than Edwin Encarnacion and Manny Machado.  It’s not possible for a player to average 1.6 fWAR per season for seven seasons to be on pace for a 6.5 to 7 win season.

Apparently, it is possible.  Because here we the naysayers sit, wondering when the earth is going to fly back up to meet D.J.  At some point, we need to start asking some questions.  Let’s start with the obvious:

What exactly is different about his performance this season when compared to recent seasons?

For starters, he’s been much more aggressive at the plate in 2019 when compared to previous seasons.  His percentage of pitches swung at from 2016-2018 ranged from 41.6% to 42% – this season it’s 46.6%.  The percentage of his plate appearances that reach both 3-0 and 2-0 counts are also the lowest of the stretch between 2016 and 2019 as is the percentage of pitches he takes for strikes.  Additionally, his pitches seen per plate appearance and strikeout looking percentages have both dropped for the 4th consecutive season.  It’s pretty obvious D.J. is a little more anxious to swing the bat than he used to be.

Secondly, he’s simultaneously pulling the ball and hitting it in the air far more often this season than he has in recent years.  Both his groundball to fly ball ratio and groundout to fly out ratio are at their lowest over the stretch from 2016 to this season.  His 2019 pull percentage is 2 points higher than his career pull percentage and six points higher than it was in 2016, his previous best offensive season.  Also in 2019, the percentage of balls he’s hit to the opposite field has dropped three points below his career average and over six points below his 2016 percentage.

More tellingly perhaps is the average launch angle.  His average 6.9-degree launch angle thus far in 2019 is by far his highest since such matters have been tracked, and is more than four degrees higher than it was only a season and a half ago. To be fair, the trend toward lifting and pulling started in 2018 for D.J. when he also had the lowest batting average on balls in play of his career.  It certainly is possible that he was improving, but the results didn’t quite show in the numbers due to some misfortune.  For some perspective, his 2019 BABIP of .369 is only slightly better than his career average, but massively higher than his 2018 BABIP of .298.  Put a pin in that, we’ll come back to it…

And last but certainly not least, he is destroying anything slow at a rate like none other in his career.  Both breaking pitches (curves and sliders) and off-speed pitches (change-ups, splitters, etc.) have met many violent and unfortunate endings on the barrel of D.J.s bat.  His performance has been slightly up versus fastballs – .467 SLG% last season to .491 this season – but his improvement against breaking pitches and off-speed pitches has been alarming.  Against breaking balls, his SLG% from 2018 to 2019 went from .350 to .536 and from .375 to .590 against off-speed pitches.  And the degree of improvement is pretty standard across the statistics board, both old school and new school:  Everything from batting average to wxOBA went up against fastballs, but drastically up against breaking and off-speed pitches.

Great.  Now we know what is different.  Unfortunately, this only begs further questions.  As Simon Sinek says, “Start with why”.

An increase in launch angle, pull and balls hit into the air percentages suggests a philosophical change.  It’s unlikely I’ll ever get to speak to D.J. or his advisors and even if I did I doubt they would scout their philosophy for all their opponents to see and hear.  But given the extent of the change in D.J’s launch angle, pull and fly rates, combined with a similar philosophical change among so many other players in recent seasons, it’s hard to believe there wasn’t a concerted effort on his part to start pulling and elevating.

Why the improvement against breaking pitches?  Again, unless I get to speak to D.J. directly, I can only assume his pitch recognition improved.  Perhaps a tip or suggestion from a coach or teammate was all it took for him to recognize non-fastballs sooner and react to them more efficiently. Needless to say, this wouldn’t be unprecedented.  According to Travis Sawchik and Ben Lindbergh’s new book, “The MVP Machine”, Cody Bellinger is no longer a victim to sliders simply because of some good advice he received from a teammate.

Is he benefitting from batting leadoff for a team with plenty of other ball killers behind him in the order?”  It certainly stands to reason that pitchers may be more inclined to throw LeMahieu fastball strikes early in the count and take their chances with him rather than risking a base on balls with the 21st-century murderer’s row coming up.  But the numbers don’t bear that out.

LeMahieu has actually seen a lower percentage of fastballs in his at-bats since joining the Yankees – 63% down from 68% in 2018.  And as you would expect, the percentage of both breaking balls (24% to 27%) and off-speed pitches (7% to 10%) he’s seen have increased from 2018 to 2019.  Furthermore, if the thought is he’s benefitting from batting leadoff for an offensive juggernaut would be accurate, then it would be safe to assume he would get on base more when batting leadoff for the Yankees, as opposed to other spots in the order.  He does not.  Admittedly, it’s a small sample size, because he only has 58 at-bats this season in other order spots besides leadoff, but he does have higher batting average and OBP% when not leading off for the Yankees (.345/.406) as opposed to when leading off (.335/.380) for them.

“Has he been more aggressive because he’s successful, or is he successful because he’s aggressive?”  The above numbers also suggest that his increased aggressiveness is a skillset not good fortune and that it doesn’t really matter.  To paraphrase Crash Davis, if you think you’re succeeding because you’re wearing women’s underwear then you are.  If he was jumping on early in the count fastballs out of preference for later count breaking balls then maybe we could suggest he’s the beneficiary of good circumstances, and those circumstances may change.  But pitchers are not pitching him that way.  Whatever they throw, he swings – and it’s working.

“Has he been lucky?”  As mentioned, his BABIP in 2019 is a little higher than his career average (.369 to .346), but not by a large enough margin to suggest he’s been hitting a lot of “ground balls with eyes”.  It’s more likely that his career low 2018 BABIP of .298 was the outlier that led to poor luck, and that his improvement had already started to tick upwards in 2018 without big results until 2019.  Plus, among 58 MLB players with at least 250 batted balls in 2019, LeMahieu is 10th in average exit velocity.  Dropping Texas leaguers onto the grass in the shallow outfield isn’t something he’s done very much of.  He’s literally hit the ball harder on average this season than Mookie Betts and Freddie Freeman.

And most importantly, “Is his improvement sustainable?”

Obviously, I’m not the only person with access to the above information so I certainly would expect opponents to make adjustments to LeMahieu’s adjustments.  Throwing more pitches off the plate I’m sure would be a good start for them if they wanted my advice (he wrote wistfully…)

But assuming D.J. can avoid increasing his chase rate too much to negate the improvements due to the increased aggression, expect the improvement in his performance to be long term.  With J.D. Martinez, Kevin Turner and Daniel Murphy among others, we’ve learned that philosophical changes can outlast or first overreactions of mean regressions, water seeking its own level and small sample sizes.  D.J. may not be the 2nd coming of Rogers Hornsby, but maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to look a gift horse in the mouth.  He’s a very good baseball player who’s also fun to watch – expect to continue to enjoy the ride.

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