DJ LeMahieu Gets No Respect

Monday afternoon, I put up an InstaGraphs post titled “The Least Intimidating Hitter in Baseball.” The idea was to use a formula including fastball rate and zone rate, because, the way I figure, the more aggressively a hitter gets pitched, the less the pitchers are afraid of. I combined a couple z-scores to get a number I’ll refer to today as the Aggressiveness Index, and many of the players in the linked post are unsurprising. Turns out pitchers go after Ben Revere aggressively. Ditto Nori Aoki and Billy Burns. There’s nothing weird there.

But a certain name showed up in eighth place. Last year, pitchers didn’t show any significant fear of facing DJ LeMahieu. That makes sense if you weren’t paying attention, but LeMahieu played every day, and finished with a 128 wRC+. LeMahieu, ever so quietly, had himself a breakout, four-win season, yet it looks like pitchers just didn’t care.

LeMahieu is a fascinating player for a few reasons. One, we pretty much never talk about him, so he’s gone about his business under the radar. Two, he’s so far run a career BABIP of .352, and it’s been elevated even away from Coors Field. Three, he just pulled only 22% of his batted balls, easily the lowest rate in baseball among qualified hitters. And four, LeMahieu just took a substantial step forward. So many times, we’ve talked about hitters who’ve sacrificed contact for power, or power for contact. LeMahieu got better at contact and power without sacrificing anything.

Over the last two seasons, 237 hitters have batted at least 250 times in each year. LeMahieu just managed the 16th-biggest improvement in hard-hit rate, and he also managed the fifth-biggest improvement in contact rate. You see him there next to two other dots. One belongs to Chris Iannetta, which is odd. The other belongs to Wilson Ramos, which makes a lot more sense.

Anyway, LeMahieu posted a career-high wRC+. And yet pitchers remained aggressive on a regular basis. His fastball-rate z-score was 2.3, and his zone-rate z-score was 1.0, meaning his Aggressiveness Index was 3.3. That was one of the highest in the game, and in this plot, you can see LeMahieu since his career began in earnest.

The Aggressiveness Index has actually gotten higher each season. That made enough sense until 2016, when LeMahieu reworked himself into a threat. I’ll apologize now for the number of plots I’m embedding, but here’s Aggressiveness Index and wRC+ for individual hitter-seasons going back five years. LeMahieu is highlighted in appropriate purple.

The purple point is among the ones that stand out. Now, I do hear you, all the way over there. LeMahieu finished last year with a BABIP closer to .400 than .375. He hit just 11 home runs, and, again, he seldom pulled anything. I can see why some people might conclude that LeMahieu’s wRC+ was inflated. I’m prepared for this! Here’s a similar plot, except instead of wRC+, I’ve used a hard-hit-rate index, also z-scored.

LeMahieu wound up with a hard-hit rate that was 0.6 standard deviations higher than the mean. His Aggressiveness Index was 3.3, but according to the best-fit line, it should’ve been -0.6. That’s the biggest positive difference in the whole sample. Which means, no other point is further above the dotted black line.

This is the Statcast era, right? Might as well do one better than hard-hit rate. The latter might be somewhat subjective. Here’s Aggressiveness Index against average exit velocity for the last two years, using the corrected EV numbers to fill in missing data.

I highlighted LeMahieu’s 2016 point. Perhaps I should’ve also highlighted his 2015 point, which is the one immediately to the left. Two years ago, LeMahieu ranked in the 92nd percentile in average exit velocity. Last year, he ranked in the 96th percentile. If you can believe it, he wound up with a slightly higher average EV than David Ortiz and Freddie Freeman. For LeMahieu, it’s more about consistent good contact than occasional great contact, but you see how that point is an outlier. Despite everything LeMahieu was doing, he wasn’t getting pitched with respect. Pitchers either weren’t buying his improvements, or they didn’t know about them.

You might be wondering: Is LeMahieu another one of those recent swing-change guys? No.

LeMahieu said he hasn’t changed his swing mechanics this season.

Instead, he changed more of his mental approach. He went into each plate appearance with more of a plan.

“Usually when a guy gets to 28 or 29, DJ’s age, he’s pretty much set,” the scout said. “But DJ is starting to figure out major-league pitching. He used to just go up to the plate and slap at the ball, but now he’s a lot more selective and looks for a pitch he can drive.”

In fairness, he did also get stronger. Standing 6’4, it’s not like LeMahieu is a little dude. He’s coming off a career-high walk rate, and a career-low strikeout rate. He’s also coming off a career-low grounder rate, and a career-high pop-up rate. That last point is interesting — LeMahieu wound up with 11 pop-ups, where over his career he had just six before, combined. That speaks to someone trying to get more lift, and trying to drive the ball somewhere. Pop-ups themselves obviously aren’t good, but a changing rate is another indicator.

So in DJ LeMahieu, we have someone who seemed to make positive changes. He improved, such that he no longer resembled so extreme a slap-hitter. At the same time, in DJ LeMahieu, we have someone who was pitched very aggressively. That reflects a lack of fear, which in turn reflects either ignorance or disbelief. Other pitchers didn’t think of LeMahieu as a problem, meaning they’re either behind the times or out in front of them. It’s hard to be certain, although my inkling is that LeMahieu deserves more credit than he’s received.

Pitchers delighted in going after Matt Carpenter in 2014. That year, even though he posted a 117 wRC+, he had an Aggressiveness Index of 3.2. The following year, that dropped to 2.4, and this past season, it dropped further, to 0.9. Pitchers have become increasingly cautious around Carpenter, because he’s proven he can punish them. Carpenter, granted, does his damage by pulling the ball, and putting it in the air. LeMahieu’s damage is a little less conspicuous. We’ll see if he can keep it up, and if he does, we’ll see how much longer it takes before pitchers figure it out. For now, signs are tugging in opposite directions.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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7 years ago

Outstanding, Jeff. As usual.