DJ LeMahieu is a free-agent infielder who FanGraphs ranked as #6 of the 2021 Top 50 free agents. Is he a good fit for the Blue Jays?
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Ross Atkins has stated that one of Toronto’s off-season objectives is to improve its run prevention capabilities. Therefore, DJ LeMahieu, a three-time Gold Glove winner and holder of the American League 2020 batting title, appears to be a player who is ideal for the Jays. However, is he a good match for the Blue Jays?
LeMahieu made his MLB debut in 2011 with the Cubs. He was traded to Colorado on December 8, 2011, and became a full-time starter in May 2013. During his Colorado career (2012-2018), he posted the second-highest DRS among second basemen and won three Gold Gloves. With the bat, LeMahieu recorded a 130 wRC+ in 2016 and won the National League batting title with a 0.348 batting average. However, for his career with the Rockies, LeMahieu was a below-average hitter (91 wRC+). He became a free agent after the 2018 season and signed a two-year contract with the Yankees. During the 2019-2020 period, LeMahieu produced a 146 wRC+ and won the American League 2020 batting title (0.364 BA).
The structure of the analysis is as follows:
- A review of various offence, defence, and player-value metrics
- An estimate of what a reasonable contract would be for LeMahieu
- The arguments for and against signing LeMahieu
Offence and value
Table 1 presents some offence measures and value metrics for the 2019-2020 period for LeMahieu and Cavan Biggio, Toronto’s primary second baseman during the 2019-2020 time frame. The highlights are as follows:
- Among the 43 second baseman with a minimum of 400 plate appearances, LeMahieu ranked second in OBP and first in OPS, wOBA, and wRC+
- Biggio was 4th, 14th, 12th, and 11th in OBP, OPS, wOBA and wRC+, respectively.
- LeMahieu was first in fWAR; Biggio was eighth.
- Biggio was an above-average baserunner (5.7 BsR, sixth-best), and LeMahieu was a tick below average (-0.1 BsR, which ranked #26)
Table 2 contains a sample of Statcast data for LeMahieu and Biggio for the 2019-2020 period. The items to note are as follows:
- Concerning expected batting metrics (xBA, xwOBA, and xSLG) and other data (K%, Exit Velocity, and Whiff%), LeMahieu was a better hitter than Biggio by a significant margin.
- For reference purposes, the best player has the 100th percentile ranking; the worst player has the 1st percentile slot.
- In 2019, LeMahieu was 99th, 90th and 87th in xBA, xwOBA and xSLG, respectively.
- Biggio, who posted a very respectable 119 wRC+ during the 2019-2020 period, ranks very low in terms of xSLG, and Exit Velocity
Plate discipline (mPDI) is one aspect of hitting in which Biggio is superior to LeMahieu. For the 2019-2020 period, Biggio’s mPDI was 100th percentile; LeMahieu’s was 39th. Biggio is a more disciplined hitter than LeMahieu: Biggio is better at not swinging at pitches out of the zone and swinging at those in the strike zone.
The Statcast data supports the view that LeMahieu was one of the best hitters during the 2019 and 2020 campaigns. To be fair to the 25-year old Biggio, 2020 was his second MLB season; 2020 was 32-year old LeMahieu’s tenth in the big leagues. Accordingly, a direct comparison with LeMahieu is unfair to Biggio. My view is that Biggio can improve as a hitter. The question for further examination is how sustainable is LeMahieu’s outstanding batting in 2019 and 2020.
The friendly confines of Yankee Stadium
Table 3 shows the home and away splits of Statcast data for LeMahieu and Biggio. For the 2019-2020 time frame, LeMahieu’s wRC+ was 183 at home and 112 away. Biggio’s split was more balanced: 123 at home and 115 away.
Table 4 also illustrates how much better a hitter LeMahieu was at Yankee Stadium than on the road. To his credit, his xBA (0.320 vs 0.318), xSLG (0.545 vs 0.481) and xwOBA (0.397 vs 0.357) were superior at home than they were away. However, the BA-xBA, SLG-xSLG, and wOBA-xwOBA differentials were much larger at Yankee Stadium than his road games. In other words, LeMahieu’s saw the largest positive difference between his actual results and the expected outcome when he played at Yankee Stadium.
I think there a two likely reasons for this home-road split as it relates to the actual versus expected results. First, there appears to be a luck factor at play. Second, Yankee Stadium is home run central. According to FanGraphs, the home run park factor at Yankee Stadium was 112 in 2019 and 2020; the MLB average is 100. In other words, the home-run rate at Yankee Stadium was 24% higher than the average ballpark. For more information on park factors, please read the related FanGraphs article.
Furthermore, LeMahieu hit 27 of his 36 home runs as a Yankee at Yankee Stadium; 16 of them were opposite-field dingers into the short right-field porch. LeMahieu hit three opposite-field home runs on the road. The impact of New York’s right-field fence upon SLG% is that some batted balls, which would be outs, singles or doubles in many ballparks, are home runs. Hence, the SLG% will be higher in Yankee Stadium.
LeMahieu has developed into an above-average MLB hitter. However, strong evidence indicates that his home batting results will deteriorate if he moves on from the Yankees.
- LeMahieu posted OAA/400 marks of 1 and minus 1 in 2019 and 2020, respectively.
- Biggio produced OAA/400 grades of 4 and minus 1 in 2019 and 2020, respectively.
- For the 2019-2020 period, LeMahieu’s DRS/1200 of 4 was better than Biggio’s 1 DRS/1200
It is reasonable to conclude that LeMahieu and Biggio are better defensively than the average second baseman. Also, the two players are about the same with the glove.
For a detailed explanation of the factors considered in the contract computation, please refer to Appendix A. It is important to note that a reasonable contract value falls within a range of other valid contract values. There is no precise number for a contract estimate; it is not like going to the grocery store to buy broccoli.
Table 7 shows that a reasonable contract for LeMahieu is a three-year, USD 60.9 million deal (USD 20.3 million AAV). This contract value is much higher than FanGraphs estimate of three-years, USD 31.0 million (USD 10.3 million AAV). MLB Trade Rumors estimated a four-year, USD 68.0 million contract (USD 17.0 million AAV).
FanGraphs estimate was lower than the others because it incorporated two factors into its analysis. First, LeMahieu plays a position that teams haven’t been prioritizing. Second, there are less costly alternatives available (Cesar Hernandez and Jurickson Profar).
Arguments for and against signing LeMahieu
- LeMahieu was one of the better MLB hitters during the 2019-2020 time frame.
- Although his defensive play at second base has declined since his Colorado days, LeMahieu will likely be a tick above average in 2021
- LeMahieu has demonstrated the defensive ability to play first and third base in limited opportunities at an MLB-average level.
- During his tenure with the Yankees, LeMahieu’s home and away splits are noteworthy.
- His average wRC+ at home was 183, and 112 on the road.
- Therefore, the data strongly suggests that LeMahieu’s offensive production will be negatively affected if he were to join a club with a ballpark that is not as hitter-friendly as Yankee Stadium.
- Biggio’s second-base defence is comparable to the current version of LeMahieu.
- Accordingly, Atkin’s objective of improving the Jays run prevention capabilities would not be met by signing LeMahieu.
- It is unlikely that LeMahieu is a candidate to play third base, given that only 8% of his career innings in the field have been at third base.
- ZiPS projects an fWAR of 3.4 and 2.7 for LeMahieu in 2021 and 2022, respectively.
- That performance level is not much higher than the fWAR estimates of 2.5 (2021) and 2.6 (2022) for Biggio.
- LeMahieu declined his Qualifying Offer, which means that the Jays would forfeit their second pick in the 2021 June Amateur Draft if they signed him.
Ben Zobrist 2.0
Another reason to not acquire LeMahieu is the impact the signing would have upon Biggio. With LeMahieu under contract, the Blue Jays will likely attempt to make Biggio a super-utility player, Ben Zobrist 2.0. However, there are differences between Biggio and Zobrist to consider:
- Zobrist’s had enough range to start his MLB career as a shortstop.
- Biggio has not demonstrated the range required of a shortstop.
- Zobrist did not commence his super-utility role until he was 28; Biggio is 25
- For his first five seasons as the utility unicorn, Zobrist split his time primarily between second base and right field.
- He posted a DRS/1200 of 12 at second base and an 18 DRS/1200 in right field.
- Biggio’s defence has hovered around average.
- Therefore, unlike Zobrist, Biggio does not project to excel defensively at two positions.
My view is that the Blue Jays would enhance Biggio’s development if he remains a second baseman and not a super-utility player. Indeed, Biggio has demonstrated that he can be a reliable replacement of an outfielder or a third baseman for short periods. However, Biggio does not profile as Zobrist 2.0.
The last word
LeMahieu’s tenure as a Yankee has been impressive. He was one of the better MLB hitters during that period. However, there are two significant concerns. First, his home-away splits indicate LeMahieu will not be as effective at the plate away from Yankee Stadium. Second, his defence appears to have declined from the lofty heights of his days in Colorado. Also, LeMahieu projects to generate just one fWAR more than Biggio, the Blue Jays incumbent, over the 2021-2022 period. The final assessment is that the Blue Jays should not sign LeMahieu. Toronto would be better to address starting pitching and centerfield.
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Bob was a St. Louis Cardinals fan until the Blue Jays arrived on the baseball scene, although he still has a soft spot for the Cards. Similar to straddling the Greenwich Meridian, as depicted in the avatar, Bob applies sabermetrics when applicable, but his heart tells him that Lou Brock belongs in the Hall of Fame.