In baseball, as in life, accountability is important. People who give opinions for a living, or in the case of this blog, as something more than a hobby but less lucrative than a job, should recognize and accept responsibility when they get something wrong. With that in mind, as we are at the All Star break and the starting second baseman for the American League is DJ LeMahieu, I need to admit that I was completely wrong about LeMahieu and his value to the Yankees. The only caveat I have to that is that I have rarely so happy to be so wrong. LeMahieu has been an extraordinary addition to the team providing value at the plate and in the field at three different positions.
Rather than minimize or explain away my mistake, it is more fruitful to see what can be learned from the Yankees experience with LeMahieu. The first is that there is value in a diversified offense. It was difficult to watch the Yankees lose to the Red Sox and the division series last fall without screaming “just put the bat on the ball” as one after another Yankee batter struck out with runners on base. In 2018, the Yankees struck out in 22.6% of their plate appearances. LeMahieu only struck out in 14.1% of his plate appearances in 2018. That number has risen very slightly to 14.4% thus far in 2019. Even if he were not making himself an MVP candidate, LeMahieu’s ability to put the bat on the ball, particularly on a team like the Yankees where he frequently bats with runners on base, would be extremely valuable.
Until this year, LeMahieu was almost exclusively a second baseman. He had played four big league games at first, 41 games at third and four games at shortstop, but had not played any of those positions since 2014. Given that, I was skeptical about his ability to convert himself into an elite multi-position defender. However, this year he has played 12 games at first and 26 at third. He has proven an able defender at both positions. LeMahieu’s ability to play these positions well, while continuing to be a standout defender at his primary position, second base, is a reminder not only that players with the right tools can learn new positions, but that in the era of the shift, infield positions are becoming more similar to each other.
My initial fear regarding LeMahieu was that he would take playing time away from a young Gleyber Torres, who was clearly a rising star at second base. That has not happened because it turns out LeMahieu was acquired largely because, despite what they said in the offseason, the Yankees never had much confidence in Troy Tulowitzki. Tulo was initially penciled in as the team’s starting shortstop, but the 34 yeard old, who has last palyed a full season in 2016, to the surprise of almost nobody, didn’t work out. The presence of LeMahieu made it seamless for the Yankees to move Torres over to shortstop. The injury to Miguel Andujar, a player whose defense even when healthy was almost bad enough to take him out of the lineup, made LeMahieu even more valuable. Even as Gio Urshela has emerged as a valuable third baseman, LeMahieu has made it possible to give Urshela the rest and not push him beyond his ability.
LeMahieu is therefore also a reminder that it is essential to have contingency plans. While the injury to Tulowitzki was entirely too predictable, the other injuries on the Yankees were not. Clearly the Yankees have had an unusual run of injuries this year, but the odds that either Torres or Andujar would get hurt, Andujar would be healthy but a liability with the glove, Luke Voit would regress from his excellent 2018 season or that Didi Gregorius would not recover smoothly from his injury were good. If any of those things happened, a player of LeMahieu’s ability and versatility would have been very valuable. Preparing for that before it happened was why signing LeMahieu was such a brilliant move.
With Gregorius back in the lineup and Torres building on his excellent rookie season, LeMahieu goes into the second half of the season as the team’s primary third baseman, but also as an option at first base until Voit gets healthy. Thus, he will continue his role as a full time utility infielder, playing every day while moving around the diamond as needed. Even if his offensive production slows down, LeMahieu will still be of great value to the Yankees-value that was entirely foreseeable by Brian Cashman, but that I did not foresee.
Photo: cc/Keith Allison