What Is DJ LeMahieu’s Real Value?
When DJ LeMahieu first joined the club, he seemed like the classic middle infielder who is out there for his glove and hits for an acceptable average. He wasn’t expected to do enough to warrant anything more than the seventh or eighth spot in the lineup. And for the last few years, LeMahieu has more-or-less held true to the stereotype.
He went off in 2015. LeMahieu grabbed everyone’s attention by hitting .406 in the month of April. At the break, he presented a .311 clip as tribute to the Baseball Gods, and was rewarded with his first All-Star selection. For many fans in America, the first time they had heard his name was when he stepped out along the base line in Cincinnati during pre-game introductions.
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I’ll play the biased fan and say that DJ was 100% deserving of being in the All-Star Game, especially when you look at how thin the 2nd base pool was in the National League. However, his selection prompted me to think about how such a peculiar player should be valued to an organization. How good is DJ LeMahieu really?
After game 162, LeMahieu’s batting average sat at a healthy .301. He obviously cooled down over the 2nd half, but still finished above the magical .300 mark and turned in a solid overall season. There are a few other stats I want to look into to assess his true value. Sometimes batting average can be like big, shiny rims on a Ford Taurus. It looks good at quick glance until you actually pay attention to the car they are hooked on to.
I think it’s time to pop the hood on this guy and look a little deeper. After all, what is baseball banter without too many stats?
Let’s start with On-Base Percentage. I just watched “Moneyball” again recently and I have OBP on the mind. LeMahieu’s .358 OBP was well above the league average rate. This is good, but he isn’t exactly Billy Beane’s wet dream. It is boosted by his high batting average, but he only walked at roughly a league average rate (8.1%). His batting average itself may also not sustain. More on that later.
Slugging Percentage is sexy. It rewards the bangers of the league. A guy (think Mark Reynolds or Adam Dunn) can go 1 for 5 with a jack. Another dude (think Ichiro) will go 4 for 5 with 4 singles in the same game. They have the same SLG. The guy who went 4 for 5 is a footnote on SportsCenter. The guy who went yard is in the highlights.
DJ is the King of Singles. He’s the ugly guy with the great personality who only ever gets to first base. At .388, his SLG was in the same neighborhood as Melky Cabrera, Martin Prado, and Austin Jackson. All solid players, but not exactly All-Stars. Hell, Jose Reyes was just a hair below DJ. We all know what we think about Reyes. In my eyes, his pedestrian SLG is what knocks LeMahieu’s value the most.
Let’s get back to talking about those rims. As I said earlier, I used my Sherlock skills (aka Fangraphs) to dig up some evidence that staying at about .300 may not be a sustainable feat for No. 9’s batting average. My main piece of evidence is a stat that nerds love: BABIP. Yes, you say it how it’s spelt and you sound ridiculous. It stands, literally, for “Batting Average on Balls In Play.” This number seems to be a good indicator of fluke years. Willie Keeler once famously said that the key to hitting is to, “hit it where they ain’t.” BABIP adds numbers to this superstition.
The statistical tendency for players is to hover around a career average for their BABIP. If someone’s BABIP is higher than normal for a season, they got lucky that the ball dropped. If their BABIP is well below average, they had bad luck that year. LeMahieu’s BABIP going into 2015 was .330. In 2015, his BABIP was .362. By statistician’s terms, that means he got lucky and that the ball happened to be hit where they ain’t. Following this same logic, the future expectation is that more of his line drives will find mitts than holes compared to 2015.
Another way to gauge luck is to look at a hitter’s exit velocity. This is another quantification of a simple question, “Did he hit the ball hard?” The same advice applies to both little leaguers and major leaguers. If you hit the ball hard, you are more likely to get hits.
Among guys who got a decent amount of playing time (I filtered by at least 100 ABs with data), DJ LeMahieu ranked 114th out of 345 qualifiers for average exit velocity on all batted balls at 89.81 mph. If there is any silver lining that makes me believe in DJ, it’s that he hit the ball decently hard last year. He’s no Giancarlo Stanton, but it will do.
Don’t be fooled by the .300 batting average. He is a solid contributor to the team, but he is not the kind of guy you can build a lineup around. LeMahieu’s high on-base percentage could be a serviceable pairing with Charlie Blackmon at the top of the lineup, but you would like to see him walk more to be a true top-of-the-order hitter. He also doesn’t hit for nearly enough power to bring guys home. I fully expect him to be a Gold-Glove caliber vacuum that we have come to expect from the Coors Shield. But I would not be surprised if he reverts back to being a 7 or 8 hitter and a defense-first 2nd baseman.
Let’s say he’s a Honda Accord with rims. Steady and reliable, but something you shouldn’t be bragging to your friends about.
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