No one saw this coming. Not GM Brian Cashman, not manager Aaron Boone, probably not DJ LeMahieu, and certainly not Gio Urshela. But, the two Yankee infieders are in a battle for the American League batting title. DJLM signed with the Yankees as an established player, a veteran of nine big league seasons. Gio entered the season with a .225 lifetime batting average and a career-high slugging percentage of .330. His pedestrian numbers were amassed in only 167 big league games.
DJLM vs Gio, 2019
The 2019 versions of DJLM and Gio are very different from their past performances. Though DJLM won the National League batting title (.348) in 2016, his OPS over the last two seasons was sub-.800. This season, he’s done everything with the bat, hit for power, and average, and he has been one of the most clutch players in baseball.
It’s been a complete 180-degree turn for Gio. Not only is he hitting for average, but he’s hit 18 home runs and added 29 doubles. He is also among the league leaders with a .284 batting average with a two-strike count.
Entering play a week ago, DJLM led the AL in batting with a .338 average. Gio’s .337 average kept him right on his teammate’s heels. Things have changed in the past week, with DJLM entering last night in a 5-23 skid that dropped him to .331. Gio, meanwhile, kept things consistent and is hitting .336. But, here’s the rub: Gio doesn’t have enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title.
With 129 games under the Yankees’ belts, all of the team’s batting average qualifiers would need to come to the plate a minimum of 400 times. Gio is 10 appearances shy of the minimum, an improvement of +7 in the last week.
For the season, a player needs to step into the batter’s box a minimum of 503 times to qualify for the batting title. To get there, Gio needs 113 plate appearances, or an average of 3.42 appearances over the remaining 33 games.
Other than a poor showing in June, Gio has shown incredible consistency. He’s been tearing the cover off the ball in August to the tune of a .425/.459/.758 split. He’s collected seven home runs and 5 doubles in 20 games, as well as driven in 17 runs.
DJLM is arguably the MVP of the AL (with apologies to the Mike Trout collective, of which I consider myself a member). The only month in which he hit under .300 was in July and he still managed to post a .790 OPS. Despite his recent struggles, DJLM is still bashing in August, with a .325/.360/.590 split.
With runners in scoring position, he’s been even better, torturing pitchers with a .402 batting average and a 1.031 OPS. Simply put, the Yankees would not be in first place without him.
But, let’s get back to the batting race. Michael Brantley (.338) of Cleveland has taken the lead with a six-point jump in the past week. Boston’s Rafael Devers (.329) continued to maintain the third spot. The title will likely come down to the final weekend of the season when division and wild card races could have a major impact on the final tallies, as well as a batting leader’s desire to play or sit based on the size of his lead.
Back in 1986, Boston’s Wade Boggs sat out the season’s final four games with a reported hamstring tear. This was an injury that didn’t keep him from postseason action just two days after the final regular-season game. The Yankees played in Fenway Park that weekend with Don Mattingly chasing Boggs’ .357 average.
Donnie Baseball collected six hits in 14 at-bats through the first three games and needed to go an unlikely 6-6 in the season finale. He finished in second place at .352 after a 2-5 Sunday that also saw him draw a walk.
However, Mattingly captured the batting title two years earlier in a tremendous race with teammate Dave Winfield.
Donnie Baseball vs Winnie, 1984
With no wild card teams, the 1984 season didn’t hold a lot of hope for a division title for the Yankees. They ended August with a 71-62 record after a loss to the California Angels. Mattingly went 1-4 to see his average drop to .349, three points behind Winfield’s .352 mark.
In mid-September, Winfield went 3-5 in a 4-3 loss to Boston to raise his average to .353. It put him a full 10 points ahead of Donnie Baseball. But, the season was far from over.
11 days later, the Yankees topped the Orioles 3-1 with both Mattingly (0-4) and Winfield (1-4) not doing much at the plate. The two were in a dead heat with a .342 average, though in actuality Mattingly’s average was .341836, while Winfield sat at .34177.
Everything came down to a four-game weekend series with the Detroit Tigers in Yankee Stadium.
Head-to-Head for the Crown
With nothing left for the team to play for, all eyes were focused on the competition between two of the best players in MLB.
Mattingly and Winfield were in their customary 3rd and 4th spots in the batting order against future Hall of Fame member Jack Morris in the series opener.
With the game tied 1-1 in the bottom of the 8th, an infield single and an error placed Bobby Meacham on 2nd base. With the game on the line, Mattingly laid down a sacrifice bunt, giving himself up for the team. It successfully moved Meacham to 3rd with Winfield due up.
Detroit decided not to “let the big guy beat you”, and intentionally walked Winfield, for his second free pass of the day. Don Baylor followed with an RBI single and the Yankees came away with a 2-1 win.
Mattingly’s 1-3 night left him at .34179…Winfield was hitless in his one official AB, dropping him a bit to .3411.
Game 2 of the four-game set saw the Tigers bounce back in 12 innings, 4-2. Mattingly’s 1-4 night combined with Winfield’s 2-5 performance, put the right fielder back in the lead by the smallest of margins: .34168 to .34117.
The Tigers, a team on their way to a World Championship, pummeled the Yankees on Saturday, 11-3. Mattingly came up hitless in three at-bats; Winfield had 1-4 night. Going into Sunday’s finale, Winfield led .3410 to Mattingly’s .3394.
On Sunday, the Tigers sent rookie right-hander Randy O’Neal to the mound. It was just the fourth game of O’Neal’s career.
Mattingly took a 1st inning pitch in on his hands and lined it to left field for a base hit. That brought up Winfield with the bases loaded and no one out, but Winfield grounded into a force-out at home plate. After one at-bat, the battle stood: Mattingly .3405, Winfield .3404.
The duo came to the plate again in the 3rd inning. This time, Mattingly ripped a double to right and Winfield drew a walk. After two at-bats, Mattingly increased his lead over Winfield to .3416 – .3404.
Mattingly roped another O’Neal pitch into the right field corner in the 4th inning for his second double of the day. His third hit pushed his average to .3427. Winfield countered with a high chopper to third, beating the throw to first for an infield single. It raised the big guy’s average to .3415.
Donnie Baseball flew out to left-center against lefty Sid Monge to end the 5th inning. With a chance to gain some ground, Winfield lined out sharply to center against right-hander Aurelio Lopez to start the 6th.
With a pair of outs, Mattingly stood at .3421, while Winfield carried a .3409 average.
In the bottom of the 8th, Mattingly got a fortuitous hop, with his bouncer to the right side ricocheting off the outstretched glove of second baseman Scott Earl and into right field.
Winfield forced out Mattingly with a grounder and then was removed for pinch-runner Scott Bradley. With Tim Foli replacing Mattingly on defense in the top of the 9th, the batting title was Mattingly’s. The final count – Mattingly, .343 – Winfield, .340
DJLM and Gio Race to the Finish
With Gio most assuredly reaching the plate appearance minimum, things should really be interesting down the stretch. No matter if it’s DJLM or Gio, hopefully, it will be one of them that wins the batting title. And, if it comes down to the final regular-season game, so be it.