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Spinning the hits: DJ LeMahieu and the AL MVP

The narrative has already launched. As fans waited for Manny Machado and Bryce Harper to (finally) sign somewhere, DJ LeMahieu‘s signing became almost an afterthought. Make no mistake, the former Rockie has been absolutely critical to a Yankee team scuffed by injuries and bad starting pitching. By Fangraphs WAR, he’s been the Yankees best player and he leads the AL in batting average. His flexibility throughout the infield has eased the burden on manager Aaron Boone, too.

Time and again, LeMahieu has come through with big hits in big moments. Last weekend, he battered Chris Sale like a speedbag, earning “MVP” chants from a delirious Yankee Stadium crowd. There’s a thrill in watching LeMahieu, no doubt. Yankee offenses tend to be dominated by low average, high on-base and slugging types; think Luke Voit or Jason Giambi. Yes, I know, Derek Jeter and Robinson Cano had great contact skills, but those two and LeMahieu tend to be the exception. (Tend. Not always.)

So to see LeMahieu consistently put the ball in play — a double to the gap here, a seeing-eye single there — is refreshing, even more so in 2019 baseball, where the game has skewed so heavily toward three true outcomes baseball. It’s the best way to score runs, yes, but cosmetically it can be a bit daunting. LeMahieu is a breath of fresh air. He slaps the ball around the park, driving pretty good OBPs by his contact skills.

He’s flat out good. I don’t think his 2019 is flukey, even considering the inherent randomness of lots of balls in play. He’s done this before. LeMahieu is a smart hitter who can force pitchers into awkward situations; it’s hard to pitch him. His heatmap tells the story:

Throw it over the plate and LeMahieu is probably turning it into a single. In a league full of whiffs and punchouts, LeMahieu is a hard-hitting contact machine. His average exit velocity is 21st in baseball; his expected batting average is in the top two percent. Dude flat out hits. Pitchers throw him fastballs almost two-thirds of the time; don’t ask me why, because he mashes them (.333 average, .386 xwOBA).

On a team full of walking sluggers, LeMahieu provides a spark. He’s been better than expected and the most valuable Yankee. Quite a feat for a team that could end up with the best record in the American League.

But, is he a worthy candidate for AL MVP?

Nah. I can’t in good conscience suggest LeMahieu has any business winning the award over Mike Trout, who is in the midst of one of the better Mike Trout seasons. That’s kind of like saying the Mona Lisa was one of Di Vinci’s best paintings. Trout’s excellence is so above the world, that we get excited when players pop into his orbit temporarily; Miguel Cabrera and Josh Donaldson and Mookie Betts, for example.

The Angels centerfielder is hitting .299/.440/.672; his wRC+ is an absurd 186; it’s Aug. 7 and he’s almost an eight-win player by fWAR. There’s no debate here. However, that doesn’t take away from LeMahieu at all. Everyone’s short compared to Mount Olympus. LeMahieu has been essential to a Yankee club that’s had to grind its way through a wait-you-can’t-really-be-serious list of injuries. His skill set fits the club like a glove and his timely hitting sure seems to have staved off slumps.

Is he a serious AL MVP contender? Not to me, no. But that doesn’t mean he hasn’t been fantastic.

Adam Adkins podcasts and writes about baseball at AdkinsOnSports.com. His most recent Ode to a Pitcher breakdown covered Clayton Kershaw.

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