Milwaukee Brewers Free Agent Targets: DJ LeMahieu

I’ll be the first to admit it – coming into this offseason, I didn’t think much of DJ LeMahieu as a potential free agent target for the Milwaukee Brewers. Sure, LeMahieu won a batting title with the Rockies by hitting .348 in 2016, but according to both wRC+ and OPS+, that season was the only one in the second baseman’s parts of eight years in the big leagues that his overall batting line was above the league average. In 3,799 plate appearances for Colorado, LeMahieu has hit .298/.350/.406, but when accounting for the park factors used by Baseball-Reference and Fangraphs, that slash translates to a 90 wRC+ and 92 OPS+. It seemed like LeMahieu’s offensive success was predicated on playing his home games at Coors Field, where he’s a career .330/.387/.448 hitter (versus .264/.311/.362 on the road).

However, I have changed my tune on LeMahieu since the winter started. Around Thanksgiving, Jeff Sullivan published an article on Fangraphs entitled “The Hidden Upside of a Normal Free Agent.” The post acknowledged that while LeMahieu is a perfectly fine regular in his current incarnation, his specific offensive profile could be one that suggests bigger things might be possible. DJ has always been a skilled contact hitter, striking out in only 15.2% of his career plate appearances and at a rate of 14.1% or less in each of the last three seasons. He only swings-and-misses around 5% of the time. Per Sullivan, LeMahieu was one of only six players in baseball last season (min. 250 PA) who was one standard deviation better than league average in both contact rate and exit velocity. The others in the category? Joe Mauer, Nick Markakis, Anthony Rendon, Mookie Betts, and Mike Trout. Pretty good company.

As a hitter, LeMahieu has long favored the opposite field, going the other way 35% of the time during his career. He also has hit a majority of his balls on the ground, 53.8% of his career balls in play. Those totals started to shift in 2018, however. After pulling the ball at around only a 21% rate from 2015-17, he increased his pull rate to 29.8% in 2018. His fly ball rate was 19.7% in 2017; it was 29.5% in 2018. Perhaps not coincidentally, last season LeMahieu bashed a career-high 15 home runs while also posting his best ever Isolated Power total, coming in at .152. And he was able to accomplish that without sacrificing any of his contact ability.

LeMahieu is an elite hitter inasmuch as hardly any players in baseball can match his ability to consistently put the ball in play while maintaining as high of a rate of quality contact. LeMahieu has previously mentioned the desire to add more pull power to his game, and Sullivan suggests that with some further adjustments with the right coaching, DJ could be a candidate for the next power breakout:

Not only do they hit the ball, but they hit the ball square. Bat control has been indicative in the past. We’ve seen a number of bat-control hitters start to turn on the power.

Matt Carpenter’s is the first name to come to mind, but another comp would be Daniel Murphy. Murphy turned into a power hitter later in his career than usual. In Cleveland, both Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez have turned good batted balls into great ones. Justin Turner, of course, has followed a non-traditional path to stardom. It’s not so much that great bat control just leads to home runs. But there’s reason to believe the players with great bat control can learn to hit for more power without giving up too much other ground. LeMahieu doesn’t have to change, but you couldn’t blame a team for wondering.

If that isn’t enough to convince you to buy into LeMahieu’s potential upside at the plate, maybe Baseball Prospectus’ new hitting metric will help. Deserved Runs Created focuses more on what should happen based on a hitter’s quality of contact and purports to calculate and apply park factors in a different, more accurate way than wRC+ and OPS+. BP’s research shows that by relying on expected outcomes, DRC+ is a more reliable offensive metric than the others when it comes to both describing how well a batter is performing at a given moment as well as predicting future output.

DJ’s .276/.321/.428 batting line in 2018 was valued at between 12-14% below league average according to Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference; according to DRC+, however, LeMahieu’s offensive production was 5% better than league average in 2018. Per DRC+, LeMahieu’s last four years at the plate have gone like this: 107, 133, 106, 105. I mentioned LeMahieu’s career OPS+ and wRC+ totals above; DRC+ gives DJ an overall mark of 104 across his 955 MLB games. Ken Rosenthal pointed out in recent piece for The Athletic that according to Baseball Prospectus’ calculation that accounts for Deserved Runs Created, LeMahieu’s 14.7 wins above replacement player since the start of 2016 ranks first among all active second baseman in the big leagues.

Another big chunk of LeMahieu’s on-field value comes from his skill with the glove. He has won three Gold Gloves at second base in his career – including the last two in 2017 and 2018 – and he routinely grades out as one of the game’s top fielders according to the advanced metrics. He has recorded +67 Defensive Runs Saved in over 7,400 innings at the keystone and +18 DRS in 2018 alone. BP’s Fielding Runs Above Average credits him with +51.0 runs on defense for his career, including 20+ in each of the last two seasons.

LeMahieu turns 31 next July an isn’t projected to break the bank during his first crack at free agency. MLB Trade Rumors predicts a 2-year, $18 mil deal for the slick-fielding, right-handed bat; Kiley McDaniel of Fangraphs forecasts a 2-year, $22 mil pact. Even in a small market like Milwaukee, those prices are more than palatable.

Noted SB Nation columnist Grant Brisbee wrote recently about how the way that front offices operate has shifted. “The new divide in baseball is teams who know how to use the information available to them vs. the teams that only kind of know. It’s not just about acquiring obviously talented players; teams now are just as interest in making better players.” The Milwaukee Brewers under the David Stearns regime embody this idea quite well. Over the last few years we have seen the likes of Travis Shaw, Lorenzo Cain, Christian Yelich, Jesus Aguilar, and others arrive in the Cream City from outside the organization and either augment a specific skill at the plate, or take their offensive game to a whole new level altogether.

Maybe DJ LeMahieu will be the next Milwaukee Brewer hitter to join that parade. He should be available on a short-term deal at rather reasonable rate, provides a high floor as an elite defender who is capable of consistently putting the ball in play, and is someone who wouldn’t necessarily become a long-term roadblock to the arrival of Keston Hiura. But if the Brewers can help LeMahieu further unlock his power potential, he could breakout to become the right-handed power threat that the team desperately needs to try and add to the lineup for 2019.

Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference, Fangraphs, and Baseball Prospectus

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