The last time DJ LeMahieu was a free agent, there was an open question surrounding just how to evaluate his career to that point. LeMahieu came up with the Rockies, won a battling title in 2016, and hit .299/.352/.408 across parts of seven seasons with Colorado — impressive numbers on the surface. But when taking into consideration the Coors Field effect, DJ was seen as a below-average hitter overall by OPS+ and wRC+.
But LeMahieu had already started making some adjustments during the end of his tenure with Colorado, beginning to pull the ball with more authority while still maintaining his high-quality plate discipline. This led Jeff Sullivan of Fangraphs to pen a piece entitled “The Hidden Upside of a Normal Free Agent” in which he suggested that LeMahieu could be a candidate for a power breakout. As it turns out, that thought proved to be prescient.
The Yankees inked LeMahieu to a modest two-year, $24 mil pact before the 2019 season and watched him blossom into one of baseball’s top offensive players. He set new career-highs with 26 home runs, 102 RBI, 33 doubles, 197 hits, and a .191 ISO while batting .327/.375/.518 in 655 plate appearances, leading to a career-best 136 wRC+. But somehow he was even better during the pandemic shortened 2020 campaign. In 50 games and 216 plate appearances for the Bronx Bombers, and he won the MLB batting title with a .364 average and led the American League with a .421 OBP and 1.011 OPS. His 177 wRC+ natually topped the Junior Circuit. 22 of LeMahieu’s 71 hits went for extra bases, including 10 home runs, and he set news bests in ISO and wRC+. After finished fourth in Most Valuable Player balloting in 2019, LeMahieu finished in third place for the award in 2020.
LeMahieu’s strength lies not only in his ability to put the bat on the baseball, but to do so with authority. DJ has punched out in only 14.7% of his career plate appearances and has actually been even better than that the last two years in New York, with a 13.7% K rate in 2019 before whittling that down to a miniscule 9.7% in 2020. LeMahieu had a swinging-strike rate of only 4.5% in 2020 and has swung-and-missed just 5.8% of the time in his career. According to Statcast data from Fangraphs, LeMahieu has topped 40% hard contact rate in every season that batted ball numbers have been tracked. That includes a 48.7% hard contact rate in 2019 and 45.7% rate in 2020, two of the three highest totals DJ has ever mustered. In 2020, he ranked in the 86th percentile in average exit velocity and the 81st percentile of hard contact rate, and his K% was in the 100th percentile.
LeMahieu doesn’t walk a ton, but he hits for a high enough average and draws enough free passes that he can be considered a pretty strong on-base threat. He earned a base on balls (18) nearly as many times as he punched out (21) last season.
DJ was a Gold Glover at second base during his years playing in the Rocky Mountains but he’s increased his versatility over the last couple of years, moving around the diamond more frequently with the Yankees. He still provided solid coverage at the keystone, but he also played 51 games at first and 48 games at third base during the past two seasons.
With Keston Hiura seemingly entrenched at second base, the hot corner is the spot where the Milwaukee Brewers would possibly have a fit for LeMahieu. He’s been about average there, with 0 DRS and -0.8 UZR in 487.0 innings at third since the start of 2019. But as long as LeMahieu can continue his stellar offensive production for a little while longer, passable defense at third base would still make him an extremely valuable player. ZiPS predicts LeMahieu to hit .291/.344/.442 and .287/.339/.427 over the next two seasons; those projections feel modest after what DJ accomplished in the previous two years, but surely the Brewers would be glad to receive that type of offense from their third baseman.
The Rockies did not issue LeMahieu a Qualifying Offer on his way out of Colorado in 2018, but he did receive and reject one from the Yankees heading into the free agent market this time around. That means it would cost the Brewers their third-round pick in the 2021 draft in order to sign LeMahieu. On top of that, MLB Trade Rumors ranks him as their #5 free agent this winter and predicts that he’ll land a four-year, $68 mil deal that would carry LeMahieu to the end of his age-35 season.
MLBTR does suggest that Josh Donaldson’s $92 mil deal with Minnesota might have been within reach for DJ in a “normal” offseason, however. If LeMahieu can sustain his late-career breakout for another few years going forward, whoever inks the right-handed hitter could receive that production on very owner-friendly terms. The Milwaukee Brewers probably won’t spend big in free agency or surrender draft picks for talent this winter after early suggestions that payroll would fall once again heading into 2021. But if the team — who is said to be on the lookout for offensive upgrades — did decide to make a splashy move this winter, would there be a better fit than a high-contact hitter that puts the ball in play with authority and is a versatile defender who can handle third base?
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs, Baseball-Reference, and Baseball Savant