Fantasy Baseball: Can DJ LeMahieu Repeat Last Season's Success?
Entering the 2016 season, Colorado Rockies second baseman DJ LeMahieu owned a career fWAR of 3.6 in 526 games played. Last season, in just 146 games, LeMahieu posted a 4.2 fWAR, surpassing his career mark in a single season.
It was a career year virtually across the board for the 28-year-old, as he posted personal bests in home runs (11), runs (104), RBI (66), walk rate (10.4%), strikeout rate (12.6%), Isolated Power (.147), batting average (.348), on-base percentage (.416), slugging percentage (.495), wOBA (.391), and wRC+ (128).
LeMahieu was among the 40 best hitters last season according to fWAR, but was his success a fluke or is it sustainable? Let's take a look at what changed for him last season.
Contact + Power
LeMahieu's 2015 consisted of a high average and on-base percentage (.301 and .358, respectively), but virtually no power. His Isolated Power (ISO) was just .087 and his slugging percentage was a meager .388, which were actually his career highs for any season in which he saw more than 250 plate appearances. The inability to drive the ball "helped" lead to a wRC+ of 89, which was below the league average of 96.
However, the second baseman drastically increased his power without sacrificing contact last year, which resulted in the aforementioned impressive numbers. Not only was his .391 wOBA a personal best, but it was also 10th best among qualified hitters.
A slap hitter no more.
So what gives? Did things just "click" for LeMahieu and he was able to start driving the ball like he never had previously?
Patience, Young Grasshopper
A National League scout was interviewed for a Denver Post article that ran in September 2016. When asked about LeMahieu he had this to say:
"Usually when a guy gets to 28 or 29, DJ’s age, he’s pretty much set. But DJ is starting to figure out major-league pitching. He used to just go up to the plate and slap at the ball, but now he’s a lot more selective and looks for a pitch he can drive."
This analysis makes sense considering LeMahieu's past performance compared to 2016, but let's see what the numbers say.
Entering last year, he posted a 47.9% swing percentage (league average was 46.5%). That dropped rather drastically in 2016 to 41.9%, which was the 23rd-lowest total in baseball.
Don't you love it when scouting and statistics align?
The decrease in swing percentage helped create more walks and fewer strikeouts for LeMahieu, but patience can't be the only reason for his success, right?
Hard Contact = Success
It's possible that a more selective approach also led to attacking more hittable pitches and thus making better contact. LeMahieu's hard-hit rate prior to 2016 and his total last season would imply that this is true.
He posted a hard-hit rate of 35.2% in 2016, which was well above the league average (31.4 percent). What is more impressive about this total is that it jumped a whopping 8.4% from his career mark entering last season (26.8%). Consistently hitting a ball hard is eventually going to lead to more hits instead of outs.
This increase should help somewhat stomach LeMahieu's league-high .388 BABIP from a season ago. This total makes him an easy regression candidate, but if we pair his 26.6% line-drive rate -- 6th highest -- with his high hard-hit rate, that BABIP suddenly looks much more sustainable.
It's still likely to drop, but if he replicates these two numbers, a lower BABIP shouldn't drastically affect his numbers in a negative manner.
No Quit in This Horse
In the same Denver Post article mentioned earlier, LeMahieu's teammate, Nolan Arenado talks about how the second baseman doesn't give in to the pitcher, and said "The thing about DJ is, he always has competitive at-bats, he never gives up an at-bat."
This one is bit a trickier to quantify, but let's check if the numbers back up Arenado's claim.
According to Baseball Savant, no player had more hits when behind in the count last season than LeMahieu, meaning he was a tough out even when the pitcher had the advantage. He had 192 total hits and just over 40 percent of them came when behind in the count.
Patience, hard-hit line drives, and a mentally tough mindset seem to be what propelled LeMahieu to his best season yet.
Everything went right for LeMahieu last season, but his numbers suggest it was due to purposeful adjustments and not luck. Our projections expect him to hit .310 with an .805 OPS, score 89 runs, hit 9 home runs, drive in 58 runs, and steal 16 bases. It's a step back from his monster 2016 season, but would still make him our 10th-best fantasy second baseman.
This is exactly in line with his average draft position according to National Fantasy Baseball Championship data, which also has him as the 10th second baseman coming off the board. He's worth waiting around for if you don't want to splurge on one of the position's top guys like Jose Altuve or Robinson Cano, especially since his numbers suggest the production is sustainable.