Yankees’ DJ LeMahieu finally looked like The Machine again

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Think you know your 2021 Yankees? Try this one:

Name the two position players who have experienced the largest OPS drop from their 2020 numbers. Please consider only those gentlemen qualified for the batting title.

Number one, which probably won’t surprise you, is Clint Frazier, who has followed up last year’s .905 with a .582, a 323-point plummet which landed him on the bench Tuesday at Globe Life Field.

Number two, would you believe … given this team’s profound, widespread struggles with the bat … is DJ LeMahieu?

Maybe not for much longer.

The Yankees’ most valuable player of the prior two seasons, kicking off his new six-year contract, has slipped from great to good, his .734 OPS a .277 drop from last year’s 1.011. On Tuesday night, however, the infielder came through in a great way, driving home three runs to lead his club to a 7-4 victory over the Rangers, halting a two-game losing streak.

Before the game, Aaron Boone said of LeMahieu: “He set the bar really high and [he’s] working hard to get to that level where we know he’s The Machine. Hopefully, these last couple of games, I feel like he’s really starting to lock it in a little bit.”

DJ LeMahieu belts a two-run double in the Yankees' 7-4 win over the Rangers.
DJ LeMahieu belts a two-run double in the Yankees’ 7-4 win over the Rangers.

The versatile infielder, starting at third base and eventually moving over to first base, offered more such evidence after Boone issued his hope, and the timing couldn’t have been much better. The Yankees needed this one, all the more so after Jameson Taillon, their least consistent starting pitcher (in giving up four runs over 4 ¹/₃ innings, he actually lowered his road ERA from 9.49 to 9.18), fell into a 3-0 hole in the third inning. The Yankees, their 2021 offense so meek so often, responded with a ferocious, old-school, five-run rally in the fourth inning, pounding out six hits, none of them a homer, plus a walk.

The biggest hit came from LeMahieu, who stepped up with the bases loaded, two outs and the contest tied at 3-3. Rangers manager Chris Woodward lifted his starter, Mike Foltynewicz, for lefty Kolby Allard, who jumped ahead, 1-and-2, before unloading a belt-high fastball that LeMahieu sliced to right field, past diving first baseman Nate Lowe, scoring Miguel Andujar and Mike Ford for a 5-3 Yankees lead.

After the Rangers nipped back in the fifth, when former Yankees draft pick Nick Solak stroked a solo homer off Taillon, LeMahieu provided a cushion with a sixth-inning sacrifice fly that brought home Andujar.

The 32-year-old LeMahieu’s modest start to 2021 has set off sirens, if softer ones than some of his teammates’ alerts, because it broke the pattern of what we had seen with him. Peak LeMahieu, combined with the extended injury absences of Giancarlo Stanton, significantly altered the Yankees’ offensive identity. Suddenly they weren’t a strikeout factory, improving from third in the AL in 2018 to seventh in 2019 to 14th last year. They improved at hitting with runners in scoring position, from fifth (in OPS) in 2018 to first each of the two prior seasons (thanks, Baseball-Reference.com).

Through Monday’s action, the Yankees had climbed back up to seventh in strikeouts and dropped to 10th in those clutch situations. Not coincidentally, LeMahieu’s strikeout percentage has jumped from 9.7 percent in 2020 to 16.5 percent this year, while his .286/.382/.321 slash line with runners in scoring position — again, not terrible — marked quite the drop from his .364/.405/.455 last year.

Add it all up, and in its own way, LeMahieu’s fall must claim some responsibility, statistically if not morally, for the Yankees’ awful offensive beginning.

LeMahieu covered up for many organizational inadequacies the prior two years, as special players do. Whether LeMahieu can turn back into The Machine might prove as serious an issue as any other this team faces. That he did what he did Tuesday, therefore, makes this a particularly meaningful win.

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