NEW YORK — The New York Yankees signed an infielder over the winter who is playing like an MVP this season, and they didn’t have to pay $300 million to get him.
Friday night DJ LeMahieu drove in two runs as the Yankees beat the Red Sox (NYY 4, BOS 1) at Yankee Stadium. The normally reserved LeMahieu drove in his team’s first run with a double against Chris Sale, and was fired up as he reached second base.
“He’s out there to rip your heart out,” manager Aaron Boone said following the game. “He loves being in this environment.”
“Playing these guys — obviously it’s always a big game — but the crowd was into it,” LeMahieu said. “It was a great night out there.”
The double improved LeMahieu to 21 for 46 (.457) with runners in scoring position this season, the highest average in baseball in those situations. He added an insurance run with a two-strike opposite field home run against Sale later in the game, raising his season batting line to .317/.368/.462.
“That guys rakes,” said Aaron Hicks, who drove in the go-ahead runs with a two-out, two strike, two-run single two batters after LeMahieu’s double.
LeMahieu spent the last seven years with the Rockies, where he hit over .300 three times and won a batting title in 2016. Coors Field created questions about LeMahieu’s true talent level, but the underlying data was strong:
- Exit velocity: 91.1 mph in 2018 (88th percentile)
- Hard-hit rate: 43.0 percent in 2018 (79th percentile)
You can’t fake exit velocity. You can fake being a .300 hitter for a few weeks or even for a full season, but you can either hit the ball hard or your can’t, and LeMahieu can. He went into Friday’s game with a 91.6 mph average exit velocity and a 48.8 percent hard-hit rate this year, both among the highest in the game. The Yankees are exit velocity believers and they saw a guy who was perhaps undervalued given the Coors Field stigma.
The Yankees were never all that involved in the Manny Machado race given his price tag, instead opting to sign LeMahieu as a super utility guy — he’s started games at every infield position except shortstop this year and has saved five runs defensively, per FanGraphs — and high-contact presence the lineup lacked. He’s struck out in a paltry 13.1 percent of his plate appearances.
LeMahieu leads the Yankees in WAR, leads baseball in hitting with runners in scoring position, and leads the way in convincing fans to forget about Machado. Yankees fans wanted Machado over the winter, it is totally understandable, but LeMahieu has stepped into New York’s lineup and had a major impact one-third of the way through the season.
The Yankees now have an 8 1/2-game lead over the Red Sox in the AL East — the Rays losing to the Twins (MIN 5, TB 3) means the Yankees have a 1 1/2-game lead over Tampa — despite all their injuries. Guys like Gio Urshela and Domingo German have been essential to their success. LeMahieu has been their steadiest contributor though, and he was the hero again Friday.
“It’s early. We’ve been playing great baseball,” LeMahieu said. “I think we’re going to continue to do that. It’s so early to look at the standings, but we’ve played really well so far.”