MLB

Yankees stock watch: Why DJ LeMahieu is slumping early in 2021; Gerrit Cole throwing one pitch more than ever

Four weeks into the new season, the New York Yankees are 9-13 with a minus-10 run differential. They started 5-10 and have won four of their last seven games, including take three of four in Cleveland over the weekend. Because of the slow start though, the Yankees have seen their postseason odds dip quite a bit in the early going.

Two weeks ago we broke down Gleyber Torres’ defensive issues and Aroldis Chapman’s new pitch. Here are three new notable recent Yankees trends.

Cole emphasizing his changeup

Five starts into the season, Gerrit Cole has been as dominant as any pitcher in the sport. He leads all pitchers with 1.9 FanGraphs WAR, and he’s the first pitcher in franchise history to strike out 50 batters and issue no more than five walks in a five-start stretch. Every huge money free agent signing should work out as well as Cole has for New York.

“I thought (Cole) was terrific in a game where we needed him to be really, really good, because we were up against a really good one as well,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone told reporters, including MLB.com’s Jordan Horrobin, after Cole outdueled reigning AL Cy Young winner Shane Bieber on Saturday (NYY 2, CLE 1).

It’s not easy to get better when you’re as good as Cole, though he’s found a way to improve early this season. Specifically, Cole is throwing his changeup more than at any other point in his career. He’s already thrown more changeups this year (76 in 31 2/3 innings) than last year (67 in 73 innings), and his 14.8 percent changeup usage rate is easily a career high.

Cole famously reinvented himself after joining the Astros in 2018. He shelved the “pitch at the knees and get quick ground ball outs” approach the Pirates employed under former pitching coach Ray Searage, and instead adopted a more north-south approach with elevated fastballs. Since that reinvention, here are Cole’s most changeup happy starts:

1. April 18, 2021: 19

1. April 18, 2021: 17.4%

2. Sept. 24, 2019: 17

2. Sept. 24, 2019: 16.8%

3. April 24, 2021: 17

3. April 24, 2021: 15.3%

4. Aug. 28, 2019: 16

4. April 6, 2021: 14.4%

5. April 6, 2021: 14

5. April 1, 2021: 14.4%

6. April 1, 2021: 14

6. Aug. 28, 2019: 12.6%

Cole has made 92 starts since 2018, postseason included, and four of the top five (and five of the top 10) in changeup usage rate have come this season. That’s not a coincidence. It’s intentional. Cole essentially added a fourth pitch to his arsenal.

“I think the opportunity is presenting itself,” Cole told reporters, including Kristie Ackert of the New York Daily News, when asked about his changeup earlier this month. “We’re just trying to always evolve and I think last year, when some other pitches weren’t working, we were kind of forced to try to find opportunities to attack the strike zone with it. And I think we just kind of continued that mentality.”

Cole still works primarily with his upper-90s fastball and wipeout slider and curveball, but the changeup gives hitters something else to think about, and it has been very effective in the early going. Opponents are hitting .053 with a .105 slugging percentage against the pitch, and they’ve missed with 44.2 percent of their swings. The MLB average for changeups is 31.5 percent.

It’s not often a pitcher gets better in his age-30 season, but Cole is not most pitchers, and the new emphasis on the changeup has changed the scouting report, and made him even more unpredictable. The fastball, slider, and curveball are tough enough. Now that hitters have to respect the changeup, well, that’s how you wind up with a 50 strikeouts and three walks through five starts.

LeMahieu’s uncharacteristic pull rate

In a lineup loaded with big hairy monsters — that’s a GM Brian Cashman term — DJ LeMahieu is an outlier. LeMahieu is an extreme contact hitter who has posted one of the lowest strikeout rates in baseball throughout his career, and he’s an all-fields hitter who is impossible to combat with the shift. In an era of high-strikeout pull hitters, LeMahieu is a throwback.

Early on this season, pretty much everyone in the Yankees lineup one through nine has struggled at the plate, LeMahieu included. He’s sitting on a .250/.333/.338 bating line following an 0 for 3 with a walk in Monday night’s series opener with the Orioles (BAL 4, NYY 2), and he’s rolled over on a lot of pitches of late. His last 17 balls in play include:

  • 8 ground balls to shortstop
  • 3 ground balls to third base
  • 2 line drives to left field
  • 2 line drives to second base
  • 1 fly ball to right field
  • 1 popup to first base

That’s 11 ground balls to left side of the infield and 13 balls to the pull side in general. For LeMahieu, that is very atypical. He ran a 24.6 percent pull rate from 2015-20, well below the 40 percent MLB average. This year, LeMahieu has a 34.4 percent pull rate, the highest of his career by a significant margin. A spray heat map is worth a thousand words. Here’s where LeMahieu has hit his balls in play this season:

DJ LeMahieu’s all-fields approach has been missing in 2021.
Baseball Savant

LeMahieu is not just pulling the ball more than ever, he’s pulling the ball on the ground a ton, and that’s sapping his power. When he’s right, LeMahieu wears out right field with line drives and the occasional fly ball into Yankee Stadium’s short porch. Right now, he is inviting teams to load up the left side with infielders, though they’ve yet to take the bait and shift against him.

“When the team needs it the most, hits aren’t exactly falling now. For me or anyone,” LeMahieu told reporters, including Dan Martin of the New York Post, earlier this week. “We’re pressing offensively. I know we’re gonna be better than we’ve been. It’s extremely frustrating. All I can say is we’re all frustrated.”

I worry about LeMahieu less than I worry about any struggling hitter in New York’s lineup. Guys like Gary Sanchez and Giancarlo Stanton have holes in their swings that can be exploited, and others like Mike Ford and Rougned Odor wouldn’t get regular at-bats when Luke Voit returns in a few weeks. LeMahieu is the one player who, when right, pitchers have to be close to perfect to retire.

LeMahieu’s been caught in between the first few weeks of the season, and lunging at pitches he often serves the other way. He’s such a good and smart hitter that I think it’s only a matter of time until he figures it out. For now though, he’s stuck rolling over on a lot of hittable pitches, and he is among the many Yankees still trying to find their way at the plate early in 2021.

Spreading around the bullpen workload

New York’s non-Cole starters have not been good this year. Cole has a 1.71 ERA and is averaging 6.33 innings per start. Everyone else has a 6.25 ERA and is averaging 4.23 innings per start. Remove Nick Nelson’s intentionally short one-inning “open” last week, and it’s still a 6.08 ERA and 4.44 innings per start.

The bullpen has had to pick up a lot of slack because of those short starts. Yankees relievers have thrown 92 1/3 innings this year, the third-most bullpen innings in baseball, and they rank among the most productive units in the sport. The bullpen rankings:

  • ERA: 2.34 (2nd in MLB)
  • WHIP: 0.97 (1st)
  • FIP: 3.04 (2nd)
  • Strikeout rate: 29.0 percent (2nd)
  • Walk rate: 7.9 percent (5th)
  • WAR: 1.9 (1st)
  • Shutdowns: 27 (4th most)
  • Meltdowns: 8 (5th fewest)

(Shutdowns are relief appearances that improve the team’s win probability at least six percent. Meltdowns are the opposite. Those are relief appearances that decrease the team’s win probability at least six percent.)

Despite needing the bullpen for roughly 14 outs per game in non-Cole starts, no Yankees reliever has endured a huge individual workload. Chad Green has appeared in 11 games and is the club’s only reliever to rank among the top 60 in the league in relief appearances in the early going this season.

“We’ve had everyone down there pitch significant innings for us and really, across the board, deliver and do the job really well,” Boone told reporters, including MLB.com’s Jordan Horrobin, earlier this week. “If you’re going to have a really good bullpen, ultimately, the depth down there plays a really big role.”

Jonathan Loaisiga, a 26-year-old the Yankees signed out of a tryout camp in Nicaragua in 2016, has emerged as a trusted late-inning weapon after spending 2018-20 as an up-and-down spot starter/swingman type. He’s struck out 13 batters and walked one in his 13 1/3 innings, and over the weekend he recorded a four-out save in a one-run game because Aroldis Chapman had pitched back-to-back days, and the Yankees don’t use their relievers three days in a row.

Green is once again one of the top setup men in the game. Darren O’Day provides a different look as a soft-tossing submariner. Justin Wilson brings power stuff from the left side. Spin rate specialists Luis Cessa and Lucas Luetge have combined to strike out 29 batters in 25 1/3 innings. And Chapman, thanks to his new splitter, has been as dominant as ever. It’s a deep and diverse unit, allowing Boone to spread the workload around.

“The variety of arms has kind of become in vogue here in the last few years,” O’Day jokingly told Horrobin. “We have all kinds of super-computers and nerds in the background that spit out these sheets of which one of these arm angles and pitch characteristics are going to work against certain hitters.”

The Yankees are expected to welcome Zack Britton back late next month — Britton had a bone spur removed from his elbow at the end of spring training — which will give them another late-inning relief option. At some point the Yankees will need more length from their starters, but right now, the relief crew is more than propping up the staff, and no individual reliever is being overworked.



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