The New York Yankees view DJ LeMahieu as a Ben Zobrist type utility player, but does his past play back this up?
This is bad news for fans who wanted to see Manny Machado added in pinstripes, and brings up new questions about how the team’s infield is going to be constructed. LeMahieu is primarily a second baseman, and that’s a spot the Yankees have pretty well covered by Gleyber Torres.
Also complicating things is that the team very recently acquired another infielder who expects to start in shortstop Troy Tulowitzki. To get the most out of all of these players the Yankees will have to get creative, and according to ESPN’s Buster Olney they plan to do just that:
On paper, this sounds great. If LeMahieu could be used as a multipositional utility guy in the style of Zobrist it would solve a lot of problems for the Yankees, particularly on defense. But, is that a role he actually fits into?
What is a “Zobrist type?”
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The best way to decide what a Ben Zobrist type player looks like is to (duh) take a look at Ben Zobrist.
Zobrist gets brought up a lot as a comp for utility players because he truly can play everywhere; since his MLB debut in 2006 he’s started games at every position but catcher. This, combined with his absurd plate discipline, makes him quite the hot commodity.
It’s important to note when talking about Zobrist that he doesn’t just field every position, he fields every position well. His UZR/150 for everywhere but first base is either average or above average, and with more innings, it’s probable he could bring his rating at first up as well.
All in all, Zobrist has played 13,056 innings in the field. The approximate positional breakdown of these innings is as follows: 52% at second, 14% at short, 34% in the outfield and less than 1% each at first and third.
Is sort of positional versatility something LeMahieu has the potential for? Let’s look at the numbers.
How LeMahieu stacks up
LeMahieu is better known for his glove than his bat. His 86 wRC+ last year was nothing to write home about, but his 11 UZR at second base more than made up for it. Still, the question here isn’t about whether or not LeMahieu is a good defender; it’s about whether or not he’s versatile.
In short, the answer is no. Well, at least not up to this point in his career.
LeMahieu has played 7,722 innings in the field, and his approximate positional breakdown looks much more standard, with 97% of those innings coming at second base and just under 3% coming at third. He’s also played at first and short, but neither even makes up 1% of his play.
When you look at this it’s clear that the Yankees are kind of gambling on LeMahieu’s athletic abilities over his experience. All of his time at positions other than second came in 2014 or earlier, though he did have more utility experience in his minor league days.
It’s not likely that LeMahieu takes much time at second from Rookie of the Year finalist Torres, so he’ll really be out of his element. Troy Tulowitzki is the player who would most likely need his backup, and short in particular is a place where LeMahieu isn’t experienced.
Still, it’s worth keeping in mind that LeMahieu is only going to be 30 next season, so he still has time to develop new skills. If mastering short and third means more playing time he can certainly put in the work to get there, the big question is whether or not that’s the best way for the New York Yankees to use him.