Why this is the No. 1 projected free agent

November 14th, 2020

Last week, MLB.com data architect Tom Tango released his "WARcel" projections for the 2020-21 free agent class. One name stood out on top of the list: DJ LeMahieu.

Projection systems can be complicated. Sometimes too complicated. WARcel is pretty simple: it projects every player's Wins Above Replacement for the next three years based on their WAR from the last three years, and their age. The current season is worth the most. Being younger is worth a little more. That's it.

The big takeaway this year is that LeMahieu is projected to be the best of the group -- better than J.T. Realmuto, better than George Springer, better than Trevor Bauer. He's projected to amass 10.6 WAR from 2021-23, the only free agent in double digits. Springer is next at a projected 9.1 WAR, then Bauer and Marcell Ozuna (7.5), Marcus Semien (7.4) and Realmuto (7.0).

Sure, everyone knows LeMahieu was great for the Yankees the last two years. He was a back-to-back top-five MVP finisher, after all. But the 32-year-old was still only picked as the No. 1 free agent by one of 21 executives polled by MLB.com earlier this month.

And now by WARcel. Here's why the projection system sees LeMahieu as the No. 1 free agent in the Class of 2020-21 -- and why it very well might be right.

His peak is happening right now

First things first: to project each player's next three seasons, WARcel uses their WAR from the last three seasons, 2018-20. You might realize the problem -- one of those seasons was 60 games. The WAR comparison isn't fair unless you adjust the 2020 numbers to match a full season, which is exactly what WARcel does.

You can see the exact forecasting process here, but the general idea is this: to get the player's "full-season" 2020 WAR, multiply a hitter's WAR by 2, a starting pitcher's by 1.9 and a reliever's by 1.6.

Now on to LeMahieu. LeMahieu is one of 11 free agents for 2021 with 10+ WAR over the last three seasons, using the "full-season" 2020 numbers.

Marcus Semien, SS (age 30) -- 14.4 WAR
DJ LeMahieu, 2B/INF (age 32) -- 14.0 WAR
George Springer, CF (age 31) -- 12.9 WAR
Mike Minor, LHP (age 33) -- 12.4 WAR
Trevor Bauer, RHP (age 30) -- 12.2 WAR
Justin Turner, 3B (age 36) -- 11.6 WAR
Michael Brantley, LF (age 34) -- 11.5 WAR
J.T. Realmuto, C (age 30) -- 11.4 WAR
Kolten Wong, 2B (age 30) -- 10.5 WAR
Nelson Cruz, DH (age 40) -- 10.5 WAR
Marcus Stroman, RHP (age 30) -- 10.2 WAR*
*Stroman's 2020 WAR is projected, since he elected not to play the season

If you just look at the total, those players are hard to separate. That's not a lot of WAR difference over a three-year period. But if you put the most emphasis on the most recent seasons, as the WARcel projections do, then LeMahieu starts to stand out.

Over a full season, LeMahieu's actual 2.8 WAR for 2020 projects to 5.6. Bauer is the only other free agent who's close, at 5.2. Then would come Stroman, projected at 4.5 WAR if he had pitched. And then Springer, at 3.8.

But LeMahieu wasn't just an MVP candidate in 2020. He was also one in 2019, the second-most-heavily weighted season, when he was much better than Bauer and Stroman. Springer and LeMahieu were similar in '19, so LeMahieu's superiority this year helps gives him the edge. And the top performers from 2019, Semien and Minor, had poor 2020 seasons, the most important year in projecting the next three.

In other words: LeMahieu was the only free agent with consistent superstar-level play in both of the most important seasons to the projections. Plus, he's not much older than even Realmuto and Springer, and he's far from aging stars like Cruz or Turner. That's why the WARcel projections like LeMahieu so much, relative to his peers, over the next three years. Now here are three baseball reasons why LeMahieu could live up to them.

He has the best combination of quality + amount of contact

Here's a Statcast leaderboard you want to be at the top of: hard-hit rate per swing. These hitters were the best at hitting the ball hard, and hitting the ball a lot.

2020 hard-hit rate per swing leaders

  1. Fernando Tatis Jr.: 22.1%
  2. Corey Seager: 22.0%

3) DJ LeMahieu: 21.9%
4) Juan Soto: 21.8%
5) Mike Trout: 21.6%
Of 257 qualifying hitters

This is the way LeMahieu stands out from his competition among free-agent hitters. Some might hit the ball hard more often when they make contact -- Marcell Ozuna, for example, with a 54.4% hard-hit rate per batted ball. Others might do more damage at the extreme end -- like Springer, who had a 12.4% barrel rate on the balls he hit. But the single most important thing a hitter can do is hit the ball hard, and do it often.

Well over one in every five swings LeMahieu took in 2020 resulted in a ball hit 95 mph or harder. Compare his hard-hit rate per swing to the other top free-agent hitters in this year's class.

Hard-hit rate per swing, 2020-21 FA hitters
DJ LeMahieu: 21.9% (3rd in MLB)
Justin Turner: 18.8% (T-23rd)
Marcell Ozuna: 18.5% (T-27th)
Michael Brantley: 18.5% (T-27th)
George Springer: 16.6% (51st)
J.T. Realmuto: 15.8% (T-68th)
Nelson Cruz: 14.9% (T-101st)
Kolten Wong: 11.3% (T-212th)
Marcus Semien: 10.6% (T-230th)

And it's not just this season. Of hitters who've been active for the last three seasons, the only one with a higher hard-hit rate per swing than LeMahieu (21.8%) is fellow 2020 MVP finalist Mookie Betts (22.1%).

He's very hard to defend

LeMahieu's elite mix of hard contact and bat-to-ball skills is one great sign for whichever team signs him -- in other words, how he hits the ball. Another great sign? Where he hits the ball. And that "where" is "all over the field."

LeMahieu has a spray chart that makes him virtually unshiftable, as MLB.com analyst Mike Petriello recently explored.

LeMahieu hasn't seen a true infield shift in over four years. Not one. That's because even when he hits the ball on the ground, he hits it up the middle way too often. And when he drives the ball in the air, whether line drives or fly balls, he's a center-opposite field machine.

Why does that matter? Because shifts keep going up, and because a player you can predict, especially a dead-pull hitter, is very easy to defend, especially as he gets older and slower. LeMahieu is the antithesis of that. He's the type of hitter who will continue to make it hard for opposing defenses to get him out for seasons to come, even as positioning gets smarter and more innovative.

He's versatile defensively

A lot of the biggest names in LeMahieu's free-agent class play premium defensive positions. Springer plays center field. Realmuto plays catcher. Semien plays shortstop. That makes them extra valuable right now … but it also creates extra questions of how well their value will age.

What if Springer loses some athleticism in center as he gets into his 30s? What if Realmuto, who relies on his athleticism, needs to transition out of some rigors of everyday catching to preserve his health? Semien's defensive numbers dropped significantly from 2019-20. What if that indicates the beginning of a longer decline in his ability to play short?

LeMahieu, meanwhile, has spent the last two seasons with the Yankees proving he can play capably all over the infield, handling not just his primary position, second base, but also third and first. Such versatility is a critical skill set in today's game. Look at World Series contenders like the Dodgers and Rays, with rosters full of players who can play everywhere. LeMahieu's multipositional ability doesn't just give him a wider range of free-agent landing spots -- it'll be hard to find a team he doesn't fit with -- it also makes him that much more useful to whatever team he ends up with.

LeMahieu already has a strong case as the best pure hitter in the 2020-21 free-agent class. Add to that his versatility in the field, and you get his case as the No. 1 free agent, period.