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The key to LeMahieu's chase for batting crown

@_dadler
August 17, 2019

DJ LeMahieu has a great shot at becoming the Yankees' first batting champion in over two decades, since Bernie Williams led the American League back in 1998 (.339), and that's not even the coolest part. This is the coolest part: LeMahieu would be the first player in the modern era

DJ LeMahieu has a great shot at becoming the Yankees' first batting champion in over two decades, since Bernie Williams led the American League back in 1998 (.339), and that's not even the coolest part.

This is the coolest part: LeMahieu would be the first player in the modern era to win a batting title in both leagues. He already has a National League crown from his 2016 season with the Rockies. And entering the weekend, he leads the AL -- and the Majors -- with a .337 batting average in his debut season in New York.

LeMahieu has hit, and hit, and hit his way into the AL MVP conversation, leading the batting order for the powerhouse Bronx Bombers. His numbers are hard-earned.

Here's how Le Machine is putting up such clockwork production:

LeMahieu gets the most out of every swing.

This season, 252 hitters across the Major Leagues have swung the bat at least 500 times. No one has made hard contact on more of their swings than LeMahieu. More than one out of every five times he swings, the result is a hard-hit ball -- that means an exit velocity of 95-plus mph, by Statcast's definition.

Highest rate of hard contact per swing, 2019
Min. 500 total swings (252 hitters)
1) DJ LeMahieu (NYY): 22.0%
2) Mookie Betts (BOS): 20.8%
3) Tommy Pham (TB): 20.2%
4) Anthony Rendon (WSH): 19.8%
5) Nick Markakis (ATL): 19.7%
Hard contact: 95+ mph exit velocity

Hard contact, as one would imagine, is good for the batting average. The overall MLB batting average on hard-hit balls this season is .540. When exit velocities fall under the 95 mph threshold, the league batting average drops to .223.

This isn't even new for LeMahieu, really. He's always been great at hitting the ball hard. In fact, of the 1,414 player seasons with 500-plus swings since Statcast started tracking in 2015, LeMahieu has three of the top 10 in terms of hard-hit per swing rate, including this year and his batting title-winning 2016. (Among the other names on that list are hitters like Joe Mauer, Mookie Betts and Robinson Cano.)

But here's what is new for LeMahieu this year…

He's been much more aggressive.

It's great to hit the ball hard on a lot of your swings. But what if you don't swing very often? Mauer, for example, was notoriously patient at the plate. The best of both worlds would be to swing often and hit the ball hard when you do.

That's the real secret to LeMahieu's All-Star season: He's swinging more and maintaining his hard contact rate when he does.

LeMahieu's swing rate is up to 45.8% this season from 41.7% in 2018. On pitches in the strike zone, he's increased his swing rate to 64.8% from 59.2% a year ago. Both of those are his highest in any season under Statcast tracking.

And he's attacked "meatballs" -- pitches that are right down the middle -- at a 71.2% clip this season, compared to 64.1% last season. That's LeMahieu's highest swing rate on middle-middle pitches since the 2015 season.

Since he hasn't lost any hard-hit rate on those swings -- and is at the top of the league, no less -- all those extra swings add up. So what you get is ...

A hitter with tons of hard-hit balls and an MLB-leading average.

More swings plus elite hard-hit ability is a batting champion formula.

Only one hitter in baseball, Boston's Rafael Devers (who's having a sensational year of his own and hitting .328), has more hard-hit balls than LeMahieu.

Most hard-hit balls, 2019
1) Rafael Devers (BOS): 203
2) DJ LeMahieu (NYY): 186
3) Mookie Betts (BOS): 185
4) Jose Abreu (CWS): 181
5) Ronald Acuna Jr. (ATL): 171
Hard-hit: 95+ mph exit velocity

Over two thirds of LeMahieu's total hits this season have come via hard contact: 103 of 152. LeMahieu and Devers are the only two hitters who have already gotten at least 100 hits on hard contact this season.

Le Machine has hit everything. He's batting .330 against fastballs, .331 against breaking balls and .383 against offspeed pitches. That looks an awful lot like his 2016 season, when he hit .366 against fastballs, .303 against breaking pitches and .375 against offspeed en route to his MLB-best .348 season mark.

He's spraying the ball all over the field, as is his calling card, and hitting line drives in bunches -- 30.5% of his batted balls are line drives, well higher than last year's 25.9%. Fly balls can be homers (and LeMahieu's got his fair share of those, with a career-high 19 long balls), but line drives are the best for getting hits. The last time LeMahieu's line-drive rate was over 30% was, unsurprisingly, 2016.

So can he finish it off again? Of course he can. His batting title pursuit is real. LeMahieu puts lots of balls in play, makes great contact and doesn't strike out much (only 66 times all year). Based purely on that quality of contact, his expected batting average leads the AL and trails only Cody Bellinger for the Major League lead.

LeMahieu is marching toward history, one swing at a time, one hard-hit ball at a time. It's in his programming.

David Adler is a reporter for MLB.com based in New York. Follow him on Twitter at @_dadler.