HOUSTON — After the Yankees signed their top offseason priority, DJ LeMahieu, to a six-year, $90 million deal, the ultra-consistent and productive infielder did something he hadn’t done as a Yankee: he stopped hitting.
And he really hasn’t looked like the same player at the plate he was in his first two seasons in The Bronx.
LeMahieu’s average is down significantly, but that’s hardly as big a concern as his drop in power.
Entering Saturday’s game against the Astros at Minute Maid Park, LeMahieu had a slugging percentage of just .370.
It was a career-high .590 in his superb season last year, and in his first season with the Yankees it was .518, which was also a career-best at that point.
There had been speculation LeMahieu’s numbers would improve following MLB’s crackdown on foreign substances, since advanced spin rates have had more of an impact on some hitters than others, but that hasn’t been the case.
LeMahieu has been slightly more productive since the enforcement of the rule has gone into effect, but he still went into Saturday with just two extra-base hits in his previous 11 games.
The Yankees have kept him at the top of the lineup and are confident some of his underlying numbers prove it will be just a matter of time before his results improve.
Unlike many of his struggling teammates, LeMahieu is not hitting the ball on the ground more than in prior seasons.
What is a concern, though, is the fact LeMahieu’s hard-hit percentage is down considerably, according to Fangraphs.
In his first season with the Yankees, his hard-hit rate was 40.4 percent. It went down to 35.4 percent last season, even with his stellar overall stats.
This year, it’s just 27.8 percent, which is what it was during the early part of LeMahieu’s career in Colorado, before he became an All-Star.
It seems hard to fathom his production remains so far below that of the past two years. There is thought there are still adjustments being made — both by hitters and pitchers — as spin rates continue to stay down along with the use of sticky substances.
LeMahieu’s decreased production would be less of an issue if the rest of the lineup were performing up to standards, but for the most part, it is not.
And with the Yankees looking far up at the Rays and Red Sox in the AL East standings, LeMahieu’s slump at the top of the batting order becomes even more glaring.
In Friday’s win over the Astros, LeMahieu provided one of the two key hits, a two-run double that put the Yankees up by four runs in a needed victory.
The hit came on the 10th pitch of an at-bat in which LeMahieu fell behind 0-2 and battled back to a full count.
Manager Aaron Boone noted he thought LeMahieu did a good job of covering the plate throughout the at-bat. The double was as hard a ball as LeMahieu has hit (110.6 mph) since 2019.
For a team starved for offensive consistency, a reawakened LeMahieu is capable of sparking the lineup, particularly with Aaron Judge right behind him in the two-hole.
No matter what the numbers say, the Yankees are relying on LeMahieu to be more than just an average player, which is exactly what he has been in the first half, with an OPS+ of 100 entering Saturday.
“I just want to keep the line moving,’’ LeMahieu said after Friday’s win.
The Yankees are counting on more than that.