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Saturday, September 30, 2023

DJ LeMahieu’s second-half bodes well for 2024 Yankees

Michael King’s successful entry into the rotation could be significant.

Carlos Rodon has shown a peek of the All-Star of old.

Oswald Peraza and Oswaldo Cabrera might be establishing themselves as major league players.

But it’s possible the most encouraging development of the Yankees’ second half belongs to a 35-year-old infielder.

DJ LeMahieu is again hitting like DJ LeMahieu, which is crucial for a fixture in the lineup who is owed $45 million over the next three seasons.

After a struggle of a first half in which he logged some of the worst offensive numbers in baseball, LeMahieu has awoken in the second half.

His rebound has arrived likely too late to matter this season for the Yankees, but it seems a lot easier to pencil him in to next year’s lineup at a corner-infield spot.

When he was not hitting — and posting a .643 OPS in the first half that was the 10th-worst among all qualified all hitters — LeMahieu did not question whether his best days were finished.

Yankees third baseman DJ LeMahieu (26) follows through on home run against the Detroit Tigers
DJ LeMahieu found his stroke after a struggle-filled first half of the 2023 season.
Noah K. Murray-NY Post

“I knew there was nothing I wasn’t capable of,” LeMahieu said of his first half before the Yankees opened a series with the Blue Jays in The Bronx on Tuesday. “I just wasn’t doing it.”

He is now doing it, and entered play with an .836 OPS in the second half. If he has not been his vintage self, he has been awfully close.

LeMahieu credited a “little bit of everything” in helping him snap back into the invaluable, contact-hitting leadoff hitter in a lineup that has needed contact hitters.

Included in that “everything,” of course, is the hiring of Sean Casey, a hitting coach who better understands LeMahieu’s swing and has helped him tweak his lower half.

Yankees third baseman DJ LeMahieu #26 leans on the dugout fence
DJ LeMahieu is due $45 million over the next three seasons.
Charles Wenzelberg / New York Post

Casey has seen a more disciplined LeMahieu at the plate.

“I think a big thing with DJ is just controlling the strike zone,” Casey said recently. “I think when he controls the strike zone well, that pitch that’s up and away, he can get his arms extended on. He does so well over there. When you see him driving the baseball to right field, you see that pull-side open up for him.

“I think that’s why he’s been one of the best hitters of the last six, seven, eight years in the big leagues.”

LeMahieu has been unique for the Yankees — and in baseball — because of his elite bat-to-ball skills.

But through the first three months of the season, he chased more pitches out of the strike zone.

A player who struck out 13.1 percent of the time last season went down on strikes nearly double that — about 25 percent — through the end of June.

Since July began, LeMahieu entered play striking out 18 percent of the time in July, August and September, a much more ordinary rate for the 13-year veteran.

“The biggest thing for me is I’ve seen the walks that he’s putting up,” Casey said of LeMahieu. “He’s not chasing outside the zone. He’s getting his pitch to hit, and a lot of the time he’s hitting it hard.”

ankees third baseman DJ LeMahieu tags out Tampa Bay Rays� Isaac Paredes
DJ LeMahieu seems like a reasonable player to pencil in at a corner position next season.
Corey Sipkin for the NY POST

The quiet LeMahieu did not want to dive into specific changes, physical and mental, that have helped unlock him, but he has been unlocked.

He entered play having reached base in 15 of 16 games and having posted an .852 OPS since Aug. 4.

“I don’t think I was chasing terribly in the first half,” said LeMahieu, who again hit leadoff and played first base against Toronto’s Yusei Kikuchi. “I just don’t think I was squaring up balls like I should have. But it kind of goes hand in hand.”

There were times during the first few months of the season when it would have been logical for the Yankees to wonder what they could expect from an aging hitter who will be under contract until he is 38.

But in the final months of a dark season, LeMahieu has become a needed bright spot.

“It’s definitely nice to have some results,” LeMahieu said.

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