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DJ LeMahieu is playing like Derek Jeter so far


If you expected the Yankees to go big game hunting this summer -- pummelling the biggest superstars in the game with enough generational wealth to keep Harpers, Machados and Corbins flying private until the stars burn out -- this offseason was likely a disappointment. DJ LeMahieu was not a marquee Yankee signing, and certainly did not command marquee Yankee dollars.

But for anyone who enjoyed the last great run of Yankee baseball, the soon-to-be 31-year-old LeMahieu has echoed familiar greatness with his play, if not his name. One-third of the way through the season, the new DJ has looked a lot like the old one.

LeMahieu is hitting .316/.361/.457, nearly identical to Derek Jeter’s career .310/.377/.440 over 19 seasons in the Bronx.

The two time NL All-Star is of course, still five bulky rings short of a disrespectful backhand. And any comparison to the Marlins part-owner deserves major and obvious qualification to a player with a three-month sample size. Yet here you are, reading about baseball in June instead of waiting until October. And in June, No. 26 looks a lot like No. 2.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - JUNE 01: DJ LeMahieu #26 of the New York Yankees hits a two-run single in the bottom of the second inning against the Boston Red Sox at Yankee Stadium on June 01, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images) (Mike Stobe/Getty)

When approached about the similarities, LeMahieu is of course, wary of a one-to-one comparison to the Captain — “That guy’s a legend,” said LeMahieu. Understandable, since his job is to set the table and get clutch hits, not to spin trends into content. However, the soon to be 31-year-old grew up with Jeter on the television, which he says influenced his game. “We have a similar approach to the plate,” said LeMahieu of his statical similarities “And, obviously, growing up watching him, I took a lot away.”

Those things LeMahieu took from Jeter may not have been a surprise to the Yankees, who appear to prioritize how hard players hit the ball when pursuing free agency targets. In 2018, among the 97 batters with at least 400 batted ball events in 2018 -- which is any batted ball resulting in an out, hit or error -- LeMahieu ranked 11th in exit velocity. (Perennial MVP candidate Manny Machado ranked slightly higher at eighth, but I digress.) Now, LeMahieu doesn’t launch balls into outer space, which is why Manny Machado is on a Hall of Fame trajectory and signed with the Padres 300 million, while LeMahieu got 24 and has flown relatively unrecognized despite his NL batting title back in 2016.

Still, assuming the organization is favoring cost certainty instead of talent certainty, the Yankees purchased a total output on par with the league’s best on the discount aisle. Machado has started slowly in San Diego, batting just .238 with some of the lowest power numbers in his career, while LeMahieu thrives in pinstripes.

What is surprising is that LeMahieu's gaudy, Coors Field-assisted stats have translated to the AL East.

Without privileged access to the Yankees’ proprietary analytics and scouting reports, it was an understandable concern. LeMahieu, a former NL batting champion, batted just .276 last year with a Coors Light .428 slugging percentage. According to Fangraphs, his total offensive output was 14 percent worse than the league average after factoring his home park advantage.

He was good, but he wasn't this.

An even scarier statistic was his performance on the road. He was a career .299 hitter, but most of that was accomplished in his former home park’s thin airs and cavernous outfielder. Over 1,683 at-bats on the road leading up to this season, LeMahieu batted just .264 with a .311 on base percentage -- numbers that could lead some to diminish the multi-positional infielder as a defensive specialist.

But this year, his raw numbers are up across the board, translating to a full line that’s 18 percent better than average. As good as he’s been at home (LeMahieu went 2-for-4 in the Mets night capper), he’s batting .347 on the road.

Though the soft-spoken infielder hasn’t sought out the spotlight, LeMahieu’s excellent hitting has perched himself in a starring role at the leadoff spot, right where Jeter was featured for much of his career.

LeMahieu’s offensive game isn’t just productive, it looks a lot like that of his infield predecessor. Rather than regularly yanking balls into the left field cheap seats, he hits to all fields, and is most impressive when he’s covering the entire plate, fighting off inside pitches and serving outside the other way, as he did against the Mets when he served a Jason Vargas changeup into center.

Though fans may have expected a shinier new toy anchoring the lineup, Aaron Hicks stressed that LeMahieu is exactly “what we thought we were getting.” The Yankees center fielder touted his new teammates' ability to battle. From hitter to hitter, Hicks paid him one of the highest compliments out there during the recent Boston set: “That guy rakes.”

Manager Aaron Boone, adding to the chorus, added that his infielder “plays with an edge” that belies the gentle demeanor he exudes in the clubhouse.

Whether fans were caught off guard or not, anyone rooting for the Yankees is rooting for more of LeMahieu’s surprises deep into the calendar. Reputations can be built in the summer, but legends are made in autumn.