Yankees need to give uber-dependable DJ LeMahieu his payday

SAN DIEGO — For a guy so low-key and reliable that his teammates call him “The Machine,” DJ LeMahieu’s pinstriped surge comes attached with a level of statistical insanity.

The Yankees find themselves in a position where they must buy into that insanity.

The infielder reiterated Thursday at Petco Park, prior to American League Division Series Game 4, that he would like to stay with the Yankees, whom he rewarded handsomely for their two-year, $24 million commitment ($16.44 million post-pandemic) to him in January 2019. He also revealed that he and the Yankees agreed to table extension talks until after the season, however, so the two sides will talk with the specter of LeMahieu’s free agency days away.

The 32-year-old will be looking to get paid, in other words, and how can the Yankees do anything besides pay the man — let’s spitball a four-year, $100 million pact for conversation’s sake — after everything he has given them?

“I think if you add up the last two years in Major League Baseball, he’s on the shortest of short lists for being the best player in the sport. He’s been that impactful,” Aaron Boone said Thursday. “As good as he is defensively as an infielder for us, and obviously the flexibility he provides us, especially during the regular season where he does actually move around a little bit more, is invaluable. But to be who he’s been at the top of our lineup, a guy that gets on over 40 percent of the time, has hit for power in the biggest moments always seems to deliver, he’s just been a great player for us.

“We’ll see what happens moving forward, but I hope he’s a Yankee for a long time.”

The past two years, this one drastically reduced by the novel coronavirus, LeMahieu has tallied 8.8 wins above replacement, per Baseball-Reference.com, which puts him in seventh place among position players.

The six ahead of him are prime-time names: Cody Bellinger, Mookie Betts, Alex Bregman, Mike Trout, Matt Chapman and Marcus Semien, an impending free agent as well. Wow.

Double-wow because LeMahieu stands as the oldest of that septet, and because, just to show his rise, for the years 2017-18, he totaled 5.8, tying him for 68th place with Brian Dozier, Eric Hosmer and Andrew McCutchen.

LeMahieu agreed with my assessment that 2019 and 2020 rank as his two finest years statistically. When I asked him for an explanation, he said, “I just think being a Yankee is probably the biggest factor. Being part of a great lineup, having experience in the past, I just think it’s a lot of factors coming together the last few years.”

(Statistically, he has swung at more pitches as a Yankee than he did during his last four years as a Rockie, as per Baseball Savant. Nevertheless, an increase from the low 40s to the mid-40s, percentage-wise, shouldn’t lead to such drastically different results.)

What’s more concrete is how popular LeMahieu has become among the Yankees’ clubhouse and their fan base, a metronome of consistency on a club that has seen two of its top players, Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton, struggle greatly to stay on the field. A paragon of contact in a sport that increasingly features the three true outcomes (home run, strikeout and walk). With LeMahieu, Masahiro Tanaka, J.A. Happ and James Paxton the Yankees’ high-end free agents this winter (assuming Stanton doesn’t opt out, which he won’t), LeMahieu should be the top priority to retain.

Asked why he has enjoyed his time with the Yankees so much, LeMahieu said, “I just think I would say the fans, the atmosphere at Yankee Stadium. We didn’t have that this year, but still. Having just such a deep roster, super talented, great leaders on this team and being able to play in the postseason and games like today.”

Though the Yankees’ revenue took a huge hit with no 2020 tickets sold (and is uncertain for next year), LeMahieu hardly seems the type who will chase every last dollar. He seems sane. Which would make it easier, and more imperative, for the Yankees to believe — and invest — in his insane mid-career awakening.

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