DJ LeMahieu Is Unrosterable

Let’s get this out of the way. The article title is click bait. DJ LeMahieu is a good player with strong two category production – of course he’s rosterable. However, I’m here to explain why he’s less than the sum of his parts. Ideally, LeMahieu is a backup middle infielder on your fantasy roster. Since he’s unlikely to come cheaply on draft day, let somebody else deal with the aches and pains of managing him.

This article isn’t only about LeMahieu. He’s simply a representative example of a particularly difficult-to-manage player profile: guys with no power, no speed, and positive value. Some other examples include Odubel Herrera, Jed Lowrie, Joe Mauer*, and Josh Reddick. It should also be noted that I’m specifically referring to Roto leagues. The following points do not apply to most H2H or points formats.

*Mauer is probably the poster child for this profile with his seven home runs, two stolen bases, tepid run production, and potent .305 average (.384 OBP). However, the fantasy market is already treating him as a $1 flier. 

A typical Roto league will use batting average or OBP as the only rate stat for hitters. These are categories where LeMahieu excels. He’s a rare opposite field hitter, leaning on high BABIP ground balls and line drives. Combined with a low strikeout rate and healthy walk rate, he’s a high floor asset. Since he typically bats between Charlie Blackmon and Nolan Arenado, you can bet on 100 runs too.

Unfortunately, that opposite field, ground ball heavy approach produces very little power – just eight home runs in 682 plate appearances last season. He’s also a well below average base thief. After swiping 23 bases in 26 tries during the 2015 season, he’s turned in 11 steals in 18 attempts and six thefts in 11 tries. We have every reason to project fewer than 10 home runs and five stolen bases. Most of his hits are singles, capping him at a mid-60s RBI total.

Using 2017 production, the FanGraphs auction calculator pegged LeMahieu’s value at $10. That marked him as the 12th most valuable second baseman, roughly in line with where he was drafted (92.4 ADP). From that perspective, there shouldn’t be a problem with using him as your primary second baseman.

Remember though, this is an article about Roto leagues. And this is where I shift my attention to “category management.” A 5×5 Roto league can be simplified to a spreadsheet optimization game. Specifically, this spreadsheet:

(if hard to read, right click then open image in new tab)

When building a roster, a common rule of thumb is to aim for third place in every category. I’ve sorted by home runs in the above table for a very specific reason – you need a lot of them to contend. This particular league is a two catcher format with 14 active hitters. To score third place, you needed to average nearly 26 home runs per roster spot – and that’s with the two catcher slots dragging down the average.

I’ve repeated this exercise for all of my leagues plus a not at all random sample of public and reader leagues. I consistently found that third place in home runs equates to about 25 home runs per roster spot.

Let’s say your catchers combined for 30 home runs. LeMahieu chipped in his eight long balls. That’s just 38 home runs for three spots, leaving you to make up 40 home runs elsewhere. That’s Giancarlo Stanton with a remainder of seven. While it’s a tall task to find a Stanton or Aaron Judge, it’s not impossible to claw back those homers.

Here’s where LeMahieu gets particularly difficult to use. A lot of these big home run threats don’t steal bases. And in 2017 you needed to average about 11 steals per roster spot to post a healthy score. We can safely anticipate a similar environment in 2018.

If multiple sluggers are providing goose eggs on the bases, then you need your non-sluggers to average closer to 15 steals per spot. Unless you have Jose Altuve to bail you out, you’re in trouble. If you’re going to roster a starter who can’t hit home runs, why not make it somebody who will steal over 20 bases. Ender Inciarte, Delino DeShields, and Cameron Maybin are cheaper alternatives.

The obvious counterpoint is that LeMahieu supplies gaudy batting average. Maybe it’s worth taking a hit in home runs and steals if you win the rate stat. If you find yourself nodding along to that sentiment, the math is not your friend.

A batting average in the low .270s would have furnished a third place finish in most leagues. Let’s say your other 13 active roster spots averaged a .270 average. LeMahieu’s .310 average would drag the team average all the way up to .2729. In a standard deep roster format, his effect on the standings is very small. If, instead, you use shallow rosters, he would have bumped your average up to .274. It’s a meaningful improvement but nowhere near as impactful as 30 home runs or 20 stolen bases.

While LeMahieu can be a problem if you’re using him as a full time starter, he still holds value as a frequently used bench player. I’m a big fan of running a deep offensive bench in order to play matchups. Imagine Rougned Odor goes cheaply in your league – your rivals fear his .204 average (.252 OBP). Odor also has a few obviously exploitable platoons. The right caddy can maximize his value.

If you can also grab LeMahieu for under $5, the pairing can accomplish more than the individuals. Even if we just average the two stat lines together, we’re looking at 87 runs, 19 home runs, 69.5 RBI, 10.5 steals, and a .257 average. That composite player sounds pretty useful. And you should be able to squeeze a little more out of DJ L’Odor simply by benching Odor against left-handed and elite pitchers.

At the end of the day, it’s all about using your players correctly. LeMahieu by himself is very difficult to manage in a Roto format. Put him in the right context, and he can be a boon.

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Well said!