Studious LeMahieu plays way into starting role
Rockies second baseman's ability to process information has led to defensive success
DENVER -- The Rockies' DJ LeMahieu played such an economical and cerebral second base last season that even he didn't know until a month after the season how well he played.
The Rockies had two Rawlings Gold Glove Award winners in left fielder Carlos Gonzalez and third baseman Nolan Arenado, and shortstop Troy Tulowitzki was a finalist. But in early November, LeMahieu was named Colorado's recipient of the Wilson Defensive Player of the Year Award. A combination of scouting information, sabermetrics and basic defensive stats is used annually to pick the best defensive player on each team.
LeMahieu said he learned of the award when someone congratulated him via Twitter. But the award is evidence of the value of a player like LeMahieu, who uses fundamentals and smarts to perform effectively, even though his feats are rarely the stuff of highlight packages. After beginning the last two years in Triple-A but each time rising to the Rockies' starting second base job, LeMahieu has quietly put himself in position to earn his first career Opening Day start.
"Definitely to be counted on at the Major League level is a pretty big honor -- that's what I worked my whole life to get into position to do," LeMahieu said. "I'm excited personally, but I'm more excited about the team. I think it's going to be a special year."
If 2014 is as special as LeMahieu hopes, fans could get a chance to view his game through more appreciative eyes.
LeMahieu, 25, was a Cubs second-round pick out of LSU in 2009 and made his Major League debut in '11, playing 37 games with Chicago, splitting time between shortstop and second base and finishing with a .250 batting average. The Rockies acquired him and outfielder Tyler Colvin for third baseman Ian Stewart and Minor League pitcher Casey Weathers in December 2011.
Former Colorado manager Jim Tracy and former hitting coach Carney Lansford suggested LeMahieu add a leg kick to his swing. LeMahieu split 2012 between the Majors and Triple-A Colorado Springs, but, with his new mechanics working for him, finished the year in the Majors and hit .297 in 81 games.
Last season, with Tulowitzki coming off an abbreviated 2012 because of a groin injury, the Rockies sent LeMahieu back to Colorado Springs to play shortstop regularly in case Tulowitzki was hurt. LeMahieu hit a sizzling .364 with 14 extra-base hits in the first 33 games, and Colorado called him up to replace Josh Rutledge, who had struggled at second base.
LeMahieu responded again, hitting .280 in 109 games. He also made his mark as a heady baserunner, succeeding on 18 of his 25 stolen-base attempts even though his speed is not eye-popping.
But LeMahieu's big mark was with the glove. His range factor per nine innings was tops among National League second basemen, and he finished third among NL players at his position in range factor per nine innings.
While the Rockies have hopes for a bounce-back year from Rutledge, who performed well at short when Tulowitzki was hurt in 2012, and like the physical tools of former Giants supplemental first-round pick Charlie Culberson, they're going into 2014 with LeMahieu as their guy at second base.
"DJ has put himself in a good position," Colorado manager Walt Weiss said. "DJ played well enough to earn the right to come into camp No. 1 on the depth chart.
"The sign of a great defender is he is able to make the majority of the plays look routine. That's DJ's strength. He goes unnoticed, but he makes a lot of plays -- difficult plays to his left and right -- and makes them look routine."
LeMahieu's defensive efficiency comes from an uncanny ability to process information quickly. He is at his best when calculating the information from scouting reports regarding how the Rockies' pitcher is executing on a given day and positioning himself accordingly. LeMahieu also said watching Tulowitzki, whose feel for the adjustments is among the best in the game, helped him and Arenado quickly become among the best defenders at their positions.
"We move as a unit there, trying to read hitters' swings and just seeing what he's trying to do and what the pitcher is trying to do," LeMahieu said. "I take a lot of pride in studying all of that.
"If I haven't seen the team or the opposing player, the scouting reports are very useful, and we have Stu Cole [the Rockies' third-base coach] who understands every batter. But once you know the hitters and really understand your own pitchers, trying to read what everyone is doing is more important than scouting."
The next steps for LeMahieu are on the offensive side. He hit mostly second in the order last year. While LeMahieu had a .316 batting average on balls put in play, he finished with a .269 overall average and a .284 on-base percentage from that slot in the order. Actually, his best spot was eighth (.368 with a .434 on-base percentage in 20 games). LeMahieu finished last year with 21 doubles, and his size (listed at 6-foot-4 and 205 pounds) and useable speed suggest he could increase his extra-base hits.
LeMahieu is attacking offense the way he does defense, not with numerical calculations but with a desire to recognize what the team needs and modify without worrying about how it looks on a stat sheet.
"I've never been a guy that sets statistical goals -- for me, I feel like you lose focus on what you're trying to accomplish, and that's be an impact player on a winning team," LeMahieu said. "If I can look back at the end of the year and say I gave everything I got and had an impact on winning, that will be pretty cool."