I’m still holding my breath.
In 2014, DJ LeMahieu turned in an excellent defensive season for the Rockies. At least for a portion of the year, he was part of the best (and tallest) defensive infield in baseball. They did things like this:
It was that sort of defense that earned LeMaheiu a Gold Glove. Most observers concluded that even though he did not represent the long-term answer at second base, his defense at least earned him the job for 2015. Still, LeMahieu’s offense made a persuasive case that relying on him at the keystone was a bad idea. He hit .267/.315/.348 on the year. He didn’t walk much, 6.6 percent of the time, despite hitting eighth most of the season. Measured by wRC+, LeMahieu was the third worst qualified batter in baseball, ahead of only Matt Dominguez and Zack Cozart.
But through two months, almost 60 games and nearly 230 plate appearances in 2015, LeMahieu has been downright excellent at the plate. First, he got off to a very fast start. LeMahieu hit .406/.446/.522 in April. His slash line was good for a 151 wRC+. This was much, much more than anyone expected from LeMahieu. That’s when, and why, I began holding my breath.
May was to be the month of gentle exhalation—without discomfort, not too much spittle. But LeMahieu continued to hit throughout May, even with an expected fall back to earth. He hit .283/.340/.380. The steep decline in slugging average contributed to a May wRC+ of just 83. But he has picked it back up thus far in June. Through Thursday, LeMahieu’s June has improbably resembled his April-self rather than his May-self. He’s hitting .404/.451/.489 so far. And all the while, LeMaheiu has been walking more than he ever has and is limiting strikeouts.
The default explanation: LeMahieu is BABIPing over .400. It will most certainly go down, but it might not be a steep fall. LeMahieu owns a career BABIP of .342. He not only puts the ball in play a lot, but his batted ball profile edges the BABIP lie toward truth. His 29.1 line drive rate is second best on the team—higher than Troy Tulowitzki, Carlos Gonzalez, Nolan Arenado, and everyone else on the team except Corey Dickerson. That line drive rate is, however, accompanied by a high ground ball rate.
All the grounders LeMahieu hits limit his slugging, but they also contribute to his on base ability. Even in the midst of a breathholding start, he hasn’t displayed power. Despite being a large person—LeMahieu is listed at 6’4" and 215 on Baseball Reference—his slugging average and run creation is due more to his ability to make the most of balls that stay in the park. He has eight doubles, two triples, and just three home runs on the season.
To further contextualize LeMahieu’s start to the season, let’s take a look at where he stands vis-à-vis his teammates. LeMahieu leads the team in batting average and on base percentage; he’s second in BB/K, wRC+, and wOBA; and he’s second on the team in fWAR. Troy Tulowitzki will catch up to him in all of those categories before long, but that has more to do with Tulo than LeMahieu.
In addition to BABIP and line drive rate, there are a couple other things that explain LeMahieu’s offense. First, he’s hitting the ball a bit harder than he did last season. According to FanGraphs’ data, LeMahieu’s current 10.3 percent soft contact rate is a four percent improvement form his 14.5 rate last season, while his 59.8 medium and 29.9 hard contact rates are both improvements of about two percentage points each. If we extend our analysis back just one more season to LeMahieu’s 2013, however, his current profile resembles 2013, which was altogether lackluster.
LeMahieu’s profile in 2015 differs from both 2014 and 2013 because of where the balls are going. He’s pulling fewer balls and hitting more up the middle and to the opposite field. For someone without much power who has the ability to put the ball in play, this seems the perfect recipe for success.
LeMahieu has improbably been one of the offensive highlights of the Colorado Rockies. But let’s look elsewhere in the league for a comparison. Specifically, let’s look at this comparison (from FanGraphs).
Dee Gordon is having a better season than LeMahieu, but it’s not by a lot. FanGraphs, Baseball Prospectus, and Baseball Reference each think Gordon is worth about a win more than LeMahieu. The differences are on the bases and with the glove. The smidge of power LeMahieu offers that Gordon doesn’t isn’t enough to make up the difference. At the plate and as a whole, there are more similarities than not between Gordon and LeMahieu. Right now, that’s a compliment to both players.
There is enough evidence to trust LeMahieu’s start at the plate, but the lack of power means that he has to be extremely consistent to keep up his contributions toward run creation.
I am still holding my breath, but I’m also getting ready to exhale.
Eric Garcia McKinley is a contributor to Beyond the Box Score. He writes about the Rockies for Purple Row, where he is also an editor. And no, he doesn’t think that gif adds much to the article, but damn if it isn’t beautiful to look at. You can find him on Twitter @garcia_mckinley.