It is not exactly news that DJ LeMahieu had a career year in 2016. At the very least, Rockies fans are well aware of the outstanding year he had. He hit .348/.416/.495, which won him the NL batting title, for those of you who are still into that sort of thing. Even adjusting for Coors Field, LeMahieu was still 28 percent better than the average hitter.
LeMahieu debuted in 2011 and never quite figured it out at the plate before this season. Going into 2016, he had a career line of .284/.329/.370, which is worth only a 75 wRC+. Having a .086 ISO when half of your games are at Coors Field is hard to imagine. Fortunately, his glove carried him during that time. Through 2014, he accumulated 36 DRS at second base, which is what kept him on the field despite being replacement level offensively. In 2015, his defense oddly declined, but he made progress with the bat, hitting .301/.358/.388 for an 89 wRC+. His .362 BABIP helped, and he still was not hitting for any power at all, but he was walking more. He was moving in the right direction.
Then, in 2016, LeMahieu drastically improved his contact rates. His 12.6 percent strikeout rate ranked 21st in the majors among qualified hitters. He is one of only four players who ranked in the top thirty in strikeout rate and also posted a double-digit walk percentage. His 10.4 percent walk rate was over four percentage points higher than his career rate. He went from having no power to decent power, with a .147 ISO.
If we look at LeMahieu’s plate discipline, there are some real changes to be seen. He made significant improvements on making contact on pitches both inside and outside the zone. His batted ball distribution shows that he made an effort to produce less groundballs. Perhaps most telling is that his hard-hit rate improved by a sizable eight percentage points from his career rate.
Unfortunately for his 2017 outlook, it is extremely difficult to improve you wOBA by 64 points in a single season without a lot of factors working in your favor. LeMahieu’s .388 BABIP is 48 points higher than his career rate going into 2016, and it seems unlikely to stay that high. But the biggest red flag was his home/road splits. Keeping in mind that wRC+ adjusts for park factors, and so should incorporate the impact of Colorado’s inflated run environment, he had a 150 wRC+ at home and just a 101 wRC+ on the road. He still improved greatly on the road from his career norms, but that home/road split is extreme, even when considering the fact that Coors Field is located on the moon.
Strangely, LeMahieu’s walk and strikeout rates were hugely different depending on whether or not he was at home or away. It would be odd for him to change his approach depending on where he played, so maybe it was a psychological thing. I don’t know. I can only speculate. I do know that a .420 BABIP at home is hard to believe in.
DJ LeMahieu is very likely to regress in 2017. However, that does not mean he is not a better hitter on true talent than he was in seasons prior. Steamer projects a 96 wRC+ in 2017, but if that projection is not informed about the changes he made, I would easily take the over on that. I would not bet on him posting another 5.2 WAR season, but 3 WAR sounds reasonable.
The Rockies surpassed expectations in 2016 by going 75-87 and finishing third in the NL West. Nicolas Stellini, an editor here at Beyond the Box Score, wrote at FanGraphs about how the Rockies are not as far away from contention as some might believe. Remarkably, the Rockies’ starting pitchers ranked eighth in the majors by ERA- in 2016. That was not all Jon Gray, either. The roster they’re entering 2017 with is by no means a terrible team. Still, the Rockies finished 12 games outside of a Wild Card slot. Even if the free agent market were stronger, it is extremely difficult to improve a team by that large of a margin in one or even two winters.
I don’t envy the Rockies’ front office. It is possible that this team as constructed never becomes good enough to contend, even with help coming from the farm system. On the flip side, this team is good enough that a rebuild would be a hard sell for Rockies fans. I would personally hate to see their fans lose a special player like Nolan Arenado. Unfortunately, a total rebuild would have to include trading him. LeMahieu’s trade value will likely never be higher than it is now, so if the Rockies decide to blow it up, now is the best time to do it.
LeMahieu had a special 2016. If he can maintain some of his improvements and regain what he lost defensively, he could be a star. As for the Rockies, well, they have some difficult decisions and a difficult offseason ahead of them.
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Luis Torres is a Contributing Writer at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.