Moving around the diamond, to the 4 spot in scorecard – DJ LeMahieu
DJ at the bat, and on the field – We know where we prefer him…
Where do I start with DJ? As with all the Rockies it seems, I really like him as a person and he seems like a great teammate. That isn’t unimportant. That being said, he is perhaps the player on the Rockies whom I struggle with the most, yes, even more than Rex Brothers. In an era of decreased run scoring, increased understanding of defense, and defensive metrics, and for the Rockies and their focus on groundball pitchers and not giving any extra outs, especially at home, DJ is exactly what you need at 2B. How value is DJ at 2nd? Well using the highly respected FanGraphs website measures, we see the value of DJ’s 2014 season in terms of runs saved and through that, what a fair-value salary would be. Last year’s actual salary for DJ was the league minimum of around $500,000 (he is part of the arbitration eligible group in 2015). According to Fan Graphs his value in 2014 was $4.6 million – and that is due largely to the 11 runs saved defensively. Darwin Barney for a comparison (and the likely Gold Glove winner at 2nd) saved 17 runs. His value based on the WAR (and again largely based on defense for Barney) is $5.8 million.
Rumors are that Barney was the other player the Rockies almost go in the Ian Stewart trade of 2011 that sent Stewart and Casey Weathers (don’t let anyone tell you every pitcher comes back from Tommy John surgery) and brought not only DJ but Tyler “Every other year I can hit” Colvin. The Cubs had a pair of similar players in Barney and DJ, but Barney looked more major league ready, better defensively (although DJ did and could play SS as well as 2B, but as we now know, not 3B), and better potential at the bat. The Rockies got the better player.
The league has realized that defense has a value that in many ways is similar the value of batting. The stat “defensive runs saved” helps teams add in that value to the runs scored by the player to get an overall view of how this player effects the team’s outcomes. In hockey the “+/- stat” has helped teams and fans realize a great goal-scorer can actually be a negative for his team. In baseball, we know similarly that bad defensively players can undo great offensive performances. All that being said, the fact remains that DJ’s bat is why the Rockies have to be thinking about alternatives at 2B. We all know this team can score at home, and as we saw in 2014, the Rockies know how to win at home. But the Rockies have struggled on the road, both scoring runs and winning. And it is on the road where DJ’s bat has become a serious issue.
DJ played 149 games for the Rockies this year, extraordinarily high for a team that struggles to keep its starter healthy through a season (and right on cue of course DJ strained his knee in the last series of the year). Like the team in general, DJ started the season off hot, hitting .291 in March/April though still with little pop – a slugging of only .337, from his 4 doubles. As the calendar turned to May he held his own at .268 with a still minsecule slugging of .354. In both months DJ drew a fair number of walks, though this has more to do with his position in the lineup than a great eye. His OBP for the first two months was .349 and .318, simply too low even for your #8 hitter whom you need to turn the lineup over, getting the pitcher up to start the next inning fresh. In this all-important area for the #8 hitter he failed miserably, hitting with 2-out in the inning only .181 with an OBP of .272 and an OPS of .522 in 162 PA. When they needed him the most, he struggled the most (with 0-out he hits .340/.380/.820 in 177PA and with 1-out, .272/.293/.638 in 199PA). He struggles at the one of the most important roles of the #8 hitter, but doesn’t hit well enough to move elsewhere in the lineup.
As the team started to falter in June DJ had his second worst month, hitting only .253/.330/.640, despite the team playing only 12 road games with 16 at home. He did follow that up with a very good July, hitting .306/.330/.741 (9 road games to 16 homes games for the Rockies). August was the bottom for DJ (and the Rockies) as hit .177/.226/.467 but followed up with a nice final month hitting .307/.329/.769.
His final stat line: .267/.315/.663 doesn’t look that bad for your #8 hitter, your 2nd baseman, and your defensive wiz (among many on that infield). But as I have been alluding to, the problem isn’t his overall numbers, it’s the home/road splits. His home numbers would get him elected (at 2B, where production is usually lighter in terms of power) to an All-Star game every year and a nice fat contract – .316/.373/.780 on a BABIP of .371 producing 9 2B, 4 3B, 2 HR, 27 RBI and 7 SB (out of 15 attemps, yikes, after his prior year of 18 for 25). Even his batting eye is decent at Coors, 24BB to 43Ks. It can be argued that this production from the #8 hole with his defense is part of the reason why this team was so successful at home.
But go on the road and it all goes very badly. His stat line is hard to swallow: .216/.250/.536 with 6 2B, 1 3B, 3 HR, 15 RBIs 3SB (out of 5 attempts) and a 9BB to 54K ratio on a BABIP of .266. While there certainly are worse stat lines (Dan Uggla, please pick up the white curtesy phone and bring BJ Upton with you), this performance is hardly that of a player who FanGraphs thinks is worth nearly $5 million.
Yes, DJ is a great defensive player, and that cannot be forgotten. But is this the best the team can do at 2B? How much lower defensive performance are the Rockies willing to forgo if they can increase offensive performance by a fair bit. The Coors Field factor here is key, as DJ has been able to get a .350+ BABIP over the past 3 years at Coors. Is it likely that other players who might play 2B at Coors would also perform as well (yes)? Is it likely that a 2B can be found who can hit better on the road (yes)? How do the Rockies value that defense (a lot)?
So DJ is one of the great points of struggle for the Rockies. His defense undoubtably has helped the pitching staff and will be even more important going forward as they may well feature a starting rotation next year of Jorge De La Rosa and everyone else under the age of 25. But on the road where this team struggles so deeply to score runs, can you carry a stat line of .216/.250/.536? And, how much improvement is there in DJ’s game? He is still only 26. His power has begun to show (from 0,2,2 to 5 this year). Can he become at least league average as a hitter on the road?
2014 Grade – C+ = Again, DJ is hard to grade. I give him a solid A for defense. I give him a B for home hitting, as I truly believe that most players on team can hit at home (of the regular 25 man roster, only Charlie Culberson wasn’t close to .300 and Brandon Barnes was the only other below .300, at .299). I give his road offense a D (it should be noted that Josh Rutledge essentially mirrors DJ’s numbers, and that has to factor into any future calculations). His base stealing also gets a C, as any runner getting thrown out more that 50% of the time should not be attempting 20 steals. So, a C+, and yes, I think he deserves the Gold Glove. Is he worth $4.6 million? No, but for a team struggling with payroll, they got their money’s worth from DJ playing at the league minimum.
2015 Prediction – The team has talent coming in the middle infield. Forrest Wall, the 2014 2nd round pick out of high school is well thought off bat with good glove work and no arm. The projection is he will be here by 2018, as DJ heads towards free agency. Trevor Story, currently playing SS, could be the next up at 2B, though his AA performance, .200/.302/.683 doesn’t impress, but he will be just 22 this off-season, so there is reason to believe as he gets older the bat will come (at High A this year, at about the right age, he hit .332/.436/1.017, and for the year he hit 8 homers). Story has a nice glove but some throwing issues, and could be here as early as next September. On the team there is of course Josh Rutledge (who I think could be trade-bait this off-season, as he seems better defensively at SS, and there are many teams looking for a SS with big-league experience), as well as Rafeal Ynoa (an intriguing 27 year-old who could challenge next year) and of course, Charlie Culberson (not a real candidate for 2B, unless his bat becomes more explosive). The best guess is DJ will be hitting #8 and playing 2B in 2015, and there is no reason to doubt he can perform at the same level as last year. Improvement? There is no reason to think his offense is really going to improve more than at the margins, though there is a chance for more power, and every advance in power will help out. Can his eye get better? It has to, especially hitting #8 and yes, that can improve with experience.
There are two possibilities for 2015. First, if DJ does indeed get the Gold Glove, he could be traded, as there is, as with SS, a real dearth of quality 2B in the majors right now, and being able to acquire a 2B with a GG could make a difference to a team fighting for a playoff spot (a team like the Yankees during 2014 would be a great example). While DJ will not return big talent, he could command a mid-level starting prospect or a solid bullpen arm, both of which the Rockies need more. If not, DJ will be back doing his thing at 20th and Blake, though I do think we will see his road average bounce up to around .230 and I suspect he might hit as many as 8 homers and add around 5-7 more doubles. If that is the case, the Rockies certainly won’t complain, especially if he continues to flash the leather that has made him a pitcher’s close friend.
Next Post – 3B and Nolan Arenado
Update today!!! as roxnsox pointed out (I was out of contact all day, and didn’t hear about the Gold Glove announcements and yes, DJ is a winner, and well deserved, though Morneau deserved it over Gonzalez, but that is the “past winners keep winning” effect. Lets hope in 2015 Tulo steals back his GG from Simmons, which he might have done this year if he could stay on the field