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Mudville: May 23, 2024 10:21 pm PDT

DJ Saves The Day

Here’s the thing, DJ LeMahieu, and players like him, could be baseball’s saving grace.

Yet, baseball remains too dumb, too stat stubborn to grasp that reality.

LeMahieu re-signed with the Yankees this week, mainly because teams still undervalue LeMahieu and his many baseball talents, some of those which cannot be measured or better yet, refused to be labeled important by the nerds.

Sure, the Blue Jays made a run but got cold financial feet at the end, as a result the Yankees re-signed LeMahieu, who batted .364 last season for them. Big mistake by the Blue Jays who would have added so much to that talented but inexperienced young lineup by signing LeMahieu.

The Yankees have LeMahieu, who will turn 33 in July, for $90 million over six years, $15 million per. A relative bargain. In many ways he is the glue that holds the Yankees together, losing him would have been a disaster for Brian Cashman.

This comes on the heels of LeMahieu’s last free agent contract with the Yankees, an absolute steal at two years $24 million.

Before we go any further let’s note that Theo Epstein has been hired by MLB as a consultant regarding on-field matters.

Basically, that means, “Please save us from our nerd selves, Theo.’’

When Theo bolted the Cubs, he made this heady comment: “We need to find a way to get more action in the game, get the ball in play more often, allow players to show their athleticism some more, and give fans more of what they want.’’

Pure genius, right from the Curse Breaker. Well perhaps Theo has been reading BallNine. This is something I’ve been harping on for quite some time.

What Theo is really saying is the game could use more players like Mookie Betts, who somehow was traded by the Red Sox, simply a comical maneuver made by the BoSox, a player drafted during Theo’s last year in Boston, and hitters who put the ball in play like DJ LeMahieu, and can play a number of positions.

LeMahieu, like Betts, takes enormous pride in his defense.

All this brings us back to December 8, 2011.

This is what makes The Story and BallNine different. We don’t hesitate to connect the dots. On that date the Rockies and Dan O’Dowd absolutely fleeced the Cubs in a trade, acquiring a 22-year-old LeMahieu and Tyler Colvin for Casey Weathers and Ian Stewart.

Who was in charge of the Cubs at that point?

You guessed it, Theo Epstein.

I do not bring this all up to single out a bad trade by Theo, who is baseball royalty. Bad trades are part of the game. I bring it up to show that even as a 22-year-old who had just hit .319 at AA and AAA and also got 62 at-bats with the Cubs in 2011, the trade was still made.

LeMahieu was tremendously undervalued by his own team the Cubs.

LeMahieu had shown in the minors and his college career at LSU that he was a gamer, he would change positions, do what’s best for the team and continue to hit at every level and line the ball to the opposite field.

LeMahieu was a silent star with the Rockies, hitting one point below .300 his seven years in Colorado. Of course, to the nerds, batting average doesn’t mean anything anymore, that’s why I keep bringing it up. Batting average is important.

As a baseball friend likes to say about batting average: “It’s how you get on base.’’

And remember, LeMahieu led all MLB hitters in 2016 with a .348 mark.

The critics point to the Mile High city and big ballpark as the reason why, instead of the fact LeMahieu drives the ball with fierce focus and uses the entire field.

LeMahieu knew how good he was, and the Rockies knew too. After all, they traded for him and played him every day, moved him to second so they could play Nolan Arenado at third. LeMahieu wanted a two-year deal at $18 million, but that was not to be and the Yankees signed him for two years at $12 million. LeMahieu wanted to go to a guaranteed winning team and in the process raise his value.

He did both, hitting .336 his two years with the Yankees with a .922 OPS. He was the top hitter in baseball this past Covid-shortened season, hitting .364, 13 points higher than his closest competitor Juan Soto of the Nationals and 42 points higher than other any American League hitter.

“LeMahieu, with his playoff face on, looked at his teammate and simply said, “I got work to do.’’

But remember, batting average doesn’t matter.

Turns out LeMahieu could hit in Yankee Stadium as well Coors Field.

Here is one more connect the dots. When the Yankees signed the free agent, two of Cashman’s top scouts pushed for LeMahieu, Jim Hendry and Tim Naehring. When the Cubs drafted LeMahieu late in the second round in the 2009 draft, the 79th pick overall, a phenomenal pick, Hendry was the Cubs GM. Again, all the other clubs, 78 other players were picked ahead of him, undervalued LeMahieu, the theme of his career.

Connect the dots. Hendry was fired prior to Epstein taking over the Cubs. It was at LSU in 2009 when coach Paul Mainieri moved LeMahieu from shortstop to second base, a huge boost for LeMahieu’s career even though LeMahieu was surprised by the move. At the time, Mainieri made the move so freshman shortstop Austin Nola, now the Padres catcher, could play.

A taller than average shortstop now had to move to second base and be a taller than average second baseman. LeMahieu’s athleticism and dedication to getting the job done allowed him to make such a move.

LSU was the perfect proving ground because as LeMahieu once said. “Playing at LSU is about as close to the big leagues as you can get, even in the minors,’’ he noted. “The expectations, the atmosphere, the focus on winning.’’

All true. The mindset is so important.  LeMahieu has the kind of talent that needs to be better recognized and championed by those in charge. There needs to be an understanding that it is not all about pulling the baseball and smashing home runs.

Contact counts. Attitude counts. Work ethic counts. Not giving an inch counts.

Young players in the game should model LeMahieu and teams need to make sure young players absorb his style of play. Yes, you can still have fun and there is nothing wrong with being exuberant about the game.

But you have to be serious too. Later I will tell you about something I witnessed this past spring training that said it all about LeMahieu but first, consider all this.

“Right off the bat, anybody who plays with him, watches him play, watches the humility he has for being a great player falls in love with him,’’ one of the top talent evaluators in baseball told BallNine. “And if we have 18 of those on the field each day, people will fall back in love with baseball players.’’

What a wonderful testimony to LeMahieu. That also speaks to where the game is lacking. It speaks to Epstein’s comment about what the game needs to do to regain the popularity it once had. Like Theo said: “We need to find a way to get more action in the game, get the ball in play more often, allow players to show their athleticism some more, and give fans more of what they want.’’

Imagine 18 players with the LeMahieu skill set and approach.

Another tall infielder once said, “I didn’t just show up for work, as sometimes has been said. I also showed up to work.’’

That would be Cal Ripken Jr., a Hall of Fame player who stood 6-4. LeMahieu is 6-4. Same height, same approach.

“That’s why Cal was so beloved,’’ a former teammate told me. “He wasn’t arrogant. He never promoted himself. He worked his ass off. A great teammate’’.

Some scouts refer to all this now as the LeMahieu Category. “Is he going to play above of what you see because of what’s inside of him,’’ a scout explained of the LeMahieu Category.

If you watch LeMahieu play every day, you understand that category … only if you understand baseball.

“He worked his balls off every day to make himself a great player,’’ the talent evaluator said. “The rest of the industry didn’t see his value.’’

Even the first time the Yankees signed the free agent it wasn’t until well into January. Same thing this time around.

“He has a quiet motor that just keeps going,’’ one scout said.

Does it ever. Even when he is on the injured list. In 2018 LeMahieu was on the IL. Most veteran players on the IL come, do their work and leave. Or go to the spring training complex. Or maybe some of them even go to their ranch and get chased by a wild boar. The point is they are focused on getting themselves back into the lineup. The team stuff kind of takes a back seat. That is the nature of a star.

Not with LeMahieu.

While on the IL that season, LeMahieu showed up, did his work, got his rehab going and then would be at the games. He was in the dugout every day, he was in the video room every day, he was trying to do whatever he could to help his team. He’d watch carefully to see if pitchers were tipping their pitches.

“This is a superstar doing what superstars don’t do, looking for an edge to help his team win a game,’’ one scout noted. “A lot of times when superstars get hurt they go back to Florida or Arizona.’’

The last two years the Yankees have reaped the rewards of signing LeMahieu and they will have him now the rest of their career. To see his impact on the Yankees, all you had to do was look at Aaron Judge’s Twitter account.

Above a picture of LeMahieu and Judge alongside the dugout, talking about the pitcher, Judge tweeted: Let’s roll! Excited to have you back in pinstripes @DJLeMahieu

“That’s great leadership in that clubhouse,’’ the talent evaluator, who observes on-field talent as well as leadership qualities, noted.

The Yankees still have pitching issues and believe it was worth taking a shot on Corey Kluber for one year at $11 million for the two-time Cy Young winner who has only started eight games over the last two seasons because of injury woes.

For LeMahieu, it all comes back to accountability, something in his DNA. My brother Sean, also a sportswriter, covered the 21-year-old LeMahieu at Daytona in the Florida State League in 2010 when LeMahieu hit .314, drove in 73 runs, hit 24 doubles and hit only two home runs. He played in 135 games. I asked Sean what he remembers about LeMahieu.

“He had the no-nonsense approach to the game you would expect from someone older than 21,’’ Sean said. “He just put his head down and worked. Manager Buddy Bailey wrote his name in the lineup every day. He played in all but four of the 139 games – second base about half the time and the other half divided between third and short. Guys that young are overly concerned about their at-bats. DJ was obsessed with his defense, I remember one time after a game I was walking past the dugout to do interviews. He was sitting alone. Everybody else was in the clubhouse. I could see he was frustrated. I looked at my scorebook and saw he had a couple hits. He obviously was mad at himself. He only made 13 errors all season, but one of them happened that night.

“He was holding himself accountable.’’

That is the secret to his success. DJ LeMahieu holds himself accountable. The Great Ones do. It’s not just about numbers it is about approach and some days in spring training you can learn more about a player in one instance than reading a ledger full of numbers.

Here is my story from this past spring training in March shortly before everything was shut down. On road games the Yankees leave a bunch of starters home. On this day that was the case and I went to the Back Field to watch LeMahieu’s group take a few rounds of BP.

Often in these situations, players get their work in but they also make the most of the day and spend the afternoon playing golf or just relaxing. It was a beautiful blue sky warm day. LeMahieu got his hitting in and then I noticed another player come over to him as another hitting group assembled for batting practice. The player said, “Hey DJ let’s go in the outfield and shag.’’

LeMahieu, with his playoff face on, looked at his teammate and simply said, “I got work to do.’’

Now I was intrigued. The whole spring is work, there is a chance to work every day for six weeks straight. A few minutes of shagging fly balls is no problem.

LeMahieu grabbed his glove and went out to second base and had a coach hit him hot shots to his backhand near the bag. One rocket after another. Then LeMahieu went to third base to take another battalion of ground balls just to keep his third base skills intact. This was a back-to-back double intensity workout after his regular practice.

That workout on a day the team was on the road was all I needed to see about DJ LeMahieu. That explained to me all his talents, his hunger to get better with work. He just didn’t show up for work.

He showed up to work.

And wouldn’t you know it, the next night, a home game at George M. Steinbrenner Field, LeMahieu was at second base and the first ball hit to him was a rocket to his backhand. He caught it on one hop and threw to first for the out, the exact same ball that he relentlessly worked on the day before in the hot sun over and over and over again.

His three Gold Gloves just didn’t happen.

A stat line is not going to tell you what I saw that day. His lifetime average of .305 didn’t just happen. His talent didn’t just happen.

DJ LeMahieu showed up to work. More talented players like him could be baseball’s saving grace.

45+ years, columnist at NY Post for the last 23 years prior to joining BallNine. Elected to the NY Baseball Hall of Fame. Former SportsTalk Host (KFMB), ESPN’s First Take and Cold Pizza contributor. Frequent guest on radio shows and podcasts nationwide. Author of seven books. Seen in episode 10 of ESPN’s “The Last Dance” (the one with Dennis Rodman). First baseball interview he conducted was with Thurman Munson. Now you know why he is America’s Most Beloved Sportswriter.

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