Change of scenery gave Yankees star DJ LeMahieu’s career a big-league boost
Former LSU star infielder DJ LeMahieu was a good player in his seven years with Colorado, before he signed as a free agent with the New York Yankees following the 2018 season.
In the National League, he has won a batting average title, collected three Gold Glove awards and made two All-Star teams. But he largely flew under the radar with Rockies teams that managed to achieve only two playoff appearances, both in wild-card situations. With his move to New York, he boosted his game another level, becoming their most valuable player on one of baseball’s biggest stages.
At LSU in 2008 and 2009, he was a member of the 2009 National Championship team, earning a spot on the College World Series All-Tournament team.
LeMahieu was a second-round draft pick of the Chicago Cubs in 2009. He spent part of the 2011 season with the Cubs before being traded to Colorado.
During LeMahieu’s tenure in Denver, terrific players like Todd Helton, Troy Tulowitzki, Carlos Gonzalez, and Nolan Arenado got most of the ink as Rockies stars. Yet, LeMahieu posted a respectable slash line of .299/.352/ 408 in his seven Rockies seasons and was recognized across the National League as a defensive whiz at second base. His .348 batting average in 2016 was the highest in the National League since Hall of Famer Chipper Jones hit .364 in 2008. It was also the highest for a full-time second baseman since Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby batted .361 in 1927.
After his batting average dropped 34 points and his on-base percentage declined 53 points in 2018, Colorado unexpectedly decided not to extend the 29-year-old’s contract and released him to free agency. The Yankees picked up LeMahieu, thinking he would serve as a backup utility infielder since the regulars were expected to include rising stars Gleyber Torres and Miguel Andujar and newly acquired Tulowitzki.
It turned out that shortstop Tulowitzki, third baseman Andujar, and first baseman Greg Bird came down with injuries early in the 2019 season. LeMahieu was pressed into service as a starter, but practically played a different position each day, including designated hitter.
Even though he routinely played multiple positions, LeMahieu became one of the most dependable players on the Yankees roster throughout the season. He was in the lineup every day, while most of the rest of the Yankee regulars spent unprecedented time on the injured list.
On a team that should have featured power-hitters Giancarlo Stanton, Aaron Judge, and Gary Sanchez (all of whom missed significant time), LeMahieu became the go-to guy in the lineup. He finished the 2019 season with the best slugging performance of his career, including 33 doubles, 26 home runs, and 102 RBIs. The California native led the division-winning Yankees to a remarkable 103-win season. He was no longer flying under the radar, since his contributions earned him a fourth-place finish in the American League MVP Award voting.
With most of their players returning healthy for the 2020 season, the Yankees had high expectations for another division title and a good shot to reach the World Series. But then the season was interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, and LeMahieu was one of the players early on who tested positive in July. However, he recovered by Opening Day of the modified season and picked up where he left off the previous year.
LeMahieu was still the go-to guy for the Yankees this year. He flirted with a .400 batting average for the first half of the abbreviated season but finished with a career-best .364 to lead the American League. He became the first major-league player in modern history to win batting average titles in both leagues. LeMahieu also led the league in on-base percentage (.421) and on-base-plus-slugging percentage (1.011). He primarily played second base and continued his versatility in the field by spending time at first base and third base. His performance makes another solid case for his being in the league’s Top 5 for MVP again.
With his contract set to expire at the end of this season, LeMahieu recently told the New York Post, “I’m hoping to be back here, but you never know how it goes.”
The Yankees would do well to keep him around. No other Yankee has been more productive than than the former LSU standout in the past two seasons.
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New Orleans baseball historian
Richard Cuicchi, Founder of the Metro New Orleans Area Baseball Player Database and a New Orleans area baseball historian, maintains TheTenthInning.com website. He also authored the book, Family Ties: A Comprehensive Collection of Facts and Trivia About Baseball’s Relatives. He has contributed to numerous SABR-sponsored Bio Project and Games Project books.