John Harper, SNY.tv | Twitter |
Gio Urshela, the surprise star of this season, may personify the success of the next-man-up Yankees, but even with all of his big hits, he's not the team MVP to this point. D.J. LeMahieu owns that unofficial title, so clutch and consistent that his play prompts an intriguing question:
Could a non-slugger win the AL MVP Award in this launch-angle era when the only way most hitters even consider beating the infield shift is by going over it -- way over it?
The odds are against it because LeMahieu won't have the power numbers to match up with the big home run hitters, including someone like the Rangers' Joey Gallo, the extreme example of the modern hitter, with more home runs than singles as of Monday, which has prompted teams to defend him with four outfielders.
As of Monday, LeMahieu had gone deep only twice, which explains why he ranks 28th in the league in OPS at .836.
Yet it's hard to imagine that anyone, even George Springer and his 15 home runs for the Astros, has been more valuable to his team.
It's not just that LeMahieu is hitting .333, second in the league behind the Red Sox' Rafael Devers, and has walked enough as well for a .384 on-base percentage.
It's what he's doing when the at-bats matter most that is practically beyond belief.
With runners in scoring position LeMahieu is hitting .485 (16-for-33) with a .500 on-base percentage and a 1.015 OPS.
With runners in scoring position and two outs, which is the ultimate test of clutch hitting, he's at .455 (10-for-22) with a .500 on-base percentage.
And in high leverage situations, as defined by baseball-reference.com, LeMahieu is hitting a mere .647 (11-for-17).
Yes, those numbers are bound to come down over the course of the season, but the former Colorado Rockies infielder has always been good in the clutch, as his .299 lifetime average with runners in scoring position attests.
And it's clear how LeMahieu does it -- or at least a lot of it: by shooting the ball to the opposite field.
As such, he is widely admired by baseball people who yearn to see more action in today's game that sometimes seems to offer little more than strikeouts, walks and home runs.
"If everybody hit like him, there wouldn't be any shifts and we'd see more hits," is the way one major league scout put it. "He hits the ball where it's pitched, and he hits line drives. He's just a really good hitter."
LeMahieu stamped himself as an excellent hitter in 2016 when he won the NL batting title by hitting .348 for the Rockies, yet there are always doubts about players who put up numbers in Denver, benefitting from the high altitude as well as the vast outfield expanse in Coors Field.
In LeMahieu's case, the numbers raised suspicions about whether he was at least partly a product of his home environment. Last season he hit .317 at home and .229 on the road, and for his career he hit 60 points higher at Coors Field.
The Yankees, however, didn't see an alarming difference in measurables, and trusted that his line-drive percentage was most important. So far they're right, as LeMahieu is hitting in his new ballpark as well as others (.338 at Yankee Stadium, .328 on the road).
He's also playing the type of defense that earned him three Gold Gloves at second base for the Rockies. The double play he turned Friday night against the Rays -- backhanding a ball toward the middle, stepping on second and firing to first to get Adam Ottavino out of a bases-loaded jam in the seventh inning -- was the difference in the game.
"Great hands, great awareness," one scout said. "He had to adjust to the ball slowing down after it nicked the pitcher, then know he still had time to get to the bag and make a throw. There was no panic in his hands whatsoever, that's what was really impressive.
"I've always liked that about him. He's got that slow heart rate we talk about. I thought he was undervalued as a free agent. I know he's 30, but he's one of those glue guys that help you win. So I was surprised he only got a two-year deal. And I was even more surprised it was the Yankees, because it didn't seem to be a fit."
Yes, it seemed curious on both sides when LeMahieu signed a two-year, $24 million deal to play in the Bronx, projected to be something of a super-utility man. An early injury to Troy Tulowitzki changed everything, opening up second base as Gleyber Torres slid over to short, but the same scenario could present itself again, especially as Didi Gregorius seems to be progressing toward a June return from Tommy John surgery.
And now Urshela's unexpected play has further complicated matters, since LeMahieu was playing some third base before Tulowitzki hurt his calf.
Sure, it's a nice problem to have and all that, but LeMahieu has proven too valuable to anything less than an everyday player this season.
At this point, in fact, he has a case for being the MVP of the league, especially with all the Yankee injuries. It's a long way from here to October, but if he continues to be Mr. Clutch, practically crusading against the shift, LeMahieu ought to be at least in the conversation.