As the National League All-Stars settle into their assigned seats for their media availability -- a cacophonous cattle call that still blessedly lacks the pure nonsense of the NFL’s Super Bowl Media Day -- the Colorado Rockies contingent sits bracing for the inevitable. Charlie Blackmon, going through the routine for the fourth time in his career, nods in the direction of the first reporter to head his way, then cuts off the question before it could finish.
“You’ve played with DJ for years--”
“Yup, more DJ questions!” Blackmon announces, turning his head back and forth, toward teammates Trevor Story, on his right, then David Dahl, on his left. The show hadn’t even started yet, but the band was already playing the hits. Quickly, though, Blackmon gets serious. “I don’t blame you for asking because he’s a really good player.”
It’s not as though Blackmon or any of his Rockies teammates have particularly minded the regular back-and-forth this year, trying to explain what they’ve long known about DJ LeMahieu to audiences that, for one reason or another, hadn’t been paying attention until recently. It’s part of a quirk of playing in Denver, isolated in the Mountain time zone, calling home a park that fans and statisticians still don’t fully know how to account for. Truth be told, it’s not a victimless issue; Rockies players no doubt noticed when a player they loved and respected and admired commanded less than others on the free-agent market last offseason. But the players back in Colorado still like LeMahieu, and they miss him. And if fans, reporters and perhaps even some general managers should have noticed LeMahieu’s value earlier, that’s their own loss. “It’s not often where you see a guy leave a team, and on the team that he left, everybody still talks very highly of him long after he leaves,” Blackmon says. “We’re still telling DJ stories.”
And yet, as LeMahieu suited up for his third career All-Star Game (and second time starting), it might be time for baseball fans -- and we’re looking at ourselves here -- to examine our blind spots. We poke fun at our rivals in Boston for being provincial, all the while misunderstanding the mantra from the song that blares through Yankee Stadium after every game.
It’s not that Ol’ Blue Eyes was wrong. Maybe it’s true that if you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere. But too often, it seems, we also accept the inverse as true: If you haven’t made it here, then you haven’t made it anywhere. So even though LeMahieu has more than proven himself to date -- a batting title, three Gold Glove Awards, multiple All-Star Game appearances -- should it somehow be less notable because it wasn’t in the Bronx?
He’s a Coors Field product. He’s never done it when it counted. How will he deal with the spotlight?
And who is DJ LeMahieu, anyway?
He’s quiet, but he keeps mashing the ball up the middle. He’s interesting, but he’s reserved. He’s exceptionally skilled and decorated as a second baseman, a position that he doesn’t figure to play all that much down the stretch in New York. He’s unheralded, but he’s an All-Star.
He’s a mystery, but only to those first discovering him now. To those who have been watching for years, he’s DJ LeMahieu, MVP candidate, naturally. Adam Ottavino, now a Yankees reliever but previously LeMahieu’s Rockies teammate, laughs at the idea of whether he knew LeMahieu had this in him. “Yes, 100 percent,” Ottavino says, cutting off the question (what is it with Rockies players?).
He’s The Machine. LeMachine. La Máquina. A soft voice that has carried a big stick for the first-place Yankees.
It was Gary Sánchez, another notably reticent Yankees player, that gave LeMahieu the nickname. Watching along with his teammates in the dugout, it just seemed like a given, another big moment from LeMahieu, another delivery. Another night with another full box score
“Tres hits, cuatro hits, cinco hits. Tres hits, cuatro hits. Una máquina.” Some quotes need no translation, but Sánchez’s agent, Francis Márquez, was there to help, just in case. “They would shift to right field, he would hit it the other way. They would shift to left field, he would hit it where they weren’t. He’s just a hitting machine.”
LeMahieu had two hits in his first game in pinstripes, then two hits in his second. Then he slumped, going hitless on April 1, before another two-hit game on April 2. It continued pretty much like that through the All-Star Game. He had 15 multi-hit games in June, batting .395 on the month. From June 23 through the end of the month, his daily hits total read as follows: 3, 4, 2, 2, 4, 3. The last two came against Boston in London, which might have helped Red Sox manager Alex Cora assemble his All-Star Game batting order. “Great story,” Cora explained of his decision to bat LeMahieu second. “People in the offseason thought that he wasn’t going to be able to hit outside of Colorado. Well, he hits outside of Colorado -- and in Europe, too.”
Put runners on, and The Machine cranks things up. Through July 14, LeMahieu was batting .444 with men in scoring position, with five doubles and four homers. What about scoring position with two outs? In those cases, he batted … also .444. Bases loaded? Machines don’t sweat. In 11 such at-bats, he had nine hits, for a 1.692 OPS.
“He’s one of the toughest outs that we’ve had this year,” says second baseman Brandon Lowe, who represented AL East foe Tampa Bay in Cleveland. “You get a guy on base, and it’s flipping a coin. He’s probably going to drive in three runs right here, or he’s going to hit a sac fly or something. He’s going to do something good. It’s the odd time that he doesn’t get a hit with the bases loaded. You’re like, ‘Oh, that’s weird.’”
“It’s a great nickname for him,” says former teammate Story. “He’s like a machine. He just does his thing. There’s really very few malfunctions.”
Adjustments? Tweaks? A well-oiled machine needs a few here and there to keep things running smoothly. LeMahieu is such a natural contact hitter, but he saw the way the game was going, and he added a more pronounced leg kick in 2014 to try and get some more power out of his swing. “And he had a not-great year,” says Colorado’s Nolan Arenado. LeMahieu recalls the change, and the way that the leg kick messed up his balance and timing. He got rid of it after a little while. “And he came back and won the batting title,” Arenado continues. “He just said, ‘I’m going to be me, and this is who I am. I can’t change for nobody.’”
Players -- All-Stars! -- spent the afternoon, to say nothing of the season’s first three months, marveling at the way LeMahieu has kept his name in the MVP debate while dressing in the same clubhouse as guys such as Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, Sánchez and Gleyber Torres. So, what’s the special secret, the programming code that kicks The Machine into high gear? “No secrets,” LeMahieu says stoically. “Just try to stay up the middle of the field. Hit it back up the middle, try to be a competitive at-bat and battle.”
It’s such a simple answer, delivered in LeMahieu’s trademark style, saying nothing and everything about the man. It’s also precisely the type of question and answer to cause his former Rockies teammates to spend All-Star Week wondering how everyone else missed what they had been watching for the past seven years.
The thing is, LeMahieu isn’t rude, and he isn’t standoffish. He’s accommodating to a point, willing to stand by his locker -- his deceptive 6-foot-4 frame forcing him to bend a bit at the neck -- and answer questions. Friends in the Yankees clubhouse, as well as his old Colorado teammates, maintain that he’s a great guy, an easy friend. “The best,” Blackmon says.
His answers, though … they often come out in single-sentence drops, in a deep, almost cautious register. You can hear Didi Gregorius laugh from across the ballpark, and Tommy Kahnle’s inner thoughts could wake the dead, but LeMahieu rarely gets above a whisper. “I would say I’m pretty low-key in general,” LeMahieu says. “In between the lines, I’m probably a little different. … I’m not the most outgoing personality. But I just love baseball. I love being around our guys.”
His flat-line persona is almost willful, a small game. During All-Star Week, companies send the players all kinds of gear and other toys to use. LeMahieu is a New Balance athlete, and the brand sent him a Brett Gardner-sized duffel bag full of equipment. While LeMahieu stood at his locker, the bag was open, and the shirt sitting on top -- plain, white with black text -- simply said, “Fun guy.”
The shirts were made to celebrate another New Balance star, this year’s NBA Finals MVP, Kawhi Leonard. During his introductory press conference in Toronto, Leonard -- as quiet and reserved as LeMahieu, if not more -- used the phrase to describe himself, which drew laughs throughout the room. For his sake, LeMahieu joked that he hoped he wouldn’t need to wear the shirt for people to see that side of him.
“Until he gets to know you really well, I don’t think he really lets you in,” Story says. “He has that quiet intensity about him. I think that’s what really serves him well, especially in this game. He doesn’t really show his emotions too much, but when he does, something special happens.”
It’s showmanship from the School of George Costanza. LeMahieu offers so little, so you crave more. Maybe if you ask the question the right way, a light will go off, and he’ll answer with more than a sentence. Who did you bring with you to the All-Star Game? His wife, parents and the same group of guys that he brings every year. How do you plan to celebrate being among the game’s best? He wants a few autographed balls and to chat a bit with guys that he doesn’t know well. What’s your pre-at-bat routine? Well, there’s a bunch of things, it takes a while, it’s not really a superstition, more of a routine, and it would take too long to get into all the things that he does in the on-deck circle, so he’s not going to.
CC Sabathia says that when the doors close and the media leaves, or when the team boards the plane, LeMahieu becomes one of the guys. He’s not leading the party or the loudest voice in the room, but he’s present. He fits in. “Neither of us is the biggest talker,” says fellow newcomer James Paxton. “So, we kind of keep to ourselves for the most part. We just go about our business. But I feel like I’ve gotten a pretty good feel for the kind of guy he is. I’ve learned a little bit more about him over the season so far.”
Still, LeMahieu chose New York. He signed up for this. Yes, he likes winning. Craves it, actually. Gio Urshela points out how much he celebrates wins, but it still seems like all the attention might make for a strange fit. “It comes with playing in New York,” LeMahieu says. “It’s a little bit more of a magnifying glass in New York. That’s why I like New York, for good and for worse. I enjoy it. I like playing meaningful games. And like I said, I just love baseball, and I think New York’s the best place to play.”
He might like playing in New York, but once he signed with the Yankees, there was the small matter of where he was literally going to play. He played second base in 892 of his 930 career defensive games entering 2019, but the Yankees had long-term options up the middle. Torres would open the season filling in for an injured Gregorius at short, giving LeMahieu time at his natural position, but the larger question was why a player with LeMahieu’s pedigree was willing to take on what at least seemed to be a glorified utility role.
During the negotiations, though, the Yankees had let LeMahieu’s representatives know that they had no intention of letting a former batting champ and Gold Glover ride the bench. “I thought he would pretty much play every day,” says manager Aaron Boone. “We anticipated moving him around to second, third and first. We’ve done that.” It was January when LeMahieu signed, much to the delight of Ottavino, and at first, the move was met with mostly sighs by Yankees fans, who were waiting for a splashy signing -- a name more along the lines of Manny Machado. Once the Great Injury Nightmare of 2019 began, though, the Yankees’ wisdom was clear to see.
Through July 14, LeMahieu had played 54 games at second, 27 at third and 14 at first, as injuries to Gregorius, Greg Bird, Luke Voit and Miguel Andújar made the infield positioning a daily mystery. LeMahieu is the active career leader among second basemen in range factor per nine innings played, and even though his metrics at the other positions rate out more average than superlative, he’s an asset all over the field. “I enjoy that,” LeMahieu says. “I enjoy moving around. Credit to the Yankees’ front office, also, for being prepared for something like that. And for having confidence in me to be able to do that after not having done it for a long time. But yeah, I enjoy it. I like playing all the positions. I like giving the team versatility.”
LeMahieu smiles as he says it. It almost seems like he’s smiling at the thought, then smiling at the smile, the emotion that he’s betraying despite himself. After the first few months in pinstripes, The Machine seemed more comfortable with the demands on his time, perhaps aware of the meta game that he’s playing with reporters in his regular interactions. During Spring Training, facing a series of simple getting-to-know-you style queries -- on topics such as the most recent movie he had seen, or who he would invite to a dream dinner -- LeMahieu answered “pass” to seven out of the 17 questions. As the months have passed, he hasn’t necessarily gotten more revealing; he just smiles a bit more when he deflects.
And really, none of that matters. LeMahieu’s reticence, no matter how real it is or isn’t, is far from a distraction. The Yankees have a functional and easygoing clubhouse, and LeMahieu has been a positive addition to the room. Indeed, it has been easy to see why the Rockies spoke of him with such affection in Cleveland. This is a guy who gives everything to the pursuit of hits. To contact. He can hit the ball out of the park, and he does, but he never swings that way. Just line drives, up the middle. A machine, cranking tres hits, cuatro hits, cinco hits. “That dude is supernatural,” Sánchez says. “He does everything right, and every time I see him, I say, ‘That’s an All-Star.’”
“There’s no one way to get him out. That’s what makes him tricky,” Ottavino says. “It’s one thing if you’re facing him with no one on because he’s less likely to kill you with a homer, although he does hit those. But he’s absolutely not the guy you want to face in a big spot because now you’re searching. You know he’s going to make contact.
“He’s just really tough to figure out.”
It’s an assessment that applies in more ways than one to LeMahieu. And while he may keep his thoughts and emotions close to the vest, he will continue to work that mysterious nature to his advantage in between the lines, leaving little question in the minds of Yankees fans who might have wondered who DJ LeMahieu is.
He’s The Machine. It’s that simple.