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Rockies view LeMahieu as elite defender

Defensive metrics don't tell whole story of second baseman's value to club
MLB.com @harding_at_mlb

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- The play didn't receive a star on the scoresheet. DJ LeMahieu calmly sank to his right knee and gloved a hard-hit liner from Rangers slugger Nomar Mazara in the second inning on Tuesday.

The qualities that put LeMahieu where he was supposed to be on the play are difficult to calculate. And that is the rub for LeMahieu and the Rockies.

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- The play didn't receive a star on the scoresheet. DJ LeMahieu calmly sank to his right knee and gloved a hard-hit liner from Rangers slugger Nomar Mazara in the second inning on Tuesday.

The qualities that put LeMahieu where he was supposed to be on the play are difficult to calculate. And that is the rub for LeMahieu and the Rockies.

LeMahieu earned the Rockies' Defensive Player of the Year Award in 2013 and a Gold Glove Award in 2014. Combined over those two years, Baseball Info Solutions calculated LeMahieu as having 26 Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) -- a stat based on outs converted compared to similarly batted balls.

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But he has ended each of the past two seasons with a DRS total of 3. On the surface, that indicates a decline. But the Rockies still swear by his defense, and LeMahieu says those numbers don't tell the whole story.

"Top couple in the league," LeMahieu said of where he ranks himself at his position. "The defensive metrics, to me, are not very accurate. But there are a lot of good second basemen out there, too. I'm not discounting other guys. But I don't think the metrics reflect that at all."

The discrepancy comes from the Rockies' dramatic increase in extreme defensive shifts, which are removed from the individual DRS scale and measured by the team-based Shift Runs Saved. The Rockies went from 114 extreme shifts in 2014, when LeMahieu earned 16 DRS, to 1,014 in '15 and 1,355 in '16.

Baseball Info Solutions, upon request, did a calculation that still suggests he has declined -- from 4.1, 2.6 and 4.1 DRS per 100 chances from 2012-14, to 0.0 and 0.8 in each of the past two seasons. Statcast™, however, is beginning to accurately measure outfield plays based on actual positioning and in the future is looking for similar measures for infielders.

LeMahieu doesn't crunch data, but he is keenly aware of his in-play responsibilities. In a shift, players still have a lot to account for, like on balls between infielders and who covers a base, and everything must be recalculated when everyday players get a day off for a reserve player. Rockies third-base coach Stu Cole, who is also the club's infield coach, says the Rockies listen to LeMahieu.

"We really rely on him a lot for some of the decisions we make," Cole said. "He has that instinct to know where guys tend to hit the ball and what pitch is coming. So if he's moving, we have the trust."

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LeMahieu said, "Our instincts got us to where we are. At the same time, numbers are numbers. They're fairly accurate. But we can use a blend there."

LeMahieu also studies the game a lot, and he is meticulous about testing potential strategy before using it in games.

"Getting to know DJ and watching him play in these Spring Training games, and watching him practice, I see why he's a really good player," manager Bud Black said. "Because he practices his butt off. And the practice that he does shows up in the game."

Also, the Rockies can position LeMahieu deeper than most because of his arm strength. The Cubs drafted him as a shortstop out of LSU in 2009 before trading him to the Rockies in a four-player deal in 2011.

"I wanted to stay at shortstop, because I was always a shortstop, and I still think I could play there if I needed to," LeMahieu said. "But second base is what I've worked on the most [since I was drafted]. Because I've worked on it, I feel the most comfortable there now."

Thomas Harding has covered the Rockies since 2000, and for MLB.com since 2002. Follow him on Twitter @harding_at_mlb, listen to podcasts and like his Facebook page.

Colorado Rockies, DJ LeMahieu