Wednesday Rockpile: The growing conflict at second base

Chris Humphreys-US PRESSWIRE

Josh Rutledge has managed to work his way into 43 of Colorado's 46 games so far this season, but if DJ LeMahieu continues to play the way he's been playing, it's going to be hard to justify that trend continuing.

Yesterday, Grant Brisbee of Baseball Nation wrote a piece about organization droughts at second base. Not surprisingly, the Rockies didn't fare too well. In fact, Colorado's fortunes have been so poor at this position in recent years that I was compelled to make the following comment.

The Rockies are in the running for the worst second base production so far this century. Over the last 13 seasons, they've have had a merry-go-round at this position. From 2000 to 2012, they've had the following list of players start at 2B on opening day: Mike Lansing, Todd Walker, Jose Ortiz, Ronnie Belliard, Luis Gonzalez (2004 & 2006), Aaron Miles, Kaz Matsui, Jayson Nix, Ian Stewart, Clint Barmes, Jose Lopez, and Marco Scutaro (who was awful in Colorado). Those twelve players have combined to give the Rockies a grand total of 4.4 rWAR over the last 13 years, and 3.3 of that was solely from Matsui's 2007 campaign. In other words, the Rockies have been averaging 0.1 WAR from their Opening Day second baseman in years not named 2007.

Of course, this could become a thing of the past very soon, because after more than a decade of failing to get their hands on one consistently solid major league second baseman, the Rockies may have control of two. Most fans are probably familiar with what Josh Rutledge brings to the table by now after watching him play almost everyday for the last couple of months (so I'll avoid digging too deeply into his game this morning), but DJ LeMahieu is making his case for playing time at 2B really, really hard to ignore.

Let's start with the easy part; LeMahieu's defense. I'll cut right to the chase here, LeMahieu is a better glove at second than Rutledge, and to be honest, it's not really that close. He has more range, softer hands, a better ability to throw from awkward fielding positions, makes fewer mistakes, and can turn ground balls into double plays quicker. This is what my eyes are telling me, and the defensive metrics agree wholeheartedly across the board. Therefore, if Josh Rutledge is going to get justifiable consistent playing time, he has to hit better than LeMahieu. One problem though, LeMahieu may have caught and passed him there as well.

I'll certainly forgive you if you missed this since it was written during September of 2012 (which is basically the black hole of Rockies baseball), but Thomas Harding noted that LeMahieu was making adjustments to the lower half of his body during his swing trying to eliminate habits that were robbing him of his power. There was evidence last September that these changes were making a difference (7 of LeMahieu's 18 extra base hits last season came in his final 50 plate appearances), but they could easily be dismissed with small sample size.

Nearly 200 plate appearances later, that sample size is becoming more significant. In 1,530 minor league at bats, LeMahieu has already proven he can hit for average; batting .321 overall and hitting over .300 at every single level. However, that average has always been a bit empty with his low walk rate and and inability to hit for extra bases. In fact, in the 1,387 minor league at bats LeMahieu had coming into 2013, he hit for extra bases just 6.1% of the time; but in 2013, LeMahieu has hit for extra bases in 9.8% of his at bats - And before you throw the Colorado Springs card out, that 9.8% is also a noticeable improvement from his 2012 numbers at Colorado Springs where he only hit for extra bases in 6.7% of his at bats, a number much closer to his career line.

It can be tough to keep track of because LeMahieu has been bouncing around between different levels so much, but if you take all of his at bats (MLB and AAA) from September 1st of last season through today, you'll see that LeMahieu now has a string of of 244 consecutive at bats in which he's hitting for extra bases 9.8% of the time. The evidence is starting to mount that the adjustments LeMahieu made in his swing last year are making an impactful difference at the plate. If they are real, LeMahieu should be able to hit for an OPS somewhere around .750 at the major league level. Combine that with the fact that only three second basemen in baseball have an OPS over .824 right now and add in a little DJ defense, and you can make a strong argument that LeMahieu is one of the ten second basemen in the game RIGHT NOW.

I feel a little sorry for Josh Rutledge looking at this. He hasn't done anything too terribly wrong and may very well be on his way to becoming a worthy everyday MLB player (his bat still has more upside than DJ's), but if LeMahieu is as good of an overall player as I'm starting to think he is, I just don't see how Rutledge can compile a large chunk of playing time in Denver this summer.

Links

For the other side of the story, here's Troy Renck on why manager Walt Weiss remains optimistic about Josh Rutledge.

Rafael Betancourt has to leave last night's game with a right groin injury and may have to go on the disabled list.

Tom Verducci highlights declining offense and nine other topics from around MLB in his ten early season trends to watch.

Rafael Soriano throws teammate Bryce Harper under the bus.

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