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What if the Rockies hadn’t let DJ LeMahieu go?

DJ LeMahieu was fourth in baseball in batting average in 2019. Daniel Murphy was not.

“What if the Rockies hadn’t let DJ LeMahieu go?” It’s a question Rockies fans asked themselves frequently last season. As multiple Yankees infielders went down with injuries, LeMahieu stepped up day after day to the tune of a .327 average, 197 hits, 109 runs, a second place finish in the batting title, and a central role in the Yankees run to the ALCS. The Rockies struggled through a tough season finishing well out of the playoff picture with a 71-91 record.

It’s easy to understand why the Rockies let DJ go when they did. The organization believed that Ryan McMahon was ready to take the next step and become the team’s primary second basemen, with number four prospect Garrett Hampson providing another solid option. Throw in top prospect Brendan Rodgers — who many projected to be MLB ready somewhere during the 2019 season (2020 at the latest) — and new shiny signing Daniel Murphy, and the club would have had five players fighting for two spots on the field. With an embarrassment of riches like this, teams often end up stunting the growth of young talent by shoving MLB-ready players back into the minors.

In Murphy, the Rockies believed they would have a staple at first base. He was coming off of three years (2016-2018) with the Washington Nationals (and a brief stint with the Cubs) in which he hit .329, including a .347 clip in 2016. That 2016 average landed him the second highest clip in the NL behind... DJ LeMahieu, who barely edged out Murphy with a .348 average — a batting title that got him going on a three year run in which he averaged .312.

While Murphy had the edge over the three year span, the two were both comfortably in the .300 range, a quality any team would love to have in a player. But both guys didn’t come without baggage going into 2019. Daniel Murphy had injury trouble in 2018 and DJ LeMahieu was brought down by his home/road splits.

DJ got off and running in 2019 to quiet that noise, while Murphy broke his finger in the second game of the season...commence opposite season trajectories.

Murphy deserves the benefit of the doubt here as an injury, to his hand no less, is no easy way to start a season. But after his return, he was never able to fully get his year back on track, leading to DJ holding a solid advantage in almost all counting stats.

The end of season stat lines for both players looked like this:

2019 Season Comparison

LeMahieu 145 655 602 109 197 33 2 26 102 5 2 46 90 0.327 0.375 0.518 0.893
Murphy 132 478 438 56 122 35 1 13 78 1 1 32 74 0.279 0.328 0.452 0.78

When trying to answer the impossible “What if...” question the Rockies 2019 season can be broken into three “What would have been...” scenarios:

The Best Case

Everyone loves a best case scenario, right? Maybe, had DJ stayed in Colorado, he would have had an even better season than the one he had in the Bronx. DJ would have carried the Rockies with his performance all the way to a (checks standings and sees Dodgers 35 games ahead) WILD CARD BERTH! This would have extended the team’s postseason streak to three seasons.

The Worst Case

DJ could have continued the three season batting average decline he saw from 2016-2018 (.348, .310, .276) and hit worse than his replacement, Murphy. It’s possible the Rockies would have coughed up more than the Yankees’ $24 million offer over two years in order to keep him, a hefty price tag for a guy with a sub-.276 batting average.

The Somewhere in Between

This is probably the most likely scenario. A year in which DJ could have had a season similar to the one he had in New York, but he would be wearing Rockies purple instead of Yankee pinstripes. LeMahieu contributed 5.9 WAR for the Yankees — 5.6 wins higher than Daniel Murphy’s 0.3 WAR for the Rockies. Rounding up and accounting for that difference, the Rockies would have finished the season 77-85. While the slight increase would have been an improvement, the Rockies still would have fallen short of a postseason berth.

It was easy for Rockies fans to spend a lot of 2019 asking themselves, “What if the Rockies hadn’t let DJ LeMahieu go?” Nobody will ever know what would have happened had DJ stayed, but a revitalized showing from Daniel Murphy in 2020 would go a long way towards helping Rockies fans feel better about losing the guy who finished fourth in AL MVP voting.