Zisk Sent A Message; LeMahieu Heard It and Learned
DJ LeMahieu remembers showing up at the ballpark in Daytona, Fla., early one afternoon in the middle of the 2010 season.
Richie Zisk, the manager of the Cubs' High A affiliate in the Florida State League was in the batting cage in an otherwise empty ballpark, taking swings against the pitching machine.
"He was hitting line drives in every direction," said LeMahieu, "and he would scream, `It's not that hard. Hitting's not that hard.'"
It was, said Zisk, a message he wanted to get across to the young prospects he was in charge of for the summer.
"I wanted to drive home the point," Zisk said Tuesday. "It was about talent and dedication. It was not a matter of playing ability. It was about mental toughness."
LeMahieu got the message, loud and clear. Struggling to survive in the first half of that season -- his first full season in pro ball -- he finished so strong that he wound up with a .314 average and 73 RBIs.
He has handled the challenges ever since. He won NL Gold Gloves at second base in 2011 and 2014, All-Star selections in 2015 and 2017, and an NL batting title in 2016
Oh, and he’s off to a better start than ever in this year.
On Thursday night he keyed the Rockies 5-1 victory at Washington, becoming the third player in Rockies history to have two home runs and two doubles in the same game. Corey Dickerson did it at Cincinnati on May 10, 2014, and Todd walker did it June 25, 2011, against St. Louis.
LeMahieu did it as part of what is shaping up to be the best season-opening month in his career.
With his consistent player and continuing emergence as an offensive factor, LeMahieu is no longer the forgotten pending free agent with the Rockies, who this spring signed a six-year deal with Charlie Blackmon to keep him off the free-agent market, and are hearing public cries of concern that Nolan Arenado could be a free agent after the 2019 season.
LeMahieu is not hesitant to give Zisk credit for putting him on the right track in his professional career.
"That's kind of him to say, but the young man has a lot of talent," said Zisk. "He got to the big leagues because he earned it, and he is an All-Star because he earned it. He made the commitment."
He also made the commitment to play second base, and at 6-foot-4 he is believed to be the tallest second baseman in Major League history. George "High Pockets" Kelly, also 6-foot-4, is the only other player that tall who even played 100 games in a season at second base. But Kelly, in the Hall of Fame as a first baseman, did that in 1925 when the New York Giants moved him to second because Frankie Frisch was hurt. Kelly played only 37 other games at second base in his 16 big league season.
Dick "Turkey Neck" Hall was 6-foot-7 and played seven games at second base in 1953, but he came to the big leagues with the Pirates as an outfielder in 1953 and converted to being a pitcher in 1955.
Hall was a key part of the bullpen for the Orioles when they went to the World Series in 1969, 1970 and 1971.
LeMahieu, a shortstop at LSU who played all the infield positions during his professional career, never hesitated at the opportunity to become a full-time second baseman with the Rockies.
"The hardest part about second base for me was people questioning if I could actually play the position at 6-foot-4, but I feel like my height is an advantage," he said. "The Rockies were the first team to ever give me that chance, and I told them I wanted to play the position."
He has reinforced that statement with his offensive efforts which keep getting better.
And for this offensive emergence his first thanks goes to Zisk.
"It was a pivotal point in my career," said LeMahieu. "It was my first full season in pro ball. I was really bad that first half. He never stopped working with me."
Zisk said it was a matter of expanding LeMahieu's offensive vision.
LeMahieu had an excellent approach to driving the ball the other way. Zisk wasn't looking for him to suddenly become Babe Ruth, but he felt it was important to make LeMahieu aware of the inner part of the plate.
"This wasn't a one-day or one-week thing," Zisk said. "It's something we worked on and worked on. It was a matter of him becoming aware of the inner half of the plate and times when he had to make the adjustment."
LeMahieu made that adjustment. Now he is making his statement at the plate in the big leagues.