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In many ways, the 2015 season has been the one in which former stud prospects finally made the jump to top-class ballplayers. Bryce Harper stepped forward to perhaps even outperform the hype surrounding him, putting together one of the best age-22 seasons in the history of baseball. Manny Machado, Anthony Rizzo, and Xander Bogaerts also became bona fide superstars at their respective positions.

As always, though, fantasy championships are largely won by those who found hidden gems late in the draft process—those who fell through the cracks but nonetheless projected to have fantasy value, then far exceeded expectations. Perhaps Lorenzo Cain fits that bill. Or A.J. Pollock. Or J.D. Martinez to a lesser extent.

For me, one of the Fantasy MVPs of the 2015 season has been D.J. LeMahieu with the Colorado Rockies. The 27-year-old was the 28th second baseman drafted prior to the regular season, behind guys like Emilio Bonifacio, Jose Peraza, Omar Infante, and Micah Johnson. Heading into Sunday’s games, LeMahieu ranked as the 50th-best player overall in ESPN leagues and the number-three second baseman. He’s hitting .305/.364/.395 with six home runs and 23 stolen bases. Hell, the former Cubs prospect sits ninth in the race for the NL batting crown.

LeMahieu’s banner season was long treated as a statistical blip on the radar. After all, he had never hit above .280 when he netted at least 400 plate appearances, and many continue to cite his .367 BABIP as a reason to brush aside his season. Only a week remains in the season, though. The time remaining in which he’s supposed to regress is gone. Whether it was deserved or not, it happened and owners across the fantasy landscape took full advantage.

Those who consistently shout “BABIP regression” until their voices become hoarse gloss over the fact that LeMahieu showed legitimate improvement in many key areas, many of which suggest that his breakout performance has substance to it.

First and foremost, it should be noted that the Coors Effect™ comes into play; however, it isn’t an overwhelming split. LeMahieu has hit .322/.380/.420 at home and just .287/.346/.368 on the road. That .715 OPS away from home ranks 14th amongst qualified second basemen, ahead of guys like Jose Altuve (.711), Jason Kipnis (.683), and Addison Russell (.608). This isn’t to argue that we should ignore LeMahieu’s advantages at Coors or to claim that he’s been elite offensively in away games; rather, this does hope to show that his away performance isn’t out of step with other top-class second basemen. Plus, the former second-round draft pick doesn’t project to leave Colorado in the near future, which means the Coors Effect should be built into 2016 fantasy prognostications.

This also isn’t a story in which LeMahieu dominated left-handed pitching and covertly struggled against righties. He hit .302/.355/.403 against same-handed pitching and actually hit for much more power (.101 ISO vs .055 ISO) against right-handers. Only a decreased walk rate against righties kept him from posting better overall numbers against righties, but he was equally effective in the end. In this way, the easiest ways to poke holes in his performance do not seem to work very well.

The key improvements for the Michigan native have come via his plate discipline. His 8.4 percent walk rate in 2015 is the highest of his professional career, majors or minors, which points to a much better approach at the dish and also improves his stock in OBP leagues. Other statistics back up this sudden improvement, too, such as his 43.9 percent swing rate (his lowest ever), a paltry 24.9 percent swing rate at pitches outside the zone (his lowest ever), and a 6.2 percent swinging-strike rate (his lowest ever).

The following table better illustrates the vast improvement in this area:

Year

O-Swing%

Swing%

SwStr%

BB%

2013

38.2

51.9%

7.0%

4.4%

2014

31.7

49.5%

7.0%

6.1%

2015

24.9

43.9%

6.2%

8.4%

If one digs a bit deeper, one can better isolate from where this improvement has come. Using Brooks Baseball, it becomes evident that his swinging-strike rate has dropped against breaking pitches and offspeed pitches, while staying relatively stagnant against the various types of fastballs.

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LeMahieu has also decreased his swing percentage against breaking pitches. All of this leads to two things: (1) an increased walk rate, and (2) an opportunity to do more damage against fastballs. He has seen 72.87 percent fastballs this season, which is a career high by over two percent. That is because the percentage of breaking balls and offspeed pitches have dropped to career lows (19.76 percent and 7.07 percent, respectively). Considering LeMahieu finds most of his success against fastballs, this is a very positive development for him.

It should also be noted that LeMahieu’s average batted-ball velocity is 89.76 mph—ranking 138th out of 418 batters with at least 50 at-bats counted. Thus, we cannot make the argument that he’s a mere slap hitter who’s taking advantage of Coors Field but doesn’t drive the ball with any authority. His batted-ball velocity is better than average, his plate discipline is improving, and (importantly for fantasy owners) he does damage on the base paths.

His 23 stolen bases rank 16th in Major League Baseball. Furthermore, LeMahieu has only been caught three times, so his efficiency on the base paths is resulting in more stolen bases for fantasy owners. It’s the highest total of his career, which is somewhat worrisome but is also a part of seeing 600+ plate appearances for the first time. He’ll also only be 27 years old in 2016, so we’re a few years away from worrying about him slowing down due to age.

It’s not all rainbows and roses, though, as his .367 BABIP should mean that some kind of regression is coming. It’s just difficult to ascertain how much will happen. After all, the Rockies have had a team BABIP above .310 for the past four years. The thin air in Denver will naturally result in higher BABIP than the remainder of the league. And if LeMahieu is seeing more fastballs and hitting for a higher batted-ball velocity than ever before, it’s unclear if we should expect him to decline to his career average—which, by the way, is .341.

A bad-case scenario, assuming these plate discipline improvements stick to some regard, seems to be that he hits .285-.290 with 80+ runs scored, a .340 OBP, and 20+ stolen bases. That may no longer be a top-50 player or a top-five producer at second base; however, it does seem to still be good enough for the top-10. Considering that he’ll benefit from the Rockies’ quality lineup, too, we should expect him to drive in more runs than the prototypical number-two hitter.

D.J. LeMahieu is functionally doing what everyone wanted Elvis Andrus to do over the last four or five years: hit .300, post a .350 on-base percentage, swipe 20+ bags, and score 90 runs. Oh, and Elvis Andrus was going 230 pick before LeMahieu in the average fantasy draft this year.

BUYER’S ADVICE: BUY

I like what LeMahieu offers as a low-tier fantasy upgrade, as owners will be looking to capitalize on his unexpectedly good season. Many articles will be written about his high BABIP, his lack of home-run power, and how he’s benefitted by Coors Field. I’m skeptical that too many articles will be written that highlight his improvements with his plate discipline. Because it won’t cost much, it could be an opportune time to buy. Considering the lack of attention surrounding him, very few people will be able to get what they deserve on the open market, meaning it would be better for current owners to hold him rather than sell him. Remember, not everyone needs to be a stud to be worthwhile and the “buy high” obsession often leaves teams without depth. In sum, I think LeMahieu is a spiffy and underappreciated option for owners in 2016.